Jake Gyllenhaal, the combination of playing a 911 call operator in “The Guilty” and filming it during a pandemic, where he had to FaceTime constantly with his director Antoine Fuqua, was a profound lesson on how important it is to listen.
While it’s “rule No. 1 of being an actor,” listening is “really much harder than I will admit,” Gyllenhaal says with a chuckle. “I had a lot of practice on this movie and I hope to do more of it in my performances. It will probably help them.”
In his tense new thriller (in theaters Sept. 24 and streaming on Netflix Oct. 1), which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, Gyllenhaal stars as LAPD detective Joe Baylor, demoted to 911 dispatch duty and facing a courtroom visit the next day where his career is on the line. A call comes in where the woman on the other end is in danger, and the rest of the night is a mother lode of emotional stress, as Joe desperately tries to get her and her children help while also facing his own sins.
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“A lot of actors will talk about how they took their role home with them,” Gyllenhaal says. “For me, the ability to express those feelings is a safe space. And then when I go home, sure, sometimes they linger. I’m not going to say I didn’t have a few glasses of wine at the end of every night. The best part of doing this job for as long as I’ve been able to it is that it has helped me through very hard times in my life.”
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Question: Joe Baylor is very much confined to his 911 work station as the night spirals out of his control. What’s it like to play someone in that intense a headspace?
Gyllenhaal: You’re working with other actors on the other end of the line, all of whom are pretty extraordinary. We assembled an unbelievable cast partially because everyone’s at home and they weren’t working at the time. So when a call came in, they sounded and felt real. The performances were true. All I really had to do was listen and open my heart up to the situation and try and move through it. I was constantly surprised and thrown, in the best way.
Q: What was the best part about your “Guilty” pandemic filmmaking experience?
Gyllenhaal: I love being on stage because I love when things happen. Other people may call them mistakes and I always call them inspiration, and so this movie was full of that. So many things happening technically that were an issue, and they were just continual inspiration. I just turned them on their head, where normally you might get frustrated, they became little presents.
Q: Did it feel like a stage production, since the movie is a virtual one-man show?
Gyllenhaal: I had just come off of doing a one-man show (“Sea Wall/A Life”) on Broadway for a year. So it felt weirdly natural to me to be sitting there alone performing, which is an odd thing to say. We’re all alone, all of us, for a good period of time or just with our family or children. I want to be around other people now (laughs). I’d like to act with other actors in person and I’d like to be around more people. I think I’ve exhausted the alone time as an actor.
Q: Having been back to work, are you a proponent of vaccine requirements on film sets, and maybe even for movie theaters, at least until we get this thing under control?
Gyllenhaal: Yes, I am. We are in a world community, whether we like it or not, and to do your part, I feel like getting the vaccine is that. Even if you don’t feel that way, children under 12 can’t be vaccinated and there are clearly serious effects from a virus on them now. I want to do everything I can, even if it’s not 100% effective, to protect those children in whatever way I can. My dad often talked about how when I was a kid, he would throw himself in front of a car for me. I feel that way about the children I love in my life.
Q: How glad were you to get out of the “Guilty” chair and immerse yourself in Bayhem for “Ambulance”?
Gyllenhaal: A lot of the movie I’m in an ambulance, so there’s not a lot of space (laughs). There are a lot of scenes where I’m just being thrown around an ambulance and I’ve got to say, that gave me even more respect for first responders because there are so many sharp edges in an ambulance nobody thinks about when it’s driving as fast it is.
I’d heard all these amazing stories about Michael Bay and what it’s like working with him. He’s wild, man, but I adore him. Driving around the streets of LA at like 100 mph, shooting guns at helicopters. There are many stories out of that movie that are really fun and crazy.
Q: Did you get to drive the ambulance or was that Yahya’s job?
Gyllenhaal: Well, I don’t want to give too much away but Yahya does most of the driving, I do most of the shooting. But I drove, too. And Yahya’s stunt double did a majority of the driving so I was happy about that (laughs). Let’s leave the acting to the actors and the driving to the drivers.
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