‘Insanity Is Subjective’: Lady Gaga and Jake Gyllenhaal Dive Deep Into Losing Themselves in Roles

Photographs by Cliff Watts

Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“The Guilty”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

Lady Gaga hasn’t added “movie critic” to her résumé yet — but she can’t help raving about Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest film, “The Guilty.” When she sees Gyllenhaal at our photo shoot for Actors on Actors, her praise is as effusive and passionate as fans who’ve watched her recent red-carpet run-ins might expect. “It was phenomenal,” Gaga says about Gyllenhaal’s 2021 Netflix film. “My heart was pounding out of my chest.”

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Cliff Watts for Variety

Gyllenhaal plays a 911 dispatcher in the Antoine Fuqua-directed thriller — shot in only 11 days. The short time frame may have helped generate intensity, but left some doubt in its star’s mind: Gyllenhaal confides in Gaga that he wished he could have gone back and redone parts of his performance. Gaga had her own recent experience of working with a decisive director: Ridley Scott, of “House of Gucci,” also moves quickly behind the camera. In the film, Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, an ambitious Italian woman who marries an heir to the Gucci throne, Maurizio (Adam Driver) — and then arranges for his murder after he files for divorce.

Although Gaga and Gyllenhaal don’t know each other, their chemistry pops from the moment they meet at our shoot. (Take note, future casting directors.) And their posing calls to mind two grown-ups suddenly on a prom date. “I’ve never held anyone like this,” Gyllenhaal says as he wraps his arm awkwardly around Gaga’s waist, as a small group of handlers coo their approval. “Mommy and Daddy love each other,” Gaga says. “Good job, honey.” They are so at ease, Gaga even cracks a joke about “Bubble Boy,” the 2001 teen comedy that Gyllenhaal made at the start of his career.

“The two of us are a nightmare,” Gaga says with a laugh. Which is to say that they give us all the outsize drama — and insights — that fans crave. Over the next hour, they share their deepest acting secrets, methods, inspirations. And they discuss why “Donnie Darko” is like a religion for Gaga.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: One of the things that I loved about “House of Gucci” was that the film has such an operatic style and it has so many characters surrounding your character. And opera is one of my favorite forms of expression to watch, but to see a performance that stays true to reality was incredible.

LADY GAGA: Thank you very much. That means a lot coming from you. The first thing I thought when I read the script was “OK. They want some woman to use her body and her manipulation to get money from this incredibly wealthy man.” And the more that I dug through it, I realized that she was really in love with him. And women are complex creatures, and we’re complicated, and it’s never one single story. It’s many stories.

I wanted to inject a reality into her that was multifaceted and fractured and broken. When I think about her as a character, I think of me taking little bits of glass from tons of different women and encapsulating them into one character that I still believe to be truly her, but I think insanity is subjective.

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Cliff Watts for Variety

GYLLENHAAL: You’re making me think of the moment where she asks him his name and he tells her at the bar. And the register could have been done so many different ways. That kind of sets off the whole movie, right?

GAGA: I talked about that and studied that moment for a really long time, and Adam and I spoke in-depth about it. When does he fall in love with her in this scene? And we had this deep dive. I won’t tell you, because I don’t want the audience to know. But there’s a reason I am the way that I am in the scene. I do really study the hell out of a script, like a romance. And I break it down into what I believe it to be.

GYLLENHAAL: I am amazed at how you are and have established yourself in music and songwriting in this extraordinary, mind-boggling way. And then you’ve somehow seamlessly been able to come into the world of storytelling in another form. And for me, when I think about acting in movies, I think of it as fits and starts. It’s not a song. You get little moments you have to pull off. I’m so interested in your point of view, going into those little moments. Is that a thrill?

GAGA: I wanted to be an actress before I wanted to be a singer. And I studied for a really long time. I went to Lee Strasberg. I went to Circle in the Square [Theatre School]. I studied the Stanislavski method. I worked with Susan Batson, who’s my acting teacher now. I would actually say playing a character for me is like living one long song.

GYLLENHAAL: Is that why you stayed in character all day?

GAGA: Yeah. One long song that lasts for months. For “A Star Is Born,” it was years for me. And for Patrizia, I dropped her faster because she was a killer and there were some things about the transformation for me psychologically that were super challenging. When I watch the movie, it looks like I’m watching a montage of my life. I don’t feel like I’m watching a film.

GYLLENHAAL: A really wonderful actor once told me that if you watch yourself in a film, you should do it twice.

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Cliff Watts for Variety

GAGA: Yeah. The second time was better for me. Since I was a little girl, I was so mercilessly bullied, and I had a really strict upbringing. So acting for me was a way to totally escape who I was. And I think I’ve done it my whole career with taking on the artistic persona of whatever music I’m writing and living inside my art. And for films, it’s different, but it’s not.

I studied animals to play her. I studied a house cat for the beginning of the film. And then at the funeral, when she sees Al Pacino’s character, she suddenly turns into a fox because she’s hunting now. And I watched foxes hunt and they’re really funny, because they hunt mice in the snow and they leap up and they burrow. I actually did exercises in my hotel room where I would be the animal. And then for that last scene, it was the panther. It was because the panther moves slowly, but then when it kills its prey, it is really violent and it’s really ugly, and then after, it cries.

I chose these animals as a way to map the physicality of the character. What I feel in that moment is what she was feeling. The cameras float away. I’m not an actor that really knows where the camera is. But I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s super immersive, as if I’m in the middle of singing a song and the song doesn’t end until I decide it does.

GYLLENHAAL: It’s interesting, the scene with the character Paolo [Jared Leto], where you’re sort of manipulating him.

GAGA: I love how you said “sort of.” She’s like really gaslighting the fuck out of him. She’s gaslighting herself too. That’s what makes it a survival story instead of a story about scandal and greed. She really thinks she’s doing the right thing, and it’s why this murder took place. I believe this with all my heart, because why any Italian woman would insert herself into a totally male-dominated business is beyond me. And I mean that with love.

I couldn’t not love her. I almost find it interesting now that I haven’t heard from her, because she’s alive. I don’t know if she’s seen it. I don’t know what she thinks about it, but everyone around me said: “I think this might be painful.”

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Cliff Watts for Variety

GYLLENHAAL: I was thinking about when you’re performing for hundreds of thousands of people. When you’re in a scene, if it’s two people, how available is your heart? Do you get stage fright?

GAGA: I’m going to do some acting now, and I’m going to do some sense memory. My sense memory tells me that when I’m onstage — like when I was in Mexico City, and I could hear the crowd screaming, and there was 150,000 people, and I was 23 — I just remember thinking to myself, “I could feel everybody’s heart and I wish I could share mine. I wish for you to know the pain in my heart, so that I could hold space for the pain in yours.” I’m kind of that chick, you know? When I’m acting, though, the difference is I’m locked in with the actors.

GYLLENHAAL: As a fellow actor, I feel your generosity in watching a scene. I think the thing I’ve always loved about acting is being able to connect with someone.

GAGA: I ask for consent a lot, actually. I’ll be like, “Is it OK if I touch you?” When I’m in character, I don’t pretend we’re not filming. I get people who are like, “Why did you keep your accent the whole time?” Can you imagine going in and out of that shit all the time, and I would only get three takes? I had to be ready.

The way that I feel safe is just that I feel safe being in pain. I feel safe in art. I almost think I feel safer with art than I do in life. When I did the bathtub scene, when I went under, they had to yell “Cut” because they were like, “Get her out of there!” I was fine. I can hold my breath for a long time. I’m a singer. I feel protected by art. I feel art has saved me my whole life. What makes you feel safe when you’re working?

GYLLENHAAL: I’ve chosen a lot of characters through many years to search through things, ideas, feelings. I think expression is life-saving. It breaks my heart that it’s not available to everyone. Ang Lee once said that we pretend in telling stories to get closer to the truth. It’s something that stuck with me and I think about often. I think that’s why we all love watching movies.

GAGA: I want to say about your film, “The Guilty,” the movie was extremely powerful. I feel like I’ve injected a lot of trauma into my work my whole life. I was really moved by your ability to go to the bottom throughout the whole film. I was really struck by a true belief that he was in a tremendous amount of pain and he was so sad.

GYLLENHAAL: I think an interesting part of that film is there is like an entertaining aspect where we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. But I think it really does speak to mental health.

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Cliff Watts for Variety

GAGA: I saw it behind your eyes the whole time. There’s a very specific thing that I think the eyes do, and I think when we are feeling traumatized, they kind of sink back just a little and they get glassy.

GYLLENHAAL: We shot the movie in 11 days.

GAGA: Wow.

GYLLENHAAL: In the process, Antoine Fuqua, who directed the film, decided 20 pages a day of the script. And he was like, we’re not turning back. You get your shots, and then we go on to the next.

GAGA: So he was fast? Ridley is fast too.

GYLLENHAAL: And I remember at day three or four going, I want to go back, to paint maybe a different angle or a different edge on something. And I couldn’t. I think I would have liked to push it maybe even farther into a bit of fooling the audience at the beginning.

GAGA: Yeah but, I loved it. Was it hard or intimidating or exciting to play a law enforcement person in 2021?

GYLLENHAAL: It was actually 2020. The story is clearly a fantasy. It’s an expression of something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. There’s a hope for redemption, and that so many people, particularly in law enforcement, there’s no outlet for help.

GAGA: I remember I noticed that he had a glass of water next to him that he had not drank. I was like, “He’s not even hydrating.”

GYLLENHAAL: I love doing the performance with the reading where you don’t know everything. All these instincts come up. You have to use what you got.

GAGA: Yeah. Well for TV, also — like when I did “American Horror Story.”

GYLLENHAAL: Oh, yeah?

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Cliff Watts for Variety

GAGA: I basically got the script 30 minutes before. I had some idea of what we were going to do, but then you’d be doing one scene from Episode 3, and then they’d go: “Actually, so the next scene’s going to be from Episode 7.”

GYLLENHAAL: Did you enjoy that?

GAGA: I loved playing the Countess, but I think I loved playing her because her ultimate trauma was that she was essentially guaranteed to almost live forever and live forever young. And I made the choice very early on. I said to myself, “Violence relaxes me.”

GYLLENHAAL: Wow.

GAGA: Because she was always in crisis. She was abducting a child or abducting people to bring home with my co-star, Matt Bomer, and we would take them home and kill them and drink their blood. That felt more like pretend to me. I lived like her. I mean, I didn’t do what she did, but I dressed like her all the time. I listened to the same music that put me in her head space. And on set, they gave you fake cocaine and fake booze, but while you’re doing it, you’re like, “Is this real?! I don’t know.” You put yourself in that place.

I look up to you a lot because we were talking today, off camera and on, and just hearing the way you talk about your tools with you now that you can navigate your imagination, I really long for that.

GYLLENHAAL: You need those boundaries and safety. What movies inspired you when you were growing up?

GAGA: Everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Goodfellas.”

GYLLENHAAL: Same movie, basically.

GAGA: “Goodfellas” was a very important part of my life growing up. And Scorsese is the best ever. Also, “Donnie Darko.” I don’t want to lie and tell you I haven’t seen it so many times.

GYLLENHAAL: Really? OK. That just made my day.

GAGA: In the world of music, but in fashion as well, “Donnie Darko,” it’s religion. It really is. And if you know your shit, you know Donnie Darko.

GYLLENHAAL: I have never met Donnie Darko, but “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” that was a movie that hit me really hard.

GAGA: “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

GYLLENHAAL: Oh, my God. Yes.

GAGA: But also “Bambi.”

GYLLENHAAL: Absolutely “Bambi.” “Dumbo.”

GAGA: Cartoons. They have so much heart.

GYLLENHAAL: And so much pain too. That’s beautiful.


Grooming (Gyllenhaal): Jillian Halouska; Hair and Makeup (Gaga): Frederic Aspiras/The Only Agency/Joico