In a chic New York office, Jake Gyllenhaal is sitting alongside a man named Jeff Bauman. Bauman is an author, a motivational speaker and an advocate but is best known as a man who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. During his rehabilitation, he also became a rare beacon of hope, shining out of a dark tragedy.

The pair are interviewing each other for a Facebook Q&A, as part of the promotion for Stronger, the movie adaptation of Bauman’s best-selling book of the same name, which he co-wrote in the aftermath of the attack.

Gyllenhaal portrays Bauman in the film, a role which has already garnered attention this awards season. The interview looks to be your typical junket fare – a bit of back and forth about the film, before those involved simply sit back and take turns blowing smoke up each other’s arses. But it’s not.

The actor earnestly introduces Bauman, who is wearing cut-off shorts that expose his prosthetic legs. “I can start off,” suggests Bauman, before launching into his first question. “You know Van Wilder, right? Ryan Reynolds? I really wanted him to play me. I was just wondering why he didn’t.”

There’s a comic pause, as Gyllenhaal recoils in mock-astonishment. “He would have been better, I think,” adds Bauman.

It’s hilarious. This, in a nutshell, sums up the friendship the two men have forged over the past two-and-a-half years. “Full-on piss-taking, left and right,” laughs Gyllenhaal. As it happens, Gyllenhaal and Reynolds are BFFs. They co-starred last year in the movie Life and each own loft apartments in the same converted factory building in Manhattan.

On a crisp and clear winter’s day, GQ meets Gyllenhaal for lunch in the back room of one of his favourite local haunts in Greenwich Village, 15 minutes’ walk from his home. The actor slips into the packed restaurant and immediately apologises for not shaking our hand; he’s fighting off a ‘man cold’ and doesn’t want to pass it around.

He’s softly spoken, trying to save his voice because he has a speaking engagement that evening at uptown cultural centre, 92nd St Y, ahead of a special screening of Stronger. He smiles and orders a hot water and lemon.

Removing his beanie and jacket, Gyllenhaal runs his fingers through his swept-back hair to shake out any hat-head. He wears a beard well and, at 37, seems better looking in real life than in most of his films – but, then, he’s often playing some kind of deranged or damaged character for which he’s either had to beef up or slim down.

He knows the restaurant’s staff and the menu, so he orders for the table – the ravioli special, some arancini and a green salad. He’s a big foodie and, at least according to Reynolds, a “black belt” in the kitchen.

Bauman is back home in Boston today. Gyllenhaal can recall the exact moment he first clapped his intense blue eyes on the man who would become the most absorbing character study of his career, and now one of his closest friends.

15 April, 2013. For Americans, in particular, the Boston Marathon bombing is one of those pivotal ‘remember where you were’ moments, especially given how the subsequent manhunt for the culprits played out so dramatically over rolling news, like a movie in real time.

A confronting photograph of an ashen spectator in a wheelchair with his legs blasted to bloody bits went viral. It was controversial – many thought it too graphic for family newspapers and breakfast news (and some outlets pixelated the gory details) – but it became the iconic image of the tragedy.

That man was Bauman, then 27, who had gone to the finish line to cheer his on-off girlfriend in the hope of winning her back. He was one of the 264 people who were injured that day, but not one of the three who were killed.

“I remember I was in New York and I remember seeing the photograph of Jeff,” recalls Gyllenhaal. “I remember being affected emotionally by the situation… what is less interesting to me is the sensationalising of the people that commit a crime, and the crime itself, as opposed to the people that are affected by it.”

Bauman became the face, firstly of his hometown’s tragedy, but then of its recovery – a moving symbol of courage and ‘Boston Strong’ who was literally wheeled out at sports events to be publically applauded. It was he who gave a description of one of the bombers to the FBI while in intensive care as soon as he came to after his double amputation.

A GoFundMe page, BucksForBauman, was set up to help the working class Costco worker cover his medical bills, crowdsourcing more than $1m to date. He was persuaded to rush out his memoirs which inspired the movie. But in truth he was a mess, still healing, still reeling, still trying to deal with the physical and emotional trauma.

For David Gordon Green, who directs Stronger, and Gyllenhaal for whom it is the first fruit of his newly formed production company, Nine Stories, there was a legitimate concern that this was perhaps too soon to be turning a tragedy into a Hollywood spectacle. But at the same time there was another movie about the Boston bombing being filmed – Patriots Day, starring and co-produced by Boston’s own son, Mark Wahlberg, which focuses more on the bombing itself and the subsequent manhunt for the terrorists responsible. All very gung-ho, very American.

Stronger takes a different slant. It is not about the bombing itself, but about its effect on one man and the people around him. This is not the USA versus terrorism but a human story about how you metaphorically get back on your feet when you’ve had them literally taken away from you.

“I actually thought for a while, what a wonderful pairing – two different perspectives on a similar event,” says Gyllenhaal. “There was a period of time where David Gordon Green and I talked about how interesting it would be if my Jeff Bauman passed through their movie, and one of their cops passed through ours.” It wasn’t to be.

Gyllenhaal spent almost a year trying to get to know Bauman before they started shooting, going back and forth to Boston every other weekend. But at that stage, Bauman was struggling. He was pushing people away, developing a dependency on drink.

“I was dealing with Jeff at a time when he didn’t really relate to the world in the way he does now, so for the first year of knowing him and trying to research, it was hard,” says the actor. “He’s been 15 months sober and in therapy so he’s actually much more communicative than when I first met him. In the past 15 months, since finishing the film, he’s grown more than any of my friends that I know.” Making the film proved a painful but cathartic experience.

Over the course of his career, Gyllenhaal has become known for his meticulous, borderline-masochistic preparation for roles, which often leads to dramatic physical transformations. He commits all the way.

For Nightcrawler (2014), for example, he decided that his sinister character, the underground crime scene videographer, Lou Bloom, ought to have a haunted, hungry look. So he shed 14kg by running 24km a day and subsisting on a diet of kale salads and chewing gum.

Then he got implausibly ripped to play a boxer in 2015’s Southpaw, trained until he puked, and became obsessed with fighting for six solid months.

However, of all the movies he’s made, he says the one that has demanded the most of him is Stronger. “It pushed me more than I’ve ever been pushed,” he says. “I pushed myself as a result. Sometimes I took it probably too far, admittedly. I mean, it has consumed me for two-and-a-half years.”

Why was it so demanding? “It’s because I’ve never had the honour and responsibility, and if I’m really honest, the tremendous pressure to play someone that I know I could never be,” he says. “I don’t think that I would have been able to survive what he survived. And to find the sense of humour that he has.

“It just taught me more than any other film I’ve ever made. When you get to spend time with someone like that, it’s more than a lesson, it’s life changing. Getting it right and portraying him, it still stresses me out, but I love him so much, I wish he were here because you would see how incredible he is. Nothing beats the real thing.”

Gyllenhaal’s voice falters with emotion. Or maybe it’s that cold. But for someone that goes as deep into a role as he does, it can be difficult to divest himself of the character.

“There are weird moments during the day where I have these strange short-circuits,” he says. “Characters past. A movement, or an expression, or something in my voice that does something that I’ve trained, or you know where all of a sudden you’re kind of [his eye twitches and he makes stuttering noises], you know? That happens, and I think you make a commitment to a character before you dive into it knowing that it will forever leave its imprint somewhere on you. So anybody who talks about fully purging a character, it’s not true.”

On the day they wrapped on Stronger, Gyllenhaal says he wept all the way home from Boston to New York. The crew had become like family. They had cast several of Bauman’s real-life support team – his doctors and his nurses – to play themselves in the movie. Fifteen months later, Gyllenhaal and Bauman still talk “almost every day”.

A sense of family means everything to Gyllenhaal. As warm and engaging as he is when we meet, he has a reputation for being intensely private, preferring to talk earnestly and at length about acting and only acting.

Indeed, not much is known about his love life other than that much-publicised Taylor Swift episode. They dated for three months, after which the pop princess allegedly wrote a song about how they are never ever getting back together. But Bauman is not afraid to go there.

“If you lost your legs in real life, do you think Taylor Swift would write a song about it? Like for you. Like a country song,” asks Bauman in that aforementioned interview. “She’s sort of moved more into pop now,” deflects Gyllenhaal.

That said, he’s happy to talk about family. His mother, Naomi Foner, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and producer who lives in New York; his father, Stephen, is a TV director and poet who lives in Los Angeles; and, of course, his older sister is the celebrated actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, 40, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the actor Peter Sarsgaard, and their two daughters.

His parents divorced in 2009 after 32 years of marriage. However, on the day of our interview, his father was flying up from LA so that everyone could be together over Thanksgiving. “I am determined to get a photograph of my entire family,” he says.

Though his parents weren’t especially wealthy when Gyllenhaal was a child, the family home in Koreatown – a less-than-salubrious part of Los Angeles – was always full of Hollywood royalty. Jamie Lee Curtis is his godmother, Paul Newman was a close family friend, and before Steven Soderbergh made it big as a director, he used to rent the spare room above the Gyllenhaal’s garage.

His upbringing sounds unconventional. On his 13th birthday, his parents arranged a bar mitzvah, of sorts, in a homeless shelter to remind him of his privilege. They are progressively spiritual in their beliefs.

His father is Christian, his mother is Jewish, and Gyllenhaal himself studied Tibetan Buddhism and eastern mysticism at Columbia University in New York for two years under Robert Thurman (Uma’s father) before dropping out to concentrate on acting.

He’s a deep thinker who often meanders into abstract ideas, disappearing down rabbit holes perhaps as a way to avoid having to answer those personal questions – which can make him a tricky interview. He claims to be socially awkward and finds small talk difficult.

He credits his parents for nurturing his creativity “and also for messing me up enough to do such dark material”. He says this jokingly, but he is clearly drawn to complicated characters. Rom-coms and blockbusters, not so much – though there are rumours swirling about him donning Batman’s cape. Still, the darkest of superheroes.

His parents’ split gave him a jolt and it was around this time that he began to examine the direction of his own life. He was turning 30, often a landmark of introspection. He’d just done Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a $240m production based on a computer game that had tanked in the US – a rare blot on his filmography. So he left Hollywood and moved to New York to recharge his batteries doing plays and rediscovering his love of musical theatre. Yes, the man can also sing.

“I stopped for a period of time in my career when I chased after people who I wanted to want me, and moved towards the people that actually did,” he says of this time. “That was a switch in my life and in my career at the same time.”

He went back to choosing challenging roles in edgy, lower-budget, independent films, which have been his stock-in-trade ever since his breakthrough role in the 2001 sleeper hit turned cult favourite, Donnie Darko.

He’s been on a roll of late. The first movie of this new wave was End of Watch (2012) a cop movie set in the badlands of LA which “redefined for me how I want to make movies”. Then in 2013, he did two Denis Villeneuve films back to back: Enemy, a disquieting thriller, and after that, Prisoners, opposite Hugh Jackman, a cheery romp about torture, child murder and obsession. No jazz hands, there.

He was nominated for a Golden Globe for 2014’s Nightcrawler, about a crime videographer who blurs the line between observer and participant in his pursuit of a story.

In 2015, he did Southpaw, a hackneyed but thoroughly watchable story of a champion boxer who loses everything – including custody of his daughter – before fighting back; Everest – a so-so 3D epic about a disastrous expedition filmed in extreme -60ºC conditions; and Demolition, about grief and depression.

In 2016, he was superb in Tom Ford’s taut movie within a movie, Nocturnal Animals; followed by the extra-terrestrial thriller Life, released in 2017. Then he showed his comedic chops as a high-pitched, flamboyant TV zoologist in Netflix-produced Okja.

In his own time and very much in his own way, he has risen to become one of the finest actors of his generation. Which makes it seem odd that he has not yet won an Oscar and has only been nominated once. That was for his 2005 role opposite the late Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s astonishing Brokeback Mountain, about the forbidden and secret love between two cowboys, which many consider to be Ledger’s finest work. All three received Oscar noms.

Ledger’s off-screen romance with his on-screen wife Michelle Williams first blossomed on that set, and Gyllenhaal is godfather to their daughter, Matilda.

Gyllenhaal is still cut up about Ledger’s death from an accidental overdose in January 2008. But during that evening’s career talk at the cultural centre in front of an audience of Gyllenhaalics, the actor volunteers the story of how he and Ledger first met.

“I was auditioning for Moulin Rouge! – Baz Luhrmann had chosen three actors. It was Ewan [McGregor], it was Heath, and me. And we auditioned with many different actresses, it was a long process. But I never met Heath, I only heard about him. We would be shuffled in and out of rooms. They would literally put me in a room and lock the door and Heath would come in and then Heath would be shuffled through the door. I never saw him.

“When Ewan was cast, I finally met Heath and we sort of became friends before Brokeback Mountain based on our mutual frustration. When Brokeback Mountain came out and it got all the attention it did, I remember, a few months later, Heath called me and he was like, [affects Ledger impersonation] ‘Hey mate, I got some news for you’. I said, ‘What?’

He said, ‘Baz just offered me his next movie. I just wanted you to know, I fucking turned it down!’ [Laughs heartily] So that was how much Heath loved me, you know. That was how I met him.”

At the end of the Q&A, the interviewer invites some questions from the floor. One guy stands up and explains how, while training for the New York Marathon, he had been knocked over by a motorist and suffered horrific injuries. But after watching Stronger, he came out of the movie in tears and decided he wasn’t going to let a negligent driver get in the way of what he wanted to do. And he shows Gyllenhaal his finisher’s medal, thanks him and asks what movie has most inspired him.

Gyllenhaal wells up and needs a moment to compose himself. “Well I think I know why I just made this movie,” he says. “And I will say this: you just inspired me.”

A hard-hearted cynic might describe Stronger as Oscar bait. Fourteen of the last 29 Best Actor winners have played a character that has been physically or mentally impaired. How does Gyllenhaal respond to that?

“I didn’t know that stat,” he says, helping himself to some salad, perhaps to buy time to think. “People with disabilities are extraordinary… they are extraordinary stories. There’s human triumph and the triumph of the human spirit, and we need those stories. There should be no apology in how much they inspire.”

This year’s awards season is bound to feel strange, a necessarily muted celebration for a movie industry still floundering in the fall-out of the sexual harassment scandals since the heavy fall of Harvey Weinstein. What is Gyllenhaal’s take on it all?

“It has cast a cloud and a very important one over our community and communities in general,” he says, keen to point out that this issue extends way beyond Hollywood. “I think what’s wonderful about it is it’s making everyone very aware and more conscious. I grew up in a wave of very strong, extraordinary women with definite points of view about feminism and so I know well enough to let them speak on that subject. All I can say, from my position is that, it will be a time of listening.”

Was he aware of sexual harassment being a major problem in Hollywood before the allegations against Weinstein opened the floodgates? “Not in this way. Not in a predatory way. I’ve been very aware, also because I have a sister and a mother in the business, of misogyny, but not like this in any way.”

Is he feeling prepared for a potential Oscar campaign should Stronger be nominated? “I have approached that possibility with no hesitation. In years past I probably would have been a little bit more consciously humble but I’ve started to realise that the acknowledgment of something, a performance or movie, through awards is a way of getting more people to see it. I also do think, more and more, it’s allowing yourself to be openly proud of the work that we put so much of ourselves into.”

Gyllenhaal received his first award for the film the previous week. “Jeff was like, ‘Yeah, kid, get the mantelpiece ready!’ I know what it means to him, too.”

Not that Bauman will let Gyllenhaal get too carried away.

“Hey,” he asks, as their Q&A is about to wrap up, “have you ever thought about doing a good movie?” Gyllenhaal doesn’t get a chance to answer. But maybe he will soon.

Gallery Links:
Magazine Scans > 2018 > GQ (Australia) | February
Photoshoots & Outtakes > Sessions > Photoshoots From 2018 > Session 001 | GQ Australia