“I have definitely wanted to play superheroes in the past,” Jake Gyllenhaal told MTV News in October 2007, “but for one reason or another, it hasn’t ever worked out.”

Until now. This May, the 29-year-old actor leaves behind the indie roles and auteur projects that have largely comprised his cinematic résumé and lands in the supernatural whirlwind of the ancient world in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Why now? Why with this particular adventure story?

“He was desperate to get his hands on the physical side of things,” director Mike Newell told MTV News.

Though he packed on the muscle to become Prince Dastan, who must deliver the magical Dagger of Time to an ancient temple while avoiding the nasty demon on his trail, Gyllenhaal didn’t make for the archetypal Hollywood hero of all pecs and no brains.

“You couldn’t just have a hunk,” said Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). “He’s got a sort of cheeky, devil-may-care light in his eye and at the same time he has a sensitivity, delicacy and thinness-of-skin. He is glorious looking, but you wanted more than that. You wanted women to be interested in him not just as a piece of eye candy. … It was a huge opportunity to do a thinking woman’s action hero.”

That may be where Gyllenhaal’s abs come into play. Surely no set of stomach muscles have generated as much press since Taylor Lautner unleashed his flesh for “New Moon.” Newell said that Gyllenhaal’s brawny physique had nothing to do with moviemaking magic and everything to do with hard work.

“He worked his ass off,” the director said. “A great deal of what you see in the movie is Jake. It’s not a stuntman. He rides [horses] like a dream. He learned every one of those fights — it’s like ballet. He’d get it wrong, he’d get it wrong, he’d get it wrong and then by God, he’d get it right! He’s a very courageous young man.”