Jake Gyllenhaal is a bit of a mystery. From playing a boy in a bubble in “Bubble Boy” to a disturbed teenager in “Donnie Darko,” from an action hero in “Prince of Persia” to a cowboy in love with another cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” he chooses roles that make it hard to pin him down as an actor. So it’s no wonder he was drawn to the enigmatic Detective Loki in director Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing “Prisoners,” which had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

When Moviefone sat down with Gyllenhaal in Toronto to talk tats and twitches, the actor refused to divulge too much of his character’s past, but he did reveal some bromantic feelings for Villeneuve, the scenes in “Prisoners” that “wrecked” him for days, and the blockbuster franchise he’s dying to be a part of.

Moviefone: Very little is revealed about your character, Detective Loki. But he has tattoos — one on his neck and several on his fingers — a facial tic, and a Freemason ring, all of which tell a story about his past. So, what’s the story?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I talked to Denis a lot about my interpretation. He said to me that this movie is really about the fight between the individual and the institution, and that Detective Loki is a police officer, he’s the institution, and that Keller Dover, Hugh Jackman’s character, is the individual; he’s fighting for his individual rights. And that’s why he takes this on himself; he doesn’t believe in the institution.

As I started thinking about that, I started to think about ways in which the two were very similar, these two characters, and why they both were led in the ways that they were led. There was one piece of information/backstory in Loki’s character that said that he’d been in a boys home. And so, from that, I inferred that he’d probably been through the juvenile detention system and that, in order to be a really good cop, you have to understand the criminal mind and also be fascinated with it, and maybe have been [a criminal] at one point of another. In his case, I think probably, as a kid, he was.

I think that he did some things that he might be a bit ashamed of, and the tattoos were a bit of that history that he wanted to cover up. So, we picked these tattoos, each having thematic meaning actually connected to the movie, that we would cover up. And that I’d have the ability to, if I were in a scene, cover up my tattoos on my fingers with my hands but another moment they came out and I’d have to be ashamed of them. Even though I was constantly questioning and I was constantly driving the narrative, I was also fighting my own demons in the middle of that. And it also just was the reason [the character] was so fascinated with finding out other people’s demons.

What about the blinking, his facial tic?

Physical things, like the twitch and stuff like that, that sort of began as an idea, early on. It really just felt right; I can’t exactly explain why at first. And then, as I realized that he had so much going on in his mind, so many pieces of information to hold onto, and, emotionally, he was repressing so much, that sometimes that comes out in strange physical ways and attributes and tics. And I found that to be a way in which it was like an expression of this emotional state; he just couldn’t emote, because it would hurt the case. It could hurt him in trying to figure out the case, it could cause great doubt. So he was just dealing with computing so much that it was almost like an overload. It was like a glitch.

So, what do those tattoos mean?

Those are secret. Well, I will tell you one thing because Denis loves themes so much in his movies and trying to put them in every detail of his films. He hadn’t remembered what the ones on my fingers meant — and, in a weird way, that’s between him and me — but I told him the day before yesterday because, I mean, he had a lot other characters and things to worry about, really. And he turned to me and grabbed me by the face and he was like [impersonates Villeneuve’s French-Canadian accent], “I love you,” because it ties in directly to the theme of the movie.

I wanted the one on my neck, which has a special meaning, to just be a way of trying to hide it, and then show it when I wanted to. A lot of times the tattoos come out in scenes with Paul Dano, because I just wanted to communicate to him that I could get violent. And then, with the parents, I usually wanted to cover them up.

And the ring?

And the Masons ring, yeah. Again, that’s sort of another representation of the institution, finding comfort within that space and what that means, particularly in America.

The Freemason ring also represents a “secret society,” and then there’s the “secret society” element tied to the missing kids.
Totally. There are so many question marks in this movie. And everybody’s a question mark. I thought it was a really cool idea to make the detective a question mark who carried tons of question marks on him as well, so that, as an audience member, you weren’t just following the detective, you were going like, “What’s that? What’s that? What’s THAT?!”

Anyone with kids, or nieces and nephews, is going to have the crap scared out of them by this movie. You have two nieces. Did being an uncle influence your character?

Definitely. Definitely. There’s a scene, towards the end of the movie that I — sorry, I don’t want to give too much away really — but through that entire scene, driving the car and stuff, and all that led to that, it was the only thing I could think about. It was in every single scene.

But yes, I thought about it every day. And when we did do those scenes at the end, they wrecked me for a number of days afterwards. Because even to draw upon that, I thought about Hugh, or Maria, or Viola, or Terrence, and what they were drawing upon being parents themselves. But yes, constantly, they were on my mind. And, actually, regardless of the movie, they are always on my mind.

There are rumors swirling about a bromance between you and Denis. Can you confirm or deny any bromantic tendencies?

[Laughs] I would consider him a brother, yes. I would consider him that, but I would say that with an equal amount of love and an equal amount of hatred. So, that’s as close to the truth as you’re going to get, probably. But I love him deeply, and he says [impersonates Villeneuve again], “And I hate him deeply, as well.”

What can you tell us about “Enemy,” your other movie with Villeneuve?

I don’t know, man. It is quite an experience. I would say that it’s not even necessarily a movie; it’s an experience. It’s an experience in the unconscious, the unconscious of a director. It was an experiment and experience for us, and this movie, “Prisoners,” was an evolution from that. It was a time in which you’re basically just exploring some very strange, interesting themes. It’s almost like falling asleep. It’s almost like those moments in dreams that you can faintly remember, that’s what I could describe that movie as now. I’m fascinated with how people will respond because it really is an experience. I really wouldn’t walk into that movie expecting a movie, if that makes any sense.

One last, quick question: What role, past or present, do you wish you could have played?

Oh, my god. [long pause] I don’t know if it’s one character, but literally, like, any role in the “Bourne” movies, just to be a part of that community of actors and that subject matter and that story. Yeah, they’re amazing.

“Prisoners” opens nationwide September 20.