In an alternate universe, Jake Gyllenhall just finished filming "Prince of Persia 4." This alternate universe isn't too hard to imagine, because if Jerry Bruckheimer's plan had worked, the "Prince of Persia" movies would have been a franchise the size of "Pirates of the Caribbean." Of course, "Prince of Persia" wasn't a hit and, instead, Jake Gyllenhaal is making some of the most interesting movies of his career.
Two of these interesting movies -- "Prisoners" and "Enemy," both playing at the Toronto International Film Festival -- are with director Denis Villeneuve. When I mentioned the possibility that these movies don't get made -- at least with Gyllenhaal -- if "Persia" had been a success, Gyllenhaal smiled and, as diplomatically as possible, made it clear he's happy that things worked out the way that they did.
In "Prisoners," Gyllenhaal plays police Detective Loki -- a no nonsense, barely emotional cop who's assigned to a kidnapping case involving the respective daughters of fathers played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard. Those men take matters into their own hands when they suspect that they know who might behind their daughters' disappearances.
I met Gyllenhaal at his Toronto hotel -- in a ridiculously benign conference room, of all places -- to discuss his TIFF entries and his eclectic (especially as of late) career direction. But, first, we had to figure out our seating arrangement.
Jake Gyllenhaal: I like having the table between us. In case we need a buffer for protection if things become heated [laughs].
Me from you, or you from me?
Either. I mean, at a certain point, you never really know. Once the door closes ...
But you're in a good movie. Why would we argue?
[Laughs] That's true. Let's lie on the ground!
Once, at Sundance, I had to conduct in interview in adjoining beanbag chairs.
That feels very, like, Sundancey. This is actually much more zen. It forces a certain type of posture and formal atmosphere, and that will probably allow for more of a truth.
These chairs lean back a lot further than I thought they would. I almost just did a tumble out of it, that would've ruined the zen moment. You would've got a laugh out of it.
Not really. I probably would've felt like I should help you.
But you wouldn't of, because this table is in the way.
I would've come around.
"Prisoners" took me by surprise. It's certainly not what I thought it was from the trailer.
Well, I mean, it's the reason why, when I read the script -- I had already been working with Denis Villeneuve, the director, on another film. We were in the middle of shooting another movie.
Right, "Enemy," which hasn't screened yet.
Yeah, we shot it here, too. But we had been working together and the collaboration had been so layered and we were out every night after shooting, discussing the scene, sometimes thinking about how the story could change and the structure of the story. It was such an experiment, that film. That film is a very strange experience. And I wouldn't even necessarily call it a film; I would call it an experience.
Detective Loki is a frustrating character. Sometimes you want more emotion out of him.
Well, I think there's a tendency to naturally want to emote and there's a tendency particularly that the idea of acting or playing a character would be to emote in a situation. And I think as a detective, the line you're walking is that you have to have a deep fascination with the mind of the suspect and why they're doing it -- and almost an infatuation with that.
Detective Loki has facial tics. Whose idea was that?
That was something that came naturally to me. You don't really get to know this guy very well with a backstory, and there was one clue as to who he was in one line -- which was that he had been in a boys' home. And from there, Denis and I started to discuss it. I've always found that people who have a high level of intelligence ... they have particular physical mannerisms, but a lot of times it comes out in some kind of tic. A physical tic. And I found it to be a representation of real high intelligence while at the same time being able to think about something else, to keep four or five different plates spinning in your head. And I think that your body can only handle so much information, you know what I mean?
I feel you choose a lot of interesting roles, but you don't get enough credit for choosing interesting roles.
I believe that acting is -- the choice of stories and then the characters that you play -- is a really unconscious process. Like, I believe really deeply in the unconscious. Like when you talk about the tics and the things about the character that are not explained, I believe that they do translate to an audience ... but I feel the same way about career choices. I think that you're drawn to certain things and you have to listen to that sort of unconscious instinct and inclination that moves you towards or away from something. And I've been doing this for a very long time. You know, I've been doing this for almost 20 years now.
It's crazy to think that.
Yeah. And so, in that way, I think what's nice about what I've done in my career and I feel blessed about it that I get to keep doing it, but it just doesn't mean that there's like four or five roles that just stick out. It's just kind of this --
"Donnie Darko" sticks out for a lot of people. For me, personally, it's "Zodiac."
Thank you. Yeah, it's an amazing movie.
There's some similarities with "Prisoners." In that I like you in roles where you're trying to solve something.
I love that, too, because you're allowed to, as an actor, be a part of the storytelling process. Like when I'm in a movie like "Source Code," you're a part of the narrative with the director. You get to work hand in hand. And I think what was so great with Denis is that Denis would always say, "Well, I need you here. I need you in this process with me." Because he knew that he could trust me and he knew that what I loved more than anything was to be able to play against or towards the narrative sort of stream -- that flow. And I'm very aware of it as an actor. I don't get lost too far into it. I really love my director and what they're trying to say. I love the idea of fooling an audience, too. Like, I love the idea about all the things they could be thinking about, playing against it or towards it and knowing in the next scene, you could do the opposite thing. And it's that kind of intellectual sparring or, I don't know, like emotional kind of sparring with the audience and their instincts that I get off on.
Selfishly, I'm glad "Prince of Persia" didn't do as well as it was supposed to do, because I'm afraid you'd be doing "Prince of Persia IV" today instead of these movies.
[Smiles] I have to say that I'm so happy that I've gotten to do these movies.
That's a very delicate way of putting it. Jerry Bruckheimer wanted it to be the next "Pirates" franchise. Movies like that take up a lot of time and maybe we wouldn't see some of these performances that we've seen recently from you.
I think it's possible. I mean, witness to it in this movie is that this is a larger budget movie, actually, in a certain way. I mean, it's a studio movie that they wouldn't put that much money into, particularly if it's not one of five directors who want to make it. You know what I mean? Denis was not a risk; he had made one movie that was extraordinary. But it's not like, "We'll give him all this money."
He's not a risk creatively. But, financially, to a studio ...
Yeah. How do you know you're going to recoup what his vision is. You know, when you see a collaboration between somebody like Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, and they kind of keep coming back to each other in that way and that they trust each other ...
Is that what this relationship is going to become?
[Laughs] Well, I wish. I mean, that would be amazing. But I think what Denis and I have is we have a great love for studio movies or larger movies, but keeping the human aspect to it and the psychology and the sense of detail and preparation and exploration and never taking anything for granted -- which happens when somebody gives you a lot of money sometimes to make something. I think we both share that, and his intention, I love. His intention is just to make great movies, no matter the size. And I think he really has, particularly in the case of "Prisoners."
And I'm looking forward to seeing "Enemy."
Get ready, man. Put on your thinking cap.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.