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Why Jake Gyllenhaal channeled a coyote for his role as a crime journalist in 'Nightcrawler'

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The actor talks about why he's happier playing dark characters, why he loves "playing live" onstage, and how the coyote became his "Nightcrawler" character's spirit animal.

"If it bleeds, it leads!" is the battle cry of local TV news — the more graphic the video, the greater its supposed news value.

In “Nightcrawler,” which opens Friday, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a driven man with a shady past who wanders into the high-stakes world of freelance L.A. crime journalism. 

Gyllenhaal, 33, is in the midst of a mid-career acting renaissance, with acclaimed roles in “Prisoners,” “Enemy” and “End of Watch.” In “Nightcrawler,” he is also credited as a producer. (The film is screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s feature directorial debut).

He underwent a physical transformation, losing 30 pounds to embody his police-scanner-obsessed character. He also suffered an injured had after accidentally breaking a mirror while shooting a scene (the scene remains in the film and actually signals a thematic turning point in his character).

Gyllenhaal joined The Frame to talk about why he's happier playing dark characters, why he loves "playing live" on stage, and how the coyote became his "Nightcrawler" character's spirit animal. 

Interview Highlights: 

On why he's been taking on more producer responsibilities:

I really get off on knowing the technicalities of a production, and I think having enough experience at this point as an actor, it's nice to know [if] we're only going to have 30 minutes at this location, and we might lose it. And we actually might have lost it the night before, but just make the call [on how to proceed]: Do you mind taking a picture with [an onlooker]? Whatever it is in order to maintain some semblance of a real movie.

On how his role as a producer informs his acting:

I memorized this movie like a play. So I knew that if we lost a location — and it happened two or three times on this movie — we would lose the location, and Dan [Gilroy] would come to me and say, "OK, we have to shoot scene 93 instead of scene 23. Are you ready with that soliloquy?" I'd say, "Yeah, I'm down, let's do it." 

On whether it was his intention to choose darker, dramatic roles:

It was somewhat conscious, due to a feeling of being uncomfortable where I was in a period of time in my life and knowing that there had to be some sort of changes. They were happening, but they had to be brought into reality. That sort of led me into material that I thought, you know, I want something to challenge me. I have talked about "End of Watch" a number of times already, but when I did that film, it marked the beginning of a preparation that I had never really done or given to a performance before.

What I realized is how much I love — more than giving the performance or even the movie coming out — the preparation. It is my alone time, it is my isolated time, and even though I'm a performer and I do love being in front of people and on a stage, I started to realize actually how I really like spending time in my own mind. 

On why he lost weight to become Lou Bloom in "Nightcrawler":

I think what's fun for an audience, and what's fun for an actor, is transformations of any kind, but it has to be internal. When I did "Nightcrawler," I knew that in order to spark the internal transition inside me to kind of fit into Lou's skin, it had to be a physical transformation also. I saw him in my mind, and I just didn't believe him as somebody who is going to look 100 percent healthy, and I just didn't believe it. So I have to morph myself into that. 

On training to be a boxer in Antoine Fuqua's upcoming film, "Southpaw":

With "Southpaw," it was six months of preparation. It was six months of going to fights with Antoine every weekend. Then there was training, and Antoine was involved in the physical training with me. Three months up to the film, I trained twice a day. And what happens is that you're in training camp, you know? It really wasn't about anything besides getting into the mental state of a boxer. And there's, again, another type of isolation there. I was separate from my life in a way, a little bit from my family, and I was training twice a day with my trainer. They became my family. And the fight was the first day of shooting. Purposefully, Antoine put the fights for the first two and a half weeks of the movie, because he trained me for a fight. The movie began shooting after those fights, but it was all planned out to really live like a boxer.

On what animal he channeled for his "Nightcrawler" character:

Dan [Gilroy] and I talked a lot about the topography of L.A. When he started talking about Los Angeles as this metropolis where, if you're looking at it from space at night, there are these definitive edges. And outside of the metropolis it's just desert, just blackness. At night these animals come down into the city and scavenge. And the coyote, because I grew up in Los Angeles and had so many interactions with coyotes growing up — weird, sort of random moments where they pounce past you and stare at you like they weren't afraid to rip your throat out. Because of that I immediately had this instinctual thought that Lou was a coyote. And Dan completely agreed. There were references throughout the script [to] coyotes. ... The transformation came from there: How do we make [the character] look like a coyote? 

On finding out who he is as an actor:

When you're auditioning, people are telling you what you might be right for. That continued to happen, but then at a certain point, ... there's this strange objectivity that you have to have, which can be a little bit destructive, because you have to do some introspective searching to say what is really you. It's funny — people have said to me, "Oh, you’re playing darker characters." But the irony of that is I’ve never really been so happy, because I feel like, weirdly, the darkness is illuminating. I’ve searched for these weird parts in my characters, and it's made me so much happier as a human being. 

On wanting to do more live theater:

Being onstage has been my favorite thing since I was a little boy. When I'm onstage, it's my favorite place to be. I just sort of lost touch with it. ... I made a promise to myself a few years ago that I would do a theater production for every three films. I've been lucky enough to do that. That is an equation that I will hopefully live by.

When I did "Prisoners," I had come off of doing "Enemy" with Denis Villeneuve, and went right on to the stage in New York and did a show, and I had four days between the end of the show until the beginning of "Prisoners." And in that transition I was trying things out for the characters of Loki in "Prisoners" onstage. It was so empowering. Musicians have an opportunity to record an album, and then they play live. And I think it's the same thing with actors — you make a movie, which is an album, and then hopefully you get to play live. 

On playing the character of Lou Bloom as a sympathetic antihero:

It was a mantra. [Director Dan Gilroy] was vigilant about always saying, "This is a success story. ... We have to root for this guy." I think he wrote the script in a way to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, but I also think he wrote it because he has a great love of classic films and rooting for the hero. ... It was very important for both of us that the audience leave this movie feeling a bit complicit in creating a character like Lou. And I think if you apply the term of sociopath to him, it separates you from the situation, and that was Dan's brilliance.

Dan was always saying we need to see ourselves in this guy. I loved that idea. At the same time, he had written dialogue that was a difficult navigation for me. But what I realized, really simply, was everything Lou says, I completely agree with — me, Jake, as a person. The things he does I don't always agree with, and that was the discrepancy, that was the line we walked. If you could fully believe you were making a company that was going to be successful, there were things you would have to do to make sure that happens. You read stories of successful entrepreneurs all the time. I read the Steve Jobs book. If you believe in something, you have to do it.

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