Jake Gyllenhaal On Throwing (And Taking) Punches: 'It's Very Primal' In Southpaw, Gyllenhaal plays a boxer who grew up in foster care and is struggling to become a father to his daughter. "I don't like getting hit, but it was important for the movie," he says.
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Jake Gyllenhaal On Throwing (And Taking) Punches: 'It's Very Primal'

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Jake Gyllenhaal On Throwing (And Taking) Punches: 'It's Very Primal'

Jake Gyllenhaal On Throwing (And Taking) Punches: 'It's Very Primal'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jake Gyllenhaal, stars as a boxer in the new film "Southpaw." He also starred in the films "Nightcrawler," "End Of Watch," "Jarhead," "Zodiac" and "Brokeback Mountain." He was first noticed in his starring role in the 2001 film "Donnie Darko," playing a troubled high school student. He was 10 when he made his screen debut playing Billy Crystal's son in the film "City Slickers." He grew up surrounded by movie people because his father, Stephen, is a film director and his mother, Naomi, is a screenwriter. His oldest sister - well, she's Maggie Gyllenhaal. She actually played his older sister in "Donnie Darko."

In the new film "Southpaw," directed by Antoine Fuqua, Jake Gyllenhaal plays boxer Billy Hope, an orphan who was raised in the foster care system and is now married and has a daughter. After winning the light heavyweight title, his wife suggests that it's time to stop because he's been taking too many punches to his face and body. He's prepared to follow her advice, but after a tragedy that results in him losing everything, he has to get back in the ring and try to make a comeback. Here he is early in the film, taking questions at a press conference after winning the championship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHPAW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Billy, most of us here had you winning this early. Were you expecting such a difficult fight?

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: Oh (laughter) yeah, I don't know, expect - I don't know. You can't expect anything. I was really looking forward to just showing up, walking the ring and then having him fall on the ground.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: No, man. I mean, I expected a hard fight, you know? I put my family through a lot. By the way, Leila, if you're watching, go to sleep, baby (laughter).

GROSS: Jake Gyllenhaal, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GYLLENHAAL: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: You've said you didn't follow boxing before getting the part in "Southpaw." So how did you get the part and why did you want it?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, I wasn't an avid boxing fan. I mean, I grew up in the '90s, so Tyson was obviously a staple of my upbringing - Mike Tyson. So I don't think you could really be breathing and not be a fan of his during that time. But I really didn't know much about it. And I think really the script was about a father and a daughter. It was about family and about a man really learning how to become a father, someone who had grown up in the foster care system and was an orphan, never really had a parent himself. His wife, he met in the foster care system, and they had a child relatively young. And through a series of circumstances in his life, has to learn how to parent this child. And so that to me was what the movie was about and the boxing was secondary.

You know, I didn't know how to box when I started. And I knew in order to play a boxer in the way that Antoine Fuqua was going to shoot the movie, he said he was going to shoot it like a real HBO Showtime fight. So there would be no doubles, and we would be seeing my whole body move. And there wouldn't be any room to fake anything. I knew I had to actually learn how to box. But it was all motivated by the story that I fell in love with, which was really about a father and a daughter.

GROSS: So you have a very developed body in this movie. I mean, it's all - it's all muscle and it's all, like, well-formed muscle. What did you do to develop that?

GYLLENHAAL: I thought - I thought you were talking figuratively initially. So I was - you said a well-formed body, and then I thought you were going to say of work but no.

GROSS: No (laughter) of body.

GYLLENHAAL: Yes, a well-formed body, it's true.

GROSS: A well-formed body of body.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I spent five months learning how to box. So over those five months, as I started to become more fluent in the language of boxing, you know, what happens is you learn combinations or you learn offensive, defensive moves and then you're - you know, you need your mind to be able to translate itself through your body. And so as you learn more, you need to be in better shape. And so over five months, you know, I slowly sort of chipped away at it and got in very, very, very good physical shape in order to kind of translate what'd been taught to me skill wise.

GROSS: So unlike a costume, you don't take your body off when you come home. What was it like to have a different body?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, boxers are very much their body. That was an odd thing to sort of translate to myself. I mean, to be confident there, you know, you basically walk into a ring half naked, you know? And it's very primal in that way. It's all about a certain confidence. You know, even the choice - I have a tattoo on the back, you know, Billy Hope has this tattoo that says fear no man in the biggest block letters I've ever seen. And I really hesitated initially to put that on my back, you know, it was a last-minute choice. And I think going home and having that, you know, through essentially the seven months of preparation for the movie and the shooting of the film - there's a confidence that comes from that.

And more than that in terms of how you look on the outside, I think my feelings about my endurance and my own strength and confidence, you know? It was life-changing to be honest. I mean, I felt like sort of more confident internally than I had in my whole life. And that was not just due to the physical stuff. It was really due to learning boxing and knowing that I could defend myself if I needed to.

GROSS: Is that something you felt you didn't know before?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I had been in fights in high school and unfortunately did not come out the victor. So I...

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: So, yeah, that was something that was new to me.

GROSS: Well, for the movie you had to learn how to take punches on screen because your character is not famous for his defense. He's very good at channeling his anger and winning on that. So during the course of the film, you take a lot of punches. Your face is swollen and bloodied during parts of the film. How do you learn how to take punches without really getting hurt when you're filming?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, you know, in terms of getting hit, you know, I think that's inevitable. And it's hard to play a boxer in a movie and not know what that feels like and not actually take a punch or give a punch, you know? There - to me when you're playing a character, it's essential you know or watch or experience the feeling of, in one way or another, whether it's directly or indirectly, the feeling of what your character might be going through somewhere in the real world. And so it doesn't feel great, you know? I wouldn't recommend it. And I don't like getting hit, but it was important for the movie. At least that's how I justify it when I would get hit (laughter). That was good for the movie (laughter).

GROSS: But you have to defend your face in real life. Your face is part of your tool. You know what I mean? As an actor.

GYLLENHAAL: Right (laughter).

GROSS: So, like, you don't want to have that kind of permanently swollen eye that some boxers end up with.

GYLLENHAAL: Right. Well, yeah, no, you don't. But I also feel like there's a preciousness to actors. There's a vanity that I definitely participate in, but I also don't necessarily agree with. So I like to challenge that, you know? And I think acting is as much of a serious job, and I take it incredibly seriously. And I find it actually important, though I know that's a presumptuous word to use. But I also find it absurd. And so somewhere in the in between, between the importance and the absurdity of it, I think it's OK to let that stuff go, you know? Sometimes those hits, you know, actually make a career better. As in sometimes those injuries do, and I just - I don't really necessarily believe in the vanity of it.

GROSS: What was the worst punch that you took?

GYLLENHAAL: I would actually say - I say body shots. I mean, I took a lot of shots in the jaw. We would talk a lot in the ring. We'd improvise a lot of the fighting. We'd move around; our hands would be up over our faces, you know, in protection. And the fighter opposite me and I, we would talk. So I'd say OK, I'm going to throw two jabs and a left hand, you know, and then they'd say, oh, OK, I'm going to slip that. I'm going to block one jab and get hit by one and slip the right. OK, you ready? Yeah, OK. And then we'd try it, and we'd do it again. And while you're talking sometimes, you would forget that you had just said OK, let's go and you'd get hit, you know? So my jaw (laughter) - my jaw, you know, got knocked around. But really it's the body shots that hurt the most, I would say.

GROSS: Your voice is different in the film than it is in conversation. Can you talk about what you did with your voice?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I believe in resistance a lot of times, particularly with characters while they're in the scene or in your body, you know? Sometimes I think wearing a shirt that's uncomfortable or too tight for you or too big for you or whatever it might be given the choices of the character and the history of the character is really helpful. And so, you know, I believe Billy to be inarticulate outside of the ring - articulate physically, but not verbally. I also believe that he was really fueled by testosterone and, you know, that type of aggression, I think that kind of deepens the voice. And I think particularly Billy slows down the way he speaks 'cause I don't think his brain was ever taught - was never in a place where he had to defend himself verbally. So I tried to just create resistances I thought also - he was very sensitive to light, not only from being punched, but just because I always considered him pretty infantile in the first half of the movie in particular. And I think infants are not articulate and also (laughter) - and also very sensitive to light and many other things. And I considered him to be that - this sort of brute animal but also this child. And so all those things came into play.

GROSS: So what did you do physically for the resistance that you're talking about?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, there prosthetics - you know, I had prosthetics on my face and more than just showing the history of his face, I really wanted to have a difficult - sort of difficulty sort of opening my eyes and looking around. And I sort of made a rule for myself that my mouth would not be allowed to open more than, like, a quarter of an inch, you know? And if I smiled, it would hurt, you know? And so over time, those become character traits, you know? I'd try and do that throughout preparation.

And I also found that wearing a mouth guard while you're training and fighting - and if you spent most of your time doing that, you know, you have to lock your jaw a lot when you're fighting. You know, while you're - when you're training or sparing or even in a fight, you know, you don't need - you shouldn't be talking like I told you before when I hurt my jaw. You should have your teeth, you know, clenched 'cause you're going to get hit. So I thought that Billy really didn't know how to do that outside the ring either. So very often that was what made him feel comfortable. It was almost like he had a mouthpiece in all the time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Gyllenhaal, and he's now starring in the new film "Southpaw." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Gyllenhaal, and he's now starring in the film "Southpaw."

So we've been talking about "Southpaw" in which you play a kind of inarticulate boxer. And the movie you made before that in 2014 - "Nightcrawler" - was a very different character in the sense that, like, you really pumped your body up for "Southpaw." And you actually got a more, like, hollowed-out look - not outlook, but hollowed-out look - for "Nightcrawler," a kind of gaunt - your eyes are, like, recessed and, like, kind of dark around them.

So I want to play a clip from "Nightcrawler" before we talk about it. You play a - when the film starts, you're a small-time criminal who's got nothing. You have access - but you do have access to the Internet, and you've read a lot of self-improvement stuff on the Internet. And you tend to insert self-improvement quotes into all of your conversations. In the film, you eventually become a freelance cameraman who specializes in getting to crime scenes and car accidents and shooting graphic video for the kind of local TV news shows that program with the motto, if it bleeds, it leads. But in the opening scene, you're just, like, a small-time criminal. And you've been cutting chain-link fences and stealing the fence just to sell it for scrap metal. You've stolen manhole covers and copper to sell to scrap metal yards. And in this scene, you've been trying to sell the metals that you've stolen to the scrap metal guy, and you've been asking for a higher price than he's willing to pay. And so here you are making the final negotiation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHTCRAWLER")

GYLLENHAAL: (As Louis Bloom) I'm willing to take less to establish a business relationship. If that's your last best offer, then I guess I accept.

MARCO RODRIGUEZ: (As scrap yard owner) All right, drive around back and unload.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Louis Bloom) Excuse me, sir? I'm looking for a job. In fact, I made up my mind to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I'm a hard worker. I set high goals. And I've been told that I'm persistent. Now, I'm not fooling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today's work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those who work their [expletive] off and that people such as yourself who reached the top of the mountain didn't just fall there. My motto is if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket. Did I say that I worked in a garage? So what do you say? I could start tomorrow or even why not tonight?

RODRIGUEZ: (As scrap yard owner) No.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Louis Bloom) How about an internship then? A lot of young people are taking unpaid positions to get a foot in the door. That's something I'd be willing to do.

RODRIGUEZ: (As scrap yard owner) I'm not hiring a [expletive] thief.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jake Gyllenhaal, in a scene from "Nightcrawler." I just love you in that because, like, you're doing your lines as if your character has, like, memorized these things and can just, like, pull out these quotes as needed to recite, which seems exactly right to me - memorizing lines about today's work culture (laughter) and calling the scrap metal guy, a guy who's made it to the top of the mountain (laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: Yep (laughter) the brilliant words of Dan Gilroy.

GROSS: So can you tell us how you developed your voice for this role? And I just don't mean the placement of your voice but, like, the whole affect that you're going for.

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I figured the only way we were going to have a hour-and-a-half-long movie and not a three-hour-long movie with all the soliloquies that this character gives was if he had speed, number one. And number two, I think I tried to memorize all of them as fast as I could. You know, I - we didn't have a lot of time while we were shooting the film. I knew we wouldn't. We shot the movie in 22 days. And I figured, you know, I would need to have some pace on them. And I also figured in terms of selling, you need to move quick, you know? People aren't going to listen for very long, and you need to get a lot of information out very quickly. So I memorized them at breakneck speed. I had to sort of slow them down actually when we were shooting because sometimes they were too fast. I mean, I can recite that speech even now. You know, I...

GROSS: Oh, do it.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: As fast as I can?

GROSS: Yeah.

GYLLENHAAL: I can - it's - excuse me, sir. I'm looking for a job. In fact, I made up my mind to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I'm a hard worker. I set high goals. And I've been told that I'm persistent. I'm not fooling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today's work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those who work their [expletive] off. And, you know, blah, blah, blah.

GROSS: Bravo.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, that's great. But I love that because this is a person who doesn't have genuine feelings. He knows what a feeling is supposed to sound like when it's expressed. So he memorizes things that sound like they're expressing feelings, but he's never really expressing anything (laughter). You know what I mean?

GYLLENHAAL: No, there are these moments - yeah.

GROSS: Like, he doesn't feel any genuine emotion...

GYLLENHAAL: (Laughter) No.

GROSS: ...Outside of anger, you know.

GYLLENHAAL: I don't mean to laugh at that, I just - there is sort of a funny thing when Dan Gilroy would come to me - there's this scene with Rene Russo, who's brilliant in the movie, where he tells her why he wants to work in television news. And the direction that Dan gave me was, ask her to marry you. And it has nothing to do with marriage in any way. But from this speech, he said, like, give it like you were going to ask her to marry you. And it's all about how he wants to be in the local television news business. And somehow, there's this sort of strange, fake emotion underneath it that he knows nothing about it, and in a weird way neither did I while I was doing it. I was just saying these words and trying to give them a feeling. And I think that's kind of what Lou is about, is just picking up these feelings he sees other people have and then translating them into things he's picked up off the Internet.

GROSS: Did you end up reading self-improvement books just to get into his mindset?

GYLLENHAAL: I only read self-improvement - no.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm sure.

GYLLENHAAL: But I'm actually reading a great one right now.

GROSS: That's how you got to where you are today.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I mean, they will change your life. I listened to a lot of those self-improvement tapes because he listens to them at the beginning of the movie. You can kind of hear them early on. But really, I really use the screenplay in the case of that movie as my Bible. You know, there's rarely dialogue like that nowadays. And I never veered from a period. I never veered from a comma. I never improv'd anything in the movie. And, you know, sometimes there are just those characters, and there are just those - that type of writing that you just must obey, and I did. And so I didn't really look outside there. It was all in the words. I did go with the guys who do the job that Lou Bloom does. And I had done a movie a few years before "Nightcrawler" called "End Of Watch" about two police officers in southeast LA. And I spent five months on the streets with police officers preparing for that and saw so many things.

GROSS: Did you see things from a different angle driving around with the police in LA as research for "End Of Watch" than you saw things when you were driving around with TV news cameramen?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I mean, in the case of working with police officers and the incredible, you know, LAPD police officers that I worked with, you know, I saw death. I saw really the hardest sides of humanity there and saw how extraordinary the work of police officers can be. And I think sometimes, maybe rightfully so, they've gotten a hard time and been given a hard time and constantly do. But I was amazed at the work that I saw. And, you know, I wasn't going on a ride-along, you know, like you would go on a few ride-alongs. I spent months and months with four or five different sets of partners in both the sheriff's department and Los Angeles Police Department, and it changed my life. So it was an interesting evolution from "End Of Watch" to "Nightcrawler."

GROSS: My guest is Jake Gyllenhaal. He stars as a boxer in the new film "Southpaw." After we take a short break, we'll talk about growing up in a movie family and getting his first role at the age of 10 playing Billy Crystal's son in "City Slickers." And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a reissued box set of Thelonious Monk's Riverside recordings. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jake Gyllenhaal. He stars as a boxer in the new film, "Southpaw." He also starred in "Nightcrawler," "End Of Watch," "Jarhead," "Zodiac," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Donnie Darko."

So you were kind of born into a movie family. Your father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is a director. Your mother, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, is a screenwriter. They're divorced now, but they were together when you were growing up. You were 10 years old when you got your first movie role. That was Billy Crystal's son in the film "City Slickers," which, I confess, I haven't seen.

GYLLENHAAL: What, Terry?

GROSS: Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you get the part?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, I remember I went to a, like, some sort of party, I think, with my parents. And Billy Crystal was there, and he saw me, and he said, you know, will you come in and read for this movie I have? You know, he's funny, and I guess I must have been acting out as I - if you spent more time with me in real life, you would see I like to act out. And so I was making some fool out of myself, and I think I remember what happened was I - he was leaving, and I knew who he was. And I took - I picked up a chair from the table, and I said, here, take this. This is your party favor.

GROSS: (Laughter) What?

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, that's just me. It doesn't make much sense, but he loved it. And he thought I was really funny.

GROSS: So, apparently, once you got that role in "City Slickers," you wanted to act more. You auditioned for other roles, and your parents let you audition. But they wouldn't let you actually take a job if you got the part (laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: Yep.

GROSS: So what was the philosophy behind that?

GYLLENHAAL: They believed in education over everything else. And they said, you know, you're about to start junior high school. It's a really, really important time in your life, though you probably can't see that now, and we believe that you need to go to school. And I thank them so much for that.

GROSS: Because...

GYLLENHAAL: Because, well, it only gave me more drive, you know? I - it only made me say, well, when I get older, I'm really going to try and do this because I really like doing it. And because I have an education (laughter) - because when I read a screenplay or when I read a book or there's something that I want to make into a story - I have had the privilege of reading the great books and reading the great minds and using my own mind to interpret them. And because of that, it's given me an opportunity to find and believe in projects like "Nightcrawler," you know, or "Southpaw," where I say, you know, I've seen this story, but how can we do it differently?

GROSS: The first role, I think, that really put you on the map was "Donnie Darko." And you play a high school student who starts seeing this kind of giant rabbit that talks to him - a kind of imaginary friend. And he thinks - Donnie Darko thinks he's being given secret information about the impending end of the world. And we're not sure if he actually has access to secret information or if it's a psychiatric issue that's been aggravated because he doesn't always take his pills.

So I just want to play a short scene. And here you are with your psychiatrist, and you're talking to her about a very old kind of disheveled woman named Roberta Sparrow, who most of the kids in the neighborhood are kind of scared of her. But recently you saw her walking, kind of addled, in the middle of the road, and you tried to help her. She whispered something in your ear, and this has to do with the whole end-of-the-world scenario that you think that you're getting. So here you are talking to your psychiatrist about this old woman, Roberta Sparrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DONNIE DARKO")

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) She was just standing there in the middle of the road, frozen. So I got out of the car, and I walked over to see if she was OK. And she leaned over and whispered in my ear.

KATHARINE ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) What did she say?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) I mean, I think Frank wants me to go talk to her, you know? Because the last time I saw him, he asked me if I knew about time travel, and she wrote a book about it. So that can't be, like, a coincidence, right?

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) Donnie, what did Roberta Sparrow say to you?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) She said that every living creature on Earth dies alone.

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) How did that make you feel?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) It reminded me of my dog, Callie. She died when I was 8, and she crawled underneath the porch.

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) To die?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) To be alone.

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) Do you feel alone right now?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) I don't know. I mean, I'd like to believe I'm not, but I just - I've just never seen any proof, so I just don't debate it anymore, you know? It's like I could spend my whole life debating it over and over again, weighing the pros and cons, and in the end I still wouldn't have any proof. So I just don't debate it anymore (laughter). It's absurd.

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) The search for God is absurd?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) It is if everyone dies alone.

ROSS: (As Dr. Lilian Thurman) Does that scare you?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) I don't want to be alone.

GROSS: That's my guest, Jake Gyllenhaal, in a scene from "Donnie Darko." What impact did this movie have on your life? How old were you when you made it?

GYLLENHAAL: I was 19 - either 19 or 20.

GROSS: And were you in college at that point?

GYLLENHAAL: I had dropped out of college, actually. I did two years of college, and then I went and started working pretty consistently. So, yeah, for all this talk of education, I am a college dropout. But I...

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: But I am also full of contradictions. So - but I - yeah, it was - I remember - and that's part of it, you know? I had - I was at Columbia, which is an extraordinary school in New York City, and I think I was searching for this creative outlet. I didn't really know at the time that that's what I was searching for. And I was going through, at 19, you know, this - eventually my parents got divorced, but there was a lot of things going on there. And I think I was just sort of trying to figure out what it was like to be an adult and what being an adult was. And when I read that script, I remember, very clearly, thinking, wow, because it was at a time when all of those movies about - you know, high school movies and the movies about high school were about who was going to go to the prom or, you know, who was going to go to the party and get accepted in the cool kids' club. And this was a movie about...

GROSS: How you are going to lose your virginity.

GYLLENHAAL: Exactly, yeah. And this was a movie about high school, but it was about the internal ride that is adolescence. And I was a bit of a mess as a kid that age. And I read it and I went, wow. This is really - this is really what I'm feeling, more so than just - you know, more so than just thinking, I hope I can go to the popular kid's party.

GROSS: You said you were a bit of a mess. What do you mean?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I mean I was an adolescent.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: I mean, you know, I think - I think, you know, it's that age where you're moving in - you're moving out of a life that's protected and safe into a world that is the reality of the world with all the things that come with it. And - and I think things become more scary and a little bit more dangerous and more fun and exciting. And trying to navigate through those things are all, you know, what being an adolescent - sort of trying to figure out what that is into adulthood - is about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Gyllenhaal, and he's now starring in the new film, "Southpaw." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Gyllenhaal and he's now starring in the film "Southpaw." Let's go back to 2005 when "Brokeback Mountain" was released. And you and Heath Ledger played two men who fall in love one summer while tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. But they each marry women and have children. Once a year, they return to Brokeback Mountain together. But this relationship is kept very, very secret. This scene takes place 20 years into their relationship at the end of one of their visits. It ends up being the last time they see each other. Your character speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN")

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jack Twist) We'll try this one. And I'll say it just once.

HEATH LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Go ahead.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jack Twist) Tell you what - we could have had a good life together - a [expletive] real good life - had us a place of our own. But you didn't want it, Ennis. So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain. Everything's built on that. That's all we got, boy - [expletive] all. So I hope you know that if you don't ever know the rest. You count the damn few times that we have been together in nearly 20 years and you measure the short leash you keep me on and then you ask me about Mexico and you tell me you kill me for needing something that I don't hardly never get. You have no idea how bad it gets. And I'm not you. I can't make it on a couple of high-altitude [expletive] once or twice a year. You are too much for me, Ennis, you son of a horse little [expletive]. I wish I knew how to quit you.

LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Then why don't you? Why don't you just let me be? It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this. I'm nothing; I'm nowhere.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 with Heath Ledger and my guest, Jake Gyllenhaal. When you made that scene, did you think I wish I knew how to quit you would become a famous line?

GYLLENHAAL: I mean, no, not in any - not in any form anywhere. And anywhere in my mind, all I could think about was the love between these two people, you know? And it has since become something, you know - you know praised and mocked and many other things. And it's very interesting.

GROSS: So can I ask you a question that I'm not sure you can be honest about? The music that swells up at the end of the scene that we played - I'm going to be honest, it bothers me. 'Cause I think we know how we should feel hearing that. We - the emotion is being very clearly expressed. It's a very emotional scene. I feel like we don't need that kind of oh, isn't it sad music to cue us about the emotions being expressed.

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I didn't direct the movie so I don't (laughter).

GROSS: No, I know that. I know that. But I wonder as the actor who's like doing your best to convey this very like deeply-felt emotion. And Heath Ledger's trying to convey this very, very like repressed emotion. Listening back to it, can I ask you honestly if you ever wish that there wasn't music? I'm sorry, I feel like I'm putting you on the spot.

GYLLENHAAL: No, are you kidding me? No, I mean - I mean I would point out - I'd preface this by saying this is an Academy award-winning score. But I would say that I often feel like it's interesting in films because, you know, we - I think people feel manipulated in films sometimes. I often hear that particularly with music where they say stuff like oh, we're being - I feel like we're being told how to feel here or this is what I'm supposed to feel and - and I think that's - I think that that's true. I think the experience of a movie should be your own experience. And I don't think you should be forced into any feeling. And I think whatever feeling you have about it is important. That's - I mean, particularly with something like "Brokeback Mountain." It's like I respect just as much the naysayers as I do the people who support the film. I respect their opinion. You know, and I love that about art in general. I mean, people have come up to me many times in my career and said just openly like I just didn't like you or that film, you know? And I go man, like thank you for that expression. I mean, and it's not done in a way that's preferred not to be like aggressive but I - I love the expression of that whatever it might be. And with music in movies, I think sometimes people can feel that way. For me, listening to it brings me back to, you know, it brings me back to thinking about doing that scene with Heath, you know? And the honor it was to work with him and the beauty of his work and I miss him as a human being. And I miss working with him. And what an unfortunate thing it is that we won't be able to see the beauty of his expression. And, you know, hearing those things really gets you. And so I don't - I didn't hear the music as much to be honest (laughter). I just thought about the feeling.

GROSS: This might be too personal so you just tell me 'cause I don't want to...

GYLLENHAAL: OK.

GROSS: ...Intrude. Was Heath Ledger the first peer, the first friend you were close with who died?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I just think it's different, you know, when somebody your age, someone who you work with, one of your contemporaries who you're close to dies. It's just different from other deaths.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. He was an incredibly special and that doesn't even come close to encapsulating who he is - who he was. It is different I think. You know, as an actor, like I said when we started talking earlier about, you know, vanity and living in a sort of bubble, you know, I think sometimes reality doesn't - you don't get - you don't always get a sense of that. And I think that's a proper criticism of the entertainment industry. And I think that's why I like to go off and I like to try and get into worlds that will wake me up. And when you say do you like getting punched? Like I don't like getting punched, but I don't think like oh, you know, maybe this is going to be not good for the next thing. I'm trying to be present where I am. I'm trying to have relationships that are as real as they possibly can be on a movie set. Be close to people because I know that it's precious. And I know not only like can that - this career and in a very short period of time and this or that can happen. But also that life is precious. And I think losing Heath and being a part of a family that was something like the movie - that movie we all made together, you know, makes you see that, makes you appreciate that and hopefully moves you away from the things that really don't matter to the things that do.

GROSS: Jake Gyllenhaal, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GYLLENHAAL: Thank you. It's really been an honor so thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the new movie "Southpaw." If you want to catch up on interviews you missed like our interview last week with Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow, check out our podcast. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a reissued box set of Thelonious Monk's "Riverside Recordings" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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