In “Stronger,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and became a symbol of resilience and hope for the city. Bauman’s book describes his recovery from the physical and emotional trauma, his determination to walk again on prostheses, his love story (he was standing at the finish line to cheer on his estranged girlfriend, Erin, played in the film by “Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany), and his loving but very rowdy family. Gyllenhaal and Bauman spoke to a small group of reporters in Washington DC to discuss the challenges of telling the story. (slightly edited for length and clarity)
Jake, how did you become aware of Jeff’s story?
Gyllenhaal: Well we became aware of Jeff from that photograph, but the story I didn’t really know at all until I was handed the first draft of the screenplay, which is the adaptation of his book. It was there that I got the idea of who Jeff was, primarily his crazy sense of humor which I didn’t expect when I opened up the first page. His sense of humor was a huge surprise and such an amazing thing and I think it’s what makes him and the movie really special.
Jeff, did you really write a reference to the Lt. Dan character in “Forrest Gump” when you came to after the surgery, after asking about Erin?
Bauman: Yeah, I was very worried about Erin because she was on the corner. I heard the second bomb but I didn’t know anything about it; I didn’t know how far down it was. And yeah, Lt. Dan was because I saw my friend who was in the room his face and he was trying to explain to me that I didn’t have my legs and I was like, “I could tell, bro.” I had to joke with him, I had to mess with him so it popped into my head.
What were some of the physical challenges of the role?
Bauman: Well, the first thing that we did work on was how I transferred out of my chair into cars, just how I moved in and out of the chair off the ground and taking off my legs and just how I got up from the ground, how I got up from a seat, standing. So he watched all this and got really into it, did a lot of research on it; I showed him a lot in the beginning and then he just took off from there. So that was amazing to see because I was really concerned about that. I was like “wait a minute how far are you going to go with this” and he went all the way with it, which is amazing and it makes me proud.
Gyllenhaal: We documented a lot of it because I didn’t want Jeff to go through all that stuff over and over again. I would be able to obsessively go over it myself without having to bother him with that stuff too much. In terms of understanding him, I was more interested in who was the guy before the event. This isn’t a movie really about the event at all, it’s about this human being going through a really tough time and I think that’s where all of us can relate to anyone struggling with anything.
Jeff said something really beautiful on his Facebook page the other night. He said “It doesn’t have to make headlines to be hard.” I think he shows us that no matter what you’re going through or what someone you love is going through, if Jeff can get through it then you can get through it, even with all the things that are going on in the world regardless of this event that Jeff went through; these unfathomably, inexplicably terrible events that he went through that now seem to be going on what seems like an almost daily basis, weekly basis at this point.
Jeff’s family plays such a crucial role in the film.
Gyllenhaal: They are complex characters and I speak about the versions of them in the movie and then I speak of the people that I know in real life and they are two different people. Each one of them has their fictional version but the thing that is similar with all of them across the board in the movie and also in real life is how they just show up and how they are there; they love each other a lot even when they hate each other and I think that’s really very clear in the movie and was very clear to me when I was making this movie. The only thing I felt was they are all trying to protect Jeff and love Jeff in their own way.
What has been most meaningful to you?
Gyllenhaal: I would say this and I know Jeff would say this: it’s not just Jeff; it’s what his story inspires. The number of people who have come up to me and shared their stories of their own pain, their own vulnerability and their own struggle is what changes you. I don’t think it’s about one person and I think Jeff would be the first to say that, it’s about us as a community; a world community and all the things that we’re going through together. That’s what Jeff shows people and by proxy that’s what people feel and that’s what’s changed me. His story yes, his strength absolutely, his sense of humor without a doubt, his sense of positivity when we’re in the midst of anything, when we’ve done like a hundred interviews and we’re both a little tired he’s always seeing the funny in everything but more than that all the people he touched and all the stories that have come my way as a result. It’s unbelievable.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 2, 2017.