NEW YORK — The twisty, suspenseful "Prisoners" is full of thrills, but none more enduring than the way stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal ignite against one another. This particular feat of casting leaves audiences wondering why it hasn't happened before, and perhaps sorry that their shared screen time is so brief in the film that sees Jackman as a frantic father looking to find his missing daughter, and Gyllenhaal as the police detective on the case. The Envelope talked with both men over tea in New York about their particular chemistry, the moral ambiguities of the script, working with director Denis Villenueve and costars Viola Davis and Terrence Howard — and their own personal injuries.
Everybody's wounded at this table — Hugh, you had a basal cell carcinoma removed from your nose in November and tweeted about it; Jake, that's a pretty ugly gash on your hand. Everybody recovering?
Jackman: No one has ever died of a basal cell carcinoma, but it was bigger than it needed to be; I will never let that happen again. My generation, I had the deal in my head that if you burned enough to peel twice, full body, you were safe for the summer. And I'm one of those people who's never really been in hospital, so there was a little anxiety.
Gyllenhaal: I was working on a scene [for next year's "Nightcrawler"] and a mirror broke.
Jackman: It looks fake, that scar. It looks like you had a bad makeup artist.
So on to "Prisoners." This was the first time you'd worked together — how did you find ways to connect?
Jackman: We have a similar process where we like to rehearse and talk things through. We had only four or five scenes together, but the relationship between our characters is really at the center of the movie. There's a scene of the two of us in a car outside the liquor store, and everyone was ready to go, we'd shot the scene, but Jake said, "We gotta go one more!" and I was so grateful for that; it happened many, many times.
Gyllenhaal: There's a funny exchange that happens in the subtext of scenes for every actor — you're never saying what's being felt. I would give you something [in a scene] and you'd be like, "Oh, thank you! What about this?" and that was the subtext of the scene. There was a strange positivity underneath all that dark subject matter — the scenes were tense but we had that funny exchange because we were actors who really wanted to learn from the other one, and every actor there.
What surprised you about each other?
Gyllenhaal: I was amazed that someone in your position is still so interested in discovery. ... That was a great inspiration to me.
Jackman: At the end of the day on "Prisoners," I felt elevated, not drained. Because you had material that would allow you to be vulnerable, and from the moment we started working, it was actually Jake saying, "Any time you want to talk, or work, I'm set." It was an invitation to connect and I was constantly blown away by the way he would push me. It takes confidence to do that, and generosity, and Jake has that in spades.
There was a lot of improv on the set, I understand. How much made it into the final film?
Jackman: A fair bit. In fact, most of our scenes, maybe 50%.
Gyllenhaal: There's a scene where Hugh's character looks at the photos of bloody kids' clothes, and that scene was written as him throwing me against the wall and strangling me. And Hugh came to the set that day and said, "I really think it would be more powerful if we sat and I spoke to him, without the physical." And watching an actor who is so physical having to restrain themselves, I was sitting on the other side of that thinking, "This man could easily throw me against the wall, but he's destroying me with three lines [of dialogue]."
Hugh, your character, Keller Dover, tortures a man he thinks kidnapped his daughter. Torture is showing up more as a plot point in films — do you find it unsettling?
Jackman: You're right, but the story is told by someone like Denis, who has a great artistic and heartfelt sensibility. So nothing is gratuitous and everything is dealt with in a responsible way. Viola says to Terrence [in a scene], "We're going to have nothing to do with this [torture] any more, but we're not going to stop it," that's post-9/11 America, isn't it? It's something that should be mulled over, it's a subject that needs to be brought up and not just accepted.
Gyllenhaal: What I thought was wonderful about the script was that it was original. It's a psychological journey where someone has to face not being in control, and what he does to get control back. When everything is threatened, he goes to this primal place, which represents in the macrocosm something interesting: If we work together with primal instincts and institutions — because this movie has all sorts of ideas about institutions like religion — Denis is saying we can actually get somewhere. And if we don't, the individual ends up in a hole, buried. There's some metaphor there I thought was really present and beautiful.
So when will you two work together again?
Jackman: We're doing the sequel to "Prisoners." Twenty-five years after [Keller] comes out of jail.
Gyllenhaal: There'd be a lot of amazing scenes with him behind bars. Oh, my God, they're brothers!
Jackman: Let's make it funnier next time. I read this script the other day which was in the realm of an Indiana Jones story, but with an older guy and a younger guy. I was about 25 pages in and thought, "Hmm, Jake could play that" … and suddenly I was loving it.