Although it can be said that Jake Gyllenhaal was privileged to be born into an artistic family that had already set its roots in both Hollywood and the film industry, the actor has always been careful with his own public image. Choosing meaningful roles in important films, such as 'The Day After Tomorrow' and 'Everest', has been his priority ever since he first appeared on screen.
Jacob Benjamin Gyllenhaal, as is his full name, was born in Los Angeles as the son of Naomi Foner, a film producer and screenwriter, and Stephen Gyllenhaal, a film director. His parents divorced in 2009. He has an older sister Maggie, who is also a successful actress. They are of Swedish and English descend. ‘My dad descends from the Swedish Gyllenhaal family, a noble lineage that my ancestor Nils Gunnarsson Haal established in the 17th Century and which has been very influential in Sweden for a long time. My great-grandfather emigrated to the USA’, he says about his family background. ‘My parents were relatively progressive in their spiritual beliefs: my father is Christian and my mother is Jewish. On my 13th birthday, they thought it was important for me to experience a rite of passage, an entrance into manhood, and the consensus was that we would do something for the good of the community, some charitable work – a barmitzvah-like act, without the typical trappings. So we went to a homeless shelter and we did some work there and then I had the party – the celebration there’. He also said that: ‘I see myself as a Jew since my mother is a Russian-Jewish New Yorker’.
His parents continued to work on Jake’s sense of reality, as they encouraged him to have summer jobs, and so he worked as a lifeguard and a busboy.
Since his parents were a part of the film industry, Jake was quite young when he first appeared on-screen. It was the film City Slickers in 1991, when he was just eleven years old. Interestingly, his parents were not happy to have him act at such a young age, so they allowed him to audition for roles, but insisted to have them turned-down if he was chosen. ‘I grew up on movie sets, so it was something I just found familiar.’, he says. ‘When I was growing up also, in high school, I would audition for things and my parents let me audition for things – with the thought that I wouldn’t get them. And then I would get them… sometimes, and it would surprise them.’ Jake did appear in some of the films, most directed by his father, like A Dangerous Woman, Bop Gun, an episode in the Homicide: Life on the Street and in Homegrown and Josh and S.A.M.
In 1998, Jake went on to attend Columbia University, following in the footsteps of his sister. He studied Eastern religions and philosophy, and Uma Thurman’s father was one of his teachers. He dropped out of university, though, to focus on his acting career.
In 1999, Jake got his first leading role in a film. It was in October Sky. The film was a success, and Jake was praised for his performance, which ensured him he was on the right path. ‘Don’t listen to what anybody says except the people who encourage you. If it’s what you want to do and it’s within yourself, then keep going and try to do it for the rest of your life.’
In 2001, Jake played the leading role in a film that will completely change his life and career. It was Donnie Darko, a film that didn’t do as great at the box office as it did afterwards, becoming one of the cult films of the century. ‘For me, personally, when approaching the role, it was sort of hard to figure out, because there’s so many things that he gets hit with. I think that Donnie is what he comes in contact with’, he says about his role. He worked on the film along with his sister. ‘It was really hard for me and my sister, I was nineteen years old and she was twenty-three there, I would always say – what are you doing? That’s acting to you? – and she would say – oh you suck – so then I would say – you’re such a faker – it was very sibling-esque but my sister is probably the reason why I do this, she’s somebody I admire more than anybody in the world.’
That same year, Jake starred in Bubble Boy, then, in 2002, he appeared in Highway, then The Good Girl and Lovely and Amazing. He also shot Moonlight Mile alongside Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon.
Parallel to working on film, Jake also began playing on stage – in London. ‘Every actor I look up to has done theatre work, so I knew I had to give it a try’, he said about his reasons for trying acting in the theatre. He appeared at the Garrick Theatre in the play This Is Our Youth, which ran for eight weeks.
In 2004, he starred in The Day After Tomorrow. In 2005, Proof and Jarhead. But that year, he appeared in another important movie of his career – Brokeback Mountain. The film, where he starred alongside Heath Ledger, tells a story about homosexual love between two cowboys. The film won four Golden Globe Awards, four BAFTA Awards, three Academy Awards and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Jake was even nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category and was invited to join the Academy.
In 2007, Jake appeared in Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, then in Rendition. In 2009, he starred in Brothers. In 2010, he did Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, as well as Love & Other Drugs, which got him a Golden Globe Award nomination.
In 2012, he shot End of Watch, then Enemy in 2013. In 2014, he starred in Nightcrawler, which he also produced, and got another Golden Globe Award nomination. In 2015, he appeared in Southpaw, Everest and Demolition. In 2016, he did Nocturnal Animals.
Jake also continued his theatre work, saying that: ‘In a perfect world, I would love to do one play for every three movies.’ In 2012, he played a role in an Off-Broadway If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, and then on Broadway in Constellations in 2014.
Currently, Jake is working on numerous projects, both for film and theatre.
Jake found his name on the list of the 50 Most Beautiful People of People magazine in 2006, appearing also on the list of Hottest Bachelors that same year. With a reflective expression on his face, he often chooses to play roles in films that are not necessary blockbusters, but have an important idea behind them. ‘The truth is most of the films that make a lot of money no one remembers, and I’m not interested in making films that no one remembers’, he says. Even though he is politically active, supporting Democrats, he despises films with obvious political messages. ‘It’s very important for me to be in the movies that don’t have a message. Messages tend to be a little preachy, and I don’t think that’s what movies are about. It’s important for me to be in movies that have a human level, have a heat in them.’ He also adds: ‘We live in a sad time where actors are politicians and politicians are actors.’
Jake was also raised to take part in helping with social issues. He participates in campaigning for the American Civil Liberties Union. He is environmentally conscious, and spends $400 a year planting trees in Mozambique, promoting the program Future Forests. He also spreads awareness about the climate change and is a supporter of the Stand Up to Cancer and New Eyes for the Needy.
When asked about his career, he said: ‘Some movies you fall a step behind and some you stay in the same place, make the same choices. And then sometimes there are people who know more than you but show you, and that’s the maximum you can hope for, doing that with someone who says – I like you for what you are, and I want you to be in my picture. – I didn’t have to fake it or put on a mask, all the resources I had inside me were more than adequate. I don’t want to pretend to be something. I’m not pretending any more to fit somebody’s mold. That’s a long-winded statement, but, why not do what you really think, even if it’s a mistake?’
Jake is not married nor has he any children. ‘I admire actors and artists who devote just as much time to their life as they do to their work’, he says. When he shot Brokeback Mountain, it was rumored that he was attracted to both sexes alike, which he denied. ‘You know, it’s flattering when there’s a rumor that says I’m bisexual. It means I can play more kinds of roles. I’m open to whatever people want to call me. I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened.’ He also said: ‘Romance is important, but to have a friend you can use as a mirror, who can give you an objective response, that’s what’s really important’’, and: ‘’I think family is the most important thing in the world. I think your own family is the most complicated thing in the world, and I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.’
When it comes to relationships, Jake was dating the actress Kirsten Dunst from 2002 to 2004, then on-and-off for two more years. Then, in 2007, he began dating Reese Witherspoon and their relationship lasted till 2009. In 2010, he was in a relationship with Taylor Swift, reportedly inspiring her to write some of her songs on the album Red. Although he is not publicly dating anyone at the moment, he says he still believes in love.
As Jake grew up as a member of the Hollywood elite, he is surrounded by many famous people in his private life, as well. Paul Newman was his mentor and taught him how to drive, and Jamie Lee Curtis is his godmother.
Jake is also the godfather of Matilda Ledger, the daughter of Heath Ledger who passed away in 2008, and actress Michelle Williams.
Written by: Tamara Djordjevic