Between courses at the Ravagh Persian Grill in Manhattan (his choice), he pulls out from under his T-shirt the two chains that hang around his neck. Each has a ring at its end - one is a black diamond, the other a pendant of Saint Genesius, patron saint of actors - and he starts rolling them between his fingers. But he almost seems alarmed when I ask about them, as though he hasn't been aware of what he has been doing. A diner from another table comes over.
"Can I say hi to you?" she asks.
"Yes, you can," he says.
"Oh, my gosh," she says. "You're my favorite."
"Oh no," he says. "Oh, don't say that. You say that to everybody."
"No!" she protests. "I love The Brokenback Mountain. I really did love it. I watched it three times."
Brokenback Mountain. Once she recedes, he turns to me and says, "You don't want to know the variations of that title." He tells me how, just the other day, a lawyer asked him how he got into acting at such a young age. "I think at first I was just ambitious," he says. "It was blind ambition. I wanted to be out there. I mean, I remember watching my sister up onstage doing South Pacific when we were kids and going, 'That looks like a fucking lot of fun.'" He debates with himself. "Was it attention? Probably, but I think it was more the magic. It's magic, some of what happens in movies. I mean, people asked me many times through the experience of Brokeback Mountain what that was like. And the best way I can describe it is what we all carry with ourselves from that experience, and why we feel so close. Forget all the awards that come, with people kind of adorning each other - it wasn't about that. There was something magical in that time. We all slept in our trailers out by a trailer park the first month of making that movie. I was sleeping next to Ang's trailer; Ang's trailer was next to Heath and Michelle's trailer - they'd kind of moved in together. And Michael Hausman, the producer, brought his Airstream trailer down. And it was just us, by this river, for a month. And we would walk to set, and we would eat together, and we would all make coffee in the morning, and I would wake up in the morning and there would be Ang Lee doing Tai Chi outside of my trailer, and it was just magical. It was just magical."
To promote the movie, the cast appeared together on Oprah. For the first half of the show, it was just Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger fending off Winfrey's enthusiasm and curiosity. There is a sheen cast over the movie now - to some extent because of its subject matter but mostly because of Ledger's death - that leaves it and anything connected to it frozen, untouchable. So rewatching the two actors on Oprah, I was surprised to see Gyllenhaal alluding to times that the two of them didn't get on during the filming. Gyllenhaal seems surprised, too, when I mention this, as if he wasn't aware this was something he'd shared. But he remembers. The scene with the two of them by the river, for instance.
"Where Heath's character goes into how his father knew of two guys who lived together and he ended up seeing them killed and dead. I had always read it in a certain way. I heard it in my mind a certain way. And I had worked with these incredible actors like Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon. When I worked with Dustin, he would always do things to me; in between a take, he would stop his lines, and he'd be like, 'You're a wonderful person,' or horrible things sometimes to jar me... getting a different response. And so I decided in this scene to gather the gumption" - this was when Ledger's part of the scene was being filmed and Gyllenhaal was off-camera - "and I don't subscribe to this really, changing lines on an actor, because I don't think I'm Dustin Hoffman, and I don't think I have the ability or the talent to do that to somebody. But I do think that changing intention sometimes on an actor when you're doing a scene when you're not on-camera is really interesting for them. But I did it at one point in this one scene, and I'd always heard it a certain way, so I was almost trying to move the scene to that place for him. He delivered the whole thing very, very straight, and he could feel me trying to do that, and I remember him getting really upset with me. And I remember him turning to Ang at the end of it and going, 'If he wants to tell me what to do, have him tell you'... We had these kind of exchanges, you know. But ultimately, the way I look at it was I was wrong, because he was brilliant. But at the same time I think, "Well, if I hadn't, would it have gone a certain way?" We balanced each other out. When I think about these things that happened then, we were very much alive in that movie. We were really living that movie. Not literally, but you think about those times in your life..."
One thing Gyllenhaal would do - feeding off the way Ledger had chosen to play the part of Ennis quietly, his teeth clenched - was to ask him in character, "What? What'd you say?" "Stupid me," Gyllenhaal comments now.
Did Heath never do anything that annoyed you?
"No. I always admired Heath. I always was kind of enamored by him, you know. I mean, yeah, sometimes it was hard to sit with him. He moved... He was a mover."
People have since suggested that he was really, really troubled by having to do all that promotion and campaigning. Was that your sense?
"Yeah. He was very sensitive. He didn't always really have a sense of performance in his everyday life. He was who he was. I think actors very often, they know how to present something, and that's part of their job. I think he was just really sensitive. We often used to do a lot of things together, because people were very interested in him and I think we felt safe together."
For example, he says that when he and Ledger had to introduce Ang Lee at the Directors Guild awards, Ledger refused point-blank to say anything jokey about Lee, as might have been expected at such an event. Their introduction was consequently so serious and earnest, says Gyllenhaal, that when Lee came up to the stage, he told them, "That was so gay."
Still, he also remembers how much they'd be laughing backstage at events: "For such a serious actor as Heath was, he was crazy funny. Dark funny, but funny." Out front, they came to be sobered by people's reactions, as they realized that the movie was bigger than all of them, bigger than they'd realized. Gyllenhaal tells me a strange thing about the filming, an experience he'd just rhapsodized about as so magical: "In retrospect, it just was a painful process." As though there's no reason why both memories should not be equally true. "I don't think any of us can watch it to this day," he says. "I remember talking to Michelle very recently and her being like, 'I didn't know if it was any good or not.'"
Afterward, he and Ledger stayed in close touch. "We'd talk a few times a month. I mean, he was a friend. He was like my creative partner." The news of Ledger's death came while Gyllenhaal was filming Brothers.
Could you make any sense of it at all?
A lengthy pause. "I don't really like talking about it. That period of time was... It was difficult."
What effect do you think it had on you?
"Even when we did Brokeback and stuff, it was like my work was the only thing that mattered to me. It was like I could only understand or define myself through doing that. Life, I didn't totally understand. And I think I was afraid of life. And I had success in my work, enough success that you could keep going back there. But after that happened... I think I recognized that it was work. And I recognized that this is for real."
"This" being life?
"It's for real."
What were you scared of?
"It seems to me that there are some people who go, 'All right, I'm grabbing the bull by the horns. Let's do this...,' and there are some people who it takes a while to figure out. It's an everyday struggle to be able to go, 'I'm going to follow my own instincts - I'm going to try and hear my own heart regardless...' We're getting pretty deep here. I mean, there are things that I want in my life. You can hide in your work, I guess I'm saying, or you can be alive and free and live in your work. You can pretend the people that you're going to work with for however many months are going to be the family that's going to be forever. But the truth is, they're not. And no matter what relationships you make along the way - which have been occasionally really, really influential in my life – ultimately I choose all the mishegoss, and all the complication and confusions of life, which takes courage and patience to sift through. Over the temporary moment of 'Oh, I'm comforted in the womb of this family.' I choose the other. I hate to say this, but - "Gyllenhaal smiles - "it's time to jump."
There is a famous scene in Brokeback Mountain where Ledger's and Gyllenhaal's characters jump together off a cliff into a river, both of them naked.
In reality, Ledger made the jump but Gyllenhaal did not. Originally the leap was to have been from a lower ledge, but Ledger wanted to go from right at the top. They were told how careful they would have to be, falling from that height, because they might hit the river's shallow bottom, and they were also warned of the hazards presented by the glacial water. Gyllenhaal realized he wasn't so sure about it. He had just been cast in Jarhead, and that shoot was starting soon. He knew that if he injured himself, he would lose the part. And he was comforted by a precedent: he remembered a story he had heard in his youth, about how Paul Newman, a family friend, hadn't actually made the leap in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He decided to let a stand-in jump in his stead.
I ask him whether Ledger didn't, after all they had been through together, say to him, "You're wimping out on this?"
"It's interesting - he never did say that. I would have loved for him to have said that."
Would it have made you feel bad?
"Maybe. Yeah, probably. But I was actually really, really proud of myself that I didn't do it. For me, it was a great triumph. You know, there's a pressure that people put on themselves to not trust their instincts. You know, show the stunt guys I can do it, prove it to this person, prove it to that person. Who do I need to prove it to? And Heath didn't do it for any of those reasons - he did it because he wanted to jump."
Do you at all regret not doing it now?
"Yeah. But that's me now."
Source: GQ, May 2010 - interviewed by Chris Heath