Jake Gyllenhaal on the challenges of acting over Zoom in Netflix’s thriller The Guilty

The Guilty was always going to be a challenging project. The movie, which is a remake of a Danish film from 2018, follows a 911 dispatcher in Los Angeles, who receives a troubling call that appears to be from a woman who has been abducted. The result is a tense thriller, but one you see almost none of — the entire movie is centered on LAPD officer Joe Baylor, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as he fields phone calls in an office over the course of a single evening. Because of this, the movie hinges on Gyllenhaal’s performance, as he slowly unravels while the story twists and turns in disturbing ways.

But it became even more challenging thanks to pandemic-related restrictions on filming. While the actors were on set, director Antoine Fuqua, who previously worked with Gyllenhaal on the boxing drama Southpaw, was in a van a block away, directing remotely. Meanwhile, everyone on the other end of the phone — which includes the likes of Peter Sarsgaard and Ethan Hawke — was working from home. Production on The Guilty ended up relying on a mishmash of various forms of communication, from FaceTime to Zoom to plain old walkie-talkies. “We had to discover, and were constantly trying to learn as we went,” Gyllenhaal tells The Verge. “I think we got a system down on day 11 — and then we were done.”

The filming setup was complicated. Because someone close to Fuqua tested positive, he was forced to sit in a van that was hardwired to the set and outfitted with all of the gadgets he’d need to direct. “I had monitors and computers and walkie-talkies and spycams,” he says. From here he had a bird’s-eye view of the set and was able to talk to his first assistant director and other staff via a walkie. Meanwhile, all of the actors who were calling in remotely would be on Zoom in the background so they could hear everything going on and communicate in real time. In moments where more personal or intimate notes were required, Fuqua and Gyllenhaal would hop on FaceTime to chat.

The closest the actor and director ever got to face-to-face communication was, well, a little unorthodox. “When we were in a setup change — a lighting change that would take more than 20 minutes or something — I’d go outside and I’d climb this ladder that was on the wall, and Antoine would open the door to his van, and like Romeo and Juliet we would talk from afar; me on the top of this wall on a ladder and him on the street,” says Gyllenhaal.

Beyond the logistical challenges, all of these different ways of communicating — in particular Zoom — had an impact on the actual performances. “We were a slave to a particular technology, which was Zoom,” Gyllenhaal explains. “And that creates a rhythm. Even in our introductions, we would come on, and you don’t want to interrupt someone. That’s the essence of acting: rhythm. When your rhythm is dictated to you by a technological thing, it leaves less room for something feeling alive. And we had to navigate that for the first four or five days. It was like someone took a quarter of a second out of my instinct. And if you’re a professional at whatever you do, acting in particular, rhythm is everything. Ask a quarterback, you take a quarter of a second away from their throw, that means the difference between missing or not.”

Midway through The Guilty, there’s a seemingly minor location change, when Gyllenhaal’s character moves from a busy office full of other dispatchers to an empty room across the hall so he could be alone. From the viewer’s perspective, the change doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s just a man walking from one desk to another. But given all of the restrictions on set, the shift in location made a huge difference for the actors and production team.

Antoine Fuqua on the set of The Guilty.
Photo: Glen Wilson / Netflix

“We were all racing towards that small room,” says Gyllenhaal. “We were all desperate to get the character in that small room where he was alone because it meant we could move away from having everyone together in a big room with extras moving about. It was almost like, can we get through the first two days safe, and then we don’t have everyone interacting as much. We have people in the background through glass walls. I remember that very specifically. Let’s get through those first two days and we can feel a little safer.”

(One of the few silver linings was that it was relatively easy to get other actors on board. “Everyone was at home and everyone wanted to work,” says Gyllenhaal. “So we made all of these phone calls and got incredible actors.”)

For the most part, these COVID-related challenges aren’t noticeable in the final product, aside from the fact that no one ever seems to get close to each other, even in such close quarters. The Guilty is incredibly tense despite the fact that you’re mostly just watching a man talk on the phone. Part of that has to do with the story, which goes in all sorts of wild, often uncomfortable, directions. But it also comes down to Gyllenhaal’s performance. For him, one of the biggest obstacles in this role was something that a lot of us have had to deal with during the pandemic. “I did have a hard time sitting still,” he says. “It’s hard to create intensity, to generate energy, after 10 hours of sitting in a chair listening.”

The Guilty is coming to select theaters on September 24th and will stream on Netflix on October 1st.

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