Stories about Jake Gyllenhaal tend to highlight the moment he decided to boldly walk away from would-be Hollywood tentpoles like Prince of Persia and The Day After Tomorrow to, you know, be an artist. Truth is, the guy’s been making interesting choices from the jump: Donnie Darko, The Good Girl, Brokeback Mountain—three genres, three killer performances. Gyllenhaal, 36, can be goofy—on talk shows, but in conversation, he’s deliberate and serious. Gyllenhaal is at his stirring, emotional best this fall in Stronger, based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, a hero of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing who just wanted to watch his girlfriend cross the finish line when he was caught in the blast.

ELLE: Tell me about your first meeting with Jeff Bauman.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I was nervous. It was initially awkward.


I think there is, essentially, something fraudulent in what I do for a living. Ang Lee once said that as filmmakers, “we pretend to get closer to the truth.” Inevitably, when you’re dealing with a real-life story, there’s the knowledge that nothing you can do will ever match what [Bauman] went through. Before I start anything, I question why I’m doing it. I think that’s the conundrum of any artist, maybe.

Was it a struggle to get people to see you as an artist?

As a kid?

As an adult. People don’t always assume actors are artists. Was it a struggle to get people to see beyond the facade of this six-foot-tall, handsome—

[Laughs] A struggle? I don’t know if you’d call that a struggle.… Everybody is an actor in one way or another. We are all performing certain things.

When was the last time you felt scared?

Like, 45 minutes ago? [Laughs] It depends on how you define scared.

You’re talking about anxiety. They’ve got Klonopin for that.…

I’m cool. I like to experience the world. I mean, that is part of my job.

Stronger director David Gordon Green said about you, “[I want to] milk him for his weirdness.” What did he mean?

I have no idea. David lives in Austin, where the word weirdness is synonymous with honesty. He was trying to milk me of a certain type of honesty. [Laughs] “Milking me” is a really disgusting way of saying it. David is nothing if not provocative.

How do you deal with loneliness when you’re away working?

I don’t get lonely. I have myself.

Is that really how you feel?

It is. I have a really wonderful group of friends. And I have a life I love in New York City. When you have a foundation that’s strong, you can move from it and go explore.

Do people try to set you up on dates?

People should set me up more often. I absolutely encourage it. There should be more of that in my life.… When you first said “set you up,” I thought you meant for a prank.

Sunday in the Park is, in part, about an artist’s struggle to communicate with the woman he loves. Georges Seurat puts Dot in a painting. But she wants to hear him say the words. Your performance felt deeply personal.

She says to him, “Tell me how you feel. Tell me that you’re hurt, tell me that you’re scared, tell me you’re relieved. Anything. But don’t assume I know.” The painting is sitting in front of them, with all his expression of love. He says, “You know exactly how I feel.” He doesn’t know how to express how much he loves her. I think, as an artist, you’re trying to communicate with people you love. It’s bound to be understood sometimes and confused other times. I’ve found that a lot.

You strike me as someone who is endlessly curious. What are you curious about right now?

I’ve been reading a lot about the American Revolution and recently binge-watched The Crown, so I’m really curious about the pros and cons of democracy versus a parliamentary system versus a monarchy. I’m a real joy to be around right now, as you can imagine.

You and your sister went to the Women’s March in Washington, DC. What did you learn that day?

That there should be another one. And it should be bigger. Soon.

How do you define masculinity?

Masculinity is, nowadays and generationally, confusing. What is honor, what is protection, what is being a man? It’s evolving. But I believe having an open heart—and a strong mind to protect that—is the idea.

We often ask men what they learned from their fathers. What did you learn from your mother?

Most of the things that I learn are from the women in my life.

Can you be more specific? Did she teach you something about storytelling, how to respect women.…

My mom would always say this thing about writing—and I’ve taken it into account in a lot of things in my life—which is just, “Make it shorter.” Figure out what you are truly saying, whittle it down to the essence, then say that.

Anything else?

It’s okay to eat with your hands, as long as you wash them first.

This article originally appears in the October 2017 issue of ELLE.