Jake Gyllenhaal has been poised on the edge of movie stardom for several years, but his profile is set to truly explode with the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the gargantuan adaptation of the blockbuster video game of the same name. But there's more pressure on him than just to make a hit movie or further his career: he's also got to deliver a genuinely good movie based on a video game, a task that thus far has repeatedly eluded Hollywood filmmakers.
Cinematical sat down with Gyllenhaal at San Francisco's Wondercon, where he presented footage to fans and discussed the challenges of breathing life into this iconic game character. During our exclusive, one-on-one chat, he talked about taking the next step in his already-storied career, tackling the physicality of such a familiar character, and of course, dealing with the pressure of starring in what might just be the first good game adaptation in movie history.
Cinematical: Even as the star of a movie, there's only so much you can do to make sure it's good. Given the fact that video game movies kind of have a dubious pedigree, do you feel more pressure to make it good, or do you feel freer to do whatever you want?
Jake Gyllenhaal: A little bit of both, but I also think the bar is always high. I never go into a creative endeavor without raising the bar very high; maybe it's just my personality, but I immediately took it very seriously. One, I don't think I consciously realized how many unsuccessful video game movie translations there have been, but since being involved in this, I've realized it's something that I think has really upset the gaming world, that no one can seem to understand why someone can't do it right. But at the same time, and I know this is going to veer off and maybe we can add like a minute onto [the end] because I'm going to divulge, but I was at Sundance Writer's Lab many years ago, and I was just an actor there so you would go in and they would have first-time filmmakers who have their script and they would have mentors who would come in – like my year,
Katherine Bigelow was there and Ed Harris was there and they have like an acting guru, and Delroy Lindo was the acting guru. You would go and act these scenes out for these first-time directors and they would film them and they would get advice from their mentors. Delroy Lindo sat us down because a lot of the actors were saying, wow, they were like 'put your hand here' and 'do this' and we were like, jeez, they've never directed anything before and they're telling us [what to do]. He said it's interesting with first-time filmmakers because if they've written it they'll say 'I've been sitting with this forever by myself; it's been 2D for this long' – and please don't read into the 2D, 3D thing I'm about to say – 'but then it gets up on its feet and it's living and breathing and coming out of someone else's mouth not the way you expected it to'. You always expected it this way and now it's this way, and it's hard not to feel because you have a sense of ownership to let something be created on its own because you've lived with it for so long.
So it's interesting because I've translated that now interacting with the gaming world and seeing how everybody has an intimate interaction with this character and this game and what it means to them, and now that it's basically become Jerry Bruckheimer's and he said 'now I'm going to try and put my idea of what a great, entertaining movie is' on it, people are going, 'wait a second!' So I understand that response, but I have always thought, I want to make those people happy. I want them to be psyched for this movie, so the bar has always been high, which is why when I was on set I would have the game on all of the time and I would come in the trailer and I would play a little bit. If there was a cool move, I would bring in the stunt guys and go, 'can we try this?' Because I would always think, we had a great story, but we've got to satisfy the way people see us, and there are many moves in the movie that came out of me playing the game and bringing the stunt guys in. So there was always that pressure.
Gyllenhaal: Yeah, I didn't know though. I'd never really been involved in something this massive. I didn't really know what I was going to be asked to do or how it was going to go. It really was a learning process as I went, because it was so huge, this production. On a smaller movie when you say, 'hey, I'm going to try this,' it doesn't affect 150 people, you know? When we were designing the wardrobe for the character, it was down to the last hour of shooting essentially, and I was like, 'I don't know if this buckle seems real,' and all of a sudden they would take to coat off and go running and they would have to run it up to there and back to this person and they would muck it up or take it off.
You didn't realize what one little choice [impacted] – it had to be approved by this person and this person and 'was it like the video game?' 'No, it's not, but that's okay.' So that was definitely different for me, and to stay creative in an environment where there are so many people to appease. But I really feel ultimately like my preparation was much different. I kind of tend to always start on a physical level; I always ask myself in what form would this character take shape, and how would he be successful in the world that he's inhabiting in a physical way. Like on Jarhead I did that, and on Brokeback our characters were smoking and we were riding horses and I just deteriorated, but on this I went, if he does parkour, because Gary said to me from the beginning he's going to do parkour, I'm going to have to learn how to do it, and then my body and my physicality just changed to do that. But it wasn't different.
Cinematical: You guys obviously want to make things as realistic as possible, but realism doesn't always make the best story. For you, where did you draw the line, whether it was in terms of the stunts or the way you were just acting, knowing that you could make something authentic or real, but you had a responsibility to make the movie as dramatically compelling as possible?
Gyllenhaal: I was working with Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley is dramatically trained, traditionally trained, and a lot of British actors are, and as soon as I did the accent, it really did change everything. Because I recognized with a British accent that things become more ornate and humor becomes a different thing, so you don't have to do as much, and your voice translates so much more. I mean, look at me gesticulating right now; I wouldn't do that with a British accent, because you have to have the confidence of your voice. So I kept in my mind at all times that I was acting as if I was telling a child a story, which was so helpful for me. And then I would watch Ben, because there were moments at the beginning of this movie where I would walk around going, what movie am I in? What am I wearing and what is everybody else wearing?
But it became so fun and it became very theatrical, and actually I enjoy – it's funny when people say to me 'you're a very naturalistic actor' because I'm like, God, man, I'm loud! Ask anybody who hangs out with me, I'm a loud dude! So it played to that side, and look at Ben in the trailer: he's like "FIND HIM!" With that kind of stuff you can't help but be like, "NOW GIVE ME THE DAGGER!" And Mike [Newell], he's so persuasive – I hesitate to say manipulative because it sounds so strange in print, but he was brilliant in explaining to me how we were going to pull it off. I was like, 'so it's about a dagger that turns back time?' He was like, 'no. It's sixth century Persia, where people believed in things like this. So if you're in sixth century Persia and you see a dagger and someone says it turns back time, there's an innocence to that time.' So it was great. It was like telling a story to the children I know, like a tale, so we acted the same way.
Cinematical: You have joked that your friends were doing these movies so that's why you made the film. But how did you know this was the right time to take your career either personally or professionally in a slightly different direction?
Gyllenhaal: I had talked about and been in the world of larger-sized movies for a while. I think I wanted to make sure that I was – when you're an actor in a movie, you show up every day and you want to be grateful and excited for every moment you have, because it's a ridiculously fun job, you know? So the strategy part of it, career-wise, which I think people have tended to [pay attention to] is such a cynical thing. I feel like I decided; I went, okay, seven months of my life – what do I want to be doing with it? I'll know when I feel like this is something I want to do. When I read the part, the opening sequence, it has changed a lot since the first draft I read, but he constantly has a sense of humor that is great – [I said] this is the guy that I wanted to play.
And then I went, I'm ready to focus [on it] and I spent, I would say cumulatively about a year with this movie, preparing and shooting it. So I was just ready to do it. I got excited too that Jerry [was involved]; I love his movies and they're great fun, and they're exciting so I just went with it. It wasn't strategic because there have been many opportunities or things I've wanted to do, and whether fate or whatever [intervened], they haven't come my way, and this just felt good in my heart.
Read Joe Uitichi's Prince of Perisa review
Read Peter Hall's Prince of Persia review