As his new thriller Prisoners gives us another portayal of a good man who’s slightly damaged, we wonder whether the Donnie Darko star needs a hug.

Are you happy in yourself?” I ask Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Am I what?” he replies.

“Are you happy?”

“Happy? I feel energised by my work and I’m very excited about the stuff I’m about to do. I’m so moved by my relationship with my director. I have to say, I am looking forward. I think that answers your question.”

It doesn’t, though, really. You could infer a few different meanings from the answer, after all, but I only ask because I care. Gyllenhaal can have that effect on people. It’s rare that you watch him in a film and don’t want him to succeed. His characters are commonly self-effacing and gentle, qualities further emphasised by those big blue eyes. Often, you wish that someone would just go up and give him a hug. That’s the case in his latest role.

Gyllenhaal stars alongside Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, a thriller concerning the disappearance of two young girls in small-town, down-at-heel America. It’s the English-language debut of Québécois director Denis Villeneuve and the tone of the movie is set in its very opening moments. Rain is coming down in stair rods across empty streets and abandoned lots. The soundtrack is muted, the voices of the characters echoing across a space that feels half-abandoned. It’s a film, according to Gyllenhaal, that is reflective of more sombre economic times. “Oh yes,” he says. “Definitely. We shot the film in a town called Conyers near Atlanta, which is a very poor part of the United States. It’s a rural part of the country, so there’s a sense of quiet, but also of loneliness and emptiness. There are so many stories that talk about an idealistic version of a family and the safety, the idyllic life of a small town. But here, in a way, there was no sense of hope.”

Jackman’s Keller Dover, father of one of the missing girls, is the embodiment of this. A carpenter and survivalist, he has a grim outlook from the start (his motto is “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”, with the accent on the latter). It is barely hours after the disappearance that he starts to take matters into his own hands. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, plays Detective Loki the copper charged with resolving the mystery. Unlike Dover, though, he is subject to constraints: the silence of his suspects and the lethargy of his own police department.

Absence is central to the film, from the physical absence of the girls to the lack of work and security in the town. But there is also an absence in the sense of things being left unsaid. Viewers are left to mull over meaning and motivation for themselves. “I think that Denis’s directing style is very much about what is underneath,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s what’s buried in the unconscious and I think that is where this thriller really works. There is definitely the ability to read it and watch it in a conscious way and be tense and on the edge of your seat the entire time. Simultaneously, there’s this unconscious undercurrent, the underbelly of this movie. The things that are not revealed are why I love working with Denis.”

Gyllenhaal’s Loki is certainly a case in point. He is the best detective in Conyers, one who has never failed to bring home a case. He also sticks to the rules – this is no maverick cop – and has a puppyish enthusiasm for the job. Yet he also has deep black rings permanently around his eyes/ A nervous tick frolics across his face. Under his shirt cuffs are rough and perhaps homemade tattoos. “I see Loki as the movie’s narrator and when I think about famous narrators – whether in cinema, novels, everywhere – there’s a big unknown as to who that person really is,” says Gyllenhaal. “My whole thought process about Loki was that in order to be a good detective, particularly at a very young age, he had to understand fundamentally the mind of the criminal. I think that fascination showed on him. The tattoos, for example: they’re not always visible because I think he’s ashamed of them. There’s a lot of shame in Loki. It’s been a struggle for him not to emote, to push his feelings down.”

In that way, then, Loki is a classic Gyllenhaal character. Many of his most famous roles, in fact many of his roles full stop, are as good men who are damaged in some way. There’s the role that made his name 12 years ago, Donnie Darko, a caring and sensitive teenager who ends up committing acts of arson and murder. Or Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist whose desire to help catch a serial killer becomes an obsession that destroys his family. Then there’s Love & Other Drugs’s Jamie Randall, who can’t say “I love you” without having a panic attack. Or Jack Twist, his Brokeback Mountain cowboy who, like Loki, tries to push his feelings down but ultimately cannot succeed. Or Dastan in Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time who… no, actually that one doesn’t work.

“I look for something in the story that offers love in a more complicated way,” Gyllenhaal explains. “I don’t look for darkness, whatever that means, but in my mind, darkness acknowledges great light too. I think when it comes to a character, I’m moved by folk that I might struggle to love at first; characters that I have to do enough research on and think enough about to be able to really fall in love with them. Recently, in particular, that’s what’s been happening. I love Detective Loki. I found it hard to let him go.”

Throughout our interview, which I record over the phone in a vaulted hotel lobby in Toronto (Gyllenhaal having called off a face-to-face interview due to illness), he speaks in long, unstinting sentences that constantly qualify themselves and double back to restate a point. It’s obvious that he takes his work very seriously and likes to think about it a lot, but it’s not entirely clear that this is purely down to sombre thespianism.

After mentioning his desire to research his roles thoroughly, he says that in preparation for the role of Loki he watched a hundred hours of police interrogation footage. A hundred. And all for a scene that, on screen, lasts little more than three minutes. “I don’t think my approach to acting is all necessarily in service of the character,” he says, freely. “I think, selfishly, I’ve put it in service of myself, my perspective on the world and helping my life. I have an overactive brain and as a result of that, I can really get in my own mind. So I like to try and exercise it to the point of exhaustion. I think I took all the work from research but I used it therapeutically, too, in a strange way. I realised with that type of research how much it changed my life and what a wonderful thing the job of acting is, in that it can give you perspective on the fact that what you do really isn’t that important at all.”

At this point I want to reach out and give him a cuddle again, though given the fact he’s back home in California, this would prove difficult. We go on to talk about the strength of Gyllenhaal’s family, about the way he was raised, and the principles he holds; about how he adopted the therapeutic approach to acting from his brother-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard. I ask him if such an approach would rule out playing a superhero. He laughs, before replying quite straightforwardly that it would depend on the director, and that superhero movies are a very difficult trick to pull off.

I make one final attempt to put a smile on his face, hoping a bit of flattery might cheer him up. He seems to attract a sophisticated kind of woman, I say; in fact, two females of my acquaintance have declared a keen interest in him becoming their boyfriend. He laughs! A lot! “Well, I’ve been surrounded by very sophisticated and strong women in my family, so maybe it’s something to do with my upbringing.

“It’s very nice to hear that. It’s flattering, it’s flattering. But, you know, I’m not going there…”

Prisoners is in UK cinemas from September 27.


Scans courtesy of Lorna.

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