Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and David Gordon Green talk about crafting a ‘Stronger’ relationship for the big screen
Jeff Bauman was on his way to gamble at Mohegan Sun when he first heard from a group of Hollywood producers who said they wanted to turn his life story into a movie. And at that point, the odds of the deal actually happening felt about as low as winning a million dollars playing penny slots.
“I was joking around with them, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll get this done. I’d like a Lamborghini too,” Bauman recalled of the call on the way to Connecticut casino.
But then the filmmakers started tossing out names of actors interested in playing the Boston Marathon bombing survivor, including hometown favorite Chris Evans. Bauman’s heart started to race, but he reminded himself what his book agent had told him: Nearly every book is optioned by someone in the film industry, but only 2% of those stories ever make it to the big screen.
Three years later, the 31-year-old still doesn’t have a Lamborghini — he drives a truck equipped with a car seat for his toddler that’s littered with her toys. But his book, “Stronger,” about how he coped with losing his legs in the wake of the 2013 terrorist attack, was adapted into a film. The movie, which shares the same name as his book, is being released Friday and features Jake Gyllenhaal playing Bauman.
“Yeah, it’s not Chris Evans,” Bauman said with a laugh. “I joke with Jake and say it should have been Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s my size, he looks more like me, and he’s a better actor than Jake.”
All jokes aside, Bauman and Gyllenhaal have become exceptionally close during the filmmaking process. At the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, where the drama had its world premiere, the two spent nearly all their time together, sitting for joint interviews and sharing a SUV as they were chauffeured around the city for press obligations. On Sunday evening, when Bauman was about to leave their hotel to head back to Boston, the actor said goodbye and told him how well he thought he’d done in the interviews and how much fun he’d had over the weekend.
“Since we finished the movie, Jeff has evolved so much in the past year,” Gyllenhaal said a few minutes after Bauman disappeared into an elevator. “He’s sober now, and I can connect with him — at least verbally — in a way I couldn’t before. When we were doing research for the movie, I observed his physical behavior, but if I asked him about particular things, it was always a little obtuse — his answers weren’t as honest as they have become.”
Gyllenhaal was sitting next to Tatiana Maslany, the “Orphan Black” star who costars in “Stronger” as Bauman’s then-girlfriend, Erin Hurley. For as much as the film is about the aftermath of the bombing, it’s also an exploration of a relationship that is trying to withstand the weight of guilt, obligation, and trauma.
Even before the marathon, Bauman and Hurley had been struggling to stay together. She was an administrator in the anesthesiology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; he worked in the deli at a local Costco. She was ready to settle down and get married, while he feared commitment, spending most nights late out at the bar with his buddies.
To show his love for her, he decided to wait at the finish line of the marathon, which she was running. He even made a sign: “Run, Erin! Run!”
Understandably, Hurley has struggled with immense guilt ever since that day, when Bauman had to have both of his legs amputated above the knee to save his life. She stayed by his side throughout his recovery, even moving into the apartment he shared with his mother. The couple eventually had a child together — Nora, now 3 — and got married, though they have since separated.
“She does kind of think this is an invasion of her privacy, coming along for this ride,” admitted Bauman, who noted that Hurley did not attend the Toronto premiere. “She’s said to me, ‘I hate doing this public stuff.’ I’m, like, ‘Well, I kind of signed up for this, and it’s a choice that I made.’ We kind of battle on that.”
Despite her conflicting emotions about being a public figure, Hurley showed up to the Boston set of “Stronger” far more than Bauman. She also made herself available to Maslany, and the two often worked out together.
“I felt like I could understand Erin outside of the tragedy,” Maslany said. “That deep need and desperation to get the hell out — that was something that in my guts I could relate to. I, by no means, wanted to ask her about those hard moments, but more instinctively be with her and interpret her energy.”
“It wasn’t like we all sat down and were, like, ‘Let’s talk,’ ” Gyllenhaal added. “We just experienced them. We were always both feeling a bit fraudulent and a bit like impostors, no matter what. We looked to each other during those moments to demand reality.”
David Gordon Green, who directed the film, urged his actors to spend time with their real-life counterparts but didn’t feel as if they needed to create a scientifically accurate reenactment. His leads, he said, approached the roles with opposite styles: “Jake loves to rehearse and rehearse — he thrives on that, and it’s something he needs,” the filmmaker said. “Tatiana puts on her Beats headphones and gets into her mind. She doesn’t go back to her trailer much. It’s like a fighter ready to get into the ring.”
When told of this assessment, however, Gyllenhaal and Maslany insisted they don’t actually think they’re that different.
“I think David’s an idiot,” Maslany said with a laugh. “Yeah, I mean, I was drunk a lot of the time and just kind of wandered onto set.”
“I love how David is, like, ‘She just listens to music and doesn’t rehearse her lines,’ ” Gyllenhaal agreed, chuckling himself. “I actually don’t think we are very different actors. When we first met, she was much more prepared than me. It was hard, as an actor, for me to play someone who is pushing someone they love away so much and then trying to connect. I had difficulty with that. There’s a lot of her coming toward me and me pushing her away. It’s a confusing place to be.”
Green, meanwhile, was grappling with his own challenges on “Stronger.” A native Texan who now calls Charleston, S.C., home, the filmmaker is best known for making wacky comedies: the marijuana-themed “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” as well as the HBO series “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals.” While he’s tackled serious fare before — his last film was 2015’s “Our Brand Is Crisis,” starring Sandra Bullock as a political consultant working on a presidential campaign in Bolivia — he was intimidated by the prospect of directing “Stronger.”
“I was in this really beautiful, playful place when I got the script, working on ‘Vice Principals’ with my buddies and having the time of my life,” Green recalled. “I got the script and assumed I was gonna be reading a really heavy drama, and I was, like, ‘I kind of want to live in comedies right now.’ … But the script made me think: What if I break all my rules? Every movie I do, I try to take a step forward. Sometimes I need to enjoy life more. Sometimes I need to put money in my pocket. Sometimes I need to vent about a relationship I’ve been through. Here, it was like, let’s leave everything I know behind and take that step forward.”
There would be an unforeseen challenge on the horizon too: Another movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” was also gearing up for production and would film in Massachusetts at the same time as “Stronger.” Green actually met Berg while both were filming footage at the 2016 race.
Still, Green said he wasn’t anxious about the other film, despite the similar subject matter. Because both were being released by Lionsgate, he viewed them as companion pieces — “Patriots Day,” which stars Mark Wahlberg, a more action-heavy depiction of the actual bombing; “Stronger” a quieter love story “that’s much more of a distant, echoed voice.”
“In the same year, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘The Thin Red Line’ came out, and they’re both extraordinary portraits,” Green said, referring to the 1998 World War II films. “You can say they’re films about the same conflict, but not really. They’re related only so much as half a sentence, and then they’re their own work of art.”
While Green went to see “Patriots Day” when it opened in L.A. last December, Bauman made an active decision to avoid the movie. “I really don’t want to see it,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ll take anything from it. I didn’t hear from anybody that it was a great movie.”
Anyway, Bauman is too busy to go to the movies these days. In addition to promoting “Stronger” — which screened in Boston for the first time on Tuesday at the rehab center where he recovered — he’s raising Nora and studying mechanical engineering at a local college so that he learn how to make the kind of prosthetics he uses. Plus, he visits a psychologist three times a week — sometimes with Hurley.
“We have no idea what the future holds or what we’re doing,” he acknowledged. “Our therapist still makes us talk about us sometimes, and it hurts. We realize the relationship’s been through a lot. I love her a lot, and try to tell her that and not go overboard and stress her out.”
Their devotion to each other despite their ongoing emotional turmoil is what made Gyllenhaal want to make “Stronger,” he said. He signed on as a producer and eventually became so obsessed with the role that he kept hundreds of pages of research notes, according to Green. He met with a number of amputees and peppered Bauman with questions about how he moved, adamant about getting his physical behavior down pat.
“But in the end, I think what I am so drawn to is how they were there for each other,” Gyllenhaal said of Bauman and Hurley. “Even in the guilt, they were there, and there is not a moment where any of them doubted that. They just showed … up. To me, it makes me love my family so much. It makes me think about my friends and the people who would be there for me. Because in those moments, who cares about the mess?”
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