STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
When Jake Gyllenhaal first started reading the screenplay for “Demolition,” he wasn’t convinced it was a movie worth pursuing. But the more pages he turned, the deeper he fell under the story’s spell.
“What I [ended up] loving about it was what I didn’t like about it initially,” he says. “I started reading it, and the first scene happens and you go, ‘Okay, I’ve seen this before.’
“Then, all of a sudden, this movie happens, this thing that every time you think you’re going down a conventional route, and you’re about to do an eye-roll, something comes along and sideswipes you, like that accident at the beginning, and you go, ‘Whoa.’”
Directed by “Wild’s” Jean-Marc Vallee, “Demolition” centers on an investment banker named Davis (Gyllenhaal) whose life is coming apart at the seams. The action begins when Davis’ wife (Heather Lind) dies in car crash. Numbly, Davis returns to work, where his boss is his grief-stricken father-in-law (Chris Cooper).
Unable to express his feelings to friends or family members, Davis pours his pain into letters he writes to the customer service department of a vending machine company. Surprisingly, a representative (Naomi Watts) gives him a call one night and initiates a friendship. Soon, Davis is taking his life apart, figuratively and literally, in hopes of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
“Every five or 10 pages of reading ‘Demolition,’ I would go, ‘Okay, here comes the woman who he’s going to have a romantic affair with,’ but no …or even the point when Chris Cooper’s character says, ‘You’ve got to take things apart.’ But then we actually see [Davis] destroy a house!”
Despite the suffering that Davis goes through, Gyllenhaal found him a tough character to warm up to, and wondered if audiences would be able to relate to man who is, in the conventional sense, untouched by his wife’s death.
“Often times when you’re reading something, you think about [how to make movie-goers] empathize with the character. ‘How do we make him relatable?’ But this guy is a not a very relatable character.”
That said, Gyllenhaal grew to understand what makes Davis tick, and found his plight quite moving.
“I think [this character] has made choices throughout his life [to the point] where he’s lost himself, or how he feels about pretty much anything. So when this tragedy happens, and he’s devastated, he doesn’t even know he’s devastated because he doesn’t even know where his feelings are.
“So he looks like he’s like a sociopath.”
Over the last five years, Gyllenhaal has selected roles that have required him to transform, both physically and mentally. After the relatively breezy sci-fi yarn “Source Code,” the actor has played a haunted police officer in “Prisoners,” a ruthless paparazzi in “Nightcrawler,” a grief-stricken boxer in “Southpaw” and a doomed mountain climber in “Everest.”
Asked if he ever takes his characters home with him, Gyllenhaal says yes — and no.
“There’s a part of me that goes out to dinner and has my life as it is but my emotional response to things sometimes will mimic the character that I’m [playing],” says the actor, 35.
“But I also know that there’s a place for craft. It’s why I believe in there being an analytical side to acting … I think education is so important if you’re going to do this craft.
“It seems to look easy but I find it to be a mission that is impossible in a lot of ways. That’s why I deeply believe in an education. I deeply believe in doing research, being prepared.”
Gyllenhaal had already earned an Oscar nomination for his turn in “Brokeback Mountain” before he underwent the life-changing experience of working with David Fincher on “Zodiac,” a little-seen docudrama about a handful of characters obsessed with finding the Zodiac Killer.
While working for Fincher, Gyllenhaal began to understand the rewards of digging deep.
“As you become an adult, you realize that hard work is actually the thing that begins to separate you,” says the actor. “Beyond the love and passion for what you do, you have to work hard.
“I made ‘Zodiac’ when I was pretty young, and I didn’t have the work ethic that I have now, but I watched David Fincher and his work ethic. I actually had, at the time, a lot of criticism for that in my mind. But, ultimately, I have adopted that same type of work ethic today.”
Another big inspiration for Gyllenhaal was Chris Cooper, with whom he’s worked three times. They first co-starred in “October Sky” in 1999 and then reteamed for “Jarhead” in 2005, and now share scenes in “Demolition.”
“When I first worked with Chris, when I was 16 years old, he had, obviously, all this technique that he still has, but I didn’t have any and had no idea why he was being so aloof and weird and making me feel so awkward,” recalls Gyllenhaal.
“I felt like he didn’t care about me at all, and then I realized, once we finished shooting, when we became friends, that he had this huge heart and that [remoteness] was something he was trying to create and cultivate on set [for the sake of the characters].
“And then we worked together … like six years later on ‘Jarhead.’ He played a small part in that movie and I was watching again and accumulating my own tools and my own techniques and crafts and then  years after that … we met for this movie and I had all these tools myself.
“I had a technique … and it was really cool to say, ‘Look at my tool belt! I’ve got some [skills] too.’ And that was a real honor. So, he’s weirdly been a teacher throughout my whole career without ever saying much to me.”