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How 'Stronger' tackles hero worship and conspiracy theorists

Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman open up about the new film.
Stronger
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman in "Stronger." Photo by Scott Garfield / Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions

It’s been a long day for Jake Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bauman. The duo has been on a nonstop press tour for “Stronger” – the new film about the Boston Marathon bombing survivor’s road to recovery after losing his legs – and now they’re back in the Hub for another day with reporters.

Although Gyllenhaal, who plays Bauman, is used to a packed schedule of press and premieres, the Chelmsford native still gets anxious being in the spotlight. While the parade of media makes Bauman a bit uneasy, you wouldn’t notice thanks to his charm, infectious smile and the hilarious repartee between he and Gyllenhaal.

“Jeff has always been who he is,” says Gyllenhaal. “It’s like, if people loved him for his legs, he’d be so f—ked.”

The buds have clearly formed quite the bromance over the years, often poking fun at each other in interviews. But their friendship is more than wisecracks and jokes, as they’ve each learned valuable lessons from one another.

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As they prepare to walk the red carpet for a screening at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Bauman was treated following the attack, Gyllenhaal can’t help but praise his pal for his resilience.

“There are moments we’ve been in with people we love or even within our own self where we thought, ‘I don’t want to take another step further, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and it’s a dark time,” Gyllenhaal says. “Jeff’s story says you can take that step. You can last that next minute or hour and, to me, it’s exactly the story that I think needs to be in the world right now.”

Working with Gyllenhaal has taught Bauman to not be so hard on himself.

After helping the FBI identify one of the bombers while going through the most traumatic moment of his life, Bauman has been hailed as a hero – especially in Boston. Unfortunately, this mantle comes with constant attention from the media and locals, who haven’t really left Bauman alone since he appeared in that iconic photo with the cowboy hat-wearing first responder Carlos Arredondo.

As the film shows, even though the community was trying to shower Bauman with praise at events like his flag-waving appearance at a Bruins playoff game, having all those eyeballs on him just amplified his anxiety. But most of all, Bauman felt that he wasn’t worthy of being called a hero — a term he still feels he doesn’t live up to.

“I have different heroes in my eyes: the first responders and police and everybody else in my life,” Bauman says. “ I hate being called a hero because there are so many better people that are out there.”

If his actions after the Marathon and inspiring recovery weren’t enough (and despite what he thinks), Bauman deserves to be called a hero for the way he’s handled scrutiny from conspiracy theorists who question the authenticity of the 2013 attack. One scene in “Stronger” show Bauman and his friends getting into a bar fight with locals who think the bombing was a “false flag.”

While he used to resent these kinds of people, Bauman doesn’t hold any grudges and hopes that this film will help them see the light.

“Deep down, they’re probably just scared and they’re probably just lost about what their beliefs are and what’s going on with their life,” he says. “I hope this film will reflect that this is a real person. This really happened and this was someone real, and maybe they can relate to it.”

In addition to showcasing his strength, “Stronger” doesn’t’ shy away from putting Bauman’s fears and vulnerabilities on display.

The movie portrays the Massachusetts native as caring and fun loving, but also a bit reckless and immature at times. He struggles with fatherhood and being there for his then-girlfriend, Erin Hurley, played by Tatiana Maslany, and is haunted by his memories of that fateful April day.

Seeing his life on screen, flaws and all, has been a transformative experience for Bauman, who wishes he worked on his mental health more during his initial recovery.

“After seeing the movie, I can look back and see that I’ve made some poor decisions,” Bauman says. “I should’ve been healthier psychologically and worked on my head first rather than getting up and walking. I should’ve been working equally as hard on my head.”

Gyllenhaal notes the experience of releasing “Stronger” has helped Bauman grow as a person.

“He could see himself and he could understand himself in a way that could get him to an even better place,” Gyllenhaal says. “I’ve seen him in a year grow, since we finished the movie, exponentially from when I first met him. That’s what all of this is about.”

"Stronger" opens in theaters Sept. 22.

 
 
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