Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Takes No ‘Prisoners’ When Playing a Man with a Badge

Thelma Adams
Yahoo Movies

Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the tattooed Detective Loki in this fall's kidnap thriller "Prisoners," has emerged as an actor equally at home in fringy indies and mainstream movies, from action to drama to rom-coms. While he’s bulked up and starved down for roles, the hallmark for his performances, from "Brokeback" to "Zodiac" and even "Prince of Persia," is integrity.

We’ll leave it to the silvery tongued Hugh Jackman to shower praise on his "Prisoners" co-star: "Jake? Of all the roles in the script, there was less on the page and he brought so much. He’s a great actor. I saw how hard he worked. It’s the kind of role that’s very perfunctory, dealing out most of the exposition, and he brought heart and emotion and discipline."

Here, the actor tells us about patrolling the scenes in a few of his latest films, including next year's buzzy "Nightcrawler," for which the already-lean actor dropped 20 pounds for to play a local TV news stringer on the crime beat.

With Detective Loki and your LAPD patrolman in last year's "End of Watch," you've shown a talent for portraying policeman. Are you drawn to playing cops?
Jake Gyllenhaal: That’s not true at all. I don’t keep playing a cop. No one person in law enforcement is the same. That’s part of the problem. I look at their personalities. What I learned from law enforcement is the idea of the uniform and how civilians often don’t see the person beneath it.

What about playing Detective Loki attracted you?
JG: This is the second movie with [Director] Denis Villeneuve following "Enemy." When he came to me with more of a perfunctory expositional role, he said, "I need your help, he’s not there yet." Sometimes those blank pages, the question marks, the unknown are so much more interesting. Also, I had recently completed a lot of research on police work.

We talked about your research a year ago when you brought "End of Watch" to Toronto with Michael Peña.
JG: I remember saying to you that that was an incredibly formative time in my life. The research I did on "End of Watch" for the character of Brian Taylor laid a foundation for Loki. I wouldn't have known how to hold a gun. The technical adviser for "End of Watch," Jaime FitzSimons, was huge. I find it critical to connect with someone in the real world that actually does that job.

[Related: Hugh Jackman on How He's 'Boring' and His New Musical Offer]

How does Loki differ from Officer Taylor?
JG: I always looked at Loki as someone who was not afraid of the dark side of the world. He was fascinated by it. So many characters in this movie are so scared of it, wanted to control it. As someone who had spent so much time with the dark side he wanted to learn more. He’s on a journey going darker. Some of Loki’s colors are definitely darker – [Hugh Jackman's] Keller and Loki share that in a way. Seemingly unafraid to go darker.

In "Zodiac," you also played someone obsessed with solving a crime, even if you played Robert Graysmith, a San Francisco cartoonist turned amateur sleuth rather than a law officer.
JG: I would look at the cartoonist in "Zodiac" as far more similar to Loki than to my character in "End of Watch." It's more about psychology than it is about occupation, although I’m sure there are similarities. It is much different to be a first responder, like I was in "End of Watch," than a detective. There’s a deeper truth that Loki is looking for from every character — and he's hiding, too. What is that past that he had? What makes him so desperate to know other people’s truths? What is he hiding, and what is he hiding from, with his tattoos and physical behavior? He has the longest backstory of anybody in this movie — and yet I don’t think it's visible. It crosses over without ever being made explicit.

And now, you're in Los Angeles shooting the L.A. Noir "Nightcrawler," written and directed by Dan Gilroy and produced by his brother, Tony Gilroy of "The Bourne Legacy." You're not a policeman, but you're a man seduced by the shady world of freelance crime journalism.
JG: I feel like I’m living a perpetual Halloween. "Nightcrawler" is about a version of Los Angeles that has to do with how wild and primal it is. I see the city as my co-star and then I would say it is Rene Russo and Bill Paxton. Robert Elswit, who shot "There Will be Blood," is the cinematographer. I think there’s a cinematic quality to this movie that’s a much grander vision of L.A. than "End of Watch." Even today I was looking at the weather for the night because we're shooting tonight. I was looking to see if it's going to be rainy and sure enough, it's bright sun for the next 10 days. I was as much comforted as made uneasy. With that kind of brightness there's always a question of what's going on underneath. This movie is set all at night and that's what it explores. "Nightcrawler" is about the success of one guy, a true hero's journey amongst the darkness.

[Related: Jake Gyllenhaal Hospitalized After Intense Scene on 'Nightcrawler']

You were born in L.A., and there are particular locations that reverberate in movies, like the Griffith Observatory in "Rebel Without a Cause." Do you have a touchstone L.A. place for this film?
JG: The hundreds and hundreds of radio towers on Mount Wilson. That to me is what this movie is. Those radio towers are pretty far out into the wild on top of the mountains and they are these beacons of civilization and communication but they’re surrounded by the wild, coyotes and other animals, and how they interact with each other. That vision is "Nightcrawler."

Watch Gyllenhaal and the cast of "Prisoners" discuss the film: