‘Prisoners’ Roundtable: Jake Gyllenhaal and Melissa Leo on ‘Acting from the Ass’

Jake Gyllenhaal and Melissa Leo on the success of the Warner Bros. drama

Prisoners Director Stars Open Up Jake
Patrick James Miller

“Anything goes!” declared Melissa Leo on a recent morning, after she confessed that she had just taken a red-eye flight to join her “Prisoners” cast for a Variety roundtable. “Should I dance on the tables, boys?” “You’re going to get a really good interview,” teased Jake Gyllenhaal, who attended with the film’s French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski.

As we reported in last week’s issue of Variety, “Prisoners” is a dark horse contender in this year’s Oscar race. The R-rated drama from Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment opened in September to strong reviews and has gone on to make $115 worldwide from a $40 million budget. Its tangled premise originally landed the script on Hollywood’s Black List: after two young girls go missing on Thanksgiving day, one father (Hugh Jackman) is determined to find them with the help of a young detective (Gyllenhaal); Leo plays the aunt of one of the potential suspects.

Below is an edited transcript of their discussion about the film’s long production history, its casting, and the gray wig and foam bottom that kept the actors going.

Aaron, you wrote this script many years ago. It was based on a short story?

Aaron Guzikowski: Yeah. An unpublished short story, more of like a fictional sketch.

Melissa Leo: Of yours? I didn’t even know that. Fascinating.

Guzikowski: It was like an Edgar Allen Poe story about a guy who had captured another guy and was haunted by it, like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I spent a good two years writing it while I was living here in New York. I was working in the bottom of advertising. We made direct mail, so basically the American Express envelopes you get in the mail.

Leo: Such a waste of time.

Denis Villeneuve: There were one or two directors attached before me. To do movies, it’s all about momentum. You have to have the right screenplay, director and cast at the right time. I think that “Prisoners” was a screenplay that was quite a challenge. There was a lot of actors that were very attracted to the material, because it was strong material, but at the same time, a very scary one.

Leo: I met on it when one of the other directors was considering.

Was it for the same part?

Villeneuve: No, she was playing the father.

Leo: I wasn’t going to make such a good father. But dammit, I could do it! Actually, from that interview [with director Antoine Fuqua] I got two other jobs, “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer.”

But you didn’t want the role in “Prisoners” at first?

Leo: Again and again and again, I keep getting asked to play somebody who is 20 years older than me. From where I sit, there’s a lot of really fine actresses who are in fact 20 years older than me.

Villeneuve: It’s because you’re such a fantastic actress. It’s a coincidence Antoine and I thought about you.

Gyllenhaal: For me, the question was who the character was and what he meant to the story. There was such an amazing fabric of the characters strung together in the story. [Denis and I] had just finished making a movie together [“Enemy,” which comes out next year] where it was almost like we were conjoined twins, every choice, our minds were melded. I was still unsure. We were in a weird moment of limbo.

Villeneuve: The truth, in the past, you were in contact with some parts where people were saying we would give you space to create something and you didn’t have that space.

When I saw the film, I had no idea it was you Melissa until the credits rolled.

Leo: Thank you.

Gyllenhaal: Are you serious?

Leo: That’s an extremely high compliment. You’re not the first person to say that. When I did “Homicide” many years ago, they wrote a script at one point where my character Kay Howard’s sister comes into town. I had pointedly not used any femininity in Kay Howard. I’m sure they wrote the sister because they wanted some sexy thing to be part of the show. I said, “Who are you going to cast as the sister? Can I be my sister?” And they said, “Absolutely not!” I said, “I will audition for you.” I went down the makeup trailer and they put makeup on me, and I went and auditioned for those sons of bitches. They said, “Ok you can do it,” but they wouldn’t let me use my name. When my dad saw that episode, he called up and said, “Who did they get to play your sister Melissa? She was so good. She even got some of your mannerisms.” For me, I never sought to be a movie star. For me it’s about — I’m sorry to say it — the work.

Villeneuve: The process for you of transformation, I thought it was so important to you.

Leo: There is something in the questionable behavior or our darling Holly Jones. This was a way I was protecting myself, to disguise her and put those glasses on. And the wig. It had been written on the page in her introduction, and I hope it remains in the published editions of the script, the very first thing that’s said about Holly Jones is long gray hair.

How did you find the walk?

Leo: There was a gorgeous pair of elastic band jeans, which really do a girl great. And this big bulky sweater, and all of it was making me bigger. But then I said to Renee [April, the costume designer] I think I need a bottom, and she built me a foam rubber one that I wear under the trousers. It was the final key into her forming, because she sits around watching TV so much and doesn’t move a lot when she’s doing it. And then when she gets up, she has to bring that bottom with her, so that makes her walk slowly. The slower I walked, the lower my voice got and the happier Denis got, so I knew I was on the right track.

Villeneuve: It all came from your ass.

Gyllenhaal: That’s why I mentioned your butt before.

Leo: Acting from the ass. I don’t mind you all talking about my bottom all the time.

Jake, your character has a twitch in the film?

Gyllenhaal: How that was calibrated was not just me and Denis but also Joel Cox [the film’s editor]. The editing of that and how that was regulated, when they eventually chose to use it in the edit and all that too. That is a credit to a number of people making that work. I had read this script and I had this strange idea.

Villeneuve: If you make the right casing and the actors are inspired by their characters, you can bring ideas and will create poetry. It’s very important I think that actors bring their ideas. Like, when he came on set for the first time for the movie, he looked like a Taliban. He looked like Osama bin Laden. I had to ask him to cut off the beard, to trim the haircut. We chose the haircut together.

Gyllenhaal: It was a long process. I had just finished a play here in New York. I was growing this beard for the character in the play. I know it sounds a bit strange and a bit indulgent to say, when you leave one character and move into another, I had this mentality and I had been living in it every night for five months. It had taken over me, and it’s hard to leave because you love it, and you love the words you were saying and the people you were working with. And then I fell in love with Detective Loki. And then we were full-on, full steam ahead.

Leo: I have to say, when Detective Loki arrived at Holly Jones’ house, I wasn’t sure what Jake was doing. All of it: the hair, the shirt buttoned up, because I hadn’t heard these conversations. And then you go and see the film and this is one of the brilliant performances. I played a homicide detective for five years. The police are inside of me somewhere too. It’s such a beautiful portrait.

Between “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and “Prisoners,” it’s been a strong year for films targeted to adults — not just teenage boys. Do you think Hollywood underestimates the intelligence of audiences?

Villeneuve: From the start, I think the audience is intelligent. I like to trust people. For me there’s no entertainment that would be a movie for a stupid audience. It doesn’t interest me to think this way.

Gyllenhaal: If you look at “Captain Phillips,” you could see the other movie that could have been made there. In my opinion, one of the most amazing moments I’ve seen in movies this year, is that moment with Tom Hanks and the nurse at the end of the movie. It’s this amazing human moment. I think it’s the same thing with Denis. The human beings at the bottom of all of this, that’s why he gathered all the actors. That’s what I see with the movies this year. They may have big themes, but there’s an emphasis on the humanity.