'The day I watched a murder victim die right in front of me'
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal tells Will Lawrence how preparing for his new cop movie, 'End Of Watch', was a terrifying experience that soon gave the heave-ho to his gung-ho approach
During his preparations for new cop drama End Of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal watched as a real-life murder victim died before his eyes. The 31-year-old Donnie Darko star was preparing for his latest film and was out on patrol with two officers from the Inglewood Police Department in Los Angeles when they were called to a shooting. It was his first day on the job.
"It was terrifying," says Gyllenhaal, scratching at a rather raggedy beard. "I had been with Inglewood PD since the late afternoon and was about eight hours in. They asked if I wanted to head off, but I decided to wait for a couple more hours. As soon as I said that we got a call."
Minutes later, Gyllenhaal's car was tearing up residential streets in Compton, South Central Los Angeles, at 80mph. "We were the second car at the scene, and as soon as we arrived I saw the guy. He had just been shot. The medics arrived but there was nothing they could do and he was gone, basically. I sat there and watched the whole thing."
Gyllenhaal had started work on the film feeling "a bit gung-ho". That all changed on the first night, and other traumatic events followed. "Once, outside a motorcycle club, a large man had been shot up," he recalls. "He had about 10 bullets in him, but was cognisant and talking.
"We saw a lot of stuff, a lot of violence, and without a doubt this has had more of an impact on me on than anything I have done before."
End Of Watch is a gritty and violent cop story that aims to bring authenticity to the genre as it explores the relationship between two officers, played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who are partners patrolling the streets.
"It's changed things for me in so many ways," the actor continues, "not least in how I regard the police. People talk about post-traumatic stress with soldiers coming back from war, but no one thinks about cops on patrol and what they deal with. I had no idea what these guys, or their spouses, go through."
Gyllenhaal was born in Los Angeles, the son of filmmakers Naomi Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal, and was raised with older sister Maggie (Secretary, The Dark Knight) mostly in the affluent suburb of Hancock Park.
"That area is nothing like the southeast side of the city, yet it is only a mile-and-a-half away," Gyllenhaal says.
"But making this film, I got to see a side that really isn't like anything else in LA – and not just because of the violence and gangsters and police. That's only five per cent. The other 95 per cent is made up of beautiful cultures."
His conduit into these "beautiful cultures" was End Of Watch writer-director David Ayer, a former LA gang member who went on to serve on submarines in the US Navy before launching his career in Hollywood with the scripts for U-571 and Training Day. Kicked out of home when still a kid, Ayer, though white, was raised in one of South Central's Hispanic communities.
"David is a man with a very intense childhood and upbringing," says Gyllenhaal of his director, "and he really introduced me to a world I didn't know at all. I only knew South Central from the movies, or from what I'd seen passing through on the way to my grandfather's house in Orange County."
Even though the entire film was to be shot in just 22 days, Ayer insisted that both Gyllenhaal and Peña undertake five months' intense preparation.
"We were working with live rounds," says Gyllenhaal, "and one time we went into a real fire with the Orange County Fire Department. It was crazy, but it meant that shooting the film was a lot easier than my preparation."
Gyllenhaal started acting before he hit his teens, playing Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers, and then stepped into a number of his father's movies, such as A Dangerous Woman and Homegrown. His break came with 2001's Donnie Darko, which launched him into Proof, Jarhead, Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain, that last one earning him an Oscar nomination.
Even his 2010 blockbuster Prince Of Persia, while panned by the critics, did decent business at the international box office.
"But having done End Of Watch I am interested in what real characters can bring me now, in terms of life experience," he says.
The entire film was shot for only $7 million, according to Gyllenhaal, who was also a part-time cameraman. "I liked getting the camera out," he says, "and I didn't have to film myself, which was great. It was like when we were kids – my dad was never in any of the pictures because he was always holding the camera."
His father has seen his son's latest movie and is full of praise. "Isn't it great?" says Stephen Gyllenhaal, whose latest directorial offering, Grassroots, opens in selected cinemas today.
Did he always know his son would become an actor, I wonder? "I had no idea," he says. "It all happened so fast. Jake had done City Slickers and a few small roles, but we had turned down a few leads.
"Then, in his senior year, he wanted to go to Columbia and we thought doing another movie might help him get in. He got the lead part."
The film was Donnie Darko. "And that was the end of it. One day he was in high school and the next he was a movie star."
His son's star status is vital to microbudget movies such as End Of Watch, while it is also enticing audiences to the Laura Pels Theatre in New York, where Gyllenhaal Jnr is making his American stage debut in the off-Broadway production of If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.
"I play an uncle who comes back after a year-and-a-half travelling the world and is a bit dirty, hence the beard," he says. "It's so exciting for me because it's a brilliant play by a brilliant playwright, Nick Payne, and directed by Michael Longhurst. These two are leading a new wave of British talent."
Gyllenhaal made his stage debut in the West End production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth in 2002, although he takes on a relatively minor role in his New York outing.
"I love it, though," he says. "I get to be close to family and it's only an hour-and-half long." He looks at his watch and smiles. "You could have watched the entire thing by now!"
End of Watch opens on November 23