Grief is no laughing matter, but with Demolition Jake Gyllenhaal has made a whimsical movie about a man on the edge of falling into the abyss.
The film continues Gyllenhaal’s quest to explore characters who aren’t immediately likeable or understandable. No other mainstream actor puts himself or herself out there as consistently or successfully as Gyllenhaal. He takes chances, throwing himself at edgy portrayals of real people. Recently we’ve seen him as Nightcrawler’s reptilian Lou Bloom, a slick-talking drifter who falls into the freelance news gathering business, a man who seeks his doppelganger in Enemy and Southpaw’s inarticulate brute with a heart of gold, World Middleweight Boxing Champion Billy Hope.
In Demolition plays investment banker Davis Mitchell. Wealthy and happy, his life is turned upside down when he and his wife Julia are bickering about banal home stuff when the car they’re in is broadsided and she is killed.
Instead of being plunged into grief Davis becomes numb, impervious to the seven stages that usually accompany grave loss. Going back to work immediately after the funeral, however, his behaviour becomes increasingly strange. When he writes a complaint letter to a vending machine company demanding a refund he finds an outlet for his feelings and a therapist of sorts in customer service rep Karen Moreno, played by Naomi Watts. As his letters grow increasingly heartfelt and raw Karen’s sympathetic ear and later, her rebellious son, help Davis demolish his life so he can rebuild his world.
“It’s a story about a guy who begins the movie in a conventional way and ends the movie through an unconventional journey,” said Gyllenhaal at a press conference I hosted with him at TIFF last year, “feeling however [he wants and needs to], and not how society tells him to feel.”
Here the thirty-five-year old actor delivers strong work, grounding the film’s quirkiness in a character you may not understand but can empathize with. He does the heavy lifting and his work humanizes this offbeat film.
When Davis spontaneously dances on the streets of New York or demolishes his martial home it’s outrageous, but it is the sight of a man in pain refusing to face up to the fact that he wasn’t a very good husband and will never be able to make amends to Julia. It’s occasionally very funny, other times tragic and Gyllenhaal drifts between the two poles effortlessly.
The surreal dance scenes are surprising for the audience, but Gyllenhaal says they were a surprise to him as well. “I always looked on the schedule for when the dancing was going to be,” he said at the presser, revealing that director Jean Marc Vallee shot the scenes spontaneously.
“The first time I danced, we were on the train and [Vallee] said, ‘Okay, the train’s pulling in,’ and handed me an iPod, gave me an earphone and said, ‘Are you ready to dance? Let’s go. By the end, I didn’t want to stop dancing, I made like a whirling dervish.”
Gyllenhaal takes the path less trodden, but it has resulted in a body of work populated by interesting and unusual characters.
“I think the people I admire as artists are the people who really listen to themselves,” he says, “even if it is to the detriment of what people might consider success. I’d rather be myself and do what I love than listen to someone else and follow that role and be unhappy.”
As the calendar moves ahead to 2016 I’m taking a moment to think back to the great people I met, wrote about or chatted with on television in 2015. I shared Tim Bits with Liev Schreiber—he liked the chocolate, I preferred the glazed—inhaled Johnny Depp’s vape fumes, had a “Sock Battle Supreme” with Anthony Daniels—Mr. C-3PO—and was embarrassed to order a Chai Tea Latte while standing next to Chris Cooper at a coffee bar. On stages, in hotel rooms, on phones and even in the back of taxis, they spoke and I listened. Here’s some of the best stuff I heard this year:
GEORGE MILLER: “I don’t think I’d be the filmmaker I am unless I had that medical education, in two very direct ways. Both of them have a lot of problem-solving in there. But the most important way is that as a doctor you are looking at people in extremis from many points of view. You look inside of people. You see people during birth and death and so on. Through microscopes — a lens. So you’re looking from many, many points of view. That’s exactly what you do in cin ema. Huge wide shots with massive crowds or you’re looking right down inside someone’s brain, someone’s head.”
AMY SCHUMER: “I never thought about being famous. That was never part of my thing, but once it was on the horizon as a possibility, it seemed like a real bummer. I could see there’s no upside. The upside is I sometimes get free appetizers and I can get a reservation at a restaurant. I only go to one place in New York, it’s a tea place, the Tea Cup, and they don’t take reservations but I can make a reservation there. I swear I don’t see another upside. It sucks.”
PHYLLIS SMITH: “I worked for JC Penny in the warehouse tagging the merchandise,” she remembers. “I used to stand there and tag thousands of fishing lures or bowling balls or roller shades, which were heavy as heck to lift around. The people were great to work with but the merchandise was a little challenging.
“I used to stand there, thinking about life, wondering what it is we all have in common because we’re not all given the same opportunity. Some people’s health is impaired when they’re born while others are charmed with intelligence or looks. I thought, ‘There has to be something that we all have. A commonality.’ I figured out that it’s the ability to love. We all, in some form or another, want to love and be loved. That was my big revelation. My lightbulb moment. Also, if you’re standing on a concrete floor, make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes or you’ll pay for it later.”
CAROLL SPINNEY: Caroll is President Obama’s ninth cousin, but Big Bird isn’t political in the least. “Big Bird, I’m told by the owners of him, does not have political opinions. I thought of an idea that would get around that problem if someone (ever asked about it). ‘I don’t know who that is,’ he says in Big’s voice. ‘I thought we had a king.’ In most fairy tales, lands are run by kings or queens.”
DEBORAH ANN WOLL: A quick Internet search turns up many adjectives used to describe Daredevil star Deborah Ann Woll; gorgeous, talented and cute to name just a few.
The redheaded actress uses other terms to describe herself.
“There’s nerd, geek, all those words,” she says. “I am settling closer and closer to dork. I am a very proud dork.”
The former True Blood star — she played fierce teenage vampire Jessica Hamby for seven seasons on the hit show — embraces her inner dork — “I’m Dungeons and Dragons player, a Mystery Science Theatre buff. I like board games.”
She says the role playing games have benefits beyond entertainment value.
“Something like Dungeons and Dragons or a board game is a way for me to be social but it takes some of the responsibility off of me myself. If I don’t feel impressive as myself, I can feel impressive as Mistress Pyrona, the Genosi Sword Maiden. Like my acting, it gives me a little bit of support.”
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: “I think the people I admire as artists are the people who really listen to themselves even if it is to the detriment of what people might consider success. I’d rather be myself and do what I love than listen to someone else and follow that role and be unhappy.”
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: My favourite line from any interview? Christopher Plummer talking about the dog in “Remember”: “We had two dogs on set. One to do the stunts and the other just making money.”
BRYAN CRANSTON: “I don’t want to portray this idea that I’m just about the art. I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and rich is better.” Also: Bryan Cranston told me he likes to go up to people wearing the Heisenberg t-shirts they wore on the show Breaking Bad and talk like Walter White… “Nice t-shirt,” and I whisper if to them and their eyes go wide and I put my finger to my lips, like ‘Don’t tell anyone… if you tell people, they won’t believe you.’
SAOIRSE RONAN: Saoirse is an Irish or Scottish name meaning freedom roughly pronounced SEER-shə. “I get very confused about my name all the time,” she said in a recent sit-down. “Sometimes I look at it when I’m writing it down for people and I go, ‘This is actually a ridiculous spelling of a name.’”
ADAM MCKAY: “We wanted to be the first Wall Street movie that took you behind the curtain, that really said, All these confusing terms you hear, all the ways the banks make you feel stupid or bored … it’s actually not that hard. If the guy who did Step Brothers can understand it you can too.”
RYAN COOGLAR: “Whenever I had a big test at school or a football game (my father would) say, ‘Take 10 minutes and watch this scene from Rocky. That’ll get you fired up. That’ll give you the juice to score five touchdowns. Or get an A on that test.’ I’d look over and think, ‘Are we watching this for me or for you?’”
ANTHONY DANIELS: Having one of the most recognizable voices in movie history can lead to some surreal moments. Just ask Anthony Daniels. He’s played C-3PO in all seven Star Wars films, including this weekend’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and once rented a car with a very familiar voice on the GPS.
“I felt uncomfortable with me —very clearly — giving me instruction for something I didn’t know. I found it quite bizarre. I was driving thinking, ‘This is unnatural.’”
TIFF: The Toronto International Film Festival is only ten days but it looms large on my schedule every year. This year, in addition to watching dozens of movies and doing interviews for Metro, “Canada AM,” “NewsTalk 1010” and others, I hosted a bunch of press conferences, including, “The Martian” – with Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Demolition with Jake Gyllenhaal (#JakeQuake), Our Brand is Crisis with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and Black Mass with Johnny Depp. They were some of the highlights of the fest for me… and unfortunately provided one of the low points. Read on… and once again Sean Bean, I’m REALLY sorry.
METRO: An insider’s look at TIFF: Behind the scenes with Richard Crouse
Ever wondered what it’s like to rub shoulders with celebs?
The backstage room at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s press conference area is a beehive of activity.
“Is George here yet?”
“Is that Johnny vaping in the corner?”
It’s a place where no last names are necessary and the star wattage is blinding. Actors, directors, publicists and gofers mingle while air kisses, handshakes and Hollywood hugs are exchanged.
This year the Toronto International Film Festival is mounting 11 press conferences featuring everyone from Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock to George Clooney and Keith Richards.
I’m hosting four of them — Demolition, The Martian, Our Brand is Crisis and Black Mass — with, as MGM used to brag, “More stars than are in the heavens.”
Despite the buzzy nature of the events, backstage is a casually chaotic place where actors get caught up with one another before taking the stage.
Matt Damon made the rounds, glad-handing with his The Martian cast mates, many of whom he hadn’t met because he spent 90 per cent of his of screen time alone, stranded on Mars.
The business of the press conferences happens on stage. Moderating these things provides a fascinating glimpse into both sides of the publicity machine.
Ideally the press conferences are a reciprocal event: Reporters ask questions to actors and filmmakers they might not otherwise have access to, and in return the stars get publicity for their films. It’s a pretty simple but often unpredictable transaction.
Gone are the days of the legendary “journalist” who asked all her questions in rhyme, but for every sensible inquiry about the movie, there is inevitably another off-the-wall query that leaves panel lists either annoyed or scratching their heads.
At the Our Brand is Crisis conference someone asked Bullock about her character’s grown-out roots. The Oscar winner replied as best she could and when she finished, Clooney chimed in, “Aren’t you glad you asked that question?”
Later she shut down a silly query regarding how she keeps her bum as toned as it is in the film. “It’s so sad that you just want to talk about the butt,” she said, before tersely adding that leg lifts are the secret to posterior pertness.
Not that the attendees are the only ones to pull a gaffe or two. During the Demolition conference, I asked Chris Cooper a long, rambling question about his character. He seemed genuinely perplexed, and you know what? I was, too. Sometimes you can overthink these things.
Later at The Martian presser, there were 13 people on the stage, everyone from Michael Pena to Damon, Scott, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain, and in the shuffle I made the horrifying mistake of forgetting to ask the great Sean Bean a question and didn’t realize it until we were out of time.
Who doesn’t acknowledge Lord Eddard Stark?
Me, idiotically. Next year I promise to go to him first and frequently.
As World Middleweight Boxing Champion Billy Hope in the new film Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal learned a thing or two about anger. He plays a man ruled by fury who must learn to fight with his head, not just his fists.
“That journey was really interesting for me,” says Gyllenhaal, “the idea that I could explore that in my own anger. Sometimes things pop up, things that could be very destructive in my own life, like my own anger and I think, ‘Man, if I was only curious about this feeling instead of letting it kind of control me. If I could only stop and say, ‘What is that?’
“I saw this Australian comedian talking about gun control and he was saying, ‘Everyone should own a musket because by the time you finish putting the powder in and everything it takes a minute-and-a-half and by the time a minute-and-a-half has passed [the anger is gone] and you’re like, ‘You’re not a bad guy. It’s fine.’
Gyllenhaal says studying the character set him on a “journey about being curious about myself,” which seems counterintuitive. Doesn’t the actor inform the character?
“I think the experience of preparing for a role, meeting people along the way while you’re preparing for a role and the experience of that is what I learn from. It is really that that teaches me. The people I spend time with, the accumulation, that’s what I learn from. I don’t think I bring my own experience yet to a role. Right now my life is about learning from other people.”
One revelation from his time inhabiting Billy Hope’s persona was insight to what made Billy tick—fear.
“Billy is a really scared character who is fronting in some ways to present himself in a certain way. I think fear is a great motivator for him. That was a big thing. I think the idea of being tough is also about admitting your fears.”
The thirty-four-year-old actor certainly has no fear when choosing roles. From the extreme weight loss of Nightcrawler to Southpaw’s physical transformation—he gained 15 lbs of sheer muscle—Gyllenhaal is curating a challenging and interesting resume.
“I think the people I admire as artists are the people who really listen to themselves even if it is to the detriment of what people might consider success. I’d rather be myself and do what I love than listen to someone else and follow that role and be unhappy.”
I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that a movie about a boxer’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption are handled in a heavy handed way. “Southpaw,” starring an almost impossibly pumped up Jake Gyllenhaal as a pugilist who goes from rags to riches to rages to… well, there will be no spoilers here, but in terms of the plot there are fewer surprises here than in a Mike Tyson first round knock out.
Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, a World Middleweight Boxing Champion with a 43 to 0 undefeated record. He’s wealthy, has a daughter (Oona Laurence) he dotes on and a loving wife (Rachel McAdams) who has been with him all the way, from the Hell’s Kitchen orphanage they grew up in to ringside at Madison Square Gardens on the night of his biggest success. As one ringside announcer says, “it’s only a few blocks, but it’s really a million miles.”
Billy is the prototypical inarticulate brute with a heart of gold, who falls apart when tragedy KO’s his life, personally and professionally. Newspapers call him The Great White Dope but with everything gone—his friends, trainer, money and even his daughter—he pulls himself together the only way he knows how—in the ring. At his side is Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), the Zen master owner of a run down gym, who teaches him boxing is not about fists, its about the mind.
“Southpaw” doesn’t have the epic feel of “Raging Bull.” Like the Martin Scorsese classic it has elements of human tragedy, but unlike Jake LaMotta’s story it is primarily interested in the more uplifting underdog and redemptive aspects of the story. The fall from grace is so extreme—one day he’s king of the world, the next he’s MC Hammer—that elements of melodrama are bound to sneak in, undermining what could have been a serious look at what happens when life throws a few below the belt punches your way.
Like it’s main character, the story is lightweight, but still packs a punch mainly thanks to Gyllenhaal’s gritty performance. Physically he’s a beast, jacked to an inch of his life, muscles bulging and veins popping. Mentally he’s volatile, a man who grew up fists first but who must learn to use his head and not just his body. Gyllenhaal does a great job of walking us through Billy’s rehabilitation, and while he’s still a bruiser at the end of the film, he’s an evolved one, much different than the person we met at the beginning of the film.
McAdams brings strength and warmth to the role of Billy’s soulmate Maureen. In the early part of the film she is Billy’s humanity, a living, breathing monument to all that is good in him and her. It’s a big weight to carry and McAdams nails it. Giving the film heart is Laurence. As the daughter who feels the severe repercussions of Billy’s ups and downs she is neither precious or just there to be the kid sidekick.
Whitaker, as the cosmic fight trainer, stretches credulity from scene to scene. He’s a fine actor but lines like, “You gotta let her go through her thing and not think your thing is her thing,” are a mouthful.
“Southpaw” is a solid sports redemption movie but lacks the punching power to be taken as seriously as “Raging Bull.”