It would be easy to assume Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, aces every role he takes. But there’s at least one part he plays that didn’t necessarily come naturally to him, although it’s arguably Gyllenhaal’s most important role to date: Uncle.
In fact, it’s his journey as uncle to Ramona, 16, and Gloria, 11, the daughters of his sister Maggie and her husband Peter Saarsgard, that inspired the actor’s latest project. Alongside his longtime best friend Greta Caruso and award-winning illustrator Dan Santat, Gyllenhaal just released the picture book The Secret Society of Aunts & Uncles.
At the center of the story is 10-year-old dance-loving Leo and his clueless Uncle Mo, a stationery supply salesman who just doesn’t get it. Until, that is, the pair get a crash course in the sacred art of Auntiology and Uncleology. Lesson one? Bedtime is always three minutes before Mom and Dad get home.
Ahead of the book’s Sept. 5 release, Scary Mommy had the chance to chat with Gyllenhaal, Caruso, and Santat about the heart of what it means to be an aunt or uncle.
Scary Mommy: I love that this doesn’t start with someone who has the whole uncle thing figured out. Jake, what were you like in those early stages of Uncleology?
Jake Gyllenhaal: This is obviously autobiographical, so I don’t really need to do much explaining.
Greta Caruso: He was an uncle rubber band salesman. (laughs)
JG: I was so excited when my sister first had Ramona, my eldest niece, who’s now 16, and I was thrilled to just be like, “I’m Uncle Jake.” I’ve had uncles and aunts, and to have that title… I was pretty proud.
Then I had no idea what it meant. Here’s this little being, and how do you do it? She was also a baby, so I didn’t have to do much. I cooked for my sister in the first few days, and I felt like I was feeding Ramona as a result of that, which I was indirectly. So I felt good about that.
But through the years, it’s just been such an incredible process with both of my nieces and having them teach me, really. And, yes, I started off like Mo, but I also started off like Leo … They’re reflective of each other. They’re similar and different in the same way, and there are pieces of both of us in both of the characters.
SM: You have a niece who is a tween and one who’s a teen. How do you feel like your relationship with the girls is different in this season of life?
JG: Well, my oldest niece is just brilliant, so she’s smarter than me. No surprise. That’s not a hard feat. My sister and my brother-in-law have raised two incredible humans. They really give me faith in our future. They’re articulate, thoughtful… they’re beautiful, but overall they’re most beautiful because they’re curious. I just love them so much; they’re the sweetest. They actually have never been a pain in the ass.
GC: No, they don’t have that gene.
JG: They really are such good kids, and it’s a testament to my brother-in-law and my sister. They parented pretty well. They’ve done a good job with big careers and a lot of responsibility, but their family has always come first, and it shows. So, because of that, at 16, [Ramona] is rad. She’s rad.
SM: It’s cool that you and Greta are so close that you’ve become aunt and uncle by proxy in each other’s lives.
GC: That’s a big piece of this book, this idea that aunts and uncles you’re not related to are your aunts and uncles. I have a baby daughter. Jake is her uncle. It’s a relationship that’s really special, and it’s a relationship that is a serious one on its own.
SM: Greta, you’ve said that, as a mom, you’re eager to teach your child to look to aunts and uncles for a special kind of love and honesty. How vital were your aunts and uncles in your life?
GC: Hugely important.
JG: She has the top 10 hall of famers.
GC: I don’t like to talk about it because it makes other people feel so bad.
JG: There’s envy here about it. There definitely is.
GC: In the summers with my cousins, we would wake up, and my uncle would be like, “Everyone gather at the kitchen table. I’ve written a script, and we’ll be shooting it today.” It was always a family rendition of the big blockbuster movie of the summer. So, it would be, like, Apollo 13.
JG: Uncle Marcus…
GC: Because Jake and I have known each other for so goddamn long, he knows my aunts and uncles, too, and really has seen firsthand their extraordinary presence in my life. So, we have all of these inputs that we wanted to bring to the story because it’s not really a relationship that people talk about that much, and it is one that’s so central to so many kids’ lives.
JG: It’s this idea of, who sees you and who listens to you? Who actually sits down and says, “How do you feel? What’s going on? Let’s do it your way.” I think that’s harder to do as a parent. It’s really the job of an aunt or uncle to say, “We can do it your way right now because Mom and Dad are out for a few hours. You want to have dessert first? You don’t want to eat dinner? OK. That’s their problem.”
GC: I was talking to my Aunt Nancy a few weeks ago, asking her questions because we were planning for the book to come out. I was like, “What were other fun things I would enjoy when I was at your house?” She was like, “You never brushed your teeth at my house.” I said, “See, that’s what I’m talking about right there.” She was like, “Not once. You didn’t die. Your teeth didn’t fall out. It was fine.”
SM: Classic! It is so interesting that, for such a vital relationship in a child’s life, aunts and uncles don’t get nearly as much fanfare. What’s your hope for this book?
JG: I think our hope is that aunts and uncles will read this book to their nieces and nephews, and those who are not aunts and uncles by blood will be able to let a kid see that they can be their uncle or aunt.
GC: And have kids realize that these people in their lives are a resource of love and trust and honesty for them. That’s an additional well of those resources and those feelings. I think that’s really important.
SM: Absolutely. The illustrations really bring the book to life. Dan, what did you want to convey the most when you were creating this whole world with these characters?
Dan Santat: I love these really quirky kind of books. I mean, even the title’s fantastic: The Secret Society of Aunts & Uncles. But I do love this in-between because then it gives you the freedom to just be as bizarre and quirky as you want.
There actually was an article not too long ago — I forget which publication did it — talking about the lack of weird, quirky books out there that a lot of kids who gravitate towards folks like Roald Dahl and things like that have been missing. I definitely lean into that.
SM: Love that. OK, last question, are any of you guilty of committing aunt or uncle faux pas that got you in trouble with the parents?
GC: He’s been perfect the whole time.
JG: I am a perfect uncle. (laughs)
GC: My niece and nephew are both under two and a half, so I’m OK for a while.
JG: At a certain point in my life, before my nieces were born, probably my sister would say just my existence maybe. But at this point, I think she really appreciates me. I’m the only uncle or aunt, so I think I really fill that space, and [Maggie and Peter] really encourage play. That’s how they are. So there’s not anything like that. If anything, they’re like, “More healthy danger! … Go for it!” (laughs)
GC: The only major mistake I think you could make is just not showing up.
The Secret Society of Aunts & Uncles is available now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.