Jake Gyllenhaal on Tackling Pandemic Protocols, Police Perspective in ‘The Guilty’: ‘I Don’t Think It’s What People Expect’

It’s that time of year when film awards ballots are going out. Here’s some advice for voters: make sure you see Netflix’s “The Guilty” before voting. It’s a great piece of filmmaking, and Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the year’s best performances.

However, try not to read about the film. There will be no spoilers in this column, but as Gyllenhaal tells Variety, “It’s important that people approach this movie without too much information.”

Here’s what is safe to report: It takes place in a 911 call center, in a short period of time, with Gyllenhaal’s character Joe Baylor dealing with individuals who are lost, strung out and/or desperate, all while L.A. firefighters are battling a wildfire that complicates everything.

“Guilty” is impressive at any level, but especially considering the degree of difficulty. It was shot in 11 days, with Antoine Fuqua remote-directing from a nearby van, since he’d been exposed to COVID-19. Gyllenhaal is in virtually every shot; they did 20-minute takes, with actors who play the callers phoning in from various locations. And this was all accomplished in the early days of COVID, which hit hard in March 2020.

The actor calls it “a scary time: There was very little protocol about how to shoot a film indoors.”

As a producer and star, Gyllenhaal was under intense pressure — and he loved it.

“After years of making films, I’m always thrilled by a different way of doing things. With more challenges, it gets more interesting.

“I think ‘The Guilty’ is for people who love movies because it strips away all of the things we’re used to in movies and it forces us to use our imagination. Now in films we’re shown everything, but implication and mystery are so important and this movie is filled with them. A lot of movies are overt, and ‘The Guilty’ is all subtext.”

The film doesn’t have an M. Night Shyamalan twist, but it’s one of the few films this year where you honestly don’t know where it’s headed. In a tight 90 minutes, the first hour is gripping. The last 30 minutes shift into overdrive and offer big payoffs in the script by Nic Pizzolatto.

The project started when Gyllenhaal saw the 2018 Danish film directed by Gustav Moller and knew it would translate well to an American context.

Gyllenhaal says studios were interested and when the pandemic hit in March 2020, it became a red-hot property: “Everyone was looking for a contained movie with few characters. It seemed well on its way but then George Floyd was killed.”

The U.S. exploded with issues of violence, mental health, the public’s relations with authorities (cops, emergency workers, even store clerks) and floating anger.

Gyllenhaal says, “All the movie’s undercurrents made everyone think ‘Maybe we shouldn’t tell this story now.’ ” But, he adds, “These are the moments when you should tell stories like this, not run away from them.”

Undeterred, he says, “I wanted to find a filmmaker who believed this film should be a conversation-starter or even just a conversation. We’re barely able to have conversations these days.” Fuqua was the perfect partner for this, he says.

In the past decade, Gyllenhaal has racked up an astonishing list of credits, including “Nightcrawler,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Stronger,” “Prisoners,” “Southpaw” and “Enemy.” All of them were Oscar-worthy, though not nominated. Maybe not enough people saw them. Netflix reports huge viewership for “Guilty,” and one hopes awards voters are in that group.

“I think it’s a special film,” he says. “I don’t think it’s what people expect. I really hope people see it.”

Cops and dispatchers have a high rate of burnout; they only see one aspect of humanity: troubled, angry, desperate — what one character describes as “broken people.” Gyllenhaal has played a lot of troubled characters. Does it ever get under your skin?

“The darkness of a lot of these characters has had an influence. But I’m grateful that acting is one of the only jobs that allows for a safe space for all our feelings. If you can give those feelings context, you come home feeling exorcised.”

In memorizing large chunks of a script, Gyllenhaal had a lot of practice after decades of stage work. Shortly before “Guilty,” he appeared in a double bill of monologues at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre: He was in Nick Payne’s “A Life,” paired with Simon Stephen’s “Sea Wall,” performed by Tom Sturridge.

Since much of the “Guilty” interaction is over the phone, Gyllenhaal says with a little surprise, “I haven’t worked with other actors in person in 2 1/2 years, maybe 3 1/2.”

But he didn’t feel alone. The callers in “Guilty” are played by top thesps including Riley Keogh, Peter Sarsgaard and Ethan Hawke. In “A Life,” he says, “I was facing the audience, talking to them. Your ‘scene partner’ is these thousand people. Our director, Carrie Cracknell, said, ‘If something happens, don’t disregard it, use it.’ So I didn’t feel alone.

“I loved the honest response of the non-professional audience. Working with a live audience was the most magical experience in my career.

“Stage is everything I love. Even at its worst, it’s the best. I’ve learned more creatively from being onstage than anywhere else. I urge every actor to get onstage.

“I would love to talk with actors who’ve watched ‘The Guilty.’ This is a role that can be played in many different ways. This is my interpretation and there’s obviously the Danish film. There’s also a man in France doing a stage play of it and they did a version in India.”

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