'I have difficulty with the hero thing:' Jeff Bauman on Boston Marathon bombing film Stronger
Drama goes beyond the headlines to explore story of recovery
How does it feel to have Jake Gyllenhaal play you in the major new movie?
"It was surreal," says Jeff Bauman, the real-life inspiration for Gyllenhaal's latest film Stronger.
In theatres Friday, the drama based on Bauman's memoir of the same name tells the story of his recovery after losing his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. He was standing at the finish line, cheering on his girlfriend Erin Hurley, when one of the bombs exploded next to him and shattered both legs below the knees.
It's a movie with a lot of heart. It's also a movie about a very funny guy — partly because it's Bauman's sense of humour that helps get him through the heart-wrenching ordeal, as well as the love and support of Erin (played in the film by Canadian Tatiana Maslany), his mother and his family.
With Bauman cracking jokes alongside Gyllenhaal while promoting Stronger at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, it's clear that the two men have developed a bond based on mutual respect and a shared sense of humour.
Still, Gyllenhaal insists Bauman is funnier.
For instance, after saying working with Gyllenhaal was an honour and describing the actor "a cool dude, "a very genuine, nice guy" and "awesome," Bauman promptly sparked laughter at the Stronger press conference when he declared: "I've never seen any of his movies."
Grinning widely, Bauman noted he was kidding and has "probably seen all of his movies" — singling out Gyllenhaal's turn in October Sky as real-life "unsung hero" Homer Hickam. The actor's portrayal of the coal miner's son who became a rocket scientist gave Bauman, who also hails from a working-class family, "real hope as a 13-year-old."
For his part, Gyllenhaal says he was intimidated ahead of meeting Bauman for the first time.
"I think there's no way that any of us could really match the reality of what Jeff and Erin and his family went through in this journey," he said.
The Oscar-nominated actor, who produced Stronger under his new film, TV and theatre company Nine Stories, said he couldn't think of a more relatable story, nor one he'd rather "put his heart and soul into."
As much as Bauman's recovery meant to the city of Boston after the attack, the filmmakers' goal was to go beyond the narrative of depicting a survivor of a violent terrorist attack as a brave hero and to tell the human story of his recovery struggles afterward.
Both Erin and Jeff are "immensely humble, immensely down to earth," said Maslany.
"Even with all this attention and this focus on him and this icon that he has become for people... what's so great about the film is that it sort of dismantles that icon and goes 'Who are the actual human beings behind these headlines and behind this hype and behind this significance placed on them? What is their day-to-day life? How are they coping with it?"
Stronger incorporates real figures into its depiction in fact, with some of Bauman's medical team seen in the film, Gyllenhaal told CBC News.
"The real doctors and nurses who worked with Jeff — Dr. Kalish, who amputated Jeff's legs, and Odessa, his nurse, who took him through some of the hardest parts of the initial part of his recovery — they're all in the movie."
Bauman came to the world's attention through an Associated Press news photo snapped in the aftermath of the bombing and he came to symbolize survival, American heroism and Bostonian pride. However, he struggles with that perception.
"I have difficulty with the hero thing," Bauman said, adding that he views the people around him as the heroes: Erin, his mother, the bystanders who picked him up off the ground, as well as the staff of the Boston Medical Center.
He considers his role as one small part of the bigger picture.
"I did help the FBI get a description of Tamerlan [Tsarnaev, one of the bombers] that was really spot on. I had to testify and do all that, which was great," Bauman explained.
"But other than that, I was focused on the people who saved my life — like Carlos [Arredondo] and Allan Panzer, the guys who ran into that situation, not knowing if there was another bomb, not knowing what else was laying there and they ran in... Those first responders risked their lives to go in there and take people out: those are my heroes. And, you know, I don't know how to thank them. I think about them every day."
"We want these big ideas of heroes," Gyllenhaal added.
"Sometimes, just the person who says 'I actually can get up. I'm gonna get up' — that's a heroic move for people who are struggling."