At the beginning of Stronger, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes a mess out of roasting chickens at his Costco job. He’s also running late for a Boston Red Sox game. Instead of staying to clean up, he charms his supervisor to let him leave work early. As a 30-year-old man, he’s living at home with his alcoholic mother Patty (Miranda Richardson). His girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has broken up with him several times over his inability to mature past rooting for the Sox, getting drunk regularly and staying at home to play video games.
In cinematic terms, what happens next for Bauman runs dramatically parallel to Stephen Hawking in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything. Where Hawking’s body suffers from ALS and deteriorates from the inside out, Bauman was a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. According to the film, he was waiting for Erin at the finish line with a hand-drawn sign of encouragement for her when the explosion destroyed both of his legs.
The Theory of Everything painfully documents a man’s struggle to come to terms with a changed body — its physical limitations — and how this change strains a marital relationship. Hawking’s career as a physicist was already underway when his body began to lose its mobility, increasing his dependency on friends and family. Stronger adds another complicating factor to a similar story. Bauman not only has to adjust to his new body, and a set of prosthetic limbs, but he also has the added pressure of recovering publicly.
After the bombing, the Bostonians depicted in the film attempt to heal and unite with the help of the slogan “Boston Strong.” Bauman becomes a reluctant American hero, a symbol of resilience for his city and the people who recognize him on the streets. At the same time, he’s figuring out how to grow up. Jake Gyllenhaal stopped in San Francisco this week to discuss his role in the movie. Bauman, himself, has often been at the actor’s side on the Stronger promotional tour. Without him there, he answered questions in the same way a protective older brother would.
“I don’t think Jeff had any choice in the attention he was given,” Gyllenhaal says. “He will say it often, ‘I was sucker-punched in this situation.’ And then, while trying to recalibrate his life, and trying to figure out his place in the physical world and the emotional world and figure out who he was after this event, all of a sudden, he was carrying the mantle of ‘hero’ before he’d even understood how to live it at all.”
Gyllenhaal is speaking here from the point of view of having identified with his character’s struggle and, after assuming his identity, not entirely abandoning it. At the hotel where we meet, there’s no trace of the gaunt, soulless videographer he played in Nightcrawler. His blue eyes retain no spark of the TV host’s antic lunacy in Okja. Whatever sorrow his body expressed in Nocturnal Animals stays confined within the contours of his plaid shirt. The extreme emotions he’s capable of performing stay dormant in the room. He’s measured and thoughtful about the types of roles he’s cast in now versus the ones he first auditioned for — the quirky guys he played in indie films like The Good Girl or Lovely & Amazing.
“I started very young and when I say very young — very young,” he says. “Maybe almost born into it, but I started acting professionally so young that I don’t know if I was fully developed. I did not really have a mind of my own. The business itself, the art itself, grew me up. At first, I responded to just getting cast. Those things early on in my career were not as much of a choice. Some of those things I auditioned for, I couldn’t believe I got, so maybe I was initially fashioned into someone else’s idea.”
An Academy Award-nominated actor for Brokeback Mountain (2005), he’s now skilled and confident enough to project his own ideas on screen, even if that took him some time to figure it out. Gyllenhaal explained that “During a period of time, I got seduced by having a certain type of success. Then I just got shook up and felt like I was not in my own skin. I didn’t feel like myself. Then I went, ‘I’m going to resist that.’ I came to this conclusion, ‘Work with people who believe in you. Don’t work with people who you want to believe in you,’ and that changed my career.”
Jeff is an ordinary man forced to change under extraordinary circumstances. The actor talks about him the way that he plays him, affectionately and with respect. “I think a movie like this is saying, ‘You know what? We can inspire each other.’ We can be positive. And then there’s also the grief, and the heartbreak, and the mess and complexity of being human.”
Before the attack, his Bauman is flawed and immature but a likable guy. He has no power over the events that determine the direction his life will take. Gyllenhaal’s had a widely lauded run playing a series of morally ambiguous roles. Stronger isn’t a tonal departure for the actor but it does reveal a man in his most vulnerable state. In Bauman, he’s playing someone we might actually recognize or want to know. When he reaches out to Erin from the hospital bed, wordlessly, he brings a teary-eyed audience right by his side.
Stronger opens Friday, Sept. 22 at the Kabuki 8.