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Jake Gyllenhaal Gives an Oscar-Worthy Performance in Southpaw

All muscle, tattoos and attitude, Jake Gyllenhaal is virtually unrecognizable in Southpaw. That’s the way he wanted it, because Gyllenhaal loves to disappear into a role. Oscar buzz already surrounds his knockout performance as Billy Hope, the undefeated lightweight boxing champion of the world, who faces hard times in the film. After the tragic death of his wife, the boxer battles to retain custody of his young daughter and gets one more shot at hanging on to his title in a comeback fight to the finish at Caesars Palace.

Boxing will always be a part of MY LIFE.

Have you always been a fight fan? I wasn’t really an avid fan until I began preparing for Southpaw. [Director] Antoine Fuqua and I talked early on—before the movie was even sure to get made—about what it would take to make a wholly original boxing film. Antoine described the journey and what would be needed in one word: “sacrifice.” That didn’t just mean training hard. It meant devoting ourselves to the film, like a boxer would to an upcoming fight; but it also meant getting to know and understand the fight game. We went to fight after fight and watched every piece of footage we could get our hands on. During that process, I fell in love with boxing.

Southpaw Movie Rachel McAdams Jake Gyllenhaal

Rachel McAdams ringside with Jake Gyllenhaal

Everyone was amazed by your physical transformation. But I found it fascinating that you said you also learned to think like a boxer and that this helped you as an actor. Could you expand on what it means to think like a boxer? Is fighting really like a chess game? The process of creating a character is an interesting one. Every actor has his or her own style and techniques. I personally like to make sure that I live and breathe in the world my character will exist in for months before even an inch of film is rolled. Explaining what thinking like a boxer would be like is presumptuous because I am not one. I would say that it really has to do with instinct. There cannot really be a whole lot of thinking. It’s about training the body, and the mind as well, to react. Making movement and reaction time an unconscious thing.

We can’t ignore the six-pack. How tough was the physical part? What was the biggest challenge? Did it take a lot out of you? Like I said before, sacrifice was the name of the game. I spent hundreds of hours just learning how to throw a jab, and thousands more just on footwork alone. Of course it took a lot out of me. But my job is a blessing. And everything it took out of me got put back into the film, which I am so proud of.

Southpaw Movie Jake Gyllenhaal Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

Tense moments with Jake Gyllenhaal and Curtis
“50 Cent” Jackson

Jake Gyllenhaal Filmography

Everest (2015) • Southpaw (2015) • Accidental Love (2015) • Nightcrawler (2014) • Enemy (2013) • Prisoners (2013) • End of Watch (2012) • Source Code (2011) • Love & Other Drugs (2010) • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) • Brothers (2009) • Rendition (2007) • Zodiac (2007) • Jarhead (2005) • Proof (2005) • Brokeback Mountain (2005) • The Day After Tomorrow (2005) • Moonlight Mile (2002) • Highway (2002) • The Good Girl (2002) • Lovely & Amazing (2001) • Bubble Boy (2001) • Donnie Darko (2001) • October Sky (1999) • Homegrown (1998) • Josh and S.A.M. (1994) • A Dangerous Woman (1993) • City Slickers (1991)

What about getting prepared to make the punches you were throwing look authentic—which they did. Did your sparring partners go easy on you? Were you actually hurt or at least knocked down? Did you ever feel like you could go a few rounds for real? Yes, I got knocked down. Though over the long term we did a lot of body sparring—so I got dropped with body shots that I would rather not remember. I got popped pretty hard while shooting. That’s where we really went all out.

You trained at Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Las Vegas. What kind of help did you get there? Any tips from the man himself? The man was not there when we were. But I’m about energy. I picked up a lot of good energy in that gym. And Mayweather taught me from afar. I’ve watched every one of his fights.

You were front and center at the “Fight of the Century?” Who were you rooting for? Did you look at the fight differently after having filmed Southpaw? I was rooting for Manny [Pacquiao]. Southpaw taught me so much about the fight game. I was watching the minutiae of the fight. Not the big punches that make the crowd roar. I was watching two fighters box and even though many people were disappointed, I think Manny boxed beautifully.

A Vegas fight seems like a performance as well as a contest. When you stepped into the ring for your scenes, did it feel like that? What is it that makes Vegas the fight capital of the world? Billy Hope is a quiet character. The only place Billy can be an animal is in the ring. And I suppose that’s a good analogy for how most people feel in Vegas. Their normal lives are quiet, but in Vegas they’re animals.

The relationship between Billy Hope and his daughter is really the heart of the story. What kind of relationship did you and Oona Laurence have during filming? I think Oona is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. She is young, but her timing, her instinct and her ability to improv are incredible. I think that all comes from the fact that she lives a normal life. I think her ability to trust wholly in a scene without judgment is what I admire about her as an actress.

Will you ever box again just for fun? I am still training. I will never stop. Boxing will always be a part of my life.

You seem to have gravitated toward playing characters that push you out of your comfort zone? Are you looking for that kind of challenge when you take on a new role? Always. What is life without risk? Luckily, my job gives me the opportunity to ask myself that question daily. I think we learn about ourselves when we’re pushed outside of our comfort zone. We not only become stronger, but wiser. That’s not to say that I’m all that wise, but I would like to get there someday.

WHAT IS LIFE WITHOUT RISK? I think we learn about ourselves when we’re pushed outside of our comfort zone.

Speaking of taking a step out of your comfort zone, there was the challenge of starring in Constellation on Broadway. Glad you took the leap? Was it any different than you expected? Strangely, I feel most comfortable onstage. More so than in front of the camera, ironically. It was a joy and honor to be on Broadway. Anything different than I expected? Well, in the end, the magic wears down and you are left to just do your work—show up every night and dig deep into the show at hand. I love that about the theater. But Broadway is something different. Every night is unexpected.

You’ve been working pretty much nonstop for quite a while. Aren’t you ready for a little rest and relaxation? Always up for some relaxation. But I got more rounds in me. I want to get back in there.

Southpaw Movie Jake Gyllenhaal

On the
set of Southpaw with (left to right) Mauro Fiore, Antoine
Fuqua, Kirk Gardner, Boxing Coordinator Terry Claybon,
Larry Nielson, Nick Mastandrea, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tony
Weeks

Behind the Lens

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) found quite the pupil in casting Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw. Leaning on his own experience, Fuqua, who has been boxing for more than 20 years, says it was Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the part that made the film so powerful. “He trained with me four to six months prior to shooting and did everything I asked him to do to prepare for this role,” he says. “Jake had to really box, and we worked with real boxers to spar with him to ensure it was as authentic as possible. He got punched in the face and ribs. I had to hold him back. Boxing truly is a sweet science, and it’s the small details that really matter.”

IN THEATERS: JULY 24, 2015
INTERVIEW BY SHEP MORGAN
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIGITTE LACOMBE
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SCOTT GARFIELD/©2014 THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

About The Author

Ryan Slattery grew up in Boston. It wasn’t until he moved to Las Vegas in 2003 that the city’s sports teams started winning championships—eight since he left. Now, he’s only allowed back to visit. Ryan is the managing editor of Vegas Player magazine and also writes about travel, entertainment and dining for a number of national publications.

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