Stephen Gyllenhaal Interview
Stephen Gyllenhaal Interview
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal took time out from his busy project schedule to talk to View about his new film Grassroots, what it’s like working with Jason Biggs and tackling the tricky world of politics in the film, as well as sharing insights into his career and the art of filmmaking.
How did the project come about, first of all?

Stephen Gyllenhaal

I have a friend at Nation Books and he gave me four or five books to read and one of those books was Zioncheck for President, which was a wacky title, but I loved the book and what fascinated me was these two white slacker dudes who decided, utterly inappropriately, to start a campaign against the only African-American city council member in Seattle, a relatively white city, you know? And to me, everything was wrong about that, it was just wrong, wrong, wrong, which makes for comedy and makes for a way of getting in and dissecting the process of democracy and elections in the United States, as anywhere.

And as I got deeper and deeper into it, I realised – and you never know for sure when you start a project whether a movie will emerge or not, as sometimes they die – slowly, as I understood the story, it had a really wonderful, complicated ending, so that's what got me going.
Were you at all familiar with the story beforehand?

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Not one bit. Not one bit. Not many people were! I mean, it was the title of the book and I mean, with that title, it didn't really sell too well. A lot of people in Seattle didn't even know the story, you know? And I don't think Grant and Phil ever really thought in a million years anything would ever happen. I think Grant in particular was sort of stunned that a book was written, but Phil was a journalist and he was trying to get his career going, so okay, a book got made and it kind of just came and went and then to suddenly turn around and have it made into a movie, he couldn't believe it.
Have you shown the film to them?

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Oh, yeah. They've been around the whole time. Well, Phil was around, I optioned the project from him and then it was about two years to get the script right and on again, off again, I would talk with him. At one point he even did a sort of quasi-draft. Everyone thinks they can write a screenplay. And it was helpful, he was great and he was interested and interesting. And then Grant came in right before we started shooting, a little bit before and I got to talk with him and he was in Mexico at the time and then came up for the shooting. And we were very fond of both of them, you know?
You've cast it really interestingly, because obviously Jason is thought of as more of a comic actor and also Joel, up till now, you think of him in supporting comedic roles and to put him centre stage is really interesting. Can you talk about the casting process and what you were looking for?

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Well, I was looking for, in the Phil Campbell character, sort of a Jimmy Stewart sort of guy. You think about Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, very angry, very bitter and I wanted to be able to have that, but have somebody who could be angry and be bitter and still be charming. And I think Jason has some of that Jimmy Stewart quality about him and I think it's going to emerge more and more. I mean, I think American Pie is great for him and it's been his blessing and his curse, as he's said, but I think Grassroots really has shown him in a very different light, he can really do real drama, but then be very funny too, I mean, so the movie goes back and forth between that.

Joel's this wonderful gawky, crazy dude who seemed really right to play Grant, because I didn't want the audience to really like Grant. I mean, there's a whole issue of struggling with liking him and then slowly, as he grows up and behaves a little bit better at least, and liking him more and more and more. And then it becomes the conflict of Cedric the Entertainer, who starts out as being the kind of villain of the movie and then it's hard to have Cedric really be a villain, so it was like a sort of working on that, but when he comes into the movie, it sort of shifts the whole dynamic into something very different than good versus bad.
I thought Cedric gave the best performance he's ever done in this...

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Yeah, his wife said that! She said it's the best performance he's ever given.

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Content updated: 25/04/2019 15:52

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