TORONTO: As the cast and makers of “Stronger” collectively rose to take a bow after the film’s TIFF premiere, Jake Gyllenhaal realized that Jeff Bauman, whom he plays in the film and who wears prosthetic legs, was still sitting. “As soon as he got up, everyone else stood up,” Gyllenhaal recalled. “I realized, ‘This movie just showed them everything he went through just for that moment.’ I’ve never had an experience like that making a movie.”
Directed by David Gordon Green, “Stronger” chronicles Bauman’s struggles after an explosion tore through his legs while he was waiting by the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Based on his 2014 memoir, “Stronger” is an inspiring story. Honest, painful and funny, it avoids the familiar Hollywood beats for a more truthful tale of personal growth.
“Stronger” captures Bauman, now 31, recalibrating his life after the tragedy, still struggling with relationship and drinking problems that predated the bombing and chafing at the role cast upon him as a heroic symbol of “Boston Strong.”
Bauman says he saw himself as just “a dude with no legs.”
His modesty remains, but he’s also come to terms with being someone who gives hope to others, who can now connect with a wide world of amputees, war veterans and other sufferers trying to get by.
“There’s so much love coming at Jeff,” the star says. “People line up to talk to him ... We are not alone in all that, and that’s what his story says.”
In the two and a half years since they began working on the movie together, Bauman and Gyllenhaal have got to know each other.
“Since we first met, I think he’s a totally different person now,” Gyllenhaal says, “particularly in the past year, since getting sober. I think he’s been much more open. When we first met, trying to learn about him and figure out what was going on was a little harder and now I feel like I know him better than even when I played the role.”
Gyllenhaal has helped Bauman through hard times and gamely accepts Bauman’s playful chiding – like his questioning the depth of the New York-based Gyllenhaal’s Red Sox fandom.
Last week, Gyllenhaal and Bauman showed the film at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Bauman recovered and where they filmed scenes for the movie.
In the time they’ve been making “Stronger” both say Bauman has dramatically grown. He’s now 15 months sober and studying engineering in college. Working at Costco at the time of the bombing, Bauman now hopes to work for a prosthetics company. He also moved out of his mother’s apartment and into his own place.
Gyllenhaal considers it the film’s biggest accomplishment. When he first met Bauman, he was struggling to adjust to the prosthetic legs. Now, he confidently goes up and down stairs unaided. Bauman praises the technology but Gyllenhaal prods him, trying to get Bauman to take some credit.
“I wish you could stand where I stand when you walk through,” Gyllenhaal says, “and people just go, ‘F ?king awesome.’”