Killing off a man’s young, beautiful wife — which is how “Demolition” starts — is an almost guaranteed way to build sympathy for your main character. Almost.

“This guy, you’re like, ‘What an a–hole,’ ” says Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Davis, the a–hole at the center of the film, out Friday.
After Davis’ wife (Heather Lind) dies in a car crash, he feels … nothing, because he didn’t love her. So he tries to play the part of the bereaved husband, a pattern Gyllenhaal says Davis has repeated throughout his life.

“He has designed his life based on what everybody was telling him he should be doing,” says Gyllenhaal (“Southpaw”). “And he’s gotten farther and farther away from who he actually is, and this trauma knocks him.”

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While at his wife’s wake, Davis locks himself in the bathroom and stares in the mirror, attempting to force the tears he knows everyone expects him to shed.

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“For him, there is sort of, ‘C’mon, convention says you’re supposed to cry,’ ” Gyllenhaal says. “Like, crying means sadness; sadness means crying. And what ends up happening in the journey of the movie is that, in order to access the way he really, really feels, he has to defy all the conventions he lived by, and those conventions are the reasons he’s so far away from his own feelings.”

It’s a condition Gyllenhaal says he’s familiar with. “I am often confused when I know I should be feeling something in a situation and I’m not,” he says.

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One way Davis deals with his non-grief is by taking things apart, beginning with his refrigerator and working up to his actual house. His other activities include writing letters to (and eventually meeting) a vending machine company customer service rep (Naomi Watts), befriending her son (Judah Lewis) and allowing himself to get shot while wearing a bulletproof vest, all in the name of getting to his actual feelings.

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“It takes three-quarters of the story for him to realize who he is,” Gyllenhaal says. Even at the end of the film, though, it’s not like Davis has a concrete notion of his own identity. But he’s at least at a place where he can start.

“If you know you’re lost,” Gyllenhaal says, “then that’s the first step.”

More film interviews from Kristen Page-Kirby

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