Jake Gyllenhaal: "I Was Terrified Of Getting In The Ring"

The Southpaw star on boxing clever in his new film

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PHOTO: Eric Ray Davidson

When we profiled Jake Gyllenhaal for our July issue earlier this year, what emerged was a sense of a man who, perhaps more than any other actor of his generation, takes his craft seriously.

Which isn’t to say he thinks it’s a serious business – the 34-year-old is no Hollywood luvvy, and is quick to recognise the absurdity of his profession – more that, having chosen his calling in life, he intends to throw himself fully into doing the best job he can.

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Meticulous with his preparation and notoriously intense onset, it is an approach that has produced several memorable performances so far, none less so than in last year’s acclaimed thriller Nightcrawler in which he played the scrawny, amoral news stringer Lou Bloom.

This week Gyllenhaal’s latest film, boxing drama Southpaw, hits cinemas. In it he plays Billy Hope, a champion who, naturally, loses everything and has to try and get it back again.

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It’s a solid if conventional story – elevated more by Hope’s relationship with his estranged daughter than the action in the ring – but it will be remembered most for Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation into a snarling man mountain of pure muscle, and the fact the blows he takes in the ring are all real. It is also, despite the by-numbers nature of the plot, a moving portrayal of a man trying to tame his own anger and despair.

Sat in a central London hotel room in a well-fitted crisp white t-shirt, the bulk is still evident – Gyllenhaal has kept in shape. In person, he is soft-spoken, thoughtful and polite. He is slow and serious in his answers, but quick to smile – a wolfish, self-deprecating grin that acknowledges when he has gone off on a tangent.

We speak for twenty minutes or so about Southpaw, acting and what he might have done in another life. At the end he looks me intensely in the eyes for a couple of seconds and nods, a gesture you suspect Gyllenhaal deploys the way most men do a casual handshake.


What did you take away personally from the world of professional boxing?

There are a number of layers to the things that I learned. The skill and discipline and sacrifice involved at the highest level of boxing is something I hope I get somewhere near emulating in the work I do. More than just time away from life and your family, the sacrifice they make, ultimately, is physical and mental health.

I also saw how boxing gyms function like families. I went to many in preparation for the movie, Particularly for kids, boxing is such a wonderful thing to learn in terms of understanding yourself and gaining confidence. Not just in the obvious way of learning how to throw a bunch of punches and defend yourself. Really it’s mind work, it’s instinct, it’s discipline.

You said one of your mantras in life is ‘freedom is on the other side of discipline’…

Yes. It’s something I heard about a decade ago and was really struck by. I believe the continuous practice of anything really does open your mind to another place, and I think it also humbles you.

Did you revisit any of the classic boxing films for this role – Raging Bull, Rocky – and were they on your mind?

I am big fan of both those movies, but no, we didn’t think of them as influences.  I think the cliché of the boxing movie is that you have one of two choices at the end, which is win or lose. But there have been some really interesting sports movies recently, like Foxcatcher or The Wrestler, where you follow a character and their behaviour and it’s more of a tragedy. I think what’s interesting about this film is it's very tragic, as well as redemptive.

Southpaw has as much to say about fatherhood as boxing. Is that something that drew you into the script?

That was the reason I wanted to do the movie. Well, two reasons – first how angry Billy was and how that would allow me to explore my own anger. And second, the idea of a man who is a father, becomes a father at a very young age and doesn’t really know what that means, and then has to grow up – because he is very infantile early on in the film – and learn to be a parent to a child. It was the most moving part of the script.

One of my favourite lines in the whole movie is when Forest Whitaker's character says: “you have to this, it doesn’t matter how you feel, in the midst of dealing with a child, it doesn’t matter how you feel, she lost her mother”. That gives the story away a bit [as does the trailer], but yeah, it’s interesting, what a hard lesson that is.

How did the physical transformation compare to Nightcrawler and which of those two experiences did you find the most challenging?

You know oddly, unlike Nightcrawler, I don’t see Southpaw as a physical transformation. I just had to learn a new skill – how to box – because I was terrified, and I had to. As a result there was some physical transformation, but ultimately I started the preparation for this movie not knowing anything about boxing. The coolest thing is I walked away with a skill that I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Will you keep it up?

Absolutely. Yeah I still do. It’s almost a year since we started the movie and I still box.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what do you think you would have done with your life?

[long pause] A producer, a director? No, I think [pauses] a teacher of some kind.

Is there a piece of advice that you’ve been given in life that you carry with you?

Yeah. Somebody told me once that you never stop being a student.

Southpaw is out 24 July.

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