Jake Gyllenhaal on Working With Cartier: 'I Made It Clear I Might Be Very Opinionated'

The actor talks with us about creating the video for the Santos de Cartier watch, what else he's working on, and learning to slow down a little.
IMAGE Cartier

With Director Seb Edwards, actor Jake Gyllenhaal stepped both behind and in front of the camera to make a short film for Cartier celebrating the relaunch of the French luxury house's epoch-making Santos de Cartier wristwatch. Initially released in 1904, the watch was created for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont so he could tell time while flying. Now, Gyllenhaal brings the timepiece into the 21st Century in a new campaign. Esquire stole some time with him to find out more. 

Was it a big leap creatively, from acting to the conception of a film like Cartier’s Santos Project?
Everything—whether it's a movie or a project like this for Cartier—really depends on the creative team, and the people behind it, and what their intentions are. I meet filmmakers all the time and I have the opportunity to talk with them about projects they want me to work on; sometimes their thoughts line up with mine and sometimes they don't. I feel the same way about brands and about certain products. When I spoke to Cartier for the first time, I made it clear I might be very opinionated. But I also love collaboration, because I love learning new things; often the ideas I initially scoff at are the same ideas that later I fall in love with. 

Jake Gyllenhaal stepped both behind and in front of the camera to make a short film for Cartier's relaunch of the Santos de Cartier wristwatch. IMAGE: Cartier


It’s all about bouncing ideas around…
When I talked to Seb for the first time, we began to brainstorm, and a lot of it started to evolve into an abstract kind of Fellini idea, then it moved back to a more narrative idea. And then Hoyte van Hoytema [the director of photography] came onboard, we moved it pretty fast back into the abstract again. It was a lot of discussion, but the back and forth was inspiring. 


You ended up, after the back and forth, with a pretty stark, modern feel.
Yes, and the modernity of it was very important to me. Cartier had never really had anyone representing the watch in this modern way. But I think there’s an idea of progressing—of forward movement—that is the essence of the watch, even though it was created over a century ago. I was fascinated to think about the discussions between those two people, between Louis Cartier and Alberto Santos Dumont when he was explaining what he needed it to do, and how Cartier came to merge those technical needs with his artistry in that first Santos. In making the commercial the same questions occurred: How do we make it modern, and how do I stay true to me?

How do you recognize a script or a project that is right for you?
Often when someone writes something from a place that's honest—if they do that, then I’m in. Sometimes it’s down to the authenticity of a relationship I have with a filmmaker. Dan Gilroy, with whom I made Nightcrawler, he wrote an incredible character that’s almost impossible, in my opinion, to play. But he’s challenging me with it. 

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Initially released in 1904, the Santos de Cartier was created for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont so he could tell time while flying. IMAGE: Cartier


You have been able to pick and choose some great roles in your career. Were they all gifts?
I wouldn’t say they fell in my lap. But in some ways I do think things—especially creative things—come to you for a reason. I’m attracted by the opposing forces in a character—identities that are both protagonistic and antagonistic simultaneously. I don't think people are as simple as many movies like to paint them. To me, what’s interesting is things inside myself that I’m afraid of, or certain darknesses, though sometimes the hardest things to play are the joyful parts. 

What kind of directors really inspire you?
I did a movie last summer [The Sisters Brothers] with Jacques Audiard; he’s a pretty incredible character who is one my favorite living filmmakers. I never thought I’d ever have an opportunity to make a film with him, because I never thought he’d make an English-language film. For me, there’s something in his films about the merging of love and violence. But more than that, there’s a sense of the beyond. When you see A Prophet, or Dheepan, or The Beat My Heart Skipped, there are sequences that have an otherworldly quality—an acknowledgement that there’s something beyond what we see, not just in the storytelling but in the actual visuals. There are moments when time slows and interactions go beyond normal narrative. In A Prophet, for example, there’s an amazing scene where the character’s talking to the man he murdered, and the guy is smoking and the smoke is coming out of the stab wounds in his body. It’s those types of things that resonate pretty deeply.


The Santos watch was inspired by its first customer, pioneer aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. How influential was his character in the conception of your film?
In a way, Dumont is in it, though you don't see him. The idea of flying is central to the story, of course, but there’s also the imagination and what happens inside of the mind, which I think is the idea of the piece: You’re inside a dream state, and so it’s a manifestation of what we can imagine of how far we can push the limits. That, I think, is Santos Dumont in a nutshell in many ways. And also there’s an absurdity—that contradiction—in the film, too. Santos Dumont is this real graceful gentleman, yet he’s also this bold adventurer. It’s both of those things. We weren’t setting out deliberately to show a picture of him, but in a weird kind of way I think we have. 

Is boldness an everyday occurrence?
Not always. I guess it’s part of growing up, but there were days at work when I’d go in and feel, "We’re going to create magic!" and I always tried to force the angels out of the sky. It didn't always work. So often now I’m OK to sit back and say to myself, "Not everything has to be bold all the time. Not everything has to be the best it can be." You don't determine that, something that's bigger than all of us determines that. There is a form of boldness in that self-recognition: what you consider a challenge for yourself, not what others consider it to be. 


For the actor, the watch is like being 'inside a dream state, and so it’s a manifestation of what we can imagine of how far we can push the limits.' IMAGE: Cartier


Personal bests that really are personal?
Sometimes slowing down is so much harder than speeding up. I run a lot, and I’m always trying to go one better. The hardest thing for me to learn instead of always beating a six-minute mile was trying to run an eight-minute mile and keep it up for nine minutes.

This story originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Nick Sullivan
Nick Sullivan is Creative Director at Esquire, where he served as Fashion Director from 2004 until 2019. Prior to that, he relocated from London with his young family to Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. He has styled and art directed countless fashion and cover stories for both Esquire and Big Black Book (which he helped found in 2006) in exotic, uncomfortable, and occasionally unfeasibly cold locations. He also writes extensively about men's style, accessories, and watches. He describes his style as elegantly disheveled.
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