Share via Email Donnie got a bit excited whenever Mark Richardson batted Most American actors wait until they have become fully fledged Hollywood celebrities before they feel the need to prove themselves in a London theatre.
Britain had yet to see any of the six films he had shot during when he appeared in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth in the West End in spring this year. More surprisingly, the year-old actor had no professional stage experience at all. And yet he gave a performance of such subtlety and thoughtful complexity that his more experienced co-stars, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin, were outclassed. When Gyllenhaal and I first meet, in a chi-chi film studio in west London soon after his run in This Is Our Youth ends, he regards his stage debut philosophically.
With his soft grey eyes, enviable cheekbones and hair that tousles endearingly at the merest touch, he has all the makings of a teen idol. But he wants to be much more than a schoolgirl's poster boy. In fact, it is one of the oddest high-school films ever made. Gyllenhaal's Donnie is on first-name terms with a human-sized black rabbit, a terrifying harbinger of apocalypse that sends the troubled teenager on a wild rampage.
After reading a book about time travel by an ancient crone who lives on the edge of town, Donnie has even weirder visions, of shimmering spears pouring from people's chests. At school, meanwhile, he gets caught up in a battle between his sensitive English teacher Drew Barrymore and a sleazy self-help guru Patrick Swayze.
The film's convoluted plot, extreme characterisations and myriad quotes from other movies earned variable reviews from American critics, but that hasn't stopped it becoming a cult phenomenon, earning huge sums in rental and DVD sales. Ask Gyllenhaal what attracted him to the film and the answer is far from expected.
At the end of the film, you ask: Is this a dream that we're living now? Those questions are really interesting because the unconscious hasn't really been explored yet. People think there's not much more to discover, but there is - there's this fourth dimension, or whatever it is. It's something out of the director Richard Kelly's unconscious and even he has no explanation for it.
To me, the film is about that initial entry into what could be adulthood, when everything loses its context and all of a sudden nothing feels solid. The rabbit and the spears coming out of people's chests are almost literal manifestations of those questions everyone asks at a certain point: I was asking myself those questions when I was growing up.
His father, Stephen, is a film and TV director; his mother, Naomi Foner, is a scriptwriter who earned an Oscar nomination for the film Running on Empty. He spent his childhood hanging out with famous actors, whose influence was profound and sometimes pernicious. When he was 15, for instance, Paul Newman gave him his first driving lesson - by throwing him behind the wheel of a racing car.
Growing up in that environment, it was somewhat inevitable that he and his older sister Maggie would decide to become actors too. Jake took a couple of small roles in City Slickers and his father's film A Dangerous Woman in the early s, but he was 17 before his parents let him take on a lead role, as a boy who tries to build a rocket in October Sky. The attention Gyllenhaal attracted on the film's release in was enough to send him scuttling from LA to the anonymity of university. I don't want to be seen as an icon for college dropouts.
Since leaving Columbia, Gyllenhaal has had to do his growing up in public, and while he may be more accustomed to media attention, that doesn't make it more enjoyable. The second time Gyllenhaal and I speak, on Saturday evening, it is after several weeks of solid promotion in the US: It is ego-boosting and ego-destroying: Now it's not so bad because my sister is going through the same thing, and we have each other to joke around.
Everyone else is 21 years late. So far brother and sister have only appeared together in one film, as brother and sister in Donnie Darko. They had no problem portraying siblings who communicate through vicious sniping: If we did a movie now it would be completely different. More and more we're getting to be comrades. Maggie may be a nose ahead: Jake hasn't been quite so brave: But he has been a celluloid toyboy: Gyllenhaal is sensitive to any suggestion of typecasting.
The guy in The Good Girl has a dire need to be loved and is clearly disturbed. But it was the complicated relationships that I responded to. The way relationships are usually painted in films is bullshit. In my experience relationships are really complicated, especially when you're young: I haven't yet found a relationship in a movie that is true to that. It was because Hoffman told him that actors must learn their craft on stage that Gyllenhaal came to the West End.
And contemplating Hoffman's career gave Gyllenhaal a few guiding principles for his own. He told me in April: I feel like it's really important to do something new and be like these people I respect. The film is set in a world where global warming is causing mass destruction.
And global warming is a hugely important issue. Why is more money pushed on those big action films? I'm not interested in making people ignore things, and if those films are not the most lucrative financially, so be it. But he feels he has a bit more growing up to do first. He hopes he can "progress slowly into understanding things" before fame really strikes: Why are you talking to this person?
Donnie Darko is released on October