Jake Gyllenhaal and Julianne Moore on making an animated film in lockdown

At the height of the pandemic, Jake Gyllenhaal was on his knees in his New York apartment, with pillows and a heavy blanket draped on top of his head.
Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced) in Spirit Untamed. Picture : PA Photo/© DreamWorks Animation LLCAunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced) in Spirit Untamed. Picture : PA Photo/© DreamWorks Animation LLC
Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced) in Spirit Untamed. Picture : PA Photo/© DreamWorks Animation LLC

Despite potential appearances to the contrary, this was not part of a lockdown-induced breakdown, but necessary measures taken to record his voice for a new animated movie.

The Brokeback Mountain actor, 40, was among a host of performers who had to take extreme steps to be able to work from home in unprecedented circumstances.

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“I played the entire role on my knees, in basically a prayer position by a bed, with two pillows over both sides of my head and a very heavy blanket over them,” he says with a laugh.

“We had a camera that had to shoot us doing the action so the animators could mimic our facial expressions, so I had a difficult time holding that screen up and talking to it at the same time and it was so, so hot.”

His co-star in Spirit Untamed, about a young girl whose life is changed forever when she moves from the city to a small frontier town and befriends a horse, is Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, 60, who was wedging towels underneath the door of her utility room to block out the sound of her dogs barking.

“When New York got locked down, we went out to our little vacation home, which is just about 1,000 square feet,” she remembers.

“So, I had to find any tiny corner and I was in our laundry room with a bunch of towels stuffed in the cracks of the door, trying to keep my daughter out and my husband and our dogs, so it was definitely challenging to try to find a little spot to do it that would sound OK.”

The movie features Dora The Explorer actress Isabela Merced as Lucky Prescott, who forges a special bond with wild mustang Spirit after the death of her mother, while Gyllenhaal plays her widowed father and Moore voices her aunt.

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“I was very moved at the idea of the spirit of her mother being very connected to the horse,” Gyllenhaal says, “and that we have so many different connections with people we love and that maybe the people we’ve loved, that we’ve lost, show themselves in other forms.

“And I think in the case of the Spirit, the horse, I felt like she was really her mother in a lot of ways, saying, ‘Follow yourself, you know what’s true and what’s right, even though sometimes it may be dangerous and risky, that’s what being alive is all about’.”

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But the prospect of making the whole film remotely did bring with it more challenges than using heavy fabrics as soundproofing. It was a test of imagination to pretend laundry rooms and bedrooms were the wide open spaces of the American West.

“The feeling of not being physically present with everybody was weird,” Moore admits.

“Because even in animation, you’re usually in a recording studio.

“But I thought, well, I’ve spent my life by myself saying my lines aloud and feeling like that’s part of the process.

“So it was weird the way it was structured, where you would lay down one recording and then they come back and they say, ‘We’ve cut this part of the scene, we’ve replaced it with this, we can use this dialogue here’, so you have to piece it back together.

“That was challenging, but the pretending by yourself, that I’m really familiar with.”

Gyllenhaal nods in agreement.

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“I think all you really have, as an actor – outside of technical skills – is your imagination, so that was one thing. I did find it interesting.”

And recording their dialogue was a break from the new found hobbies so many of us adopted during lockdown.

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“I have always cooked and I’ve always loved to cook,” Gyllenhaal says, “and there are many things that I have hoped and wished that I would be able to do, that I had always deemed in my mind to be impossible.

“And then I made them and it’s opened my entire world. Things like, literally no joke, a black and white cookie.

“I’ve searched the world for the perfect black and white cookie and never found it.

“And so now I get to try and make the perfect one for myself.

“When you first make them they’re like cake, the staleness that makes a black and white cookie great really does occur the next day, so they really are only better a day old and then some.

“It was a discovery in my mind, it was mind blowing. They are the best day-old cookies.”

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With so many new cookery insights gleaned during lockdown, could there now be a baking show in Gyllenhaal’s future?

“In my mind, there’s literally nothing that can beat The Great British Baking Show (the US title for the Great British Bake Off).

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“So no, the answer to that is no. But I do hope to one day meet Paul Hollywood. Though Prue [Leith] is my favourite. I’m mesmerised by her spectacles.

“Her coats or spectacles change and it’s almost as if they change every shot.

“Or do they change every show? I can’t figure it out. And I just adore her. Prue’s fantastic.

“I do really love Mr Hollywood, but you know, she’s amazing.”

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