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In 'Stronger': Gyllenhaal Goes From Terror Victim to Survivor

  • Penelope Poulou

On April 13, 2015 the world watched as two homemade bombs exploded at the finish line of the iconic Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 264 others. Jeff Bauman was one of those badly hurt. Both his legs were blown off. Hours later, when he awoke from surgery, Bauman helped the FBI identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev as one of the suspects.

Now, a film titled Stronger — based on Bauman's memoir by the same name — recounts how that terrorist attack changed his life forever and for the better.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Bauman.

During the interview, Gyllenhaal and Bauman were completely in sync, like two people who seemed to have known each other for a long time and deeply, even exchanging chummy jabs.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal with Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, whom he plays in the movie "Stronger", Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo: P. Poulou / VOA )
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal with Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, whom he plays in the movie "Stronger", Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo: P. Poulou / VOA )

​Gradually, the tone of our interview became more serious as the focus turned to Stronger, the film directed by David Gordon Green. The film follows Jeff Bauman, a Costco employee showing up at the Boston Marathon, big sign in hand, to express his support for one runner — a former girlfriend he hopes to woo back.

Within seconds, Jeff Bauman turns from an enthusiastic spectator waiting at the finish line, to a front line terror victim. As soon he opens his eyes in the hospital, both legs amputated, Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has to relearn how to live in his own body. His relationship with girlfriend Erin Hurley, played by Tatiana Maslany, is resumed but tested. His mother Patty, played by Miranda Richardson, is portrayed as loving but erratic.

Jake Gyllenhaal told me this was the most challenging role he has ever played.

"You know the great irony of this, I've played people who are professional athletes and there has been nothing that's come close to as difficult physically as this role," he said.

"Understanding the difficulty of just taking a few steps is what we thought and we've always believed the movie to be about - about a man who learns how to take a few steps and the extraordinary journey that he goes through to do that, so yes, it was difficult but it was an honor!" he said emphatically.

Gyllenhaal said his journey of interpreting Bauman and his life story brought him closer to a whole community of amputees. "As painful as it was to understand what he went through, I think it was incredibly inspiring," he said.

Asked about his advisory role to Gyllenhaal, Bauman said he showed him how he works and moves as an amputee. "I showed him how to take off the legs, how to get in and out of a car perfectly," he said. "He watched me getting in and out of chairs." He chuckled "When it came to acting, he did not need any coaching."

Gyllenhaal's gritty portrayal informs not only Bauman's battle to stand on his prosthetic legs but his emotional struggle against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"I always think that you need a very long runway whenever you try to create any character," he said. "But when you are trying to play a character that is actually in existence, who is living an incredible life themselves and has been through as much and is right next to you, it's a whole other experience, like understanding what it is like to have an amputation above the knee in both legs, it's the same thing to understand the concept of PTSD."

"I have over the years met many different people in the process of making movies, members of the military, police officers, a number of people who have suffered from PTSD in many different forms," he continued. "And I always feel like you kind of carry the characters you've played with you into other characters. But in terms of understanding Jeff and what he went through, it's pretty much impossible. I know we talked a lot about feelings. I think [turning to Jeff], you are not shy about struggles. So, we spoke. I got to know him, his fears, and it was a slow long runway like I said."

Bauman shared his experience and thoughts on how it feels to experience a terrorist attack.

"I felt like I was sucker punched," he said. "You are just not ready for something like that, especially an IED attack. And then afterwards, I did research on IEDs and the person that did this to me and why they did it, what the motives were. And then you start reading about different things in history and different bombings. Since it's personal to me, I kind of attach myself to what's going on in Barcelona, and Syria — anywhere, Moscow, it happens all over the world, every day. It makes my stomach tighten up. Then I also take a step back and say, Why are we doing this to each other?'"

Bauman said the movie is not about the trauma but about survival and recovery.

"I want people to see it and realize that you can get through something like this, and you can live a positive life after," he said. "My life is nothing but positive now. But I still have trauma. I do. I live with it"

"Stronger" depicts how Jeff Bauman became "Boston's Strong" because his recovery symbolized the recovery of the whole city and beyond. Six weeks after losing both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombings, he was wheeled onto the Fenway Park infield by Carlos Arrendondo, the man who rescued him, where he pitched the first ball at a Red Sox game.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a powerful performance as Jeff Bauman where the latter's day-to-day struggle is in the details. Gyllenhaal said despite Bauman's unfathomable experience and grueling rehabilitation, this film is about hope.

"This is a film that is not about an event. This is a film about a human being," he said.

"And I think Jeff himself said it best the other day: 'it doesn't have to make headlines to be hard.' And I think what Jeff's story tells us is that no matter what you're going through, be it an event like he went through, which is unfathomable, or be hurricanes that are affecting so many different cities and towns and people all over the world, whatever it might be, Jeff's story tells us that we can get through it," he said.

"And like he says in the movie, if he can do it, you can do it," added Gyllenhaal. "I think that's very important. When events are tragic as they are, we tend to focus on the event itself and the people who did the event, not the people who survive. This movie is about the people who survive, who go on to live, and who go on to live a better life than they thought they would even before and that's why Jeff inspires me."

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