Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge knew that tackling an evening of dual monologues was a risk. “There was a feeling from both of us before we began that we wouldn’t be able to do it—that we wouldn’t be able to succeed at it,” Gyllenhaal confesses, “and that we became close initially because it was a little text exchange back and forth between the two of us of: ‘What are we thinking? Why are we doing this? We shouldn’t do this.’”
But the stories in their respective monologues—for Sturridge Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, for Gyllenhaal Nick Payne’s A Life—would not release them. “Every time I read my piece, I was more and more moved,” Gyllenhaal says of the writing Payne first handed him five years ago, during their collaboration on Broadway’s Constellations. “I’d be laughing, I’d be crying while I read it and I thought, ‘This is just different.’”
With great risk comes great reward. Not only did Gyllenhaal and Sturridge succeed in creating an intimate night of theatre Off-Broadway at the Public, helmed by director Carrie Cracknell, the show now plays a limited engagement at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, and, as Gyllenhaal says, “I think that risk is what we revel in now.”
But more intriguing than the risk, were the big life questions Stephens and Payne pose with their monologues. “I thought, ‘What is this going to ask of all of us in the process?’” Gyllenhaal says. “[It’s] not just two actors indulging themselves and their feelings.”
“When you think of a monologue you do think of indulgence,” Sturridge adds, “but when we first did this in front of an audience [we realized] that it was for them.”
“If you’re going to talk about the big questions, if you’re going to ask an audience about the experience of their lives—the people they loved, the people they love, the people they birthed, the people they connected with, the people they’ve separated from, all those questions—you’d better be ready and you better be able to ask yourself those same questions,” says Gyllenhaal. “That is why, every time we whiff any sense of falseness from each other—and it still happens—we call each other out and try and say we have a responsibility here.
“Our friendship grew from the responsibility we felt that when we tell our stories—which happen to be fictional stories—that they connect in a deep way to everyone’s real stories,” he continues.
Sturridge and Gyllenhaal inhabit Alex and Abe, respectively, sharing stories about their families: their wives, their children, their parents. With Sturridge, it feels wistful and heartbreaking. With Gyllenhaal it feels urgent and searching, his heart so open he befriends the audience. (When you sneeze, expect Gyllenhaal to “bless you.”)
Both men create such accessible characters, they can sense audiences grafting their own stories onto Alex and Abe. “It’s their people, not our people,” says Sturridge. “It is truly like everyone’s imaginations switch on,” Gyllenhaal says.
The personal nature of Sea Wall and A Life incubates an intense connection between the actor and the audience when each takes their turn on the stage. It’s not just about breaking the fourth wall, it’s that Cracknell never erects one. Abe and Alex only have stories to tell because they know people are there to listen.
“We’re all trying to pretend like there’s a fourth wall,” Gyllenhaal says of conventional theatre. “When we start to do that, people then start to go, ‘What’s real and what’s not real?’ and we go ‘It’s all real.’”
“The moment we had any kind of wall or our own kind of tricks and performance-related things it just kind of died,” Sturridge says. The piece hinges on its lack of pretense. Instead it relies on the emotion its two stars pour into it—a master class in acting.
“I don’t feel like it’s possible do my piece without the accompaniment of his piece and having burst through those doors,” says Gyllenhaal. “He’s questioning people’s fear, he’s questioning people’s connection to people that they love, he’s bringing up all of these feelings, and I think my piece then brings a universality to the experience that you character goes through and brings it back into, ‘We’re all a part of this melting pot of amazing human mess.’”
That energy and togetherness compels Gyllenhaal and Sturridge—each with major film careers—to prioritize theatre. “I think it’s the most beautiful art form in the world,” says Sturridge. “I feel I belong there. On that stage I feel safe; I feel whole.”
That sense of security and wholeness is the gift the duo offers their audiences with each performance. “Both of us had no idea what we would hear from people how it would hit people and what it would remind them of and that’s [become] the best part,” says Gyllenhaal, who has been moved by the post-show stories audiences have shared with him. “That’s why we’re bringing this to Broadway. We just have to bring this to a couple more people.” Those couple more people reap the greatest reward.