He may have made his name in serious movies such as the cult classic Donnie Darko and Ang Lee’s award-winning Brokeback Mountain, but Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal feels it’s time he showed his lighter side. He has chosen to show-case his comedic sensibilities in Prince Of Persia, an epic Disney project based on a video game – and one of this summer’s big blockbusters.
For his role as the film’s hero, Dastan, Jake spent three months learning to speak with an English accent.
“The opportunity to do dry humour and humour in general is so much easier in a British accent,” the actor muses. ”Even though I do like to have fun, I take everything I do really seriously and the accent was probably the hardest thing for me to develop,” he admits.
He’s even turned roles down because of the scrutiny any actor’s under when they do [an accent]. You only need to read the news stories about Russell Crowe’s ‘Irish’ version of Robin Hood to believe how tough accents can be.
Jake has got every reason to fear public scrutiny, as Prince Of Persia is big-budget territory. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind Top Gun, Armageddon and The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, it boasts a multi-million pound budget and a cast and crew of thousands.
“I think I was tired of taking myself so seriously,” Jake says about his decision to play an action hero.
“In my early twenties I had the opportunity to make a lot of movies and it was a huge honour but I thought acting was only one thing, [and that was] proving yourself as being the serious, dramatic actor,” he says, widening his large blue eyes.
“Then I started to think, ‘Well, who am I really? Am I really someone who’s an introvert?’ I actually do have a sense of humour and like having fun, so I wanted to kind of move it that way. I think young people misunderstand, thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be having fun, I should be torturing myself, that’s really acting’, but there are so many facets.”
We’re in a suite at London’s Dorchester hotel, where the world’s press will soon descend for a press conference. If Jake’s feeling the pressure of heading up a movie of such epic proportions, he doesn’t show it.
Looking tanned and relaxed in jeans, T-shirt and sports jacket, he’s talkative and self-deprecating, and enjoys showing off the Dastan Lego key-ring he’s been given.
“It’s my job,” he says on dealing with the gruelling publicity schedule. “It is a great job and it’s pretty easy when it comes down to it. There are days when it’s a little tiring with some jet lag but ultimately this is not a hard job and promoting a big, fun, epic, comedic, romantic, adventurous movie is just fun. I’m really excited, I’m psyched!”
The 29-year-old made his acting debut in 1991 as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers and, as a child of the Eighties, he says he loved movies like Indiana Jones, The Goonies and E.T.
“I think I was fulfilling a childhood dream to do a movie like Prince Of Persia,” he says laughing.
“I dreamed of it as an eight-year-old boy and if you told that boy that he’d be playing the Prince of Persia in twenty years from then, my mind would have exploded.”
As for appealing to a new generation of eight-year-olds, he says “I want those kids man, kids are the coolest thing!
God I’m getting so Buddhist now but it’s all about the energy of people and I love children, I love the energy of children. That’s the reason I made this movie. That’s the energy I’m starting to really love and trying to incorporate into my life.”
Given his reputation as a dramatic actor, Jake’s aware some people will find his casting a curious choice but his take on it is simple. “If you think about what other people are thinking all the time, you’ll become paralyzed. I think it’s more important to think, ‘Well, what would I like to do?’ and if people respond, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t.”
He looks set to silence his detractors when the film hits the big screen. Not only does he look the part, thanks to gruelling daily workouts, but he shows off impressive horse riding and sword-fighting skills to boot.
“Jerry Bruckheimer paid me very well to learn how to sword fight,” he says with a smile. “I spent six months before we started the movie pretty much getting into physical shape and after that I started to learn how to fight with swords. Horse back riding I knew how to do pretty well already.”
The role also required Jake to learn the French art of parkour. Much like its off-shoot, free-running, parkour involves people seamlessly climbing and bouncing off walls and jumping from rooftop to rooftop.
Jake: We worked with gymnasts at first in a gym in Los Angeles and then we started practising it in the Moroccan kasbahs,” where much of the film was shot.
“It was all practice, practice, practice and repetition of everything, so I sort of looked like I knew what I was doing.”
Requiring a huge amount of physical force, parkour was partly the reason Jake needed to whip himself into shape.
“There’s no reason to do a movie like this if you can’t do the stunts. It was all about functional fitness, being able to do everything that was asked of me,” he says.
But he couldn’t have prepared himself for such intense media scrutiny focused solely in the direction of his newly honed abs. “Yeah, cue me taking off my jacket,” he says laughing loudly as the question regarding his physique coincides with him removing his coat.
“I think there’s a definite focus on vanity, and I think we all focus on it, which is so unimportant to me,” he says. “What’s interesting is the character being played. The images from the movie are the only thing people have seen so… And it’s fine, I mean it’s definitely flattering.”
He suddenly looks awkward – no doubt questions regarding his body make Jake wish he’d signed up to do another serious thriller instead, like Rendition.
It was on that film that Jake met his former girlfriend Reese Witherspoon. The publicity-shy pair reportedly broke-up at the end of last year.
Given Prince of Persia’s themes of fate and destiny, does he believe in ‘The One’?
“‘The one’ meaning ‘the one great movie’, that’s what you mean, right?” he deadpans.
“Oh… a lady!” he says in mock surprise. “Do you know what I believe in? I believe in carnation and reincarnation. I believe it’s sometimes a daily thing, a weekly thing, where we reincarnate and become different people and change in our days, in our weeks, in our years. I mean I’m not the same person I was even when we made this movie,” he says.
“And the idea of ‘The One’? I do believe in soul mates and I think that destiny has something to do with that, yeah,” he says with a wry smile. And with that he’s called to face the world’s press and no doubt more questions about those abs.