In the ring with Jake Gyllenhaal

Southpaw star talks boxing, trusting his instincts and being safe on set


SOUTHPAW directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Kurt Sutter, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris and Rachel McAdams. An Entertainment One release. 124 minutes. Opens Friday (July 24). See listings. 


It’s July, but Jake Gyllenhaal is flashing back to TIFF. His Toronto press stop for Southpaw has us sitting down at the Shangri-La, where he spent a few days promoting Prisoners back in 2013.

“I walk around and I’m in this hotel and I think, ‘What food do they have here?’” he laughs. “Because I wasn’t eating any.”

At the time, Gyllenhaal was hollowing himself out to play a parasitic videographer in Night-crawler, which he brought to last year’s festival. And on that one he was coming off shooting Southpaw. Antoine Fuqua’s drama casts Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a prizefighter struggling to put himself back together after his entire world falls apart.

To figure out the character, Gyllenhaal spent months immersing himself in American boxing culture.

“I steal things from all over the place,” he says. “Their styles, watching tons of tape of them – tape out of the ring, things they said. [And] being in the gym itself, watching fighters, taking in behaviour. Preparing for a role over five months or so, I end up just stealing lots of stuff, even writing down things people say, putting them into scenes. It’s kinda non-stop.”

The result is a spellbinding, emotionally raw performance. I have issues with the movie, but Gyllenhaal’s portrait of a man willing to abandon everything he is to win back his young daughter is remarkable.

He says the key to playing Billy Hope was pretty simple, really.

“You know when people say they trust their instinct? They just go with their first instinct. In a fight, they’re training their instinct to protect [themselves] – to defend and offend – and I think it’s the same thing in the real world sometimes. They get so much praise for their behaviour in the ring that outside the ring they behave the same way. And they don’t really know how to differentiate. That’s what Billy does.”

The trick, he said, was doing that while accommodating Fuqua’s stylistic choices.

“There’s a very animalistic, muscular thing -going on with the camera,” Gyllenhaal explains.

“There’s one scene where [Billy’s] in a hospital bed, and I remember they were trying to design this shot over me. It was a relatively unsafe shot, [and] our operator was hanging off the edge of a dolly with, like, a rubber band strap with the camera. Antoine wanted it to feel like a bird’s-eye view, but like the bird was actually above and moving the way a bird would move, and it would be out of focus as it moved away.” 

He laughs.

“I was just worried about the camera falling on me.”

If you missed Gyllenhaal on the recent Southpaw red carpet, you’re likely to have another chance in September. Nothing’s been announced yet, but Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition seems sure to bring the actor to this year’s festival.

“It’s a story about a guy who basically takes his whole life apart, literally and figuratively,” he says. “It’s about grief, but it’s really funny. It takes all of these supposed clichés and just turns them in the oddest, most unexpected ways.”

Jake Gyllenhaal on the value of preparation for an actor:

Gyllenhaal on improvising his way through the picture with director Antoine Fuqua:

Check out our review of SouthPaw here.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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