Jake Gyllenhaal has some style advice. “Ask yourself why a red carpet is red,” says the actor, his face intensely serious. “It could be any colour.” It’s enough to throw us for a second, before he smiles that winning smile that lets you know he’s just kidding around. It’s the same with his outfit: a well-fitted navy suit, clean gingham shirt, hair slicked back, beard flecked with new patches of grey. At first glance he looks smart, business-like, until you spot his footwear: a pair of beaten-up biker boots that he wears everywhere. That’s the thing about Gyllenhaal; he projects a kind of intensity mixed with a likeability that means no matter the role – think the troubled teen of Donnie Darko, the damaged GI of Jarhead or the beat-cop of the recent End Of Watch – you’re invariably on his side.

It’s much the same with his new film, Prisoners. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film stars Gyllenhaal stars as Loki, a small town detective tasked with finding two kidnapped girls, while dealing with the grief of their fathers, played by Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard. It’s an intense, thought provoking thriller. Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down with the 32-year-old in London’s Claridges Hotel to discuss why he keeps getting cast as policemen, his boxing practice, and upcoming drama Everest.

GQ: The New Yorker’s David Denby recently wrote that you “project decency and obsessiveness in equal measure – that’s why he keeps getting cast as a cop in movies.” Given the last time we saw you was in End Of Watch, does it feel like you’re always playing policemen?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Well in between I made a movie called Enemy which was also directed by Denis Villeneuve and there was a play I did in New York, so although it looks like that, the journey for me has been much different. I don’t think it has anything to do with the job description; particularly if you compare the role of the police officer in End Of Watch to the police officer in Prisoners – they are so different. This is a guy who is searching for some sort of truth from people. Ultimately I think he’s running away from his own path and his own truth, which is the reason why he’s so fascinated with others. That was something that Denis and I developed as an idea, because [in crime dramas] the detective always just comes in with the exposition, whereas in other roles you can be good as the character you’ve created. I did a lot of background and research on End Of Watch and I definitely used certain skills that I learned on that movie, but this was a whole other world.

I like the fact that in the movie that the cop isn’t always right – everyone is pursuing their own truths. There’s a fallibility to the characters you don’t see in many films in this genre.

What was interesting about the script was that there was great ambiguity in what Keller Dover – Hugh Jackman’s character – does. And then in the middle was a detective doing this thing. But what hadn’t been explored was the idea that what if it was a detective who was not just trying to do the right thing, but the idea of that with anyone trying to do detective work – that I could see – there’s almost this slight infatuation with the mind of the criminal. So in order to be good, you have to know that and love that, as well as believe deeply in the fact you want to find this person and care for those affected by it. So that struggle I wanted to put into that character, and that goes way beyond – say for instance, in the portrayal of a beat cop. That movie [End Of Watch] is about relationships, about two friends. But for me, this movie is about: what is revenge, and is that any sort of answer? And then on top of that, the idea that we don’t find a solution unless the institution (who I think Detective Loki represents) and the individual (who Keller Dover represents) can somehow work together. That’s when we can sometimes solve things.

Hugh Jackman’s performance is incredible. He is also widely said to be the nicest man in all of Hollywood. Is that true?

I don’t know about the nicest. He is genuinely good. That’s a huge distinction – he’s willing to fight for what he believes in and I don’t think he’s performing some sense of what he believes to be nice. I think: he’s good. He is a great older brother – that’s how I look at him – and he’s a great father. He has this sense of paternal aspect and also an infectious energy about him. I don’t always think it’s necessary for somebody to be nice all the time. What’s amazing about my relationship with Denis, is that we’re not always necessarily nice to each other, but we love each other. And that relationship has given way to I think some very interesting results. You want something real.

You’re learning boxing, and I read a nice line of yours comparing boxing to acting and how they’re both about creating space. Hugh’s also a boxer – did you talk about it with him?

I do box. What I guess what I meant was that the preparation, work ethic, focus, presence, creates a sense of never ending time or space. I always talk about someone like Robert Downey Jr, when I worked with him on Zodiac, I would watch him work – I love watching other actors work, which is why it’s so wonderful to go to the theatre. He would have so many choices… a good actor will 5-10 choices up their sleeve, but a great actor will have 35-50 at any given moment. I think the same could be said of a great fighter.

But there are so many other factors that come into play. Why is Hugh Jackman in this movie able to give the performance that he does?

I think that goodness has opened people up. For instance, in scenes when I would work with him, he would be totally open with me. So many people come in and turn their nose up at a situation. He was always ready to go, always trying to listen.

You’re next working on Everest. Did your experience with Bear Grylls on Man vs Wild help you prepare?

With Everest, it’s a story that I’ve always been fascinated with – even as just a metaphor. The idea of what is seemingly unattainable, but the reasons why people go there and try and as they say “conquer” a mountain. That is a fascinating turn of phrase. That somehow getting to the top of it is conquering it.

As someone who is quite active is that something you relate to? The adventurer’s spirit?

I like the idea of the adventurer’s spirit. I think that is very much what a man searches for, in a certain way. But where I find myself getting caught up is where that spirit doesn’t meet discipline. What I loved about the process of researching Everest is just what a science it all is. You can believe in the sense of adventure, and you can create nostalgia based on some lofty idea of it, but ultimately to conquer that mountain requires great discipline – using your critical, analytical mind – as well as that spirit we all talk about.