Jumping from independent pictures to mainstream movies was Jake Gyllenhaal’s calling card. Now the 30-year-old seems focused on middle-of-the-road projects.

Last spring, he played the running-and-jumping Prince Dastan in the frothy fantasy film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which was based on the popular video games. He was also a slick pharmaceutical salesman opposite Anne Hathaway’s free spirit in the cheeky romantic comedy Love & Other Drugs. Up next for Gyllenhaal is the sci-fi thriller Source Code, which opens April 1.

In the Duncan Jones-directed film based on Ben Ripley’s story, the actor plays U.S. airman Capt. Colter Stevens, who’s assigned to a hot combat zone in Afghanistan. When he regains consciousness after a firefight, he’s shocked to find himself in the body of a civilian on a doomed commuter train bound for Chicago.

As the narrative unfolds, Gyllenhaal’s Stevens also realizes he’s part of a government “source code” experiment. It’s a computer program that allows him to repeatedly cross over into a train passenger’s identity, eight minutes before he dies in the train explosion. The soldier quickly discovers he’s on a ticking-clock mission to track down the train’s bomber before the latter strikes again in downtown Chicago.

Co-starring is Up in the Air Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga, who plays the soldier’s presumably waking-life contact between his detective assignments. Michelle Monaghan is the soldier’s confidante on board the train.

Rounding out the cast are Jeffrey Wright, who plays the ambitious source code inventor, and comedian Russell Peters, from Brampton, Ont., who shows up as a wisecracking passenger.
The film is a wild, sci-fi ride in eight-minute intervals. “It’s Groundhog Day as a thriller,” Gyllenhaal says of the film, which was shot last year in Montreal.

It’s actually a little more than that for the actor, who has been attached to the project since its early stages. In fact, he was responsible for bringing in Jones as director, who was previously best known as David Bowie’s son, until the filmmaker released the well-received sci-fi flick Moon in 2009.

“Duncan was at the top of the list, but I never thought he would do it,” Gyllenhaal says. The creative confederacy turned out to be a good fit. “Each of the source codes had to be different, so we had fun constantly thinking about variations,” Gyllenhaal explains. “It was a constant process of exploration, and that’s what we like.”

Adds Jones: “I also wanted to put some humour into the movie, and Jake felt the same way.”
Both also agreed on the same approach to shooting scenes. They let the cameras roll, and improvised bits when the situation would allow it.

“I think my strength is to do a take all the way through,” the actor says. “I am definitely not someone who can do a sprint. Maybe I am not that smart, but it takes me a while to find the moment, and I like to be pushed toward it.”

Indeed, Gyllenhaal maintains that Jones has a great deal in common with his Brokeback Mountain director, Ang Lee. “They both give clear directions. Ang would say, ‘Not sexy at all. Sexier.’ And Duncan would say things like, ‘OK, say it weirder.’ ”

Casting seemed to work out, as well, especially with the selection of Monaghan, who has received acclaim for roles in North Country and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

“Michelle’s the audience eyes for this film, so it was important to relate to her,” Gyllenhaal says. She returns the compliment: “Jake’s so easy to act with, because he loves his job.”

After making his film debut at 11, playing Billy Crystal’s son in 1991’s City Slickers, Gyllenhaal returned to school in Los Angeles under orders from his parents (director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner).

In his adolescence, he made occasional guest appearances on television shows and had small parts in low-profile movies, sometimes with his sister, Maggie.

It was only after dropping out of New York’s Columbia University that he concentrated full-time on acting.

His first lead role in 1999’s October Sky earned him lots of recognition. Two years later, his title-character performance in the cult classic Donnie Darko proved him worthy of being considered a serious-minded young actor. He continued that momentum by playing opposite Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Lovely & Amazing with Catherine Keener and Moonlight Mile with Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon.

His first big studio effort was co-starring with Dennis Quaid in the disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, which scored well at the box office in 2004. The following year, he received an Oscar nomination for his performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain.

Unfortunately, four years of movie misses followed: Proof, Jarhead, Rendition and Brothers, among them.

As it is, he’s in the commercial zone, but that doesn’t mean he’s giving up artistic endeavours, or selling out.