Jake of All Trades

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal reinvents himself yet again, this time on Broadway in the musical “Sunday in the Park With George.”

(©Gareth Cattermole/Gerry Images)

Jake Gyllenhaal is not one to rest on his laurels. Not content to just tackle drama on Broadway (2014’s “Constellations”), for which he was nominated for a Drama League Award, the 36-year-old actor has now added a Broadway musical—New York City Center’s revival of “Sunday in the Park With George”—to his résumé.

The Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, which opened at the reborn Hudson Theatre on Feb. 23 and runs for 10 weeks, tells the story of 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat and how his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” came to be. Gyllenhaal plays not only the artist, whose single-minded focus affects his relationship with his muse, Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), but also, in the second act, Seurat’s great-grandson, a 1980s New York artist.

Singing Sondheim alongside Tony Award winner Ashford in his first Broadway musical? Why not? California-born Gyllenhaal, who hails from Hollywood royals—his mother, Naomi, is a screenwriter; his father, Stephen, a director; and sister Maggie and brother-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, are both accomplished actors—has never shied away from challenging roles, whether it be losing 30 pounds to play a voyeuristic loner in “Nightcrawler,” enduring grueling training as a boxer in “Southpaw” or conveying repressed sexuality as a rodeo cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” a performance that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.

Though Gyllenhaal, who was raised in Los Angeles and is now based in New York, has reached the top of the Hollywood ladder, he has managed, for the most part, to remain under the radar—no doubt, in part, because he fiercely protects his privacy (you can ask where he likes to hang out, but it doesn’t mean he’ll tell you). He is also aware that one can hide in plain sight in a city like New York (he’s been seen taking the subway to get around town). When it comes to the work, however, he has no trepidation about stepping into the spotlight.

Q: How did you get involved with “Sunday in the Park With George”?
A: [Composer] Jeanine Tesori. We did “Little Shop of Horrors” at City Center a few years ago and it was a ridiculous amount of fun. When “Sunday” came up, she didn’t even ask me—she just kind of insisted—and at this point, I’ll do whatever she says. Jeanine has an incredible instinct, and I trust her implicitly. In truth, I’ve always loved this musical, and the idea of doing it in a new, abstract way—much like Seurat would have enjoyed—drew me in.

Q: What drew you to the role of French painter Georges Seurat?
A: Stephen and James have created two very distinctive characters in “George,” and it’s really that split that drew me to the show. It is about two different artists in two different generations, but their experiences are universal: They’re both struggling to connect, to find their voice, to understand the history of their family—how it holds us back and helps us move forward.

Gyllenhaal in “Sunday in the Park With George.” (©Stephanie Berger)

Q: What challenges did you find in portraying him?

A: The beard. Maintenance can be a real nightmare—it’s given me a brand-new respect for hipsters.

Q: Did the prospect of singing on Broadway, especially songs from theater legend Stephen Sondheim, make you nervous?
A: Of course it made me nervous—I have a pulse, after all—but why else do I do what I do? It’s certainly not to feel comfortable. I have sung my whole life, but never quite like this. Plus, Sondheim is a real playwright, which makes his show a dream for actors who sing.

Q: What is it like working with Annaleigh Ashford?
A: Annaleigh is just plain wonderful. Every time she walks into the room, I’m reminded that I have a heart! She shows everyone who works with her and anyone who sees her onstage how lovable a person can be. And she is precisely the kind of actor I want to work with: Someone who is better than me.

Q: Do you have any pre-theater rituals or superstitions?
A: I usually take a short nap and then pray at the Mark Rylance altar I have in my dressing room.

Q: Is there a particular theater role you would just love to play?
A: Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Obviously.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I have a few films coming out this year. “Stronger,” a love story about Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and his now-wife; Joon-ho Bong’s “Okja;” “Life,” a film set in space; and “Wildlife,” a story about a young boy’s journey to manhood. I’m all over the map.

Q: What’s your favorite neighborhood to hang in when you’re in NYC?
A: Midtown. I love Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Q: What’s a typical day for you in New York when you’re not working?
A: It’s usually some combination of throwing a ball for my dog, hanging with my nieces and eating smoked fish.

Q: You spend a lot of time on both coasts: Do you have a preference for one over the other?
A: It’s a toss-up—New York has the culture, but California has the year-round produce.