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FYC: Interview – Jake Gyllenhaal Takes On the Physical Challenge of Playing Jeff Bauman in Stronger

In 2013, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that would change some lives forever. Three people lost their lives, hundreds were injured, and sixteen people lost limbs. One of the people with devastating injuries was Jeff Bauman.

His story is one of resilience and survival and recovery. In Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, just a regular guy working at Costco who is waiting at end of the marathon where his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is running. She has not yet crossed the finish line before the bombs explode that will cause her boyfriend to lose both legs.

The chaotic sequence when Bauman is rushed to the hospital and tended to is harrowing and excruciating. Maslany is brilliant, her subtle expressions are heartbreaking as she witnesses Bauman’s ordeal.  But Stronger doesn’t focus on the Boston bombing. It looks at the aftermath and the lives it affected. Gyllenhaal’s performance as outstanding as he reels from PTSD, the surreal experience of becoming an instant news hero, at the same time  facing the unimaginable ordeal of being suddenly without his legs.

“Jeff would show me how he would get around without his legs and I would watch him move around his home and get up on a chair with and without the legs,” the actor says as we meet in a West Hollywood coffee shop to talk about the film. “Every day he inspires me.” Gyllenhaal’s performance is gritty and authentic. He is justifiably being considered for an Oscar for Best Actor. Read our conversation  :

How did you get involved in Stronger.? Aren’t you also a producer on this film?

I had read a very early draft of this script, even before there was a filmmaker attached to it. I called Erik Feig at Lionsgate and I told him I wanted to do the film and he told me, “Let me find a filmmaker and come back to you.” Three weeks later they asked David Gordon Green to direct it and David and I met and we spoke about it. In that period of time we decided we wanted to make the film, but this other film about the Boston bombing picked up steam and all priority shifted to that movie and I felt like we were starting to slip away and financing became funny and we didn’t know if we were going to be able to make the movie.

I have a deal with Bold Films who finances my production company and I gave them the script. They agreed to finance the film and that’s how it all began.

Jeff and you have become really good friends and that’s inspiring to see. There’s obviously some apprehension in a first meeting like this, because sometimes actors don’t always meet or want to meet the person they’re playing.

It was inevitable that I was going to meet Jeff. I didn’t know I would get along with him as well as I would. The first meeting, we’d been in Boston very early on and it was me, John Pollono, David and Todd Lieberman and we set up this weekend of things we were going to do before meeting Jeff. We met at an Italian restaurant and I had felt fine until that moment where I was walking down the street, I got to the door and thought, “Oh, shit.” I thought I was a total fraud and that he was going to see right through me. That was how I was feeling. I walked through the door, shook Jeff’s hand and met his wife Erin. I spoke to him all night long about normal stuff. My best friends grew up on the Cape and it’s a big part of my heart and life and we had a lot to talk about. We immediately got along and then came the hard journey of meeting him and his family and getting to know them and all the medical staff, people who initially saved his life, people who helped him heal and people who continue to help him.

The recuperation and his determination is so heroic, but how physically challenging was it for you?

It starts off by knowing that no matter how hard I try to understand the physical challenges that I never truly will and that pushed me further to know more than I have ever pushed myself.

It starts off for me in a very analytical way. I researched a lot about the event itself, the effects it had on Jeff, the effects on the body, and the effects on amputees generally. I researched the PTSD and working at Costco. Everything that I could really find out about Jeff pre the event and then all the effects it had after the event. Then came the being there and using the same recording device that you have, sitting with him at dinner, with his family or just sitting with Erin and Jeff. I was asking questions, listening to inflections, observing his behavior.

There was also one of the days I saw him without his prosthetics. Jeff would show me how he would get around without his legs and I would watch him move around his home and get up on a chair with and without the legs. I’d watch him put his legs on and see how they’d function. I’d observe and try to move around without my legs and it ended up being hilarious.

He seems like his spirits are so high and that he has a good sense of humor.

Always. He has no judgment. I’ve never met a human being who is almost totally free of judgment. I’ve asked him that before and asked him what that was about? and he said, “It’s just the way my mother raised me.” I think his response to the event and the guys who did it is that he’s not really interested in them at all and that he has a lot to focus on.

I think he’s coming to terms now. He’s been fifteen months sober since the end of the movie. He’s changed a lot and is in therapy a lot. There’s something about Jeff that you’d see. He’s hilarious and makes you laugh all the time. If he were here right now and something happened, say there was a baby crying or they stubbed their toe, he’d be the first one to go over to them.

Wow. What a guy. That scene where Carlos and Jeff meet in the bar was so incredible and poignant and powerful.

I met the real Carlos. He’s a bit of a ghost in a way. He’s there and he’s present, but he’s been through so much in his life that he has this aura that if you’re ok, he’ll stay with you for a bit, but he has other work to do. That’s the feeling you have around him. I did meet the real Carlos and we had this weird party.

Everyone was at this party and he brought all the materials from that day to show me. That scene did happen. It was always hard for me to believe narratively that this did happen. How could this story intersect with this other story in this way? That scene was amazing and Carlos (Sanz) is great in that scene. All I had to do was listen. It’s a very hard scene for an actor to do. To walk in and be given three pages of explanation and to deliver it with such beautiful heart. David searched through hundreds of actors and Carlos Sanz brought his own story to it.

I remember that picture of Carlos at the scene was all over the  news.

That was so interesting. There’s all this pride, hope and there was criticism. People were accusing Carlos of taking advantage of the situation. All the complications and everyone’s opinions on a situation that was just about two human beings saving each other which when you research more and you know as much as we know, that’s what it was.

The film changes you a little bit as a human, but it does make you want to be a better person.

It’s well beyond a movie for me at this point and that’s why I had to pause before I walked into the restaurant that night. That change in all of us, we say we are open to it. Walking through that door it meant me facing my weaknesses and my judgment.

I’m still in it with him. We talk almost daily. I see what he does and what he’s doing with his life. Every day he inspires me. You know because you speak to a lot of actors, but I think it made me look at my job and the world in a totally different way. It forces honesty from me in every moment.

Jeff is in my mind saying, “Open your heart, be vulnerable and be who you are because that’s all that matters.”