It wouldn’t be a surprise if he barely noticed his 25th birthday next week. While reaching that quarter-century milestone is ordinarily a time for celebration, it rather pales next to his recent achievements. Performances in two of this season’s prestige movies have drawn unanimous critical praise, and inevitable talk of an Oscar nomination. The first is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a tragic tale that casts Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist, a rodeo star who falls for a ranch hand (Heath Ledger) in Sixties Wyoming. Then comes Jarhead, British director Sam Mendes much-anticipated Gulf war drama, in which Gyllenhaal plays Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford, a disenchanted Marine (and also the author of the memoir on which the film is based). Naturally, Gyllenhaal is sensitive about these latest additions to his CV. “Really both Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain mean so much to me,” he says. “I feel like I’ve given a lot to them, so I do worry about what people think.” He pauses for a moment. “I do really care.”
This is Gyllenhaal in essence; quiet, thoughtful, earnest. Sitting in the shade in the garden of a luxury Venetian hotel – presumably to prevent his pink nose from peeling further – Gyllenhaal does not come across as a diva or a darling. Looking like he might be more comfortable staying at a roadside motel, his jeans are ripped, his boots worn and his black T-shirt has seen better days. Wearing a thin gold chain around his neck, and two tiny rings on his little finger, he is not one for ostentatious displays of wealth. Only an expensive pair of designer shades, left on the table in front of us, suggests he is not just some skater kid who climbed over the fence for a dare.
Rather emulating his recent performances, his physique and features are a mixture of the rugged and the delicate. Take his face: a sprawl of stubble gives him a hint of masculinity, off-setting his china-blue eyes. Then there’s the brown hair, back to its normal length after being shorn for Jarhead. The sort of tousled style it takes hairdressers hours to perfect in a salon, in profile his swept-back spikes remind me of the video-game icon Sonic the Hedgehog. One interviewer recently remarked as much, commenting that he might have been constructed by Toy Story animators Pixar. Standing at 6ft tall, with veins now bulging from his arms, recent workout sessions have lent his build a more solid shape. If he still has a boyish insouciance about his demeanour, it is no longer his defining attribute. Yes, Gyllenhaal has grown up. His inevitable maturation has been reflected in his roles. After Donnie Darko resoundingly put him on the map, he spent his early 20s playing awkward teens – most notably, as he became the fantasy object of desire for older women in Lovely And Amazing (with Catherine Keener) and The Good Girl (Jennifer Aniston).
“I played a lot of characters that had a lot of similarities to them, because that was what I was going through,” he admits, rather cryptically. “It was the only thing I could understand in a single moment.” There are times, he says, when his choices “haven’t been courageous”. The most public must be turning down the opportunity to work with Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci on his explicit three-hander, The Dreamers. Nudity was the key. “When you get naked in a movie, it needs to be in service of the story. I had questions in The Dreamers if it was.”
But there’s no holding back in Brokeback Mountain, with Gyllenhaal’s full-blooded commitment to the love scenes entirely in keeping with what is a raw, passionate performance. “This is a story about love,” he reasons, “and if you have to be interested in two young actors getting naked to do that, then so be it. Because I’ll do anything I can to get that message across.”
A watershed movie – and not just for Gyllenhaal – as critic B Ruby Rich recently noted in The Guardian: “Every once in a while a film comes along that changes our perceptions so much that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it.” For once, this is not hyperbole. A mainstream film that subverts the image of the cowboy, one of the most masculine figures in American culture, Lee’s film is as potentially volatile as the bucking broncos that Jack Twist rides. As the film moves on from the summer of ’63, when the two men meet while herding sheep in the shadow of the eponymous mountain, they find themselves drawn into conventional marriages – but unable to quell their lust for each other.
“I don’t want to say it’s not about two gay men – but I don’t think it is,” says Gyllenhaal. “For me, it’s a story about how hard it is for two people to love each other. If you love each other, no matter what context that is – heterosexual or homosexual – it’s just f**king hard. I knew that it was a cloak to wear to tell a bigger story.”
As for himself, Gyllenhaal is no doubt aware of the risk that playing gay can entail. In America, at least, it’s a PC minefield. Traditionally, Hollywood A-List stars are all about asserting heterosexuality, not upsetting the status quo. Yet equally, this can’t be admitted in public. When Lost star Ian Somerhalder declared that the gay kiss he undertook in The Rules Of Attraction was to be a one-off, his words were misconstrued and he was subjected to a barrage of abuse claiming he was anti-gay. Gyllenhaal sighs when the subject is raised. “I’m bored of it,” he says, with a shrug. So you’re not worried about typecasting, then? “You mean, being cast as the gay cowboy in every movie that’s made about gay cowboys?” He throws his head back and starts laughing at the thought.
In fact, I meant whether people might start to question his sexual orientation. Since the film made its world bow in the autumn, the Hollywood rumour mill has been working overtime. They range from the innocuous (he used a body double on set) to the personal (he is bisexual and wants to find a way to come out). Recently, he told US magazine Details, “I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened.”
His status as a gay icon almost assured, he is entirely relaxed about the speculation surrounding him. “Ultimately, people will think what they want to think. I did this movie because I love the story and I know why I made it. I don’t really know why it’s such a big deal. Sexuality is a scary subject. It feeds into everyday life.” He stops for a second, realising what he’s getting into. “We should have a psychologist here, because I don’t know how to respond to that without looking like a presumptuous idiot.”
Likewise, Gyllenhaal has to tread carefully with Jarhead. Back in July, his actress sister Maggie saw her official website shut down due to being flooded with hate-mails, after it was reported that she suggested America was “responsible in some way” for the events of September 11. Gyllenhaal is less direct. “I am proud to be an American but I am unhappy sometimes with the way my country behaves,” he says. “But I was born here, and there are a lot of great things that are here, and a lot of great opportunities.”
As if to prevent any accusations of anti-patriotism, he explains he has one childhood friend in the Marines who was recently stationed in Iraq, while another close pal is part of the US Navy. “I am very close to it – I have friends there,” he says. Set during the first Gulf war, Jarhead is a war film without direct conflict. Frustrated by his lack of desert action, Gyllenhaal’s highly trained killing machine is gradually driven towards the edge of sanity, as his trigger-finger becomes ever itchier.
Is he expecting a similar backlash to his sister? He shakes his head. “There’s no agenda with this movie,” argues Gyllenhaal, who appears to be having difficulty in explaining the film. “I can’t even tell you what it’s going to be like. Sometimes I watch scenes in order, and I can’t remember which came first or last. It f**ks with your brain like that.”
It’s the most inarticulate Gyllenhaal has been all afternoon. Having made his own stage debut in London’s West End, as a petty drug-dealer in Kenneth Lonergan’s play, This Is Our Youth, Gyllenhaal is full of praise for former Donmar director Mendes. “I don’t really know how to describe it, but he really made me feel that nothing I could do was wrong. That comes from working in the theatre. You can’t go back and work with anyone else and have them tell you something you did was wrong, when Sam Mendes said the opposite.”
One topic he refuses to be drawn on, however, is his love life. Undeniably more guarded than he used to be in interview, all Gyllenhaal will offer is a firm, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Introduced to Kirsten Dunst in 2003 by his sister, who played cupid between the two after working with Dunst on Mona Lisa Smile, they rapidly became the cutest power couple in Hollywood. Everything, from impending marriage to infidelity, has been thrown at their relationship, with Gyllenhaal linked to Maria Full of Grace star Catalina Sandino Moreno for a nano-second. More recently, the couple was assumed to be expecting a baby, after Dunst was reputedly seen studying a box of prenatal dietary supplements at a Hollywood Whole Foods market. “That was so funny to me!” Dunst later told me. “I was getting vitamins!” The latest sighting has them together, spotted in each other’s arms at a pool party in Los Angeles, where they both live.
It can’t be said that such occupational hazards are anything new to Gyllenhaal. A child of Hollywood, he grew up in the heart of the industry. From being godson to Jamie Lee Curtis to receiving his first driving lesson from Paul Newman, Gyllenhaal’s upbringing was seasoned by celebrity. Yet his immediate family are behind-the-camera artists. His father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is a director, notably of Waterland with Jeremy Irons and Paris Trout with Dennis Hopper. His mother, Naomi Foner, is a screenwriter, Oscar-nominated for the 1988 film Running On Empty, which starred River Phoenix. Encouraged to express himself creatively from an early age, one piece of advice from his father stuck in his mind: any artist should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. “So as long as you do that, you’ll be on the right track,” Gyllenhaal smiles, fully aware that he has been doing just that.
After playing Billy Crystal’s son in his 1991 debut, City Slickers, Gyllenhaal was restricted by his parents in making further film appearances as he was still at school (though both he and Maggie appeared in their father’s 1993 film A Dangerous Woman). Calling his early desire to act “pure, utter naïve ambition”, there was evident rivalry between he and his sister, three years his senior. At the time of Donnie Darko – in which Maggie featured as Donnie’s sister – their on-screen enmity was for real. More recently, Gyllenhaal had a bust-up with his sister’s real-life boyfriend, actor Peter Sarsgaard, who co-stars in Jarhead. Neither will now talk about the incident. But for the most part this is just sibling rivalry magnified by the Hollywood lens. “I think both my sister and I are trying to find some balance between making films that are commercial that people see, and then making films that create discussion,” says Gyllenhaal, a little grudgingly.
As a teenager, Gyllenhaal followed his sister to Columbia University, but quit after completing two-thirds of a course in Eastern religions and philosophy. While noting he does not want to become some sort of symbol for college dropouts – his website urges fans to support College Summit, a charity that helps low-income students – he claims “the most important thing of being an actor is to be able to live a life”. A keen environmentalist, he also campaigned on behalf of Rock The Vote to attempt to inspire his peers to vote in the 2004 presidential elections. Admitting he also wants free health care in his country, he’s cautious about standing on his soapbox for too long. “It frustrates me when actors talk politics,” he says. “I’m political and I make choices in my movies that I think are political. I try and say things with what I do. Rightly or wrongly, young actors have all the power.”
Academia, though, was never for him. Ironically, he played a student who designs a rocket in 1999’s October Sky, his first major lead. “My science teachers saw it back in the States and they laughed their heads off,” he recalls. It was much the same reaction for John Madden’s forthcoming film Proof, in which he stars as a mathematics wizard who falls for the daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) of his recently deceased tutor (Anthony Hopkins).
“I think my math teacher at school would probably be ashamed that I was cast in that role,” he says. And possibly his acting coach, too. Based on the play by David Auburn, the film was shot two years ago, while Gyllenhaal was in the midst of his toyboy phase. “To me, the love story between them was really interesting,” he says, trying to sound enthusiastic. “You don’t need proof when you love someone. There’s no equation you can write to say ‘I really do love you’. It takes a lot of trust and that’s what I liked about it.”
After Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain, it’s hard to see Gyllenhaal making another middlebrow film like Proof. He is currently preparing to play a detective in true-crime serial killer film Zodiac. Directed by David Fincher, who made the controversial Fight Club, Gyllenhaal says his character “has no fear”. It’s a trait he’s beginning to show in his own obsessions.
“We’re in a really funny time with movies right now,” he argues. “Audiences are aching for more ‘people-driven’ movies. That’s clear from how they responded to big movies this summer. They want good stuff, so we should start to give them it and see how they respond to it.”
Call it youthful exuberance if you like, but it’s this sort of attitude that will keep Jake Gyllenhaal in the Hollywood vanguard.
Brokeback Mountain opens on January 6. Jarhead is released on January 13. Proof opens February 1011 December 2005