Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Vulture’s first ever digital cover story. Check out the digital cover below (behind the cut) or in our video archive, read the full article on the twists and turns of Jake’s unlikely, unsettling action career that brought him to “Road House” after the cut, and view the accompanying photos in our gallery.

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One of Jake Gyllenhaal’s first epiphanies about acting came at night on a misty golf course in Virginia. It was early in the production of 2001’s Donnie Darko, the movie that helped launch his career, and his character, Donnie, a troubled teen prone to horrific visions, was sleepwalking onto the green and speaking with his imaginary “friend,” a giant menacing rabbit named Frank. (Donnie Darko is nuts.) “I can feel it still when I describe it to you,” Gyllenhaal says. We’re sitting in an empty conference room in lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty lurking in the distance behind the 43-year-old actor as he paints the scene. “I remember the sprinklers going, and Jimmy [Duval, as Frank] was in the costume from afar. They came to my close-up. I started doing this sleepwalking thing. And then I thought, Oh, shit. Poster told me I have to look at the camera. I have to show my face.”

Poster was the film’s cinematographer, Steven Poster, who, during a make-up test, had told the young actor, “You’re going to give me your face, right? You’re not going to be looking down dourly?” The note had prompted something of a disarrangement for the then-19-year-old Gyllenhaal because, well, he had been planning to look down dourly. But now, on the golf course, he put it together. “My face is going down, but my eyes had to come up.” He pauses. “And then I found the character.” That became the iconic Donnie Darko look: head hung low, eyes peering up, irises lit eerily, his face radiating an unhinged vulnerability. It was an early lesson for young Jake Gyllenhaal that film is a visual medium and acting is a physical job.

No subsequent role has been quite as physical as his latest, Road House, Doug Liman’s remake of the 1989 Rowdy Herrington cult classic that starred Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko co-star Patrick Swayze as a bouncer at a rough-and-tumble Missouri honky-tonk. In the original, Swayze’s protagonist, James Dalton, was a stoic, efficient professional, part of a long line of toughs who saw bouncing as a noble tradition. But the character did have a mean streak: He had once ripped a man’s throat out during a fight and was quite troubled by this memory, which, of course, didn’t stop him from doing it again. (Road House is also nuts.)

Gyllenhaal’s version of the Road House hero, now named Elwood Dalton, leans into the haunted aspects of his character, who we learn used to be a championship UFC fighter and is now living out of his car. Early in the film, he drives onto some train tracks and sits there waiting to be plowed under. His vehicle is totaled, but he survives and winds up accepting a job as a bouncer at a beachside Florida Keys roadhouse run by Frankie (Jessica Williams). This Dalton isn’t so much a professional bouncer as a guy who just knows a lot about inflicting pain and whose outwardly laid-back, almost passive demeanor hides something more menacing.

The role gives Gyllenhaal’s eyes another chance to shine — or gleam, as it were, with demented intent in certain moments. Gyllenhaal has plenty of technique, and can emote with the best of them, but he also happens to have the most expressive eyes of any leading man of his generation. Over the course of his career, those eyes have been everything from watchful and menacing to yearning, playful, and innocent. They can speak to you of heartbreak and confusion and cool, raw calculation. In person, you can’t help but be constantly aware of what his eyes are doing – even if he’s just telling you how many times he saw Swayze’s Point Break as a kid (lots, more than any other movie except possibly Dumbo) or how many times his sister, Maggie, made him go see Dirty Dancing with her (three).

But somewhere behind those haunted eyes is a live-wire energy that’s been swelling since Donnie Darko. In Road House, Gyllenhaal has never quite been as jacked — and that really is the word: jacked. He’s not just in shape. He’s not just muscular. He is jacked, as if something popped somewhere deep within and then blew him up from the inside. When he walks in the film, there’s a laconic hesitation to his motions like he’s trying to hold this enormous thing called a body in place. When he fights, it’s fast and brutal. This is a physical phenomenon, but there’s a spiritual and psychological dimension to it. After all, Dalton is a man trying not to lose his mind. Most great Jake Gyllenhaal characters are.

In the early years of Gyllenhaal’s career, his eyes often got him cast as sensitive young men, even when he did a blockbuster like Roland Emmerich’s climate-crisis disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain, in which he and the late Heath Ledger (both Oscar nominated) played two young cowboys who strike a secret gay relationship that lasts for years, he demonstrates a shrinking-violet longing that takes what is already a moody drama and renders it almost unbearably heart-rending. In David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac (2007), he plays the shy cartoonist and amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith as emotionally shattered by his yearslong obsession with the unsolved case of the Zodiac murders. Over and over, what comes through in these movies is the enormous fragility of a character barely keeping the world at bay.

When Gyllenhaal wound up with the lead role in 2010’s ill-fated big-budget video-game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, behind-the-scenes photos of him sporting the ripped physique of an action star emerged. The biceps the size of footballs were real — Gyllenhaal has been into fitness his whole life — but they looked all wrong on an actor known primarily for such reticent, melancholy performances.

Prince of Persia did indeed disappear into the sands of time, but it was clear that Gyllenhaal was trying to break free of the roles he’d been doing — however acclaimed they’d been and however great he was. “Initially, it was a reaction against people saying I didn’t exude some sort of masculinity of a certain kind,” he says. “Maybe it was a desire to push that out into the world and say, ‘But wait!’”


Gyllenhaal and Liman have been friends “for 20 years,” the actor estimates, and the idea of working together has been a regular discussion topic with the pair sending projects and scripts back and forth but never quite settling on the right one. One night at dinner, Gyllenhaal was telling Liman yet again why the most recent idea was not the one for him when the director casually mentioned he’d just read a script for a reimagining of Road House. “Literally, no joke, I went, ‘I’m in,’” the actor remembers, laughing. “After all this hemming and hawing for over 15 years!”

He liked what he’d come to understand was Liman’s collaborative approach to filmmaking, his willingness to work closely with his actors to develop characters and sequences. It’s why Gyllenhaal loved working with Guy Ritchie, whose script for The Covenant was around only 50 pages — about half the length of a typical script — leaving much of the film to be improvised on set. (Gyllenhaal is starring in the next untitled Ritchie film, too.) An early Road House fight scene where Dalton beats up a bunch of goons and then drives them to the hospital was initially choreographed as a regular fight, Gyllenhall says, but then, as he and Liman worked on the scene with stunt coordinator Garrett Warren and fight coordinator Steve Brown, it became even sillier. “I got an idea that it would be funnier if Dalton just slapped these guys,” he says.

Getting Dalton right involved a particular balance of playing with punches and planning them, given that an imprecisely choreographed outburst can get people hurt. Much of the movie is spent with Dalton fighting assorted henchmen working for a real-estate developer who wants the waterfront property Frankie’s bar sits on, but the stakes jump dramatically when the movie’s psychopathic big bad, played by UFC star Conor McGregor, gets called into action. Once Gyllenhaal had acclimated to the ambient uneasiness of performing fight scenes opposite someone with McGregor’s pedigree, he found it remarkable watching someone learn how not to fight.

“He had to unlearn things that would normally be second nature. At the same time, his precision as a professional fighter was very helpful because it’s so much better when you’re working with someone who knows the difference in millimeters between angles of things. But before each take, I had to remind him, ‘Remember, you’re not supposed to actually hit me.’” The note took mostly: McGregor did make contact once, by accident, while demonstrating a move. “It was really funny. We were by the monitor, watching the take, and he was like, ‘Oh, that left was a little bit too short, so I hit it with the right’ — and he hit me with the right! He was like, ‘Oh!’ I was like, ‘Oh!’”

Having such an exacting scene partner was an asset in a production that had spectacular ambitions for the intensity of its brawls — a movie called Road House was always going to live or die by its fight sequences, which had to retain some amount of the original’s “Let’s rumble” ethos. To create the film’s extended, elaborate, and extremely painful-looking fights, the filmmakers utilized a novel four-pass process where they would shoot four different versions of face-offs. The first pass would capture what Gyllenhaal calls the Hollywood punch, where no actual contact is made. “An actual punch is very different than we usually see in movies,” he explains, “because your body, it tenses, it doesn’t flow. The Hollywood punch is always selling the punch.”

Then they would do two “pad passes” to capture the real impact of a blow on both puncher and punchee. For the first of those, a red pad would be placed where an actor was punching. “So, the impact of your fist or your leg or whatever it was hitting would hit the pad and your body would respond to the impact.” In the second pad pass, the actor would be hit with the pad to capture the way the body would respond to such blows. For the final pass, the actors would perform the choreography in slow motion with actual impact — and here, Gyllenhaal mimes getting hit in the face in slow motion by a fist. Liman keeps his camera moving throughout these sequences, so the result is very fluid. Onscreen, it all looks exciting and ridiculous.


The role of Elwood Dalton probably isn’t going to have Gyllenhaal in the Oscar conversation — again: Road House — but it does serve as a convergence point for a number of modes he’s been alternately working in for more than a decade. In the years following Persia, Gyllenhaal began to be thought of less as a handsome emo boy and more as the kind of thoroughly committed man who would completely immerse himself in a part, often transforming his body as well. In David Ayer’s 2012 gonzo cop thriller End of Watch, he plays an intense Los Angeles police officer who crosses an almost surreally violent drug cartel. For Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s acclaimed 2014 thriller about a menacing oddball who becomes a freelance news cameraman and scours the streets of Los Angeles for gruesome crime scenes to shoot, he lost a ton of weight. With his face so gaunt and angular, the eyes popped even more, attaining a nocturnal, predatory aura. Then, for Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, a 2015 drama about a boxer who loses his wife in a shooting and then loses custody of his child, he undertook the opposite sort of physical transformation and spent five months learning to box.

He took on more straightforward action movies from there, like the 2019 Marvel hit Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which he played the jokily self-aware, sociopathically friendly villain Mysterio, a character who turned out to be an impostor pretending to be a superhero (which of course is another way of saying “actor”); Michael Bay’s Ambulance (2021), in which he played a career criminal who ropes his Afghanistan veteran brother (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) into a deadly bank heist; and Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (2023), in which he played a traumatized soldier who becomes obsessed with saving the life of the Afghan interpreter (Dar Salim) who saved his life. His work in these movies — yes, even the Spider-Man movie — is often alive, raw, captivating. These are men who’ve been humiliated, or broken, and who rebel against their helplessness by threatening to destroy everything around them. You can spot the elements he’s pulled from many of those past characters in his version of Dalton.

Road House is set to premiere at this year’s SXSW on March 8, arriving trailing a few clouds of controversy. The writer of the original is suing the studios, Amazon and MGM-UA, claiming that he still has a copyright over the film. There have been accusations that the studio used artificial intelligence to replicate some actors’ voices in an attempt to finish post-production on the movie during last year’s SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. McGregor has faced a number of troubling allegations over the years, including sexual assault. And in the weeks leading up to the film’s SXSW premiere, Liman has been feuding with the studio over its decision to forgo a theatrical release for Road House and send it straight to streaming. “Amazon asked me and the film community to trust them and their public statements about supporting cinemas, and then they turned around and are using Road House to sell plumbing fixtures,” the director wrote in a January guest column for Deadline.

On a big screen, the mayhem is more grandiose; the punches resonate more; Liman’s camera — always moving, always fluid — is even more delightfully dizzying. Yes, Gyllenhaal looks even more jacked. Once upon a time, one could imagine packed audiences hooting and hollering along with a movie like this. But things have changed, and besides, the original Road House wasn’t a big theatrical hit either, achieving immortality gradually through repeat viewings in the rec rooms and college dorms of Generation X. (Critics hated it.)

Gyllenhaal explains that Liman’s disagreement with Amazon “comes from Doug’s deep love of the cinematic experience” and adds that he shares that love. But he was never aware of conversations about Road House getting a theatrical run. “My deal was always streaming from the beginning,” he says. “There’s a whole new generation of people who watch movies in a different way, and I want this to be seen by as many people as can see it.”

That generation might not carry with them an image of Donnie Darko, all piercing eyes and savage susceptibility. Or a picture of the grimy, rubbernecking cameraman of Nightcrawler. Or even his knee-high-sock-wearing eccentric in Bong Joon Ho’s 2017 Netflix film, Okja. Their Gyllenhaal is shred to high heaven, his chin having ascended significantly over the past 25 years.