Dar Salim as Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley in 'Guy Ritchie's The Covenant.' (Christopher Raphael/MGM)
Dar Salim as Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley in 'Guy Ritchie's The Covenant.' (Christopher Raphael/MGM)

Exclusive: Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim Share Behind-the-Scenes Details About 'The Covenant'

The movies are a dirty business, and doesn't Jake Gyllenhaal know it.

"I'd be backwards, covered in blood, and he'd be like, 'More! Throw more blood!'" Gyllenhaal recalls of filming Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, imitating the director's brawny British accent. "'More dust! Throw wa-tuh!' And I'm — my eyes are closed and it's just people just throwing mud at my face."

But of course, the stunningly physical performance is Gyllenhaal's métier. To wit, the Oscar nominee has played a champion boxer in Southpaw, a perennially hunched crime journalist in Nightcrawler, a detective with a nervous twitch in Prisoners — go deep enough into his filmography and you'll recall that he spent the entirety of 2001's Bubble Boy trapped in a plastic orb. Just last month, the 42-year-old made headlines when he showed up, in fighting shape, at a real UFC match to film a scene for his upcoming Road House remake. 

Gyllenhaal combines that relentless physicality with intense stillness in his new Afghanistan war epic, Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, in theaters now. He plays U.S. Army Sergeant John Kinley, who, on his final tour, develops an unbreakable bond with his Afghan interpreter Ahmed, played by Danish actor Dar Salim. After an ambush, the pair embark on twin missions, battling Taliban fighters and unforgiving terrain not out of duty to country or ideology, but to each other. It's a survival story that plays more like a modern "parable," as Gyllenhaal describes it, than it does a standard war pic. 

Wide Open Country sat down with Gyllenhaal and Salim to talk all things Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, including director Guy Ritchie's anti-sentimentality, why America is a "country of heroes" and what it was like being pelted with mud, stones and everything in between. 

Working with Guy Ritchie

Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael/MGM)

Jake Gyllenhaal as Sgt. John Kinley in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael/MGM Pictures)

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant marks Gyllenhaal's first collaboration with writer-director Guy Ritchie, and, given his tendency to work across genres with distinctive filmmakers—Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), David Fincher (Zodiac), Antoine Fuqua, Denis Villeneuve...the list goes on—, it was only a matter of time before the pair struck up a creative partnership. 

"I've known Guy for a number of years, and we always had a good laugh and connected at different things, but had never really spoken about a project. And then he just came to me with this one," Gyllenhaal explains. "And I love his movies, you know, but this was different. It was just a different story than I had ever seen him try and tell."

Ritchie practically invented the brash British gangster comedy with 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, following it up with high-octane, endlessly cheeky ensemble films like the fast-talking The Gentlemen and ultra-stylish The Man from U.N.C.L.E. A stripped-down U.S. military drama grounded by two performances? You'd be forgiven if Guy Ritchie's The Covenant wasn't on your bingo card of Ritchie passion projects. 

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and director Guy Ritchie (right) on the set of Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael/MGM Pictures)

But Ritchie's aversion to affect is precisely what makes John and Ahmed's wordless bond so powerful, says Gyllenhaal. "The thing about Guy is that he's never sentimental, right? But the truth about him is he's got a big heart," he says. "So the story is about that. It's about doing good despite yourself, and it's without sentimentality. And it was interesting to me for him to tell such an American story 'cause usually, he's in his world. But I think his perspective on it is really a beautiful one."

Key to that perspective is something like the beneficence of duty. In Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, duty amounts to love, and the most powerful feelings are described in terms of duty. For Dar Salim, who plays Afghan interpreter Ahmed, that's what keeps the near-operatic story grounded. "In real life, I think the higher the stakes, the less sentimental you have to be," he says. "Otherwise, the truth of it disappears."

Introducing Dar Salim

Dar Salim as Ahmed in The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael)

Dar Salim as Ahmed in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael)

While Guy Ritchie's The Covenant will be most American viewers' introduction to Salim, the 45-year-old, Iraq-born Danish actor has won critical acclaim for performances across Danish-language art films and blockbusters, having earned his first of two Bodil Award nominations (Denmark's Oscar equivalent) for his titular role in the 2008 drama, Go with Peace Jamil.

Before becoming an actor ("the one job that kept me," he says), Salim was an airline pilot for ten years. Nothing like being in the cockpit of a passenger plane, with hundreds of lives in your hands, to make even the biggest set pieces feel like a walk in the park. 

Spain's desert region was the film's stand-in for early-aughts Afghanistan — and a fairly accurate one, according to an Afghan interpreter working on the production. "She turned to me at one point and said, 'This is exactly like being in the mountains of Afghanistan,' which is what you want to hear," says Salim. "It just gave this movie this scope and this visual look that just takes you there, where you want to be."

"It was sort of uncanny at times. When you look at the source photographs and then you look at what we shot, there are a lot of things that are very, very similar," Gyllenhaal says, adding that he and Salim easily cleared their daily 10,000 steps. "We got some good exercise running up very steep hills, you know. And I'm always down to get in some cardio whenever we can. So if you can combine acting with cardio, it's my dream."

Surviving a Physically-Demanding Shoot

'The Covenant' production still

Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael/MGM Pictures)

So, who had the more difficult stunt work across the film's many, very big action sequences? Salim and Gyllenhaal come alive to make their individual cases. "You're concerned about Jake lying in the cart while I'm the one pushing him up the hill?" Salim jokes.

"You should be!" Gyllenhaal counters, gleefully gearing up to air his grievances. "Because the truth is, I was upside-down and backwards most of the time and that's like...it was not comfortable at all. You don't know where you're going! This guy's just pulling you over rocks! You're bouncing up and down on some rickety old, like, you know, wheelbarrow."

Salim relishes in the memory of an incapacitated Gyllenhaal, laughing as he concedes, "I didn't, like, take it slow or anything to make him more comfortable. It had to look real."

Dar Salim and Jake Gyllenhaal in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael/MGM Pictures)

Part of that realness involved pitching dirt and stones at Gyllenhaal's face to give the actor—who's fronted glossy ad campaigns for Prada, Calvin Klein and Cartier, among others—a weatherworn look. He conjures an image of production assistants chasing after him with buckets of dust and rocks: 

"Sometimes things get thrown at me," he explains in sorta-meek, sorta-amused tones, wearing that instantly recognizable wry grin. After a while, he thought Ritchie's penchant for pebble-sized projectiles was a joke. "I literally thought he was just trying to mess with me at a certain point."

Reluctant Heroism

'The Covenant' production still

Jake Gyllenhaal in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. (Christopher Raphael)

Effort, sheer power of will, self-sacrifice as self-edification — the film traffics in the classic beats of the hero narrative. But the titular covenant, the bond between John and Ahmed, is often described in the film as a transaction or a debt to be paid, not as friendship or kinship. 

"The coldness of the language at times belies the deep river of heart underneath it. These are people who have to get something done, right? And sometimes, in order to get something done, you gotta walk through fire. And if you're gonna walk through fire, sometimes you have to just protect your heart," says Gyllenhaal. "I think America is a country of heroes, and, sometimes, reluctant ones. But I think heroes nonetheless. That is the fabric of America. Like, that is what we're about."

Stillness is the locus of fortitude in Guy Ritchie's The Covenant. The relationship between Gyllenhaal's and Salim's characters is made legible through a series of quiet, subtextual moments because some things, says Gyllenhaal, you just don't have words for:

"That's what I loved about John. Yes, it feels like a western in that way. [He's] somebody who's holding back, who's not going to say, 'Oh, here I am, I really care about this guy. I'm going to do this.' He's going to show that he cares about him."

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is in theaters now.

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