Jake Gyllenhaal: Building character through details

When Jake Gyllenhaal describes his acting process, it is as such ‘I have an intention… I have an action, and then everything is up in the air after that, and anything can go down.’ That is what makes him so special, every performance is so incredibly layered, and the characters are not basic caricatures but rather fully realised human beings. An example is in Prisoners, where Gyllenhaal’s character is a detective searching for two young girls who have been abducted. Throughout the film, he develops a twitch in his eyes, showing the emotional toll the case is taking on him. This enables the audience to understand the psyche of the character, but the word twitch does not appear once in the script, meaning it was entirely the choice of Gyllenhaal. And this sort of acting choice is consistent with Gyllenhaal, where he uses his eyes, or his stance, or any number of things, in order to convey so much about the character he’s portraying.

Another example is in Brokeback Mountain, where he plays a rancher who begins a gay relationship and struggles with the conflict between his ambiguous sexuality and the hyper-masculine, cowboys and rodeo world that he grew up in. It’s a stunning performance that does an excellent job of capturing his ability to play weaker, more fragile characters, which somewhat juxtaposes a lot of his more recent character choices, which frequently are in more intense thrillers. From the beginning, you see the evolution of his character purely in terms of his head position. At first, he’s scared, inexperienced, and he conveys this by having his head down, not willing to meet the eyes of the more powerful people he’s interacting with. Later, as his character grows and becomes more independent, he keeps his head straight and speaks directly to people. This isn’t the most awe-inspiring, never seen before acting choice, but it’s the kind of choice that builds character and when stacked upon other details, like how he doesn’t stand straight when he’s not in a position of authority, the portrayal becomes much richer, and the film much more real.

In the recent, somewhat critically-polarising Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, Gyllenhaal plays a character different to almost any other in his career. This one is a goofy art world ‘type’, and his character is established just through physical choices within the first minute of action. Gyllenhaal’s character, Morf Vandewalt, walks into a convention centre, past a long queue of people. He walks with confidence, eyeline high, smile on his face, his shoulders roll back as he walks, establishing this ‘I’m better than you’ vibe, and when a random person says hi to him, he raises his hand in an effeminate way and puts on a fake smile, he hates that people are even allowed to say hi to him. This isn’t the kind of thing where you pick up every detail as you watch for the first time, but it all gets into your head, and you think you know this guy by the time he’s walked 30ft.

This is the beauty of Gyllenhaal’s acting, he is absolutely enthralling in every role, making you want to stare at him and only him, regardless of what else is on screen. The most commonly cited example of his acting brilliance is how he uses his eyes, from not blinking in Nightcrawler to show how unchanging and dedicated he is, to Donnie Darko, where his eyes are glazed over to show the disconnect he’s experiencing. Regardless of the film, or the character he’s playing, Gyllenhaal always appears not as an actor chewing scenery, but rather a genuinely real person who is living within the film and what happens to him happens for real. In Nocturnal Animals, Gyllenhaal plays a character within a book within the film, a man whose wife and daughter have been kidnapped because he was too weak to stop them. It’s one of the most fantastically intense films I’ve ever seen, and Gyllenhaal makes it so because he is selling every awful, painful experience like how Ric Flair used to sell finishing moves. It’s just one example of how Gyllenhaal is the best actor working today because when he’s on screen, it’s almost like he’s not acting. He’s real.

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Matt Branston

Comment Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21

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January 2022
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