Playing famous bomb victim made Jake Gyllenhaal stronger: 'I don't have his strength'
US actor Jake Gyllenhaal on playing Boston bombing victim Jeff Bauman in the movie Stronger
Jeff Bauman was standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, waiting for his then-girlfriend Erin to finish the race, when two bombs exploded right next to him.
A photo of the 27-year-old American, dazed and in a wheelchair with his lower right leg missing, while holding the other bloodied one, was snapped by a passing photographer and went viral, making him the face of the tragedy and a symbol of hope following the attack.
Bauman's inspirational and heroic bestselling memoir Stronger, released in April 2014 to coincide with the first anniversary of the bombings, is now a movie starring and produced by Jake Gyllenhaal.
It opens here on Sept 21.
At the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto, where Stronger had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Gyllenhaal talks about his memories of that fateful day.
The 36-year-old US actor says: "When I saw the photograph of Jeff on that day, I was hurt, you know, and couldn't understand. I just didn't understand. And then I had no idea that our lives would intersect in the way that they have. I mean, who knew that we would be sitting here talking about him on that day?"
He references the moment when Bauman regained consciousness in his hospital bed but couldn't speak.
"He woke up, opened his eyes, his friend said 'You lost your legs', and he wrote down, 'Is Erin okay", and then he wrote 'Lieutenant Dan' (Gary Sinise's double amputee character from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump). That was just to get a smile out of his friend."
There was a lot of anxiety over the first meeting with Bauman at an Italian restaurant in Boston over two years ago.
Gyllenhaal recalls: "Jeff and I had talked, but we hadn't met in person. I was really nervous because as an actor you're still wondering who the character is, or what you're going to play, and you don't know if you'll be able to do it."
He adds: "The very first thing I realised was that he was walking in. Watching him walk is an extraordinary sight. I was mesmerised by that. We sat down and we just got along... I just felt immediately close to him and we just started talking.
"I was like, he seems very introverted, and then I realised he doesn't hear that well because the bomb really affected his hearing."
Preparation for the role involved meeting with all of the staff at Bauman's rehab centre, including the doctors and nurses, and the people who made his prosthetic legs.
Bauman didn't want to visit the shoot, but was always available to help.
Bauman and Gyllenhaal sat next to each other at the premiere in Toronto, an experience the latter will never forget.
"The responsibility that I felt to him and still feel to him, that doesn't go away. I was so nervous to have him see the movie and sit next to him watching this movie.
"A spotlight came up on Jeff and I turned to him and I was like, 'Get up'. And he got up and everyone else got up with him. I thought to myself, 'I think they all now know how much it took to get him up'. That is really the top of my career, watching him get up there and be like, his crowd."
He feels the experience of making Stronger has changed him profoundly.
"The ride of this film has hit me in ways I can't really put into words. I don't have his strength and I don't think I'd be able to survive what he survived, and I think that realisation was a big one for me.
"As an actor you're like, 'I'm going to play a hero'. And in truth I think I realised how much more extraordinary than me he is."