With 'Southpaw,' Jake Gyllenhaal's Physical Transformations Become A One-Two Punch

"I think it’s obvious that the media does judge a book by its cover initially."
Michael Loccisano via Getty Images

Many thought Jake Gyllenhaal's"Nightcrawler" snub was one of the 2015 Oscars' more egregious errors. Harvey Weinstein wants to make sure we don't say the same thing next year about "Southpaw." The awards-infatuated producertold audiences at May's Cannes Film Festival, where "Southpaw" wasn't even screening, that he will seek "revenge" for the Academy's recent lapse.

If Weinstein is successful, it will be for good reason. Gyllenhaal is transformative as Billy Hope, a celebrated boxer struggling to regain custody of his daughter (Oona Laurence, who hails from Broadway's "Matilda") after his wife (Rachel McAdams) is killed. The movie has an interesting relationship to "Nightcrawler," for which Gyllenhaaldropped 30 pounds to portray a hyper-articulate but unstable crime chaser. In "Southpaw," hebeefed up to play an inarticulate but unstable prizefighter. Naturally, those metamorphoses caught the public's attention, as evidenced in a recentEsquire profile in which the actor asks whether the interviewer is "easing" him into a question about the number of sit-ups he did each day. (The answer:2,000.) The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with Gyllenhaal last week to discuss the transition between the two movies and why people are suddenly obsessed with his physical appearance, including his height.

Throughout "Southpaw," I kept thinking about how much you disappear behind Billy's mannerisms and unclear speech. Did those things stem from the intense physical training you underwent for the role?

It’s developed over time. I spent five months preparing physically and learning the sport of boxing and learning the techniques of boxing, and I think there were so many discussions with Antoine Fuqua, the director, about Billy and his history. He grew up in the foster care system, never knew his parents, met his wife when they were both probably 12 years old, and he'd been with her since he was a kid. Just given even that background, we made these decisions that Billy was probably not a very articulate guy. He never really spent a lot of time learning how to articulate himself verbally, and really his strongest, most confident place in terms of articulation was the ring.

But I also like to create resistance. I think resistance is a very helpful tool in general, though we all sort of look for things where there isn’t that kind of tension. I think it’s actually so helpful artistically, in particular -- and I think just in terms of drive, you know? Not to get too lofty, but even if you think about the sport of boxing, you have nothing unless you have something to hit. There’s resistance there. If you’re getting hit enough, too, there will be difficulty in bright spaces and with sound, and also just his inability to really trust most people because he grew up in a space where he was moving around so much and being moved around that he found himself pretty angry, I think, and having no models for behavior. So all of those things end up being clues and then you find things behaviorally that you can move and attach to. We just threw lots of things in a bucket.

Scott Garfield/The Weinstein Company

Boxing movies tend to adhere to certain tropes, and the one thing I struggle with in their redemption arcs is cheering on the hero as he pulverizes another human being. Thinking about that resistance you're talking about, what's your take on violence being the source of the character's salvation?

Well, I would say it’s true that I think boxing can be a very brutal sport. But I also think it is really a science. They don’t just call it that just for shits and giggles. It is really a science of angles and instincts that is sort of beyond explanation. I mean, look, ballet is brutal. So I think it’s easy when you see somebody punch somebody, but my God, the discipline, the self-discipline, the intensity and precision and sacrifice that it takes to be a ballet dancer, they never really talk about that, but shit, is that hard -- and the things that people do to their bodies in that art. I do think that in a sports film, in particular, you have one or two choices because it’s what you have in sports pretty much always: win or lose. So there are inevitably tropes that you fall into, but I learned what I thought was amazing about the story, and just boxing in general, is how many beautiful styles and how many techniques there are. I think when you look at the history of boxing, it’s very inspiring. It is a beautiful, beautiful sport.

Because the world is captivated by celebrities' weight, your physical appearance in "Nightcrawler" and "Southpaw" precede the movies themselves. Do you see that as a distraction from the actual work because people go in with preconceived images of the character you're playing and how he's different from the everyday Jake Gyllenhaal?

I think it’s obvious that the media does judge a book by its cover initially, and I think there’s also clearly so many issues with the way people look at things initially. I sort of understand the interest in it. It’s not ultimately really what I am searching for. To me, I feel like you find your way into different characters in different ways. Some characters feel very far from me as a person, and not just because of personality things, but also physically.

When I did this movie “Nightcrawler,” I lost a lot of weight for it, and the reason I did was because Lou's personality and how he moves through the world and his history is very different than mine. It’s a guy who was struggling to really make ends meet. He didn’t eat a lot and was on the go constantly, with his mind racing. There was a history that I wanted to portray to the audience that you could just see. Initially you could say, “Oh man, that guy is so skinny,” but I think when you see the film, you understand why, and really it comes down to that. It’s the same thing with this one. I don’t think you can get into a boxing ring as a boxer and not really look like a boxer. The intimidation factor in the ring for another fighter is how much you’ve trained, and how much you’ve trained is shown physically -- not only in terms of in the middle of a fight, but any edge you can get on intimidation is what you’ll take. Part of that is your body when you’re a boxer, so all of these things, I think, should be judged based on how much something moves you. It’s so easy to judge and make assumptions, but until you experience whatever a person is doing you don’t really know. I feel that way about everything: It’s hard not to make initial comments like, “Oh, wow, you’re in so much shape. How did you get in shape?” For an actor, it’s because I’m playing a boxer. Everybody has their own agenda and that’s okay.

Scott Garfield/The Weinstein Company

Antoine Fuqua is about to direct you in "The Man Who Gave Up Snow," a biopic of Max Mermelstein, the drug smuggler who became a government witness. Playing a real person requires a certain physicality, too, but you have the advantage of research. Does it feel like a different process after having only a script to figure out Lou Bloom and Billy Hope?

What I would say is that they all involve intellectual, analytical processing. Initially I had tons of research and tons of reading on boxers, orphan boxers, the spirit of gyms all over America, children who start early, the history of foster care in America. Every single role I play starts initially with the analytical. It’s always, "What can I read?" and "How much information can I take in in words and videos?" So because there’s a lot of improvisation in "Southpaw" and a lot of backstory in scenes that aren’t even in the movie that we shot, we all had to be prepared -- all the actors at all times -- for anything. It’s the same thing with “Nightcrawler,” going with those guys and reading books on sociopathy and having to figure out who this guy was and what he was doing. All of that goes into playing it.

In terms of "The Man Who Gave Up Snow," I’m producing the movie, so we’re developing it right now. The process of developing is based on an autobiography, basically, so it’s based on his accounts of the situation. He was put into witness protection, so it’s very hard to get a read on him through pictures, videos, how he speaks and talks, so you’re trying to create a character based on what you know from secondary sources, which I think is very interesting, particularly because that movie is ultimately a love story. It’s a love story with him and his wife, who happened to be Colombian, and him bringing her family into America and bringing them to Miami in the ‘80s, somewhat indirectly bringing the Medellin Cartel to America and helping them grow. So as we develop it, I’m obviously taking things for the character -- and it’s a very character-based movie, but that’s begun much earlier on than I normally would because of the producing aspects of the movie.

Speaking of actors' physical appearances, there was recently a strange fascination with your height. There's a whole podcast episode about it. How do you feel about that, and what made you decide to participate in "The Mystery Show"?

Well, I’m a huge fan of "This American Life," and Starlee was so sweet and funny in asking me to do the show. I think it’s a new generation of philosophical thought, in a way, and I love the idea of mysteries being different things -- as absurd as they can be, in the case of this show that she did on how tall I am -- and how a sort of seemingly meaningless question can be filled with self-reflective questions. I love that.

I think that ultimately how tall I am and me being a part of it is a bit of a prop for a much more interesting, much deeper conversation, which is what I loved. And she’s just great. Her show is great and she’s so smart, and I think anytime anyone having anything to do with “This American Life" contacts me or I hear about it, I will be involved. It’s been one of my favorite shows for so many years, and Starlee, I think, is just brilliant. But in terms of perception, I think that is what’s fascinating about the show: how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive others, how people also just need to know fact and whether it’s actually truly fact and whether it really matters how tall you are on the screen and how people perceive you in your personality in the workplace -- or in my job, if you see what I do on a big screen, how tall you think somebody is. And how tall do you want them to be? Ultimately I think it has much more to do with us than with the people we are seeing, and that’s what I think is kind of interesting about that show.

"Southpaw" was directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Olympus Has Fallen") and written by Kurt Sutter ("Sons of Anarchy," "The Shield"). It opens in wide release on July 24. This interview has been slightly condensed.

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