Jake Gyllenhaal is used to exhaustion. During his research for the LAPD drama End of Watch, he spent five months patrolling the streets with real-life police officers until 7 a.m. It was good preparation for his new movie Nightcrawler, a blistering portrait of a morally corrupt crime-scene videographer who works the literal graveyard shift. Writer-director Dan Gilroy would start filming at dusk and wrapped after sunrise, a sight Gyllenhaal now knows well. The 33-year-old actor would nap for four hours and do it all again.
"There wasn't a lot of sleeping going on," Gyllenhaal says. "Surprisingly, I had a lot of energy. L.A. is vibrating at night in a way that you'd never really know. I was not looking forward for the sun to rise, which is a strange headspace to be in. The sun would rise, and I would get sad."
Insomnia fits him. His Nightcrawler character, Lou Bloom, looks he hasn't slept in years. He's up all night listening to police scanners and speeding to film car crashes, murders, and fires to sell to ruthless TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo). During the day he plots how to become the owner of the station. Gyllenhaal played him like a human coyote — lean, hungry, and watchful — and lost 30 pounds for the part, giving Lou dark hollows on his cheeks and under his cold, blue eyes. Some days Gyllenhaal would run the 15 miles to the set and put on his costume without taking a shower. Lou's hair is so greasy, who cares?
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Even the day of our interview, Gyllenhaal woke up in New York and landed in Los Angeles by lunch. Not that his weariness shows. He's so excited about Nightcrawler that he can't stop quoting the screenplay, backing up his take on the character with bursts of movie dialogue like an eager grad student.
"I memorized the entire movie like a play," Gyllenhaal says. "The script was extraordinary. I followed everything, to the punctuation, to a T." He especially prized the tiny speeches on success that his character picks up by scouring the Internet for business advice. Lou recites back with the fervor of a true believer, and he tries his best to be charming, but he gives people the creeps. It's not just his passion for his job, filming stories to be titled "Toddler stabbed" and "Nursing home nightmare." It's his numbness toward the victims, the way he sings, "Crash with injuries, good neighborhood!" as he cruises to a sellable disaster — and then, once there, shoves his camera into bloody faces. Chirps Lou, "I like to say that if you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life!"
"Every movie is political," says Gyllenhaal." Like Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, Nightcrawler attacks the local news for serving up a straight diet of fluff and fear. Making things worse, in the past decade, the Web has increasingly blurred the line between important and unimportant news. "Information is going to be filtered," says Gyllenhaal. "Even a cup to a string to another cup, you don't get a clear sound." The tragedy is that when real life is forever mediated, made into stories, then nothing truly matters — which is how Lou can film a dying man with no more emotional investment than watching a cat stuck in a tree. When his temper explodes, it's bad for everyone. During one take, Gyllenhaal shattered a mirror with a punch and was rushed to the hospital for stitches.
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Early rave reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival called Lou a sociopath. Gyllenhaal disagrees. "He's the animal of his time," he says. "He's purely the product of a generation where it's success at any cost." And for news stations like Nina's, it's ratings at any cost. Audiences want gore, and she wants to give audiences what they want. So merciless ghouls like Lou are our own fault. Insists Gyllenhaal, "If you call him a sociopath, it takes the onus off of us for creating him."
Still, Gyllenhaal admits that some of his scenes are "so fucked up!" Like the one where Lou drags Nina to dinner and delivers a speech that spins in circles from his career ambitions to sexual blackmail, leaving his boss dizzy. "Lou's having fun," he grins. "He preys on desperate human beings."
Does defending him mean Gyllenhaal is more forgiving of the paparazzi at TMZ who, like Lou, are just doing their jobs? Hell, no, he argues. "What Lou does is dealing with life and death, so I think it's in no way comparable." Besides, adds Gyllenhaal, "How many people in the world are doing things not for the money?"
Well, Gyllenhaal himself. After a flirtation with being a blockbuster heartthrob in Prince of Persia, he's dedicated himself to dark, smart, serious films with a monomania that Lou would appreciate. "There's a Lou in all of us," he laughs. "I don't know if that disturbs you!" Perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Adds Gyllenhaal, "I think no matter what avenue Lou took, he would be ruling the world."