“Handsome was the first thing that went through my mind when I met Yahya for the first time,” laughs Jake Gyllenhaal on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “And then I couldn’t really think of anything else for a while, if I’m honest.”
“I was the same, I was digging on you, man,” interjects Gyllenhaal’s Ambulance co-star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, his smile perfect and wide.
In brotherly terms, it really was love at first sight. Oscar-nominee Gyllenhaal and Emmy-winning actor Abdul-Mateen II play bombastic bank robber Danny Sharp and his adopted brother, decorated marine Will, respectively, in Michael Bay’s newest action-packed opus. When a $32 million heist’s plan goes really wrong, the duo hijack an ambulance with a wounded police officer and paramedic inside, the latter played fearlessly by Eiza González. What ensues is a dizzying, 136-minute car chase across Los Angeles as the boys commandeer the emergency vehicle, leaving a spate of banged-up cop cars in their wake.
“Yahya is such a kind-hearted, very open-hearted man, and very humble,” says Gyllenhaal, as Abdul-Mateen II listens intently on another line. “As an actor and as a person, I immediately open up to someone like that.
“I know our brotherhood that eventually grew started from a really strong foundation. Yahya’s just easy to love, you know. He’s a good person.”
The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
“We got together to talk about the script… and I recall thinking, ‘Oh wow, Jake’s a really good listener and he’s really intelligent,” recalls Abdul-Mateen II. “He has a smart way of really thinking about the text, the scenes and the characters, and I knew it would be a good acting experience.
“I know that Jake is similar to me: he’s cool and laid back, but he also has a bit of the funny bone,” he adds, Gyllenhaal nodding on.
A Brotherly Bond And The Best Banter
Gyllenhaal’s Danny is a volatile villain; ruthless, relentless and incredibly good at convincing his brother to do things he doesn’t want to do (and usually by shading him for “leaving the family” to become a war soldier). When Will comes to Danny for a loan to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment, Danny genuinely wants to help and it’s here we see some heart to Gyllenhaal’s sociopath – cemented in throwback scenes to the boys’ childhood and driven by the highly watchable dynamic between the actors. In fact, the on-set banter between the acting duo was so good, some of the best scenes were a product of their bond.
“The line [Will] says in the trailer, he’s like, ‘We don’t get to walk off into the sunset!’ That’s an improved line from that scene,” says Gyllenhaal.
“The scene that really had a lot of improvisation, though, was the scene with all the gangsters where the big shoot-out happens,” he continues, referring to an action scene where the brothers, desperate to not be killed, play off of one another to trick a mob of underworld figures.
“Yahya is such an intelligent, such a present, thoughtful actor and we had both brought a lot of questions to the movie and it all came to a head in this scene. Michael [Bay] shot and allowed us to improvise both sides of the argument. [Yahya] would make an argument and I would make an argument back. It was so fun working with Yahya because his retort was equal to my retort. So that whole scene is a big emotional improv between the two of us.”
Abdul-Mateen II interjects: “The interesting thing about that scene, Jake, is that while you were making all of those arguments, I was thinking in my own head – outside of the character – ‘Damn, that’s a good argument,’” he laughs.
Gyllenhaal bursts into laughter.
Lights, Camera, Action, Action, Action!
In order to shoot the scenes where the ambulance is flanked by dozens of police cars, Bay shut down really busy LA intersections, a feat that was difficult to get approval to do. (For those playing in the City of Angels, the intersection of North Spring & Wilhardt Streets were shut down for 72 hours while a shootout between police and Danny’s crew took place.)
The director and his team pulled off the largest explosions ever undertaken in downtown Los Angeles, with the Special Effects department performing three to four heavy gags on every day of production. (Most motion pictures do one large effects piece per movie, not multiple action feats per shift.) Yes, Bay is not here to play. But the boys needed to learn to drive like maniacs first.
“My stunt driver, Sli Lewis, told me when to brake and how to turn, and he let me get aggressive,” says Abdul-Mateen II. “From the first day, they put us out in the open lot and let me drive fast and drive reckless. When the ambulance didn’t crash, and I felt I had the clear, I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ Every day, we’d buckle up and I’d look at Jake, who had his head in his hands. And we’d hit the road. It was fun.”
“We were able to drive 80 miles an hour around closed-off streets, some of which were 15 blocks from where I grew up,” says Gyllenhaal. “That’s a kid’s dream. Growing up, my friends and I would play cops and robbers in our backyards. Now I’m doing it again in an actual movie.”
Filming In the Back Of An Ambulance
Most of the scenes happen inside the ambulance. One set, known as the “ambulance buck” was built on a gimbal to simulate movement while the actors were inside. But it was used minimally as Bay enjoyed the tension of shooting in the confined space of the actual ambulance.
“I think it was challenging, but it was also an opportunity. It was an opportunity to get creative,” explains Abdul-Mateen II. “We had to mimic a surgery in the back [when the police officer’s spleen erupts], we had a fight scene in the front. We were switching seats. If you see three people on a screen in the ambulance, it probably means there were no less than five people in the ambulance with Michael, the camera operators, and the sound team. We had to get used to being in a crowded space and not having a lot of privacy but we did what we had to do.”
For Gyllenhaal, the small space really made him think about what really goes down in the back of a real ambulance.
“It was hard to act, it was hard to make a movie. But it made me think about how hard it must be to be a paramedic and be doing a real job in there and trying to save someone’s life,” he says, shaking his head.
“It made me think if it’s hard to act in here, what is it like to have minutes to save someone’s life?”
“We were filming in a pandemic. I already had so much respect for first responders. But doing this in the back of an ambulance and thinking about them actually doing it, it just increased ten-fold. The movie I think is a love letter to them in so many ways.”
Ambulance is out in cinemas now. Watch Jake and Yahya’s interview with ICON below.
Video editor: Kimberlee Kessler