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LONG READ: Jake Gyllenhaal gives us the scoop on his new space flick!

2017-03-07 06:01

Cape Town - When Jake Gyllenhaal picks up a screenplay he has his own litmus test that helps convince him of its merits. Quite simply, if he can’t stop turning the pages, he knows it’s a winner.

The script for the epic, terrifying thriller set in space, Life, was, he says with a smile, “beautifully paced and terrifying” and he read it through in one session that passed by in a flash.

“To me, sometimes the sign of a wonderful script is how quickly you read it or how much you are unaware of how much time passes.” he says. “With Life, it felt like I’d started it and the next minute I’d finished it – from the first terrifying sequence to the last.

“And none of those sequences felt like they repeated themselves, every one felt original and evolved into the ultimate one, which is a pretty incredible ending.”

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) from an original script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool), Gyllenhaal joined a stellar international cast to play astronaut Dr. David Jordan, one of a team whose mission is to examine an alien life form – a single cell organism – found on Mars and brought to the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting Earth, for research.


“I love where the movie ultimately goes and that’s really the reason why I think it’s a really fun idea – it’s something we think we all know and then it evolves into something we really don’t.
“To their excitement they discover this life form and it’s terrifying and unique and it’s something they never expected,” says Gyllenhaal.

“I think we have awe and reverence for the unknown and also it terrifies us and I think space is filled with all of those ideas. And really for me, this (movie) is a metaphor for all of that and how we approach the unknown; how we deal with it and interact with it and really, the truth is, making this movie and being in the midst of this process, was a whole lot of fun,” he laughs.

“It was wonderful, absurdist fun. So in that sense, I think the film is like a rollercoaster and I love rollercoasters and I hope the audience will feel the same way. I think audiences love to be scared and fascinated. I certainly do.”

On board the ISS, the six-man crew are trapped with the creature, which interacts with each of them in a different way, in a battle for survival. What starts out as an admirable quest for knowledge quickly becomes the fear of something unknown, and dangerous, that has been unleashed amongst them.

“It’s a terrifying situation where up on the International Space Station it becomes a zero gravity nightmare,” he says. “They have found a rare cellular being on Mars and they have brought it to the ISS to observe it and do tests on it and one thing leads to another and it’s actually a creature that is truly alive in more ways than one and responds to the people around it individually – specifically to the person.

“And so it becomes a terrifying journey into the unknown and also each one of these people represents different sections of the world – because the ISS is a microcosm of the world, in a way, and it’s about how they deal with the creature and how the creature deals with them.

“It’s a very interesting, simple journey that is terrifying and also there are some very interesting psychological aspects underpinning the story. It’s a wonderful screenplay and truly a wonderful director, Daniel Espinosa, who can do both the simple and the complex.”

Gyllenhaal’s character in Life is a world-weary doctor who, at first, is intrigued by the discovery – the first proof of extra-terrestrial life - and what it might represent.

“You know the thing about Dr. David Jordan, the character I play, is that he’s sort of watching. He’s active, yes, but he’s also a real observer of human behaviour. He has seen and experienced so many tragic things in the world he has a tendency to sit back and observe,” he explains.

“I play a character that doesn’t find it as scary as other people. I think my character is a little bit more curious in terms of what this thing is – he’s curious about how to communicate with it and he’s fascinated with its darkness and its intention.

“So for me, speaking from how I approach the material, it was terrifying but there was something really interesting about how terrifying it was. And I think a lot of the audience will watch the movie and be fascinated even if they are terrified – just like my character is.

“In our story, I think we have good intentions – I like to believe that almost everybody does – but some people push too far and in this case that’s what happens.”


Gyllenhaal is joined by Ryan Reynolds as mechanic Rory Adams and Rebecca Ferguson is British scientist Dr. Miranda North, a specialist in controlled diseases. Ariyon Bakare is Hugh Derry, a British microbiologist who is the first to examine the ‘specimen.’ Hiroyuki Sanada is Japanese flight engineer Sho Murakami and the team is led by the Russian Commander, Ekaterina Golovkina, played by Olga Dihovichnaya.

“We are living in an international world and our relationships with each other are more important than ever and I would say that making movies with an international cast where we hear and experience different languages, different cultures, different rituals, different perspectives, does nothing but enrich our lives.

“I love that about this movie – it’s a microcosm of all of that. It’s a good thing. And you know, seeing a woman in charge on the ISS that was a good thing, too.”

Working with the entire cast was clearly a delight and he has become close friends with Ryan Reynolds. “You know I just have a profound respect for him and everything that he has done in his life and in his career.

“I think he is a true artist and an unconventional one. He’s on a stage that’s very big, a lot of people play on it in a very conventional way, and he has defied convention and I respect him as an artist but also as a human being.

“He has one of the best hearts of anyone I have ever met and we had a wonderful time. He’s hilarious, so sharp and so funny. People talk about their love for making movies with certain people and who they want to make movies with and I really hope that this is just one of many more that we will be able to make together because I love working with him.”

Life was filmed at Shepperton Studios on the outskirts of London where production designer Nigel Phelps and his team created detailed replicas of the interiors of the real ISS.

“The design of the ISS was extraordinary. There were moments when we would have a black tarp outside the windows and I would look out through one of the windows and I would sometimes feel as if I were actually in space.

“There would just be this vast void of nothingness, of blackness, that I have heard so many astronauts speak about. And I loved the details on the set; the minutia of thousands of switches that were all real and actually had a purpose on this fictional ship that we created.

“It was beautifully designed. I’d walk on set in the morning and be constantly impressed, even after a long period of time.”

As much of the action is set on the ISS, the actors had to mimic the zero gravity that the astronauts who work there experience. “I think it will be a pretty incredible experience for the audience as well,” he says of the zero gravity. “To realise that there is no up, there’s no down, there’s no right or left – everything is constantly changing and turning and I think that idea is really a metaphor for the whole movie.

“The unknown is in every corner and every shadow in this film – and this film is filled with shadows. And some of the characters are scared of the shadows and some of them embrace them and each has different fates as a result.

“Just as I did when I finished the screenplay, I think the audience will walk out and they will be a little more hesitant turning that corner. Because these things are real, these things may happen in the future and I think that’s a scary and exciting proposition.”


Working with Espinosa was hugely rewarding, he says, and the director insisted on rooting the story in reality wherever possible. “I really include Daniel in what I said about working with a group of lovely people.

“It’s his overall vision and his sensitivity and vision for the film, that was the reason why I wanted to be a part of it. He’s always pushing the reality of the story and that was important. In the science fiction genre you often see movies that are terrifying or movies that are set in space where you don’t really believe the reality of the situation.

“And Daniel created an environment where everything was truly alive. And I’m not just referring to the creature itself, but also truly alive emotionally. I can’t say enough wonderful things about Daniel. He’s one of the most patient and loving directors I’ve ever worked with.”

Life is an epic, terrifying thriller set in space that, at its heart, is about mankind’s desire to confront the unknown. “It’s that question ‘how are we here?’ You look outside of yourself and you see the vastness of the universe,” says Gyllenhaal.

“And we have mapped many things, we have mapped the topography of our world and, as far as we can, the oceans. We have mapped other things but I don’t think we have mapped the unconscious and I don’t think we have mapped the universe.

“And in a way they are one and the same. The unconscious, our dream world, and also space has a similarity and I think that’s what this movie does so well, bring those two things together.”

Gyllenhaal was born in Los Angeles into a family steeped in filmmaking. His father is director Stephen Gyllenhaal and his mother is screenwriter and producer Naomi Foner. His older sister, Maggie, is also an acclaimed actress.

Gyllenhaal was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and won a BAFTA for his role in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. His other credits include Moonlight Mile, The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead, Proof, October Sky, Zodiac, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler, Southpaw, Everest, Demolition and Nocturnal Animals. His upcoming films include Stronger, which Gyllenhaal also produced, and Okja. This spring, Gyllenhaal will star on Broadway with an exclusive 10 weeks only run of Steven Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George opposite Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford.

Life opens in SA cinemas on Friday, 24 March.

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