Jake Gyllenhaal Biography


Born Jacob Benjamin Gyllenhaal, December 19, 1980, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Stephen Gyllenhaal (a film director) and Naomi Foner (a screenwriter). Education: Attended Columbia University, c. 1998-2000.

Addresses: Home —Los Angeles, CA.


Actor in films, including: City Slickers, 1991; A Dangerous Woman, 1993; October Sky, 1999; Donnie Darko, 2001; Bubble Boy, 2001; Lovely and Amazing, 2001; The Good Girl, 2002; Moonlight Mile, 2002; The Day After Tomorrow, 2004; Brokeback Mountain 2005; Proof, 2005; Jarhead, 2005; also appeared in a 1994 episode of the Homicide: Life on the Street, NBC, and in the London stage production of This Is Our Youth, 2002.


Actor Jake Gyllenhaal's evolution from playing the troubled anti-hero in small, independent films to the lead in big-budget Hollywood projects was swift and superbly timed. After emerging as the doe-eyed new "It" guy in movies like Donnie Darko in 2001 and 2002's The Good Girl, Gyllenhaal (pronounced JILL-en-hall) carried the 2004 global-warming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. He admitted later that the transition was not an easy one, as he told People 's Tom Gliatto, but he received some sage advice from co-star Dennis Quaid. "I remember Dennis sitting me down one day," Gyllenhaal recalled, "and just saying, 'You gotta chill out. It's an action movie.'"

Jake Gyllenhaal

Gyllenhaal hails from a show-business family. He was born on December 19, 1980, in Los Angeles, to Stephen Gyllenhaal, a director for film and television, and Naomi Foner, a screenwriter whose credits include Running on Empty and Losing Isaiah. Gyllenhaal's sister, Maggie, is also a rising star in Hollywood. As youngsters, the siblings had small roles in a 1993 film directed by their father, A Dangerous Woman, for which their mother had written the screenplay. It was not Gyllenhaal's first screen appearance, however: that came two years earlier, as the son of Billy Crystal's character in City Slickers.

Though Jamie Lee Curtis was Gyllenhaal's unofficial godmother, and he was taken out onto race tracks in hot rods driven by Oscar-winner and racing enthusiast Paul Newman in his teens, both Gyllenhaals were discouraged by their parents from entering show business until they had given college a try. But Gyllenhaal took a couple of parts around the time of his 1998 graduation from the private Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. One was the lead in a small film called October Sky, which was released in 1999 to excellent reviews. Its script was based on the life of a real-life aerospace engineer, Homer Hickam, whose father—played by Chris Cooper in the film—tries to discourage his interest in rocketry in a coal mining West Virginia town in 1957.

Though critics lauded Gyllenhaal's October Sky performance, the early taste of fame unnerved him, and he followed his sister to New York City and enrolled at Columbia University, as she had done as well. For two years, he studied Eastern religions and worked in restaurants—first as a busboy and later as a sous-chef—before he felt the lure of Hollywood once more. Bypassed for the Ewan McGregor role in Moulin Rouge, he took the lead in a small, science-fiction/fantasy movie called Donnie Darko, which was released the fall of 2001. The odd movie, directed by Richard Kelly, featured Gyllenhaal as a young high-schooler plagued by visions of giant talking rabbit named Frank, who urges him to commit violent acts and warns that the world will end in four weeks. Drew Barrymore played a sympathetic high-school teacher to Gyllenhaal's character, whom others are convinced is displaying signs of schizophrenia. The film won terrific reviews, but tanked at the box office, earning just $515,000.

Gyllenhaal went on to appear in another box-office dud in 2001, Bubble Boy, with this one, by contrast, receiving scathing reviews. Nevertheless, he decided to drop out of Columbia altogether, and he explained why in an interview with Maddy Costa for London's Guardian newspaper. "I had gone to school to be intellectual and cerebral, but there isn't an acting programme at my college, and I'm happier when I'm acting." Choosing his next few roles more carefully, Gyllenhaal delivered a string of luminous portrayals and emerged as what New York Times Magazine writer David A. Keeps called "the go-to guy for art-house auteurs in search of angst-ridden adolescents." These included Lovely and Amazing, a darkly comic family saga from director Nicole Holofcener in which he had a supporting role as a love-struck photo-processing booth co-worker of Catherine Keener's character, an unhappily married artist.

Gyllenhaal practically reprised that same role in The Good Girl, a 2002 film that earned excellent reviews. Again, Gyllenhaal played the co-worker of a depressed, slightly older married woman, this time opposite Jennifer Aniston. Weighed down by her marriage to a chronic pothead and her life in a dusty Texas town, Aniston's Justine falls into a torrid affair with Gyllenhaal's Holden when he begins working at the local Retail Rodeo, but their relationship quickly spirals out of control. Both his and Aniston's performances won high marks from critics, with the New York Times 's Elvis Mitchell terming Gyllenhaal "a specialist in sending up infantile narcissism. He satirizes the spaniel-eyed sensitivity that other actors would exploit."

Critics often remarked on Gyllenhaal's beguilingly doe-eyed looks and the sensitivity he seemed to radiate onscreen. Gliatto, the People scribe, declared that Gyllenhaal was beginning to fall into a category of actors known as "geeky but sexy young brooders," while Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote of his "studied elfin moroseness." Gyllenhaal admitted that at this time of his life he seemed to be choosing films roles that fell into the "misfit" slot, but it was a label he tended to reject. "I find wounded to be a better word, but I don't like it sounding inactive—victim-y," he told Jamie Painter Young in an interview for Back Stage West. "I just choose these [roles] because there's stuff to do, whereas other characters are just 'the football jock,' or 'the nerd,' or 'the best friend.'"

The last of these roles seemed to come in Moonlight Mile, released in 2002, which starred Gyllenhaal as the fiancé of a young woman who was slain in a random act of violence. He moves in with her grieving parents, played by Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman. Working alongside such illustrious, Academy Award-winning stars was a turning point for Gyllenhaal in his career. Realizing his limitations—he had no formal dramatic training whatsoever—he began working with an acting coach. As he explained to Young in Back Stage West, "there are ways of saying and feeling lines that can lead someone to melodrama—bad acting—and I think sometimes I do go there."

Hoffman encouraged Gyllenhaal to test his mettle on the stage, and so in early 2002 Gyllenhaal relocated to London for a stretch to appear in the Kenneth Lonergan play This Is Our Youth at the Garrick Theatre. The story of a trio of disaffected young adults is set in New York City in 1982, and Gyllenhaal appeared opposite Anna Paquin and Hayden Christensen. He earned terrific reviews from London theater critics for his stage debut. "Gyllenhaal's performance is perfect—and so rounded that it takes a very long time [until] you even begin to like this Warren, let alone to realise that he's the central character in the play," noted Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times.

Back in Hollywood, Gyllenhaal made a somewhat surprising career move and signed on for his first big-budget action movie, The Day After Tomorrow. The $125 million epic was filmed in Montreal during the early part of 2003, but editing and arduous special-effects work delayed its release until May of 2004. It became the biggest box-office opening weekend of Gyllenhaal's career to date. He played high-schooler Sam Hall, who heads to New York City for a school trip and is forced to hide out in the New York Public Library when a freak storm turns into a tidal wave that devastates Manhattan. The global-warming predictions of his on-screen scientist dad, played by Quaid, have gone unheeded, and within hours temperatures in New York descend to Ice-Age levels.

Gyllenhaal did all of his own stunts in The Day After Tomorrow, and turned in an appropriately courageous but humble action-hero performance. Critics derided the film for its transparent thrills and schlocky dialogue, and even the New York Times reviewer, A. O. Scott, commented that "Gyllenhaal has a way of infusing even his most desperate lines with a hint of knowing sarcasm." Gyllenhaal found that appearing in a major Hollywood blockbuster was indeed very different from working in small, independent films. "I rewrote scenes myself and brought them in, which, much to my dismay, they didn't really appreciate," he told Entertainment Weekly 's Gillian Flynn. "But they listened. It's nicer to be heard out and then be thrown out than just be thrown out immediately."

After proving himself in such a large-scale Hollywood project, Gyllenhaal seemed to have his choice of terrific roles offered to him. He was cast in Proof, the 2005 screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prizewinning David Auburn play, which also starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. Alongside Heath Ledger, Gyllenhaal appeared in a literately styled cowboy story, Brokeback Mountain, also slated for a 2005 release. But it was his London stage experience back in 2002 that landed him the much-coveted lead in Jarhead, a third project with a 2005 release date. The film, based on a best-selling novel by former Marine Anthony Swofford about his Desert Storm experiences, was to be directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame, and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire had reportedly wanted the part. "The thing that sold me on Jake," Mendes told Daily Variety, "was watching him onstage . He showed amazing range and strength."

Gyllenhaal seems to resist taking part in publicity transactions that might play up the heartthrob angle. Instead, he and Chelsea Clinton discussed their passion for the writings of J.D. Salinger in an Interview magazine article; the Hollywood brat and the former First Daughter already knew one another from summers spent on Martha's Vineyard with their families. Gyllenhaal has been linked romantically with fellow Hollywood "It" names Natalie Portman and later Kirsten Dunst, with whom he lived with for a time. He remains an intensely private person, and even turned down a role in a Bernardo Bertolucci film, The Dreamers, because it called for nudity. He was wary of letting his celebrity status get in the way of his career, as he told journalist Jeff Strickler of the Minneapolis Star Tribune —a newspaper for which Gyllenhaal's uncle serves as editor. "Getting your picture on the cover of a magazine is a lot easier than keeping it there," the actor pointed out. "Once you get there, it's all about maintaining the status quo. People get expectations, and you have to keep meeting those expectations."

Though Gyllenhaal does admit to harboring ambitions to someday follow in his father's footsteps and direct a film, he views the star system as a mixed blessing. Reflecting back on the early buzz that accompanied his swift rise, he later admitted that he felt himself sucked in by the Hollywood fame machine. "I depended on it every day to bring me some sort of happiness and instant gratification," he told Young in the Back Stage West interview. "Just as quickly as it would bring me up, it would let me down. If you recognize that this business chews you up and spits you out, you can't get caught up in it and make it your life. Just see how unhappy people are when they do."


Back Stage West, August 8, 2002, p. 4.

Daily Variety, October 21, 2004, p. 1.

Entertainment Weekly, October 4, 2002, p. 121; June 4, 2004, p. 28; June 18, 2004, p. 42.

Financial Times, March 19, 2002, p. 22.

Guardian (London, England), October 18, 2002, p. 6.

Interview, February 2003, p. 142.

New Statesman, October 28, 2002, p. 45.

New York Times, June 28, 2002; August 7, 2002; May 27, 2004.

New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2003, p. 60.

People, October 21, 2002, p. 83; June 14, 2004, p. 77.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 4, 2002, p. 1E.

—Carol Brennan

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