There are certain celebrities you just don’t expect to see on social media. While having a presence on Twitter or Instagram is now par for the course for major names in the business, it remains this scary new-fangled contraption that’s just too much work for a lot of A-Listers. Why would you want to worry all day about whether that selfie you posted is too much when you’re sitting in front of endless cameras all day? It’s tough enough avoiding ceaseless scrutiny from all corners of your life when you’re a public figure, so why would you want to open yourself up to the madness of strangers with anime characters calling you daddy as they ask you to run over them with your car? A lot of celebrities are very serious, and it’s hard to keep that image up on sites that thrive on memes, filters, and the façade of realness.
So I never expected Jake Gyllenhaal to get an Instagram page, but I definitely never imagined he’d be really bloody good at it either. But it’s true: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Instagram game is strong. The Oscar and SAG Award nominated actor of Nightcrawler and Brokeback Mountain fame has been on the site since last December, using it to announce his casting as Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Gyllenhaal is not a frequent user of the site. Most of his content has been tied to promoting himself or projects he’s in. There’s no a lot of candid shots of himself, or anything related to his personal life. His family, including his famous sister and parents, are not in any of these images, nor is anyone he’s dated or been reportedly attached to in that manner. All in all, this Instagram page is work. It’s an extension of his job as an actor and public presence, a figure who has to sell something on a worldwide scale. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t incredibly and unexpectedly good at it. Well, maybe it’s his team pulling the strings (as is typically the case for most major celebrities), but whatever is happening, it looks so effortlessly charming and appealing in a way that’s tough to fake. Lean too heavily into the joke and people will scream ‘fake’. Keep a light touch and the impersonal nature of it will prove off-putting. No, what’s happened here is just right. It’s the crafting of a personality without revealing everything going on behind the curtain.
I wish I could find the exact tweet that inspired this piece, but someone made the point that Gyllenhaal is a man playing the game of Hollywood with a full deck - he’s a handsome white guy who is an excellent actor and has leading man chops as well as character skills - but doesn’t necessarily have a definable personality beyond that. In that aspect, he is hardly unique. The roulette wheel of handsome white male actors you endlessly confuse with one another is a proud entertainment tradition, and long may it reign. I would hesitate to apply that logic to Gyllenhaal - he’s got enough years in the business and enough major roles that would make him easy to pick out of a line-up - but I understand why someone would think that, especially since Gyllenhaal’s career for the past decade has primarily been defined by him taking a step back from the mainstream.
Gyllenhaal tried to be a leading man, and it didn’t entirely work. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a costly folly for Disney that didn’t inspire much conversation beyond continuing questions over why a story set in ancient Persia seemed to be almost exclusively populated with white people. Blatant miscasting aside, Gyllenhaal is pretty solid in the lead and clearly has the abilities to be the sort of eye-grabbing blockbuster idol the industry’s foundations were once built on. In a recent interview, Gyllenhaal expressed his regrets with the film, saying, ‘I think I learned a lot from that movie in that I spend a lot of time trying to be very thoughtful about the roles that I pick and why I’m picking them. And you’re bound to slip up and be like, ‘That wasn’t right for me,’ or ‘That didn’t fit perfectly.’ ‘There have been a number of roles like that. And then a number of roles that do.’ It’s an understandable perspective, and once again, one familiar to the handsome white dudes of Hollywood: How many of them have taken that exact path to stardom, from indie darling to Next Big Thing to failed action man, all before returning to smaller roles that have people remembering that yes, this hot guy can actually act.
I’m not sure Gyllenhaal’s skills were ever in doubt, but there is a fascinating shift in his work and style post-Prince of Persia that has made him one of the more intriguing on-screen presences in film right now. To put it bluntly, he got weird. There was always an appealing strangeness to Gyllenhaal’s early work - he is Donnie Darko and Bubble Boy, after all - and being a mainstream oddball is a whole lot easier when you’re hot and don’t do much to sacrifice that. Still, the Gyllenhaal of Nightcrawler felt like a whole new man compared to the blandness in Prince of Persia. Think of the screeching madness of his performance (and facial hair) in Okja or the pretentious d-bag critic spiel of Velvet Buzzsaw. When your focus isn’t exclusively on being pretty, you get stuff done (but also he never really stopped being pretty and let’s not pretend that, combined with the adoration men get for ‘going ugly’ in roles didn’t help him on some level). He plays well in studies of obsession, of abrasiveness, of men who like to keep the world at an arm’s distance, even though they have all the means to skate through life easily should they so desire.
But now and then, you need that mainstream role, the one that pays the bills and ensures your public profile remains strong enough in-between the indies. When people start talking about you being ‘serious’ and ‘focused’ in interviews, it helps to lighten up a bit and let fans see you as something other than dazzlingly inapproachable. Enter Mysterio.
I once joked with a friend about how one day the only actor left who wouldn’t have done a Marvel or DC movie would be either Leonardo DiCaprio or Joaquin Phoenix (and I was quickly proven wrong on the latter!) Gyllenhaal wasn’t necessarily on that short list but he still felt like the kind of actor who wouldn’t want to be tied up to a franchise or one of those dreaded multi-film contracts. For someone who was so public for so long, Gyllenhaal seemed to make the decision to be more consciously private in recent years. Gone are the days of super cloying paparazzi walks with Taylor Swift or being one half of a power couple with Reese Witherspoon (can you even name who he’s dating right now without Googling it?). Doing a film that required the exact opposite seemed like an interesting direction to take, and it’s one he easily could have done without getting on social media. But there he is!
What Gyllenhaal’s social media presence reminds me of the most is when Ryan Reynolds got his sh*t together and embraced his Deadpool nature as an off-screen public presence. Given that he and Gyllenhaal are good friends and former colleagues, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d have chats about the merits of Instagram before Jake’s team harangued him into signing up. Reynolds puts more of himself out there on his social media, including his wife but not his kids, but he still maintains a fascinating consistency of self-promotion that’s publicly appealing without being too much or too revealing. Social media is also a handy way to show off your famous friends in a handy round of mutually beneficial promotion without looking too schmoozy or manufactured. Everyone wins!
This year, Gyllenhaal has also blown up more on social media than ever before. Perhaps there’s simply a renewed appreciation for him in the manner of the Keanu renaissance, although it’s not entirely comparable because there was never a period in Gyllenhaal’s career where he was considered uncool or untalented. His Instagram has played into that. His posts are pithy, knowingly silly, and perfect for meme material. The real gems, however, have been on the promotional trail for Spider-Man: Far From Home, including highly memorable interviews and moments where it’s abundantly clear that Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t really care all that much about the MCU. Sure, he’s having fun and he’s very game for the now expected cycle of sing-alongs, puppy hugs, and keeping Tom Holland in line, but there’s still a casual ambivalence about the material itself that’s proven highly endearing. He’ll dress up as Mysterio for the ‘gram but he’s not putting himself through the exhausting narrative of pretending it’s been his lifelong dream to be in a Spider-Man sequel. Then again, that’s another thing you can get away with when you’re a hot white dude. Remember how Robert Pattinson was praised for his Twilight trash talk while Kristen Stewart was lambasted for not looking ‘grateful’ enough?
It remains to be seen if Gyllenhaal will keep using Instagram once his Mysterio duties wrap up. He’s got some stage work planned in both New York and London, which could always use a bit more marketing, but there’s no guarantee he’ll keep up this particular kind of concerted but professionally fun self-promotion. Is there a benefit to this kind of consciously present online life when you’ve spent so much time trying to ensure your celebrity status is that of a blank slate?