My 20 Minutes with The Prince of Persia (American Way)

So I get an email from my editor asking if I’d like to write a feature story about Jake Gyllenhaal. “Has to be done fast,” he wrote, “but I think you’re the one who can do it.”  I appreciated his confidence and contacted the actor’s publicist in New York to see about scheduling a time. I got back an email saying how about Friday, two days away, from 9:40 to 10 a.m. at the Disney Studios?

I emailed back, how about Friday, from 9:40 to noon, and then maybe we could break for lunch together, and continue for a few more hours in the afternoon or evening?  Apparently she didn’t think much of my suggestion and got in touch with my editor saying I was causing trouble.

“Take the 20 minutes,” my editor said. “You’ll figure out a way to extend it.”

Normally I would agree, just based on experience. But the start time they gave me–9:40–indicated that they were being very precise, and that Gyllenhaal must be on a press junket type schedule, talking to a new reporter every 20 minutes.

There was also an upfront “rule” involved:  personal questions were verboten.  As Gyllenhaal had recently split with Reese Witherspoon, that was personal; as was the constant questioning of his sexuality ever since the characters he and Heath Ledger played were romantically involved in Brokeback Mountain. Jake’s a bit sensitive about such inquiries, and I don’t blame him. The guy’s 30 years old, and though he got nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback, that stigma of having kissed a guy (still, it was Heath Ledger) is going to inevitably lead to rumors, even after he’s shown the public that he likes women (Kirsten Dunst, then Reese).

That evening I happened to catch Jake’s older sister, Maggie, on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. She had been nominated for an Oscar for her role opposite Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and she was saying that she had been staying with her brother when the phone started ringing at 5 a.m.  Her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard, continued to sleep, but Jake woke up and brother and sister had a nice shared moment together. Then Jake made her some pancakes and Maggie kept talking about what a great cook Jake was and Kimmel asked about that and she raved about Jake being really a gourmet cook (he’s appeared on The Food Network’s Molto Mario), only when the pancakes were made, they didn’t taste so good.  I’m watching this and thinking, here’s Maggie Gyllenhaal having her moment on national TV and she’s talking about her younger brother Jake. Should I ask him about her? Or about his cooking skills? Or why his pancakes fell flat after his sister heard she was nominated for an Oscar?  Was there sibling rivalry there? Some unconscious jealousy?  Was this a path I could explore in my 20 minutes?

And if I went there, wouldn’t it be logical to expand that line of questioning and ask Jake about his parents?  His father, Stephen, is a film director whose credits include Losing Isaiah and Paris Trout, along with numerous television shows, including a dozen episodes of Numb3rs. His mother, Naomi Foner, is a screenwriter who wrote the engaging film Running on Empty, as well as Losing Isaiah, A Dangerous Woman, and Bee Season. .  Surely asking about the dynamics of a show business family would be interesting.

But after 30 years of marriage, his parents recently divorced, and Maggie said she laughed and cried when she saw the comedy It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin because it reminded her of what she and her brother are dealing with.  That’s certainly an avenue worth exploring….but as this is such a current event what realistic chance would there be that the reluctant and reticent Jake Gyllenhaal, who insists that no questions of a personal nature be asked of him, would open up and let tears fall discussing the breakup of his mother and father?  In a four hour interview, it would happen. In 20 minutes, as Pacino would say in Donnie Brasco, fugheddaboutit!

I do have to ask him about his new movie, that’s the reason we’re even getting these 20 precious minutes. Disney has a movie to promote, Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time. And Jake is their star. He plays a street-bum-turned-warrior embarking on a fantasy adventure with Gemma Arterton’s princess. It’s directed by Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who brought us the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and I’m sure the hope here is for a bevy of sequels.

I arrived at the Disney building ten minutes early and Jake came ten minutes late. For the 20 minutes I waited, I dealt with two different publicists. The first one came in, Anne, and said that someone would probably be sitting in with us, and I said no, that won’t work. I was blunt. She was a bit taken aback. Then another came, Chrissy, and I said the same thing. She started to tell me that there were things that were not to be brought up and I said I knew and that I wouldn’t bring them up unless there was a publicist in the room with us, in which case I would bring them up. This caused a bit of panic in her eyes just as Jake appeared with his handler (I’m not sure if she was his personal publicist or his manager or maybe his aunt, but she certainly was there to protect him), a blonde woman who accompanied us into the room. I asked Jake, before we sat down, if he lived in the same canyon where I lived (I heard he did, but have never seen him) and he answered yes.

That innocent query set off a chain reaction of questions I hadn’t expected to ask. “I live next door to…,” Jake said, naming a certain famous artist, whose name I will refrain from mentioning out of respect for both Jake’s and the artist’s privacy. That triggered talk about that artist and about Andy Warhol, and Henry Fonda, and though I was enjoying the conversation, I knew my plans to ask a set number of questions (32 to be exact) had already gone to hell. I glanced down at my prepared questions and mentally kiss off a bunch of them. Gone were the questions about how people like to wear Frank-the-Bunny costumes from Donnie Darko; about his working with Tobey McGuire in Brothers; about what one great moment in any sport he would like to fantasize achieving; about whether he was teaming up with Jim Carrey to do the musical Damn Yankees; about whether he ever used cooking to impress a date; about whether he might consider getting back with Kirsten Dunst, who had called him the love of her life; about his charity work for New Eyes for the Needy and his helping plant trees in Mozambique. Gone, all gone.  We only had another ten minutes and there were some things I had to talk to him about. Jake had never talked about his feelings for Heath Ledger since Ledger’s death. I wasn’t sure if I’d get anything out of him, but I had to ask.

“A year ago Entertainment Weekly spoke to a lot of people for a piece about Heath Ledger. The screenwriter, producer, and cinematographer of Brokeback Mountain all talked. You were conspicuously absent. Are you uncomfortable remembering him in public?”

“Yes…. Brokeback was painful. But also fulfilling. Anytime you go into pain I don’t think you necessarily want to go back. But the results of it and what we did to make that movie responded to in such a huge way, it was worth it. Walking through any kind of pain is usually worth it. All those other people—as close as we all became making that movie—it didn’t extend much farther than that, so that experience of work could be easily talked about for publications. What Heath and I shared publicly, the experience we had, we did so much press and publicity for, it was already shared. What we shared as friends, though I respect the interest that so many people have in the mourning and grieving process and how it feels to other people, I feel like…and I don’t mean this in an unkind way…but I don’t think it’s anybody’s business but his and mine. So in that sense, if I was really to respect him…and also the way he felt about his life and his private life and what he cared about, because he was a deeply caring and loving human being, with all the other things that came with it too, every time anybody asks me any question about him, it would be like he was sitting next to me and I know he would roll his eyes, because that’s the way he was. It’s between us.”

All right!  If we didn’t talk about anything else, I knew I had something that no one else ever got from him. And I was confident that what Jake had just said was as far and as deep and as sincere as he could go with this. You can feel the anguish in his words.

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