I knew that Jake named his production company after a J.D. Salinger book (Nine Stories) and with Salinger’s death in the news recently, I asked him when he first read Catcher in the Rye?
“When I was 13,” he said. “My sister gave it to me. I subsequently became Salinger obsessed. I had never been engaged in reading before. It was primarily the style and the pace of it, and the simplicity of his writing. I know many of his characters are very tragic, but there’s always that sense of redemption and hope. Of his Nine Stories, my favorite is ‘Teddy.’ It’s an amazing story. Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of my favorite movies. There are themes running through both. Children are very often asked to do more than they should be asked to do at a very young age.
“Let’s talk about that, only with your own family,” I said. “Your parents are creative people; there must have been a lot of emotion and passion growing up.”
“I saw a lot of conflicts, definitely. I witnessed that. Conflict, competition, people pushing each other—it’s all healthy. Jealousy is healthy; envy is dangerous. My sister and I, strangely and beautifully, have worked really, really hard at getting rid of whatever the junk is.”
“Was it always a given, that you would enter into the film business, or did you think about other outlets?”
“In high school I watched my sister on stage in South Pacific and knew I wanted to do that. It looked like so much fun. Whether it was the attention or the love of performance, they’re intertwined. But there are still times to this day where I feel like there are other things in my heart that I’d like to do.”
“My heart has told me to go and take care of other people more so than always focusing on movies. I’d like to direct movies. I don’t want to be presumptuous at my age, but I feel I’m getting enough information that as I get older and get enough confidence that I can not only be a part of storytelling but that I can be a story teller. My mother and father said to me that movies changed their lives. My mother would reference Jules and Jim, my father would reference La Strada. Such moves changed their lives forever and they knew what they wanted to do with their lives. They wanted to make movies. And that’s what we all love: the story.
“Your sister had a good story to tell about your making her lousy pancakes on the morning she heard she was nominated for an Oscar for Crazy Heart.”
“You heard that!” Jake exclaimed with the first big laugh of the morning. “They were the worst f’ing pancakes I ever made. It was weird. They were staying at my house and the phone rang at 5 a.m. There are two things it can be at that time: an emergency or, if you’re in the movie business, you get nominated for some kind of award. I, of course, thought it was an emergency and totally got freaked out. Then I heard my sister rustling around in her room and I thought, Oh God, she’s getting the phone call; oh no, what’s happening? I was trying to check my phone but I have really bad eyesight, so I can’t see well. She comes out of her room and I hear her gasp, and since I’m Jewish I thought, ‘Oh God, something really bad has happened.’ I came out to the hallway and asked her what was going on. She said, ‘I was nominated!’ And we ran to each other and hugged each other.
“Speaking of being Jewish, did you really have your Bar Mitzvah at a homeless shelter?”
Again Gyllenhaal laughed. “I was not officially Bar Mitzvahed. My father grew up Christian, my mother, from Brooklyn, is Jewish. The decision was when I became 13 they wanted me to become a man by bringing all my friends and doing something good for someone else. So that was my Bar Mitzvah.”
With his publicists entering the room for the third time, I knew my sands of time were up, so I threw in the obligatory question about Prince of Persia.
“Are you going to go the Nic Cage/Robert Downey Jr/Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp route, into higher profile, bigger budgeted action/adventure films now?”
“There’s always calculation in all the things I do,” he answered, “but mostly the intention comes from my instinct. When I read it, something about this character felt like something I could evolve into and I loved because he was funny, he had wry moments. There are so many movies that are so serious. The bigger something gets the more fun and funnier it should be. And with this movie we set up the potential for something more or bigger. That can also lead to more exploration.”
“Can you compare it to other action films: Indiana Jones? The Mummy? Star Wars?”
“It’s a mix of a lot of those. Even when we were designing my costume, it was this strange mix of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The movie is very much in the realm of those Indy flicks. Also, I watched Errol Flynn’s 1938 Robin Hood over and over again when I was making this movie. He was my age when he made that. The seriousness which he took the absurdities and the humor he had is what I would compare it to, even more than the films with all the new stuff that technology brings.”
“I’m just about out of here Jake,” I said. “Just wanted to ask you about what your Zodiac co-star Robert Downey Jr. meant when he called you “a badass: wet, dark and wild.” I don’t know what wet means, but dark and wild? How dark does it get for you? How wild?”
“Robert is a great seer, he sees things that I can’t necessarily see about myself, and I don’t think I should probably. I think what he meant by dark, at least what he and I share, is that I’m not afraid of the darkness. I’m not afraid of the wildness of things. I do fear them, but I feel I have the bravery to go into them.”
“Spoken like a true Jedi warrior.”
“Well, that’s the quote! And wet means definitely slippery. And also, if I think about the way Robert speaks—because sometimes I have to translate him, as we all do—but I get him inherently. Whenever we come together, we recognize the awe and massiveness of this ocean of stuff we all live in, when he says wet it means I’m in the water, which I’m down with.”
I still wasn’t sure what all that ocean stuff meant, but I had already gone over my allotted 20 minutes and there were other people in the room.
“So Jake,” I said as I stood, “if you were in my position and had to write a 2000 word profile based on a 20 minute conversation in a sterile corporate room, how would you approach it?”
“I would accept the situation for what it was, and then I would hope that the opportunity—if I was interested in the person I was talking to—would come again in a more natural environment. I learned accepting what you have is what you have.”
“I’ve always had a problem with that,” I said.
“Of course,” Jake laughed, “all you get is 20 minutes!”
I took out my camera and said, “Let’s take a picture together.”
“No pictures,” his blonde wrangler said authoritatively. I handed her my camera anyway and said, “Why are you speaking for him?” Then looked at Jake and asked, “Jake, do you mind?”
“I don’t mind,” he said.
“Oh boy, you’re trouble,” the blonde said.
“I may be trouble,” I said, “but it’s nothing the prince of Persia can’t handle.”