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Broadway Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal of ‘Sea Wall/A Life’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

On returning to Broadway: “It has been the highlight of my career so far.”

Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal recently starred in Sea Wall/A Life on Broadway. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the powerful play contained two separate monologues. Sturridge performed Sea Wall by Simon Stephens, while Gyllenhaal tackled A Life by Nick Payne. Although these are separate stories, they feel deeply connected. In Sea Wall, Alex (Sturridge), recounts what happens when his is on vacation with his family in the South of France. During A Life, Abe, (Gyllenhaal), a music producer, is about to become a father for the first time. In addition to having a thriving film career, Gyllenhaal has performed on stage in ConstellationsSunday in the Park with George. Little Shop of HorrorsIf There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and This Is Our Youth. His recent films include Velvet Buzzsaw and Spider Man: Far From Home. Sea Wall/A Life marks Gyllenhaal’s third collaboration with Nick Payne.

Jake Gyllenhaal recently starred in ‘Sea Wall/A Life’ on Broadway (Photo: Max Vadukul)

Jake Gyllenhaal recently starred in ‘Sea Wall/A Life’ on Broadway (Photo: Max Vadukul)

How did you come to do the piece?
Jake Gyllenhaal: This is the third piece I've done of Nick's. I guess it is a collaboration sorts, if you can call it that. In the theater, the writer is really the king. So, it's not a lot of collaboration necessarily. I read an essay he wrote about the passing of his father. He wrote it for himself and performed it at the Royal Court Theater upstairs. He just read it off a piece of paper. He gave it to me just to read, and I was deeply moved by it. I asked him if I could perform it, and he said, "No."

It’s a very, very personal piece to him, and really about his own experience. It was almost too much for him to walk through as if it was partially fictional. I would ask him every six months, and he said “no” for about for five years. And then, finally, he had his daughter. And in this serendipitous kind of moment, this thing happened with our agent. Our agent is very good friends with Simon Stephens. Nick agreed that he could maybe rewrite it and make it about both his father and the birth of the child. So that life and death kind of came together in the same piece. And so here we are.

What were your inner resources when you were working on A Life?
I love the moment in the piece where Abe says, "I'm not a father. I'm a son." I think that is a universal sentiment. I’ve heard from a number of people that “I'm not a father, I'm a son,” is a very powerful line for fathers. The themes are universal. You don't have to fill the shoes of any of the situations that these characters are in to understand what it feels like. Like Tom says: “What you feel from the writing is the desire for connection and love.”

And the play really celebrates the power of love.
JG: This comes from Oskar Eustis’ mouth. (Eustis is artistic director at the Public Theater, where the play had a run before going to Broadway.) "It’s two pieces about two men who basically love their wives deeply." And that seems to be so rare in the theater nowadays. Everything is about broken relationships and things that don't work. All of our complications. (My character) says: "I love her with every bone and bit of skin of me." It's such a nice thing to put out in the world – to men and women – that it is possible to have that kind of love.

How has the experience of doing the show changed you?
These stories have somehow inspired so many other people to tell us their stories. I have never experienced anything, creatively, like this. People have said things to me like, "I haven't spoken to my dad in 15 years and after seeing this I'm going to call him.” Or, “I lost my boyfriend a few years ago, and I haven't felt like I've been able to sort of sit with that feeling until now."

Particularly nowadays, we're really isolated with our phones, and in politics. And when you come here, this isn't a story about systems. This is just about the stuff that inevitably we will all be dealing with. And I think there is something really powerful about that. And to have it come back at us has changed me in ways I cannot even put into words. It has been the highlight of my career so far.

How hard was the piece to actually tackle?
JG: I definitely pulled out of it a couple times. I remember one particular moment when I was sitting with Tom in my office. He cried to me and said, "We have to do this." I wanted to do it. It moved me when I read it over the five years and I tried to do it. And I knew in my mind I could do it. But then, when you put it into action, it's a whole other thing. It has been a full year now since we really began the process of memorizing it. At least for me. It's been eight months, cumulative, of performing the show.

I remember last September, waking up in the middle of the night a couple of times, thinking "What am I doing? How can I do this?" It felt so big. I woke up and I thought, "I can't do this." Then I thought of what my mother always says: "You don't eat the elephant all at once." She loves elephants, by the way. Then I went to the theater and watched the move Free Solo. I saw it and thought, "If this guy can do this, I can do a monologue."

For more of the best of Broadway this season, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in October 2019

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