By Belinda Luscombe
August 8, 2019

Jake Gyllenhaal is no stranger to playing strangers. He’s Hollywood’s go-to guy for delivering loners, slippery souls who aren’t quite what they seem, dudes who are hiding something behind those hedgerow eyebrows, from the tortured cowboy in Brokeback Mountain to the obsessive cop with a history in Prisoners to the superhero Mysterio who’s neither super nor hero in his current film Spider-Man: Far From Home.

However, for six nights a week during a brief stint on Broadway this summer, Gyllenhaal is transforming into what may be one of his most alien characters yet: a regular bloke, with the same daunting problems nearly everyone faces, the departure of a parent and the arrival of a child. And unlike so many of the men Gyllenhaal inhabits, the guy in Sea Wall/A Life, a two-act show in which Gyllenhaal’s character Abe handles the second half, actually does want to talk about it. “I don’t understand why we prepare so f-cking wonderfully and elaborately for birth,” says Abe, “and yet so appallingly and haphazardly for death.”

The actor, 38, has no wife, no child and two living parents, TV director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner. He doesn’t even really, he says, have a home. “I don’t know if I would necessarily say I’ve settled anywhere,” says Gyllenhaal, sitting in his dressing room a few hours before the second preview of the show. “I feel like I’m constantly moving.” But he recoils at the idea that he’s in unfamiliar terrain when taking on such visceral human transitions as the death and birth of family. “I have lost a lot of people that I love. I do know the feeling of loss. And I do know the feeling of deeply, deeply loving,” he says. “I have been at the birth of children that I love. I think those feelings are actually much closer than we assume.”

The Gyllenhaal family is, of course, famous for its famousness. Gyllenhaal’s mother was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay Running on Empty. His sister Maggie and brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard are successful actors. His godmother is Jamie Lee Curtis. The Gyllenhaals are basically the Park Slope, Brooklyn, version of the Kardashians, obsessed with stories instead of cosmetics.

Like Kim and company, they appear to be tight-knit. The elder Mr. Gyllenhaal, whom the younger calls “my pops” and “the sweetest, kindest man,” came in from L.A. to help his daughter and son-in-law move recently, and popped by the Hudson Theatre to see his son’s show for the third or fourth time. (It had an off-Broadway run earlier this year.) “He came backstage, he was really moved this time, I think because of a number of things in the show that have evolved and changed,” says Gyllenhaal. “We cried together.”

There’s what could be called a family shrine arranged in front of the actor’s dressing-room mirror. It includes a box of old photographs of father and son, some of which are the obligatory beach-vacation family snaps. “He’s really incredible, actually, at building sandcastles,” recalls Gyllenhaal as he flips through them. There’s a framed image of the actor as a baby with his dad. I love you is written in neat capitals on a yellow sticky note stuck to the mirror. Those are both from his mom.

But Gyllenhaal doesn’t need to sit and ponder them to get into the right mind frame before going onstage. He doesn’t have much of a preshow ritual at all, because he prefers to take each performance as it comes. The night his father came, the actor was outside looking at the new artwork put up on the exterior wall of the theater by his friend, the perpetually sunglasses-wearing French photographer JR. It’s a series of posters of all the people who came to the first performance. It’s not an ad for the show, Gyllenhaal points out, just a collaboration. It’s good to be a friend of Gyllenhaal’s. He likes collaborating. During a tour of the greenroom, he notes it was decorated by furniture-maker friends. He has made two movies with writer-director Dan Gilroy and two with the director Denis Villeneuve, and A Life is his third turn with the playwright Nick Payne, whom he met making his New York City theater debut, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

It took five years from when Payne first sent Gyllenhaal some thoughts on the death of his father to persuade him to turn it into a play and then a few more to bring the play to the stage. “I’ve never really fit into a space that anybody has tried to fit me into,” says the star of his career. “I just try to maintain as much of what I believe in or who I am as I can.”

When he comes out on the very bare stage of Sea Wall/A Life, Abe’s addressing a crowd who has already had their emotions wrung out by the first act, Sea Wall, performed by Tom Sturridge. For the next hour or so, Gyllenhaal has to hold that audience with another story, funnier but less dramatic, and with no props except a pair of glasses and an iPhone. “Tom’s piece sort of breaks open people’s hearts in a way,” he says. “I try to tell the audience very particularly that we’re on a different journey now.”

Abe swings erratically between the two narratives, his father’s ill health and his wife’s pregnancy, with the only constant being how unprepared he is for either. It requires a lot of tricky tonal shifts, sometimes midsentence. But Gyllenhaal revels in it, doing two things at the same time, blurring the edges between them. He asked Payne for more as they developed the script.

Close Gyllenhaal observers, and there are many, especially among the film-student crowd, note that the actor excels in being two often contradictory types at once. The Marine in Jarhead who never sees action. The cameraman in Nightcrawler who begins to direct the news. The college professor in Enemy who has a stuntman twin. Tellingly, the actor named his production company Nine Stories, after a book by J.D. Salinger, who insisted his writing never be adapted for film.

Even the star’s first foray into the superhero world is a meta-exercise. Gyllenhaal’s less compelled by the obvious moral of the Mysterio story line–that if you create enough fear, people will believe anything–and more in the nature of belief. “I think it’s been made very clear that we’re in a time where truth is very confusing, and we have people in our leadership making that confusing,” he says. “To me, the more interesting thing is that we also need to be careful about the myths that we tell. And who we believe in.” Gyllenhaal participates in one of this generation’s most successful mythmaking enterprises by playing a character who calls into question everything about the making of myths.

It’s tempting to think that having processed all that, the actor is relishing the chance to return to a more primal form of storytelling: two guys and their testimonies. But he insists that’s not the appeal of the play. What he loves, he says, is the response. Not (just) the applause or the energy of a live audience, but the recognition people have of their lives. After the show theatergoers line up to tell him about their fathers or their children. “I’ve never felt it from anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “To hear the stories back at me, at such a consistent rate, that is unlike anything I’ve been a part of. I mean it just hit something.” It’s almost as if Gyllenhaal has discovered that while oddballs are interesting to play, humans are interesting to talk to.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the August 19, 2019 issue of TIME.

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