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Gyllenhaal attributes conquering fear to Oscar-winning doc

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Few performances are as daunting as the one-person play. 

That's why Jake Gyllenhaal had to find a way to conquer that fear when he took on the role of Abe in the second half of "Sea Wall/A Life."

"Before I did it, I was terrified," Gyllenhaal said of "A Life," after the play's Broadway opening. Tom Sturridge stars in "Sea Wall," the other half of the pair of one-act monologues.

Gyllenhaal admits that nervousness extended to the rehearsal room. But then he found confidence in an unlikely place. The story of Alex Honnold's 3,000-foot climb of the El Capitan rock formation at Yosemite National Park.

"I was sort of quaking in my boots thinking about it. Then I saw 'Free Solo,' that documentary about the free climber Alex Honnold that won the Academy Award. Amazing, amazing documentary, and I thought to myself, if he can do that without any rope I can do a monologue. And then that was it," Gyllenhaal said.

From then on, it was smooth sailing.

It was a little different for Sturridge. "I feel like weirdly — like, before I walk on stage, I feel fear. But I feel safest on the stage," Sturridge said.

Both actors say the lack of an onstage partner to play off of can add to the stress; there isn't a safety net if you blow a line. But Sturridge uses the audience.

"Normally, when you're on stage, you're pretending to be in a room and pretending like you're in Russia and 1920s, and you're pretending the audience don't exist. But with this, I'm having a conversation with real people who are different every night. And if I blow a line, then we just change the conversation," Sturridge said.

"Sea Wall/A Life," a pair of plays written by Nick Payne and Simon Stephens, respectively, are tragic comedies that deal with love and loss.

Gyllenhaal says the emotional value shifts with each audience.

"It's very emotional through all of it. But it changes every night. It's different. Sometimes I'm telling the story, I'm just telling it. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes I hear someone in the audience have an emotional response. He was laughing or crying, and it makes me feel something," he said.

"Sea Wall/A Life" plays on Broadway at the Hudson Theater until Sept. 29.



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