It’s the kind of game we’ve all played — who’d play you in the movie version of your life?
Jeff Bauman got Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s still asked the question a lot these days, as he and the Oscar-nominated actor do press ahead of the release of his biopic “Stronger,” about Bauman’s life in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
“We get Aaron Rodgers a lot,” Gyllenhaal answers.
“He can’t act — well, I guess he does the [State Farm] commercials,” Bauman adds.
“Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Gyllenhaal says.
Um, isn’t that quite the leap, an NFL star in 30-second ads to the lead in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Nightcrawler?”
“It’s not as far as you’d think,” Gyllenhaal quips.
Bauman’s quick: “There are a lot of good editors out there.” Gyllenhaal bursts into laughter.
Throughout making and promoting “Stronger,” which opened in D.C.-area theaters Friday, Bauman and Gyllenhaal have become the kind of friends who text each other about championship fights, talk over the phone about personal problems and bust each other’s chops. (Mostly it’s Bauman, in his deadpan manner, making fun of Gyllenhaal. It’s a delightful dynamic.)
The movie follows Bauman after the bombing, when a photo of him being rushed away in a wheelchair, bloodied and clutching to his thigh, became the iconic image of the attack.
Bauman, who would go on to have both of his legs amputated, had been near the finish line to cheer for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley, played by Tatiana Maslany.
“Stronger” doesn’t dwell on the horrific moments following the bombing or the intense manhunt for the perpetrators.
The movie spends more time with the subtleties of recovery and the physical pain of losing a leg than even Bauman’s role in helping to identify one of the bombers.
Based on Bauman’s memoir, the film shows his good-naturedness and humor but doesn’t shy away from his lowest moments and the flip side of hero worship, as Bauman tries to navigate the giant spotlight cast upon him.
In the movie, Gyllenhaal’s character is often bewildered or overwhelmed by the chants of “Boston strong!” yelled his way.
For the most part, Bauman isn’t bothered that his highs and lows are on the big screen. “I guess I lived it, so I don’t really care if people see it.”
Sometimes he worries about what people may think of his mother, shown in the film as a part of a loud and messy but ultimately loving family dynamic. “I was struggling kind of in my head with what I went through. So I talked to my dad last night, and he kind of broke it down for me,” Bauman said Monday at a hotel in Georgetown. “He’s like, ‘There’s not a person who watches this or sees this that’s not going to feel your pain, that’s not going to relate to that. No one’s going to blame you for throwing up on yourself and drinking yourself stupid.’ He was like, ‘I would have done the same thing — I’d probably still be doing it — but look how far you’ve come in 15 months.’”
That’s how long Bauman has been sober.
As shown in the movie, before the bombing, Bauman worked at a Costco deli counter and could be flaky. Now, the real-life Bauman studies engineering and helps raise his 3-year-old daughter, Nora. (Bauman and Hurley announced their split in February.)
While initially skeptical of a movie adaptation of his life, Bauman became very involved in the script and grew close with the screenwriter, John Pollono, who’s from the same area.
As for Gyllenhaal, an actor known for intense preparation, “I learned more from this movie than any movie I’ve made.”
The actor’s company produced “Stronger,” and he was heavily involved before and after filming. That, and “the delicacy of moving into people’s lives — real people — and trying to respect everything about them but also trying to tell the truth, poses its own difficulty,” Gyllenhaal said. “Trying to do respect to a situation that is inexplicably complicated, not only to the people involved but also to a city and to the world.”
Gyllenhaal spent about a year and a half developing the script and observing Bauman and his family and friends, peppering Bauman with a lot of questions. He and director David Gordon Green also met with the medical staff who worked on Bauman. “Then we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if they came in and play those actual people?”
The film featured the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Bauman was treated. Jeffery Kalish, Bauman’s actual surgeon, and Paul and Greg Martino, of United Prosthetics, all play themselves. Bauman’s first intensive care nurse, Odessa Boykins, shows up in a scene removing Gyllenhaal’s breathing tube.
“She’s the Rottweiler — she was like, super protective. She wouldn’t let people come near,” Bauman said. “You should meet her in real life. She’s a ball of energy and so positive, amazing.”
As for showing Gyllenhaal without legs, it wasn’t just special effects. He credits the props department, the makeup artists, the cinematographer and the editor in getting those shots right. Sometimes Gyllenhaal’s legs would be in holes in the floor, or in green socks. Other times, a special prosthesis helped create the effect.
Gyllenhaal particularly valued watching Bauman in moments when he wasn’t wearing prosthetics and “seeing the weight distribution and how it changes when you don’t have the other part, you don’t have your below-the-knee,” Gyllenhaal said. “Getting that, specifically, for all of us in this process, was probably the most important thing.”
It wasn’t just the physicality of the movements they were trying to capture. Bauman’s friend Will, who lost his arms and legs, served as an extra in the film and was on set while Gyllenhaal filmed the scene where he takes his first few steps using the parallel bars. When he finished, Will told him, “ ‘You got that right. The pain, you got that right. No one gets that right,’ ” Gyllenhaal recalled.
“Generally we think about the physicality of a hero — somebody who runs into a fire or into battle — but I don’t think we always think of it as someone in stillness, moving a few inches or a few feet,” Gyllenhaal said. “We always said the movie was about a guy who learned how to walk and take a few steps. That was the triumph. And it’s hard to make a movie where you make a few steps such an extraordinary thing.”
Relating to one another’s pain and the triumph in ordinary moments are key takeaways of the movie, and something Bauman sees as he watches audiences experience his life unfold during movie screenings.
“They’re crying, they’re upset, then they look at me, and they start to realize, he’s right there,” Bauman said. “This is the ending. Our press circuit is the ending, and people can see me and see that I’m okay and living life to the fullest.”
He switches to a heavy Boston accent to add: “Hanging out with A-listahs.”
“Oh my God,” Gyllenhaal said, laughing. “A-listahs!”