There are few spectacles more chaotic than a UFC event. Flashing lights and pounding music wash over the parade of muscled-up fighters marching to beat their opponents into submission. Then there are lulls between the bouts as the Octagon is readied for the next match. The pageantry is put on pause, and the energy ebbs. In the rise and fall of action, it can be difficult to follow exactly what’s happening when you’re in the crowd. So imagine sitting in the cheap seats at UFC 285 in Las Vegas last March, then looking up to realize that the tattooed fighter flexing on the jumbotron isn’t listed on the undercard. Is that …? Jake Gyllenhaal?

Yes, it was the indie heartthrob and Oscar-nominated actor, who is best known for his sensitive portrayal of a gay cowboy in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and is also the face of a Prada campaign, in the chain-link Octagon plastered with Monster Energy logos. The spectators weren’t alone in their surprise.

“I think I felt the same way that a lot of UFC fans felt,” Gyllenhaal tells me nearly a year later, laughing. “In fact, I know it. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’”

Gyllenhaal certainly looked the part. In videos shared widely on social media—and in photos snapped at the weigh-in earlier—his physique hits like a front kick to the gut. Six-pack is a woefully inadequate descriptor for Gyllenhaal’s abs: They jut out from his stomach, making it look like he’s wearing a bronze breastplate. The six-foot actor tipped the scales for the event’s middleweight division at 184 pounds, with 5 percent body fat, according to his longtime trainer, Jason Walsh.

Gyllenhaal was in the cage filming scenes for his latest movie, Road House (out March 21 on Prime Video), which has Raging Bull-meets-Reacher vibes. It’s a new version of the gloriously pulpy 1989 original, a fan favorite starring Patrick Swayze (and his feathered mullet) as James Dalton, a super-bouncer who cleans up a rowdy Missouri bar with rules (be nice), his fists, and a well-timed trachea removal. It’s the type of straightforward movie that isn’t often made anymore, without the winking references of modern action fare, throat rip and all, and it’s anchored by Swayze’s undeniable movie-star performance.

There’s a long tradition of heavyweight actors stepping into the ring to portray pugilists for prestigious dramas—Gyllenhaal has even done it before, in 2015’s Southpaw—but Road House isn’t Oscar bait and the actor isn’t some random Chris hungry for critical acclaim. Gyllenhaal broke out at 21 in the 2001 teen cult classic Donnie Darko, ascended to blockbusters, and earned an Oscar nomination at 25 for Brokeback Mountain. Since then, he’s taken parts of all types—starring in everything from big-budget tentpoles (Prince of Persia) to Broadway productions (Sea Wall/A Life, for which he earned a Tony nom in 2020) and playing soldiers, cops, and real-life people (Jarhead, End of Watch, and Stronger, respectively).

While Gyllenhaal got shredded in the past for both Prince of Persia and Southpaw, he’s dodged the buff-superhero stereotypes that have pigeonholed his peers. That’s thanks to the diversity of his body of work and his willingness to tap into a weirdo energy other hard-bodied actors don’t typically unleash. See: Okja, in which he plays a wacko, self-serving celebrity zoologist; or Nightcrawler, in a role for which he lost 30 pounds (and was nominated for just about every acting award other than the Oscar); or John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, featuring his deliriously unhinged appearance as Mr. Music.

So why go to such extreme lengths now, at age 43, for a project that required him to whittle his body-fat percentage to the single digits? Especially when there’s the risk that a Road House remake could easily become a campy farce, and when so many remakes and legacyquels lean so hard into irony. For Gyllenhaal, the question was closer to why not step into Swayze’s beat-up cowboy boots. “This is so unlike me—I went, ‘I’m in. That sounds like the craziest idea,’?” he recalls about discussing the role with director Doug Liman. “I remember being like, ‘Let’s do that!’?” Even a guy who’s been so serious about his work—not only in his actual performances but with the types of roles he chooses, the type of persona he has created—sometimes just wants to kick some ass and have a little fun.


The original Road House has sat with Gyllenhaal for a long time. “I was aware of it very young, almost like an apparition,” he tells me. “My earliest memory of Road House is a poster. But I don’t even quite know if it was a dream.” Anyone who grew up wandering the Blockbuster VHS stacks knows what he means: staring at movie posters and rental covers and projecting outsize expectations from those images onto what the movies might depict. You can create an entire world from a single tableau, then find out the actual film doesn’t come close to what you made up in your head. Road House is one of the rare examples of the movie living up to the expectations inspired by the poster, in part because it’s so visceral.

It’s a potent image: Patrick Swayze radiating charisma (as Gyllenhaal says, “He’s like a higher frequency”) while leaning against the door of the titular establishment, beckoning you in for a raucous, dangerous good time. To his right, a triad of stills: a punch, a kiss, and an exploding car. Fights, sex, and fire—what could be cooler? When he was a bit older, Gyllenhaal encountered the film as countless others must have: in disconnected chunks replayed on cable television. Later, he became a fan of Swayze and watched Road House in full. He speaks of the ’80s icon affectionately—he remembers watching Dirty Dancing in theaters with his sister (actress Maggie Gyllenhaal) three times and shared a photo of himself on Instagram wearing a Swayze shirt to celebrate his 43rd birthday last year. He also counted Swayze as a friend and colleague from Donnie Darko. “I knew him to be one of the most generous, kind people that I have met,” says Gyllenhaal of the older actor, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, at age 57. “He was just funny and loving, and all throughout the years, we stayed in contact. If Patrick were around, I would have loved to be talking to him about this. He was a consummate artist, and he understood what it meant. I would hope that he would know that I have the utmost respect and love for him.”

Still, it took an offhand suggestion from Liman for 2024’s Road House to come into existence. Gyllenhaal and Liman (who also helmed The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith) were looking for a project to make together. “Jake and I had recently run this 5K race together—like we were together for the first five feet and then I never saw him again,” says the director. “I had this image of Jake sweaty with his shirt off in my head as I was reading the script to Road House, and he was my first and only call. I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to approach Jake for a role since he started receiving nominations and awards and lead with ‘I saw you with your shirt off.’?”

The idea was to find something imbued with both humor and physicality, giving Gyllenhaal a vehicle to show off an aspect of his personality that’s been largely absent from his filmography. “As Road House producer Joel Silver described Jake—he looks like one of them and acts like one of us,” Liman says. “What that means is he looks like an Adonis, but inside is the kind of fire and neurosis that drives the rest of us who are less physically gifted. Jake is obviously one of our generation’s best actors, but I don’t think an audience has ever had the chance to see what he could do with a vehicle like Road House and a character like Dalton—with a big, sexy movie-star role.”

Liman, who Gyllenhaal says has been a friend for 20 years, proposed one idea, then mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that he’d just read a draft of a reimagined Road House script. Gyllenhaal jumped at the opportunity. “Where Road House sits for me is a place of ease,” the actor tells me. “This movie fits in a space where I’m just like, ‘I’m having fun with my friend.’?”


Gyllenhaal’s Elwood Dalton is introduced abs first. He enters a rowdy underground fight ring obscured by a loose hoodie. When he reveals himself, it’s a twofold moment: You see the sculpted core, then finally his face. As soon as he’s noticed by the crowd, the entire scene shifts and the mob quiets down. His opponent (Post Malone in a cameo) wants no part of him. With his UFC background, Dalton is clearly known in this world—he’s recognized immediately by everyone else there. But the audience doesn’t know him yet. Sure, they know he’s Jake Gyllenhaal, the star of the movie (and if they’ve seen the original, they understand the adventure that’s about to play out). But his body needs to be realistically ripped for this scene—and the rest of the film—to work. His abs and arms are more than enough. You believe this man could take on anyone in that room and win.

Exercise helps Gyllenhaal do his job better. No matter what else I bring up—creating the character, other films he’s worked on—the conversation inevitably circles back to the topic of his training. He’s almost giddy to dive into the minutiae of different workout splits and macros and other fitness jargon. Gyllenhaal doesn’t need to get jacked to secure roles, but he sure as hell needed to do this. This is the side of him that Liman wanted to show the world—the actor’s ability to move and to use his body to create a singular character who could smash your face in one moment and charm you the next. Physicality comes so naturally to him because of the way he goes about his life outside his work, training four or five times per week all year. “I think there’s this conception that people just jump in, that they have six weeks to train and they try to get in shape,” Gyllenhaal says. “For me, it’s a lifestyle; it always has been since I was a kid.” As he tells it, his father, the director Stephen Gyllenhaal, raised him with physical fitness as a major focus, waking him up so they could run together. “The last block, he would always let me sprint; he would always let me win up the driveway.”

These habits stuck. “No matter what was going on in my day, no matter what was happening in my life, exercise always helped me get through in one way or another,” he says. And even if he’s not constantly breaking the Internet with ab photos, he considers training an essential part of all the work he wants to do, and not just for Road House. “I’m always trying to find roles that allow me to stay physical,” he says. “That means caring for not only doing my research and working hard intellectually but also taking care of the physical part of acting.” He takes issue with the idea that it’s socially acceptable for athletes to build up their bodies—or, in Gyllenhaal’s slightly sardonic deployment of drama-school language, their “instruments”—for competition but that actors should be judged when they do the same for their performances. For Gyllenhaal, it’s no different. “I want to try to do this for a long time,” he says.

“Jake is probably at the top, as far as someone who already has a great foundation,” says Jason Walsh, who has also worked with Matt Damon, Miles Teller, and Bradley Cooper. Walsh trained Gyllenhaal ahead of the Road House shoot for eight months, then continued working through the three-month filming period. But the UFC sequence was filmed later—and when Gyllenhaal tested positive for Covid just before the initial planned shoot, it was pushed even further into the next year. Walsh is quick to clarify that his client wasn’t at his peak rippedness for the entire training period, or even the entire shoot—“people don’t see the valleys,” he notes, before explaining the powers of a spray tan and lighting in creating an onscreen physique—but that’s a long time to stay focused.

The pair used a progressive strength-training program split into phases. But one theme stayed consistent: Gyllenhaal loves cardio, both cycling and running, so much that at one point, Walsh had to force him to dial back his daily runs, allowing only a mile at a time. That wasn’t always the case, and both Walsh and fight coordinator Steve Brown recall Gyllenhaal leaving them in the dust on separate occasions when they joined him for a jog. “After mile two, I was like, ‘Dude, you should just go ahead—I am not keeping up with your pace,’?” says Brown, a former collegiate wrestler. “He was running like a six-minute mile.”

Gyllenhaal took a different approach from what he’d done for previous roles. He’d worked with Walsh and other trainers before, but the Road House prep was more comprehensive. “I knew at this point that it takes a village,” he says. This led to the one aspect of the fitness plan that Gyllenhaal didn’t enjoy: his diet. As anyone with a solid six-pack can tell you, what you eat is just as important as the exercises you do. That was difficult for Gyllenhaal, who partnered with Ornella Sofitchouk, a registered dietitian on Walsh’s team, to figure out the right balance between high-protein meals and his favorite indulgences. “I love to cook—I believe it is a centerpiece in my life, the time around a table with my family and friends,” he says. He still had to eat a ton to gain muscle; he just couldn’t eat the foods he savors. The team had another challenge, too—after Gyllenhaal had digestive issues with standard whey protein, they developed a bespoke plant-based protein-powder mix so he could maintain his intake.

All that prep sounds wholly consuming, but for Gyllenhaal, the entire journey gave him a chance to reflect not only on the results but also on the process and his fifth decade of life. “I’m at an age where you get older and you go, ‘How long do you have these things and the ability to do these things?’ You start to have gratitude in a different way.”


Gyllenhaal’s Dalton is entirely his own. There are the modern touches to update the character and film, including his UFC past and the relocation from Missouri to the Florida Keys, but as much as he loves Swayze, Gyllenhaal never aimed to re-create the ’80s version. “I grew up learning about acting in the theater, with material that hundreds of actors had played the same role, because the writing was the thing,” he says. “I had no intention of trying to copy a great actor. What I wanted was to respect him, because I loved him.”

Gyllenhaal took a different direction for the reimagining while also leaning into old-school themes, mixing old and new. “It’s a real take on a classic western,” he says. “The thing I loved about it was that movies like Road House, they’re not made in the same way anymore. It’s bringing back these kinds of wonderful tropes that we all love, that give us motivation, where we have fun watching them. We just enjoy ourselves watching a movie.”

Dalton is the archetypal wandering hero called into action to dispense justice and defend the weak before receding back into the world when the job’s done. He wouldn’t be out of place blowing into town on a horse instead of a Greyhound bus—and the film acknowledges this dynamic in some of its strongest scenes, between Gyllenhaal and actress Hannah Love Lanier. He notes that lightheartedness hasn’t factored into all of his career choices. “I can only speak for myself when I say I haven’t always made movies where it makes you feel that enjoyment. It was really nice to be playing in a world that allowed for great fun.”

Dalton’s first fight scene is a kinetic blend of quick slaps, punches, and kicks as he dispatches an entire group of thugs, seemingly without expending much effort. It’s frighteningly efficient—but then, in keeping with Gyllenhaal’s aim to have fun, the character rounds up his opponents and drives them to the hospital. “I could be as stoic as I wanted because I knew in the end, the next moment, there was just going to be a whole lot of ass kicking, and four people were going to be making me look like I really did know how to kick ass,” Gyllenhaal says of Dalton and the stunt team responsible for the film’s intense brawls.

Road House also marks the film debut of MMA icon Conor McGregor as Knox, who careens around like the Tasmanian Devil, a heavily inked dervish of destruction who can only be held off for brief moments, never stopped. His presence is a reminder of how destructive Dalton himself would be without his stolid control, the chaotic evil to the protagonist’s neutral good. This is apparent even in the ways the two first appear onscreen—while Dalton is introduced with abs, Knox makes his entrance with ass, in a backside-baring sequence that ends with an entire Italian street bazaar in flames.

Knox might be Dalton’s unfettered id onscreen, but on the set, Gyllenhaal saw McGregor as a peer from whom he could learn a different discipline—and to whom he could teach his own. The UFC star asked Gyllenhaal for notes about his performance after takes, then provided on-the-fly instruction when the pair grappled during fight scenes. For Gyllenhaal, McGregor’s addition to the ensemble was more of a testament to the magic of the movies than a piece of stunt casting. “There was an exchange of crafts, and it was just so cool to bring both of those worlds together,” he says, sounding like Nicole Kidman in her much-memed AMC ads. “In what world would you see me fight Conor McGregor? No world but the movies.”

Still, Gyllenhaal made sure his costar remembered that movie magic could only go so far. “I did have to remind Conor pretty much before every take to not even by mistake punch me in the face, because we’d have to work the next day.”

There are some outlandish action-movie moments, and McGregor chews the scenery like the gator that saves Dalton by munching on a henchman. (Yes, that actually happens.) But the respect Gyllenhaal has for the relationships at the heart of the film prevents it from being anything other than earnest, with real-world stakes. The movie plays much differently from most modern action blockbusters, in which the hero has to save the world in the final act. Dalton just has to save the bar—and that’s better in Gyllenhaal’s book. “I don’t know much about the world-saving thing,” he says. “I’ve always tried to do the human stories.”

In this way, he’s doing right by Swayze. “From Swayze on down, no one has their tongue in their cheek while making this movie,” cultural critic Sean T. Collins, author of the Road House book Pain Don’t Hurt, said in a MEL Magazine oral history of the original. You can say the same about Gyllenhaal and the 2024 reimagining. His colleagues do. “He actually cared about what he was doing, and he cared about what we were creating alongside him,” says Brown, the fight coordinator.

Rewind to Gyllenhaal at UFC 285. He might have felt out of place, but he had a characteristically earnest approach to the event. “It’s a sacred place, and I have great respect for that place,” he says of acting. “It’s why I love storytelling, and it’s the same respect, in a different way, that I have for the physical space. I have a great respect for what your body can do and how far you can push it and how far you can’t.”

What’s the Octagon but just another stage waiting for drama to unfold upon it, a sacred place where players tread the boards and push themselves to their full potential? That’s how Gyllenhaal looked at his Road House role, so he did belong there, even amid all the noise and lights. “When you’re in there, you’re a fighter,” he tells me. “That’s the incredible part about doing my job. I find myself in these situations I would never dream of.”


Favorite cheat meal?
“Vanilla cake with vanilla icing—ideally Yossy Arefi’s recipe in Snacking Cakes.”

Squat or deadlift?
“Squat—only because I use too much traps in my deadlift. I’m like, ‘Relax, bro!’?”

What would your walkout song be if you were a UFC fighter?
“I’d do something crazy like ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Definitely some Gene Kelly.”

Last book/podcast/movie you recommended to a friend?
“The Overstory, by Richard Powers.”

Hero, real or fictional?
“Bruce Springsteen in the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.”