He's the long-lost (maybe permanently lost) Terry, a rootless young drifter who drifts back into the home of his brother George (Brían F. O'Byrne), an emotionally myopic environmentalist too busy saving the world to notice an unhappy wife (Michelle Gomez) or a school-bullied daughter (Annie Funke). A compassionate relationship between uncle and niece soon develops, the lost recognizing the lost. Gyllenhaal, a chronic theatre holdout, cried uncle at his character's first speech.
"I fell in love with the character at the start," he says. "He brings a sadness to the play, and I'm drawn to that darkness. He's a real avoider, like everyone in the play. Perhaps that disconnection is what connected me to him. I love his techniques of avoiding, how he speaks in short sentences and unfinished thoughts. The way each character talks looks differently on the page. I love the architecture of the words."
So what if his character comes with a British accent? "I've played British characters before," says Gyllenhaal. "I've spent, accumulatively, about two years in London, and a majority of my very close friends are British. It comes somewhat naturally. I gravitate toward roles with accents. The voice is a wonderful way into the eternal life of the character."
In point of fact, a decade ago he stage-debuted the hard way — in the West End of Olivier and Gielgud, playing the lead in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. His American stage bow here finally fulfills a broken promise he made to himself back then: "I told myself after my first performance on the London stage that for every third movie, I'd try to get on stage." However, life and film schedules being what they are, his stage intermission has gone on for ten years — until now.
Gyllenhaal has stayed furiously busy in films since making his screen debut at the age of 11 in "City Slickers," garnering an Academy Award nomination for "Brokeback Mountain" along the way. He has "End of Watch" poised for release, and he just wrapped "An Enemy." It took him two years to find a clearing for If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.
Gyllenhaal did make time to man up to a "Man vs. Wild" segment on the Discovery Channel — a matter of honor: "I was on the Letterman show, and he was making fun of my beard. He said, 'Have you lost out on any roles because of this massive beard?' I said, 'No. Actually, it has provided me a lot of opportunities. I've been offered Tevye in some amateur productions [of Fiddler on the Roof], and Bear Grylls asked me to be on 'Man vs. Wild.'"
It was a joke, of course, but the airwaves have ears, and the real Bear Grylls soon called. The next thing Gyllenhaal knew he was in the Icelandic tundra battling 90-mph winds, inching across a single rope suspended hundreds of feet over a ravine. Beard or no beard, I believe the man is ready for Broadway.
(This feature appears in the September issue of Playbill magazine.)