The gritty police procedural End of Watch follows Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña’s hard-charging beat-cop characters as they navigate the streets of South Central Los Angeles, administering justice from the proverbial barrel of a gun—even if it means straying outside prescribed LAPD boundaries to do it. The two are deeply bonded, both in and out of the squad car. But to call End of Watch a “buddy cop” movie is like referring to Titanic as a film about a boating accident.
End of Watch, which arrives in theaters Friday, features one of the most fully-fleshed depictions of male friendship ever committed to the screen. Tough yet tender, this cop-car partnership careens between wise-assery and earnest outpourings of “I’m there for you, bro” solidarity, battlefield camaraderie, and bursts of unsolicited tough-love—even a kind of “how gay is this?” hetero self-awareness—rising above the numbskull bro-downs typically showcased at the multiplex and somehow avoiding schmaltzy false sentimentality.
“Some people can’t get beyond the genre of a film but to us, it was always about this relationship,” Gyllenhaal told The Daily Beast in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where End of Watch premiered earlier this month. He recalled an early edict from writer-director David Ayer (Training Day, Street Kings) that would govern his and Peña’s performances: “You two are going to be brothers.”
Their characters certainly function in lock-step, uncovering the sordid dealings of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel—gun-running, human trafficking, money laundering, etc.—only to unleash the gang’s institutional wrath upon themselves. But End of Watch’s pulse-quickening action ultimately serves a larger purpose: to bracket the characters’ brotherly love, providing a testing ground for their loyalty, resolve and willingness to go down in the line of duty for one another.
In a departure from his usual preparation for a film role, Gyllenhaal committed considerable sweat equity to the project, spending five months on the streets of L.A. with several different sets of officers (including the Sheriff’s Department and Inglewood Police Department) going on 12-hour ride-alongs up to three nights a week. Peña (a journeyman character actor who provided the emotional lynch-pin performance in 2004’s Oscar-winning ensemble drama, Crash estimates he joined his co-star for 40 such trips in the squad car. Along the way, the actors managed to overcome the arranged-marriage quality of their film friendship by bearing witness to attempted murders, shootings, stolen vehicle recoveries, domestic violence calls, and stabbings. “We saw some crazy shit,” Gyllenhaal said. “But we also spent hours in those cop cars doing nothing.”
Peña recounted one particularly harrowing evening when the actors’ presence at a routine traffic stop drew a restive crowd of onlookers. The potential for disaster loomed over the scene, but ultimately fed the performers’ onscreen chemistry. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it can get out of hand,’” Peña said. “But I knew if I got into a fight, Jake would have my back. That’s the kind of trust that, for me, was a huge thing. He’s a much more trustful person than I am.”
Pre-production prep also meant practicing kick-boxing, and Gyllenhaal and Peña squared off against one another just once before deciding to put down their dukes. “Dude, he kicked me so fucking hard!” Peña recalled with a grimace. “For a month, I had this welt on top of my leg.”
“So he kicked me four times, just as hard, for the one time I kicked him,” Gyllenhaal said with a laugh. “Literally, it was like, ‘Whah-blap!’ Aaaarrggghhh!”
“When he kicked me, I tried to be so cool,” Peña continued. “But I was like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t fight anymore.’ Because he kicked way harder than the other dudes. He had this Tae Kwon Do fucking kick.”
After spending so much time together, the two actors have an easy rapport, finishing each others’ sentences, performing convincing imitations of one another and chuckling together at their in-jokes. In End of Watch, their dialog is spiced with a seemingly endless stream of “bros” and “dudes.” And unsurprisingly, Gyllenhaal and Peña are extremely partial to using the B and the D words for emphasis in conversation. Particularly Peña.
“‘Dude, dude, dude, dude, dude.’ He’s a big repeater of one word,” Gyllenhaal said of his movie foil. “‘Dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!’”
The two roared with laughter.
They reflected on how difficult it would have been to fake the brotherly tenderness—particularly the clichés that usually accompany white-Latino film friendships—that pervaded the End of Watch shoot. “At first it wasn’t easy because I was really closed off,” said Peña. “It was just really tough for me. But Jake was really open. He really helped me out. For the first couple of months, it took him, like, breaking down my walls.”
Gyllenhaal grew serious. An “I love you, man” moment seemed close at hand. “That resistance made me realize what he has inside, he has this amazing heart,” he said quietly. “There’s a reason for him to protect it. I understood that when you are that sensitive, you’ve gotta protect it. I needed to know that it takes time. It isn’t immediately going to be there.”
“Not to be an asshole but, he’s a fuckin’ star, dude!” Peña suddenly exclaimed. “He was super giving. I’ve been in movies where… you want to be at the tippy top. And he’s like, ‘Dude, dude, dude, let’s get one more take. Remember that thing you did in rehearsal and blah blah blah.’ He wanted me to kill it. That’s rare, dude.”
He added, “I’m not a method actor, but this is the closest I came to it.”