SXSW Interview: Jake Gyllenhaal on the Charms and Heroics of ‘Source Code’

Jake Gyllenhaal last foray into the action lead world wasn’t exactly a successful one. If you don’t know which film I’m referring to, it was the one where he had that interesting accent and played a prince of Persia. Still don’t recall that film? Understandable. But a year after seeing it, you may actually still remember director Duncan Jones’s Source Code and the lead hero of the film, Colter Stevens.

Gyllenhaal is a charming guy. He’s the type of person you could throw a stupid question at who would give you back an interesting or, at the very least, a funny answer. Gyllenhaal rarely gets to show these charms on the big screen, which is a shame, but Duncan Jones smartly allows him to. Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is the type of leading man all us nerds like: he’s brash, witty, vulnerable, and even acts like a jerk at times.

During a recent roundtable interview at SXSW we discussed what type of hero Colter is, Duncan Jones’s style, the script, the ending, and what’s going on with Nailed. There are a few spoilers, but they’re all clearly labeled and skippable:

Press: There were a few scenes where you really had to kind of show humor while everything was very serious around you. And I wonder, as an actor, what do you think about when you’re doing all this serious stuff but you’re trying to throw some humor into the overall sense of it?

I had to be totally aware of what was going on in the story. I had to think about the many different variations that the audience would be thinking about at the same time as being present in the story itself and what was going on with this guy.

Like on a subtle level, like…I watched it last night for the first time, the final version of the movie, and I remembered that…you know, there’s that sequence where I asked the woman for her phone. And it was written I ask her for a phone and then she gives me her phone after she’s freaked out that I beat up the guy downstairs. And I take her phone and I’m looking through it.

And I thought, “That’s a big jump for an audience to do that.” So I realized, Duncan and I talked and I said, “Maybe I have money. I’ll just offer her money.” And he’s like, “That’s a great idea. Get us 100 bucks. Put it in his wallet.” So we tried a take, you know.

And I guess that’s all to say that so I gave her the money, took the phone. And then when I called up Rutledge to say, you know, to think about, “Oh, shit. How am I putting all this stuff together so fast?” You know what I mean? And Duncan and I would continuously have to think about all these things. So that’s all to say that a lot of the choices, particularly narrative in this movie, were thinking about how the audience, as an actor, thinking about how the audience is going to respond.

So the humor comes out of that, knowing…we did variations of it, but knowing that the audience might have to go, “What?” And then we go, “What?” And then they go, “Oh! They know too!” And I like that. I like being involved in…I love playing a character that’s engrossed in the situation he’s in, but also is sort of bringing the audience along too. Duncan and I both love movies that involved those kind of characters, you know?

Press: It’s just a real easy way to connect.

I genuinely care a lot about the audience that’s watching the movie. And I was so excited last night because I thought, like, we pulled so many things off that we were worried about or whatever. I thought, “We’re all together here!” And no better place than Austin, but, you know, I just felt like there’s a real…this is very abstract, but there’s a real connection with an audience that’s hard to make because it’s not live. It’s not live when you’re acting. But you know some day someone will see it. And we pulled it off. And the humor comes from that.

I don’t believe any situation is about humor. Regardless of the oddities of being a human being, they’re tragic, and joyful, and humorous all at the same time.

Press: In the pod when you were acting, it was just you, right?

Just me in the pod. It was so much fun. I actually am an actor that feels most comfortable on stage, and to me it felt very much like a…we would place things out six, seven days each scene on one take. I have a harder time doing little pieces. I have a much easier time one whole take.

And it was wonderful because someone would either be reading the lines to me through a speaker, or sometimes Jerry would say the lines and act out a variation of the lines. But it offered me endless possibilities, and opportunities, and choices. There are takes in our movie that are just crazy, and I love that. I loved it.

And yes, there was no one on the screen. I was just talking to a green screen. Gosh, it’s when you feel like a movie really…people are all on the same page. You know, there are scenes where…nothing was written where I look up and there’s a window because the production designer put a window up there, obviously for light. But as soon as you put a window, there’s a huge question. So how do you answer that question?

Well, you know, I look up there and what’s up there? We have an entire take where I am up there trying to find out what’s up there. We do it for a little bit and the editor, she’s brilliant, asked that question and we answered it. I don’t know, the whole movie’s so fun because it’s full of questions all the time.

Jack: The thing that’s interesting about Colter Stevens is he’s very vulnerable. How important was it to both you and Duncan to have a hero that wasn’t exactly the macho type?

I mean when somebody’s tried like that, I mean how would you feel? [Spoiler Alert] I mean it’s like he says, “One death is service enough.” And then you take me and I’ve apparently signed another thing that says, “Oh no, not one death, five deaths.” Or, “Oh, you get to get reincarnated by the US military.” [Laughs] You know, it’s, “What? I didn’t agree to that!” [Spoiler Over]

You know, there’s going to be a lot of emotions that are stirred from that. Duncan never ever said anything was wrong or steered me in a direction differently. Sometimes he would…I would go nuts on a take and he would say, “Just go do something different.” And he knew I would get him what he needed.

Yeah, he’s a character that’s going through…he gets an opportunity to kind of know he’s going to get reborn. You know, he’s in the pod, but they’re going to send him back in, so he can throw a bit of a tantrum because they still need him and he knows that. He can’t just totally behave himself. He doesn’t need to totally behave himself. And in the train it is the same thing. It offers a lot of opportunities.

Jack: Can you talk about working in an environment like that with Jones where he does not correct you on everything, versus, say, David Fincher, who’s specific on every little detail?

Well, Fincher’s specific on details, but he lets an actor be free within, you know, the number of takes that he does, but he lets an actor be free. And I think that’s a mark of a great director is, you know, as soon as you start trying to put your hands all over a wet sculpture, it starts to fall apart. There is over-kneading that happens with…there are many different examples I can give, but a great director, regardless of their process, always has an actor feel like they have a mind of their own. Everyone just has very different processes. [Laughs]

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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