Jake Gyllenhaal on how the Tension in 'The Guilty' Helped Him Discover the 'Truth'

CUL PS Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal attends the red carpet of the movie "The Lost Daughter" during the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 3, 2021, in Venice. Daniele Venturelli/Getty

"I was just moved by the idea that someone could not be redeemed on Earth, but that they could be redeemed spiritually by discovering the truth."

Making The Guilty (In theaters on September 24 and Netflix on October 1) during a global pandemic was nearly an impossible feat for Jake Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua. Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, a disgraced police officer forced to work 911 dispatch who receives a call from a kidnapped woman while on duty. "I was determined to make this movie, Antoine was determined to make the movie and there were many times where it looked like we wouldn't be able to." With Fuqua forced to direct the film from a truck off set because of a COVID-19 exposure and filming set to last only 11 days, the production was filled with roadblocks. "We devised this crazy plan of putting him in a van that was hardwired to the set." But despite the limitations, Gyllenhaal says that "there was nobody else to direct this movie." And the end result is a film about a broken man who, through a series of unexpected and tense events, finds who he is at his core. "I was just moved by the idea that someone could not be redeemed on Earth, but that they could be redeemed spiritually by discovering the truth."

What first struck you about this project?

Instinctually I think it was the deep complexity in such a profoundly simple context. We've been inundated by movies that show us everything and explain, or try to explain, many things. The best ones, to me, are the ones that make an obvious statement. The tension of the frame is used in many different ways. The way in which the story of The Guilty is told felt new because it requires deep imagination. So there was that. And I was just moved by the original film [Denmark's The Guilty, released in 2018], very moved by the idea of redemption, and the fact that the truth will set you free. There's so much fear of that idea, which is such a strange thing because no matter how much pain it may cause, it is always relieving. And even in the case of different parts of this story, I was just moved by the idea that someone could not be redeemed on Earth, but that they could be redeemed spiritually by discovering the truth. I just was so moved by it, and I just loved the tension. I also just loved the idea of shooting it in a very short period of time. Movies and television shows and most entertainment takes so much time to shoot, so the idea of feverishly shooting it the way you watch it was challenging myself in different ways.

Jake Gyllenhaal on 'The Guilty'
THE GUILTY: JAKE GYLLENHAAL as JOE BAYLER. CR: GLEN WILSON/NETFLIX © 2021. GLEN WILSON/GLEN WILSON/NETFLIX © 2021

How do you tap into those intense emotions needed for a film like this?

There are two parts to that. One is, in a way, this space that I consider to be sacred, which is in front of a camera or on a stage is a space where you're allowed to communicate your truth. I think in front of a camera, it's an allowance to take all those feelings that I have in other contexts in my life and put them into someplace safe. That's what I love about acting. And so because of that, it feels therapeutic. We shot the movie in 11 days and in five sections. We separated it into 20-page sections and would shoot 20 pages a day. We'd shoot three simultaneous cameras, and I would shoot the 20-page section in one take. We would have the actors on a Zoom call, I wouldn't see them. They would be cued from different places in the world. We were at the height of the pandemic and every day was threatening lockdown. Very early on our director was around someone who—on the Friday before we started shooting on Monday—was around someone who tested positive for COVID, so he had to go into quarantine. We devised this crazy plan of putting him in a van that was hardwired to the set we were on. Antoine directed the entire movie a block away on a street in Los Angeles, from a van with monitors and three walkies FaceTiming me in between takes. Every day was this constant pressure of are we going to shut down? Is someone going to test positive? Is the city gonna lockdown? So it was using all that tension because there was already so much tension, and I had a space I could express it.

With Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard, how was this all-star cast compiled?

Many of them are friends I've worked with, Antoine making phone calls, some of my family [laughs]. Like I called Paul. We've worked together a number of times and love each other, and he made it work. He was flying from Los Angeles to Australia, he's always working, but he did his scene from a hotel room while in quarantine. And then Ethan's so lovely, taking time out of his day, it was just really kind. And Riley [Keough], who is absolutely incredible. We assembled a group of people where we didn't have to deal with, frankly speaking, anyone's agent. My brother-in-law [Peter Sarsgaard], at a certain point, was having this very intense scene and my nieces are in the other room. My sister was like, "We're gonna go for a walk." [laughs] It was really special. It felt like the way you should make movies. It was a lot of favors, frankly.

Jake Gyllenhaal on 'The Guilty'
THE GUILTY: BEHIND THE SCENES with ANTOINE FUQUA (DIRECTOR). CR: GLEN WILSON/NETFLIX © 2021. GLEN WILSON/GLEN WILSON/NETFLIX © 2021

This is your second film with Antoine Fuqua. What is about working with him that you enjoy so much?

Yeah, we made Southpaw. We went through a lot on that movie, and gave a lot to that movie, and have been searching for things to do together for years. I sent [The Guilty] to him and within a day he said he would do it, which was a great surprise to me. It was wonderful. I mean, we never saw each other in person. We only saw each other in person the day before he had to go into quarantine. But he has so much faith and trust in me, it's so empowering as an actor. There's nobody else to direct this movie.

The film also feels like the perfect COVID production, because it's all about you and the connections you're making on this emergency call. How did the pandemic impact production?

Number one, I would say everyone was so grateful to be working. I think that added to a different spirit. I was determined to make this movie, Antoine was determined to make the movie and there were many times where it looked like we wouldn't be able to. It was also one of the first productions to come back. It was the first time where I really didn't see anyone's face I was working with. I was the only person outside the extras that were in the scenes and I remember the first time I did it, it was this gamble. It definitely added to the storytelling.

You've played a cop, a 911 dispatcher, and next year you're in Michael Bay's Ambulance. Are you trying to portray every first responder?

I don't play a first responder in Ambulance, but I'm around a lot of first responders, and I don't want to give anything away. I'm in awe of the people who do that job. And obviously, acting is a lot of wish fulfillment, believing that you can be something that you really truly can't. And yet emotionally wanting to see the world in that way. Through research, I've learned so much, and it's changed my life. When you're in those spaces with people who are doing those jobs, real jobs, those are the moments that changed my life. I think I'm in awe of them and I think that's why I want to play them.

A lot of people are surprised to learn that not only do you love musical theater, but you can sing.

First of all, this is the only question I've been interested in [laughs]. We had plans to be doing [Sunday in the Park with George] in London before the pandemic. We are figuring out ways to do it and are not giving up on Sunday in the Park with George. It's too much of a special show and experience. But we live in a world where people are only fleetingly interested in other people for the amount of time that they can like, swipe right, so it wasn't surprising people didn't know I could sing. I like knowing that people don't know that. It's a wonderful surprise. I have been singing since I was a little kid. I think there was a period of time in my life where people knew I could sing and they said to me, you've had great success in movies, you don't need to do that. I finally hit a point in my life where I went, it's what I love more than anything. Musical theater is what I love. So I just started following it. I also feel like sometimes you're in a scene and you're just saying words and you wish you could sing it. Because there's like one more level to the expression that you can't really do without music.