The first thing I noticed about Jake Gyllenhaal? He’s tall. Surprisingly so. In Hollywood, you get used to lowering your expectations. An actor who stands forty feet tall on the big screen is invariably 5 foot 6 in person, pumped up on celluloid by clever cinematography and co-stars with poor posture.
But Jake isn’t like those shrinking stars. When I first met him at the Sundance Film Festival, I was taken aback when he stood up, all six feet of him unfolding from a wooden chair in the crowded restaurant. He was wearing a white cotton shirt, looking like a neatly pressed college student (which, at the time, he was).
Most actors his age would have tried to play it cool, affecting an air of boredom while mumbling answers to the most basic questions. Jake was a child of Hollywood parents, but he had none of the usual snotty rich kid attitude. He was not only polite, but serious. Said excuse me, please, and thank you. As the din in the room escalated, he leaned forward to hear every question, those dark eyebrows furrowing in thought. He was smart, too. He knew a lot about directing, about writing, even said those were things he wanted to do himself someday. I had no doubt he could, too.
He was talking about the movie he had come to the festival to support, a little movie featuring a gigantic rabbit that sounded pretty bizarre (Donnie Darko, who knew?), but I couldn’t stop thinking about the earnest, idealistic kid in October Sky. There aren’t many actors who exude sincerity without a script, who you’d expect to help a little old lady across the street even when a photographer wasn’t around to memorialize it. But Jake seemed like he’d come to Grandma’s aid in a heartbeat.
“What a great guy,” I thought. “Hope he stays that way.”
The truth is, it’s hard to hold on to your better self when celebrity gets in the way. I’ve seen a lot of young actors change as their fame grew to overwhelming proportions, becoming conceited or jaded or so self-absorbed they seemed unaware of the world outside the Chateau Marmont. I had high hopes for Jake, though. He seemed too solid to fall prey to the teen actor cliché.
He didn’t disappoint. By the time The Day After Tomorrow was released, Jake was regular tabloid fodder (thanks to his relationship with Kirsten Dunst), and he’d won the role of heartthrob du jour in a big action movie. He could have developed a swagger in his step, that bored cool guy attitude. But he was, amazingly, still the normal guy with the slightly embarrassed smile. He was a little older, his face a little leaner, but there was still that endearing, boyish quality to him.
He still said please and thank you. He still furrowed his brows when he listened, leaning in, giving his full attention. He was still the same old Jake. And that was a very good thing