Actor Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Covenant'
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Covenant' Image Credit: Christopher Raphael/ Phars Films

“He’s one of our generation’s best actors,” declares actor Dar Salim about his colleague and Oscar-nominated Hollywood heavyweight Jake Gyllenhaal.

As soon as those words tumbled out, Gyllenhaal – the object of Salim’s admiration claps back with a dead-pan face: “I wrote that line for him.”

As they both laughed at the shared joke during our exclusive roundtable interview with the actors in Los Angeles through Zoom, that easy camaraderie between them was apparent as they promoted their new war epic ‘The Covenant’, out in UAE cinemas on April 20.

Image Credit: Christopher Raphael/Phars Films

“As actors, you have very little control on a film. It’s not our medium. The only control you have is from take to take … It’s almost like putting things in a bucket and someone else deals with all the things you have thrown in there, puts it together, and organises it,” said Gyllenhaal. This is his acting process for any film and that method has served him well over the decades.

And that “someone” who put it all together for Gyllenhaal’s latest ‘The Covenant’ was director Guy Ritchie of ‘Snatch’ fame. Ritchie also made the monstrous gangster hit ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and is known for his action-driven tent pole films in Hollywood.

In this latest war thriller ‘The Covenant’ – aptly released during the long Eid weekend in the UAE -- Salim and Gyllenhaal join forces to bring alive the true-life story of US sergeant John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) who’s rescued from Taliban forces in Afghanistan by his interpreter Ahmed (Salim).

The action adventure chronicles the unlikely bond between two men from different ranks and cultures who go to great lengths to protect each other against all odds. And Gyllenhaal stuck to his tried and tested method when it came to acting.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim in 'The Covenant', out in UAE cinemas on April 20
Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim in 'The Covenant', out in UAE cinemas on April 20 Image Credit: Christopher Raphael and Phars Films

“But sometimes, actors try and control that process. And that’s just futile and one of the things that’s just freeing is that actors should say: ‘I am in a director’s medium and mind. It’s their story’ … I am always interested and curious about how their mind works and how I can service the story they see,” said Gyllenhaal. This strategy seems to have worked wonderfully for this Oscar-nominated talent. Acclaimed directors like David Fincher (‘Zodiac’), Ang Lee (‘Brokeback Mountain’), Denis Villeneuve (‘Prisoners’) and Tom Ford (The Nocturnal Animals’) have worked with Gyllenhaal to come up with stirring and enduring stories. Perhaps, his success in remaining relevant in Hollywood can be attributed to the way he surrenders wholly to his director.

“Remember, you are an actor for hire … And you really have to listen to what your filmmaker wants and how they like to work,” said Gyllenhaal.

For ‘The Covenant’, Salim and he were convinced that director Ritchie wanted to make a different kind of “big film”. ‘The Covenant’, a tale set against US military invention in Afghanistan and their attempt to fight Taliban forces, has the typical blockbuster-in-the-making feel. Guns, explosions, and big guy with gigantic hearts dominate its storyline.

“It’s big cinema, which very few people can do. It’s very engaging and is full of action, but at the same time – at the heart of it, it has true emotion -- unsentimental emotions -- which keeps you drawn to the film. Guy Ritchie is a very strong leader and he creates a very safe space for actors… The script was just 60-pages-long and most of our dialogues and action was actually found on the days of shoot and we went with it,” said Salim.

But they are not complaining. Rolling with the punches is what they both have mastered.

But will this film feed into the dominant narrative of how Americans are the ultimate saviours of mankind or gloss over the harsh realities of war and brutality? Both actors deny that their new film will toe that line.

“It’s a parable about what a human being is owed and their reluctant, begrudging kind of commitment to someone else. It’s not a cliché that you are a good person. This film shows we can be complex individuals who do good – even against our desires to do it … It’s a parable – a simple story about many, many complex things,” said Gyllenhaal.

Danish actor Dar Salim in 'The Covenant' Image Credit: Christopher Raphael/Phars Films

In the film, Ahmed plays his translator who helps him communicate with the locals during his deadly mission to weed out extremist forces. After a mission goes wrong, Ahmed is forced to carry the seriously injured American soldier John Kinley to safety, thus endangering his own life.

Ahmed also stresses that ‘The Covenant’ doesn’t feed into the usual stereotypes.

“I love the fact that this is a big Hollywood movie and it has its heart in it. You have two men and how their relationship deepens although they belong to two different cultures. The way Ahmed is portrayed in this film is very relatable to the Middle Eastern audiences and also to Europeans and Americans … They mirror each other … It’s not a stereotype of what a man from this part of the world is in movies. It shows that most human beings just want to have an opportunity to do good,” said Salim. The film will “unite us than divide us”, he adds.

“Have empathy with the project and characters you play … Once you do that, you will lift the project and the project will lift you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the film. And if you think like that you will always become a much better actor.”

- Jake Gyllenhaal

Both do the heavy lifting in this film. The film may begin with Gyllenhaal’s character pulling rank on the local interpreter, but towards the end their power dynamics shift giving way to reluctant respect and admiration for each other.

“It’s about a begrudging kind of commitment to someone else. Goodness doesn’t come out, you know that cliché that you are a good person. We can be complex individuals who do good … They are both men cut from a similar cloth,” said Gyllenhaal. It’s not his first war film either. In director Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘Jarhead’, Gyllenhaal played a disillusioned and frustrated US marine. But the actor believes that he has graduated in life from that role.

“When I filmed the movie ‘Jarhead’ I was playing a young recruit and his psychological journey in terms of his resistance and ideas and things going on around him … But in this film [‘The Covenant’], I play someone who has a tremendous amount of experience and has wisened up, particularly in warfare. In a lot of way, it’s the evolution of my career,” said Gyllenhaal.

Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Danish actor Dar Salim in 'The Covenant' Image Credit: Christopher Raphael/Phars Films

On the sets of ‘The Covenant’, shot in Spain dressed up as Afghanistan, they were surrounded by “incredible technical advisors” and “special operations sergeants”. They were on call to help the actors with their tactical maneuvers and weapon-handling skills.

“I have learned so much from people who have served and they become a part of my life as a result of making stories about them. This story is all the more important for me to tell because of my relationship with them,” said Gyllenhaal.

But it isn’t your testosterone-charged, propaganda-fueled war movie either.

“I think what make ‘The Covenant’ so different from so many stories – particularly set in war – is that I don’t look at this as a war movie at all … In the end, it’s about two men, two opposing forces, actually creating empathy," said Gyllenhaal.

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'The Covenant' is out in UAE cinemas on April 20