I talked with Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal & Jeff Bauman about their film Stronger which is based on Jeff’s New York Times bestselling memoir. Stronger is the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope. Jeff, a 27-year-old working-class Bostonian, was at the Boston marathon to try and win back his ex-girlfriend Erin (Maslany). Waiting for her at the finish line when the blast occurs, he loses both his legs in the attack. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, Jeff is able to help law enforcement identify one of the bombers, but his own battle has just begun. He tackles months of physical and emotional rehabilitation with the unwavering support of Erin and his family. I talked with Tatiana separately and Jake & Jeff together.
I talked with Tatiana Maslany first and she opened with what it was like playing a character based on someone who could analyze her work. “It’s a huge responsibility for sure, but John Pollono, who had written the script, had done such extensive work with the family and hearing their stories. I felt like what he was putting down on the script was definitely full of something with good intentions and love and I could go off of that. I got to sit with Erin a couple of times and get a sense of her energy and a sense of who she is. I asked her questions and more so just talked about life. We found a lot that we related on and I admired her. It brought up a lot of questions in me on what I would do in this situation, how would I be able to deal with it, what would it take to go through this? For me, sitting opposite Jake when we are Jeff and Erin, that’s when I get a lot of information about this dynamic.”
She talked about preparing for the emotional elements of the film. “So much of it is ingesting the script and over time letting it live inside of me. It’s a weird process, but for Jake and I and David (the director), David just let us have this free range to play. Jake won’t let a moment go unless it’s real and authentic. It’s just being open to all these moments and letting them play out differently all the time. There is a lot of doubt with Erin, I think, and a lot of guilt, which makes things cloudy and murky.
“I think playing Erin was one of the hardest parts I’ve ever played and not because of any pyrotechnics in terms of acting, but more so there’s a quietness about her. She’s not showing everything. She’s dealing with things deep down and she’s not even sure what’s going on. For me as an actor, that’s more challenging than playing a loud, big character. The work is smaller, the work is more specific.”
I asked her how much of the story she knew before getting involved with the film. “I didn’t know Jeff’s story. I had seen his photo. For a lot of us outside of Boston, the main thing is that image and headline. This film is my introduction to the personal life that was effecting by this and the rippling effect of that.”
Erin was running the Boston Marathon and that’s why Jeff was there. I asked Tatiana if she’s running marathons now. “No, I realized I can’t do it (laughing). I started running as soon as I got the part and was like ‘I can run’. I can’t run. I still do it. I ran this morning. I ran up and down the Charles River because that’s what I would do when working on the film. To prep for her (Erin), running was a big thing for me, but what I discovered was the strength it takes to do that and the work that it takes was just not something I was capable of in that moment. It made me realize how strong she is and how her physical stamina also had to have a mental stamina. That’s what they say about marathons. Any of the research I had done, the books I read, it’s such a psychological thing. That was a big part of Erin for me, that psychological, mental strength.”
Erin’s background is comedy and improv surprisingly. Most people know her from the drama Orphan Black, but she’s big into comedy. I though comedian Lenny Clarke stole the film and Tatiana talked with me about her love for Lenny. “Yes I agree and he also stole my heart. I would just sit there and listen to him because he can talk forever. He can make any situation funny which was very helpful sometimes because we were doing some heavy things. That’s why I thought David was such a great director too because he’ll add these little pops of comedy. Lenny is nonstop. He’s so funny. I’d be sitting in another room and his voice is so loud and I’d hear everything he’s saying so clearly. I’d be trying to nap in between scenes and I’d be killing myself laughing because he’s so good. I love him.”
Jake Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bauman were next. Jake talked about how much of the story he knew before getting involved with the film. Jake Gyllenhaal, “I had really only seen the photograph of Jeff initially before I had read the screenplay. I hadn’t read the book until I read the screenplay so really it was just that image which was just a generalized image sent out by the media. I never thought in a million years that our lives would intersect in the way that they have. Now you could probably ask me any secrets about his family (laughing).”
He talked about spending time together before filming. “We spent about a year and a half, off and on.” Jeff Bauman to Jake, “You were busy doing stuff. Then he would come back to Boston and we would chill. We’d hit comedy shows and go out to eat.” Jake, “Pretty much yeah. As we got closer to production we sort of set up camp here and we were here for about six months prior to filming. As I was producing the movie as well, I was here and driving back and forth to New York every 3 or 4 days. I live in New York. In that period of time while we were location scouting, casting and stuff like that, we’d go out to dinner or go to Jeff’s house. David Gordon Green would go over to Jeff’s or Jeff came to us. Throughout all of it, we always texted.”
Jeff talked about whether he was nervous or worried about his story becoming a movie and the people portrayed in it. Jeff, “I’m not really worried about how people see me, but my family is tough. I’m not them. Where do I draw the line on their privacy and where do we draw the line on keeping the movie truthful? That was probably the biggest challenge going into it and how far we could go with it. Right now my mom is kind of sore at me.” Jake, “She was psyched though when the reviews started coming out.” Jeff, “She’s my mother she wants me to be successful, but she’s like ‘My apartment is not that dirty. Why is there stuff everywhere?’ She’s very immaculate and particular in what she has in her apartment. It’s kind of OCD’ish. So she was really upset about that.”
Jeff also talked about how this film has been therapeutic for him. “In a way yeah. I do a lot of public speaking now and tell my story and that’s been cool, but definitely the movie has been really interesting. Not every one has a movie made about them. It’s super interesting to be a part of it. Then to see the finished product and it makes me cry. It makes me think about what I went through and where I am now. I’m alright. I’m right here now, cool. I’m where I need to be, with my daughter. The whole thing is pretty surreal for me.”
I asked Jake how he prepared for a role like this physically and mentally. “In truth I don’t think there’s any real preparation. The experience Jeff had, he says it’s like being sucker punched. There’s no preparation for that experience. All I can say is that the process that Jeff went through, the rehabilitation and recovery, I tried to learn everything I could about it. I tried to learn exactly what it’s like, what the surgeries are like, and the painkillers and we wanted to show how painful this is. I think it’s a lot of understanding and you don’t just get that from Jeff, but from everyone around him. The layers of people who helped. It’s from their experiences and other people who went through trauma. It goes very deep so there’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of talks.”
Jake was asked how, as a producer, he could see such a local story being able to cross over into a bigger world. “Every story is a local story. I don’t think you guys realize how much of an inspiration you are. I think maybe that’s the feeling here. That’s a wonderful thing. That’s the thing about Boston, that humility and inner strength and small town nature, but it is global. His story is about anybody who’s struggling, anybody who’s in a space they fear they will never get out of it, anybody who has lost anything. We are all struggling or know somebody who is struggling. Jeff said it on his Facebook page, it doesn’t have to make headlines to be hard. That’s the reason this story is for anyone.”