The horrifying new science-fiction thriller "Life" (in theaters March 24) seems like an astronaut's worst nightmare. But for co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a terrified astronaut facing certain doom was one of the most fun and enjoyable roles of his career, the actor told Space.com.
In the film, six astronauts at the International Space Station find the first proof of life on Mars — and quickly come to regret searching for it in the first place. What starts as a single-cell organism begins to grow out of control, attacking the astronauts and causing chaos and destruction everywhere it lurks.
Because filming a movie in zero gravity isn't very feasible, the actors had to fake a weightless appearance using harnesses, wires and a lot of practice. "We studied a lot of the movements of the astronauts on the International Space Station and then we had an amazing stunt crew," Gyllenhaal said. ['Life' Movie Brings Terrifying Space Thrills (Photo Gallery)]
Movement coach Alexandra Reynolds worked with the actors before and during the film's production to ensure that they looked like real astronauts floating in microgravity, and not human marionette puppets dangling from invisible wires.
"Sometimes you're not fully aware of your body because generally on the space station there's a sort of relaxation as you're floating. But in our case, because we're using the wires, we were straining and engaging and trying to look like we're at ease," Gyllenhaal said. "So she would watch everything and give us notes from take to take."
All the wire and stunt work was physically exhausting, but it became easier with time and practice, Gyllenhaal said. "Flying through some of these structures on the space station was great fun. You dream as a kid of being able to fly, and we literally were flying on this movie, so that was fun."
Training to fake being in zero gravity is only part of learning to act as an astronaut. Gyllenhaal, who plays a doctor named David Jordan, also spoke with experts in trauma medicine and space medicine to get into the right mentality. Specifically, he worked with Kevin Fong, a space medicine adviser for NASA and author of the book "Extreme Medicine." Fong helped Gyllenhaal understand his character's role and purpose at the space station.
"Essentially, I'm playing a doctor who doesn't have a scientific mission but is there to keep everybody healthy and make sure that in an emergency people can be dealt with," Gyllenhaal said.
Although Dr. David Jordan and his crewmates are terrified of the bloodthirsty alien that has invaded the International Space Station, Gyllenhaal said he had a lot of fun filming the scenes where he comes face-to-face with the Martian monster. That's because the alien was a product of his own imagination.
"None of us knew what it looked like," he said. Film director Daniel Espinosa told the actors to picture their own ideas, "so using my imagination to conjure up what this thing would look like or how it would behave according to what I thought was really fun." The actors didn't get to see the alien until after the filming was completed and graphics designers had added it to the movie using computer-generated imagery (CGI).
David Jordan might regret looking for life on Mars after the catastrophe that unfolds in "Life." But Gyllenhaal thinks we should keep searching for life on other planets anyway.
"I believe that even in the face of fear, you should continue to search the unknown and keep making discoveries and evolve," he said. "The only way you can do that is to face your fears, whether it's in space or any interaction in your life."
Despite his awesome, spaced-out role in "Life" and prior experience with wormholes and space-time in the movie "Donnie Darko," Gyllenhaal said he doesn't consider himself a space nerd. Though he admitted that space fascinates him, he said, "I'm not cool enough to call myself a space nerd."
That's OK, Jake. You're still cool in our book.
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Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at FutureFlight.aero and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at Space.com. As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.