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Jake Gyllenhaal & Jeff Bauman on Their Bond, Using Real Pain to Fuel Stronger

When it comes to cinematic accounts of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Stronger is the flip side to last year’s Patriots Day. The earlier film – an action thriller about catching the bad guys – focused on Beantown native Mark Wahlberg’s fictional composite-character cop being celebrated as a hero. Stronger,  opening this Friday, instead is an intimate look at what happens when a survivor of a tragedy is seen as a hero while trying to recover from the loss of his legs as well as his former life.

Jeff Bauman, now 31, and the actor who plays him, Jake Gyllenhaal, 36, have developed a brotherly bond while doing publicity for the film. Check out this hilarious Facebook interview with Bauman interrogating Gyllenhaal (warning:  F-words are uttered). The Brokeback Mountain star also chose Stronger – directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and based on Bauman’s 2014 memoir — as the inaugural title under his new production banner, Nine Stories. The pair discusses how the film shuns any easy sentimentality while capturing what it is like to heal while in the spotlight.

What I most appreciated about Stronger is how honest and unsentimental it is about dealing with such trauma both physically and mentally. while suddenly a public figure portrayed as a symbol of patriotism and hope for Boston and the entire country. It avoids many of the clichés of this type of film.

Gyllenhaal: That was my goal.

Bauman: It’s my struggle.

Jeff, you are studying mechanical engineering now because of your experience with your state-of-the-art new legs so you can work for a prosthetic company.

Bauman: I was going to go into civil engineering. My grandfather was a civil engineer.  I’m OK now. I’ve applied myself.  That’s the story of my life. If I apply myself, I’m decent at it.

After your book came out and they wanted to make it into a movie, did you say yes right away or did you have some qualms about it?

Bauman: I didn’t think it would happen.

Why?

Gyllenhaal:  We were told only 2% of book deals make it to the big screen.

Bauman:  I said, “OK. I’ve got some odds against me.” I just took it lightly. I just did what I was told to do. Producer Todd Lieberman asked me to come out to L.A. to work with screenwriter John Polllono. My book agent, Anthony, came with me and we all got together  and formed this kind of pitch. And we did nine studios in three days. I was barely walking then. I was on my crutches, so I was trucking around. I think it was great for my recovery to do stuff like that, because it got me out and it got me moving.

Jake…how did Stronger  come to be your debut title for Nine Stories?

Gyllenhaal: Every movie in one way or another is a circuitous journey towards, as Jeff said, getting it made. I was approached initially as an actor two-and-a-half years ago. There was  an initial draft of the screenplay, which was really wonderful. And I read the script sort of assuming I knew what it was about. Surprisingly, as I got through it, I found myself moved but also laughing a lot.

You are a funny guy, Jeff. In a good way.  

Bauman: I go around cracking jokes. You have to. I wake up and I’m instantly joking.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany in STRONGER. Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

I love that when you woke up from your surgery and couldn’t talk yet to your visitor, one of the first things you wrote down on a pad of paper was “Lt. Dan”  – referring to the Forrest Gump character who becomes a double amputee during the Vietnam War. Did you really do that?

Bauman: I love Forrest Gump and that is Gary Sinise,  he has done amazing things with the military. I didn’t pay attention to amputees before. I just knew the character lost his legs and you see him standing at the end. Which is really a cool because he is OK. I kind of felt like that.  I felt like I was at war.

Also, you tell your mom (Miranda Richardson) that your sometimes girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who you were cheering on in the race, was moving into your shared apartment  to help with your recovery. And she complains there isn’t enough space for three people. And you say, “Actually, it is two and a half.” When you have humor in a movie like this, it makes the audience feel the more intense and serious moments even deeper.

Gyllenhaal: I read all that and thought there was something really interesting about it and I would love to be a part of it. It was set up in a very different way. Over time, there was another movie that seemed to be about the same thing, and it wasn’t at all. That was being pushed into production.

Patriots Day.

Gyllenhaal:  Right. It seemed like we were sort of slipping in terms of getting financing and getting the movie made. It seemed like at the time it might be more commercial. It was more an obvious hero and this one was about something else.

Bauman: Plus, we had the same studio (Lionsgate).

Gyllenhaal: I took this script to the people who financed my company and I said, “Do you want to help us make it.” And they said yes. From that point on, we were producing it.

Did you see Patriots Day, Jeff? An actor named Dan Whelton plays you in that movie.

Bauman: I haven’t seen it. It’s a touchy subject for me. I’m not going to watch an action film on it. I don’t have any desire to do it. I watched HBO’s beautiful documentary on the Boston Marathon. I saw my real friends in that and seeing their struggles for real. That was beautiful. That is what I think I love about this movie. It’s real and it has well-realized stuff in it. And it definitely makes you think about your own life.

Stronger doesn’t just show you adjusting physically to your situation. Mentally, it was probably even harder. To be suddenly declared a hero when you were  simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And everyone wants to share their emotions with you and tell you how much they admire you. They think you are this great guy, but you obviously had some difficulty trying to live up to all that.

Gyllenhall: Trying to recalibrate your life in the amount he had. He had months with a lot of pressure. That is what the movie gets into. We see people not fully understanding the journey towards healing and how long it takes. I was trying to do both things, figuring out his own position in the physical world and, at the same time, trying to understand how you are a symbol of heroism and strength. And you are thinking, “Wow, I feel so weak in the midst of all this.” And everyone is saying you are so strong. There are so many contradictions to that.  And, on top of that, as you always say, when you feel like you are sucker-punched and everyone  calls you a hero, it’s like, “Wait a second. Give me a chance to get up.”   

When you finally met Carlos Arredondo, who helped keep the tourniquets on your legs on that day and got you to safety in a wheelchair, did that allow you put matters into better perspective as in the film? You helped him to deal with the past deaths of his two sons as much as he helped you.

Bauman: I love that part of the movie,  He was in my recovery for a long time in the early stages.  And, yes, when I first met him, it was great. He was so big in my recovery.

You were reluctant to meet him for a while.

Bauman: It was mentioned that I was reluctant to do a lot of things in my life. Especially because it would remind me of that day. One of the things that was really hard was going down to where it happened. But Carlos is huge, he is an amazing person in my life and I’ve learned so much from him.

I like Donnie Darko a lot and Nightcrawler was something else. But I think this is the most introspective that I have seen you in a film. As much as it was difficult to perform the physical part of the role, you also are more quiet in this, save for when you and Tatiana have your disagreements.

Gyllenhaal:  I think the journey is an internal one.  When I looked at The New York Times, they did a video piece on Jeff. All the photographs I saw and the video shot of him, I noticed  during that period a particular sort of quiet. It was kind of somber.  Some of that was because he was on different kinds of medicine. But it was just who he was, taking some time to catch up. The movie starts with  the event as it happened but we really don’t deal with that.  It’s almost as if you have been thrust into the future and you don’t where you are. Then you have to let the past catch up with you. That is what I noticed with Jeff and what I see now. Him coming into the person he is. That was shocked out of him initially.

There is this group called the Ruderman Family Foundation that has been pushing for handicapped actors to be hired for handicapped roles. There has been a push of late to hire ethnic actors to play ethnic roles or trans actors to play trans roles. But I don’t know if there is a large pool of double-amputee performers who could play Jeff. Plus, lower-budget films that  aren’t blockbusters need name talent to attract moviegoers. What do you both think? Have you met any double-amputee actors?

Bauman:  I have met a lot of double-amputees,  but I don’t know any actors.

Gyllenhaal: There are definitely very talented actors with disabilities. We should say that straight out. Casting is very complicated process in general. But it is important to respect everyone’s feelings and to understand where everyone’s coming from.  I would hope there is a deep appreciation for what this movie is about. At the same time, I understand the concern and the argument that they are making. Hopefully, what is not overlooked by them, too, is that we tried in every possible way to show what it is like to go through such journey of rehabilitation.

Bauman: I thought about playing myself, in all seriousness. I thought it would be so cool. I actually talked to Dave about it before Jake was on board. Dave was like, “That is really cool.” Dave was really into it.

Gyllenhaal: I think the real argument , what they said really, was that they were hoping that people had got a shot to play the role.

Bauman: I had a shot. I had a shot. We actually have some film of me reading my lines. And it was tremendously horrible. I’m not an actor.

Featured image: Jake Gyllenhaal in STRONGER. Photo credit: Scott Garfield. Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Wloszczyna

Before becoming a critic and contributor at RogerEbert.com in 2013, Susan Wloszczyna worked at USA TODAY for almost 30 years, primarily as a film reviewer and senior entertainment writer. She also was an Oscar columnist at Women and Hollywood and a regular contributor at Thompson on Hollywood. She currently freelances for AARP The Magazine and The Buffalo News. She is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Washington Area Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

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