For weeks now, it feels like Jake Gyllenhaal has been just about everywhere, talking with just about everyone about his new film Nightcrawler, opening today. He was on Conan, reminiscing about his elaborate childhood Halloween costumes, and on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, literally getting the fuck scared out of him, and on The Tonight Show, throwing water in Jimmy Fallon’s face for some reason.

But earlier this month, over lunch at a lively Italian café in downtown Manhattan, the 33-year-old actor took a break from shooting his newest film — the contemporary drama Demolition — to speak with BuzzFeed News. “I love this movie,” he said of Nightcrawler while diving into a bowl of pasta. “And I’m trying to promote it every way I can. I’m literally fitting it in lunch breaks. ‘Are we shooting in Manhattan on Monday? Can you run up to this thing and do an interview?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! Whatever we need to do.’”

With all that time spent talking about himself, it’s probably no surprise that Gyllenhaal is keenly aware of how he’s perceived. At one point, while discussing his inspirations for his characters, he said, “I’ll see a window, and I’ll like the shape, and I’ll think, What if a pocket on a shirt looked like that?” He stopped himself, almost apologizing for merely answering the question posed to him, and said, “I am very aware of how that sounds in terms of pretension.” Later, when asked specifically about how he transformed his body to play freelance crime scene videographer Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal nearly repeated himself: “I’m very aware of how this will sound in the written word.” Then, when pressed about the weight he lost (roughly 20 pounds) and the importance of keeping healthy, he presaged his answer by asking for forgiveness because “it’s really hard to talk about it and not sound lofty.” He chuckled. “But thank you for caring about me; my mother is the same way. She’s always like, making sure that I’ve been fed, you know? So, she’ll be very thankful that we met over lunch.”

Indeed, Gyllenhaal grew up in a Hollywood filmmaking household — it’s long been part of his persona that his father’s a director, his mother’s a screenwriter, and his sister’s also an actor — so this kind of abashed media self-awareness can seem baked in. But of late, it has also served him incredibly well as an actor. Over the past few years, Gyllenhaal has been turning out a string of transformative performances that have altered expectations of what he is capable of as an actor. In 2012’s End of Watch, he played a Los Angeles street cop with a buzzed head and a strong moral code — a grounded and unglamorous adult after years of playing more excitable and boyish characters. In 2013’s Prisoners, he played a Pennsylvania police detective, with a slicked back mane of hair, a neck tattoo, and a world-weary glower, a man far more intimately familiar with the darker shades of morality than he would like to be. That same year, Gyllenhaal also starred in the deeply weird and creepy psychological thriller Enemy as seemingly twin doppelgängers, one a nervous and fearful professor, the other a cocky and louche actor — and both equally convincing.

And with Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has marshaled arguably the best performance of his career. As created by screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, The Fall), who also made his directorial debut with the film, Lou Bloom is a lean, hungry, eerily charming and dangerously ambitious character, who seems to have constructed his entire world view from the internet and self-help aphorisms. Gyllenhaal has to walk the tightrope of keeping Lou compelling, and even at times likable, while he crosses ethical and moral boundaries with appalling ease and ingenuity and while speaking in a breathless torrent of can-do hustle. “[With] the things this character does in this movie — that morally are a little abhorrent at times — I always grappled with, like, How do we make this guy someone who you really can root for?” he said. “I was really searching for that.”

In talking with Gyllenhaal about how he found what he needed forNightcrawler, it became clear just how invaluable his self-consciousness has been to his career. “I think acting is an incredibly immature, incredibly selfish profession,” he said, cringing just a bit. “But at the same time, at the opposite end of the spectrum — or maybe not, but I think it is — [there is] the opportunity to practice great empathy.”

For Gyllenhaal, reconciling those two impulses has led him to follow these six not-so-easy steps.

During lunch, Gyllenhaal was interrupted mid-sentence by a Brazilian woman who said she was on vacation with her family and asked for a photo. He greeted her with a smile, and politely turned her away. “Oh, you know what, I’m just doing an interview right now,” he said. She smiled in return, said it was great to meet him, and left, and Gyllenhaal turned back to the table and finished his thought as if there hadn’t been any interruption at all.

Of course, that kind of interaction is common for someone as famous as Gyllenhaal. So much so, in fact, that when asked later on about how much his celebrity has interfered with his ability to do his job — especially when he’s gone out to shadow real people for a role (the LAPD for End of Watch, or freelance local news videographers for Nightcrawler) — Gyllenhaal didn’t quite understand the question at first. “How do you mean?” he asked.

Like when that Brazilian woman felt totally free to interrupt this interview?

“You mean, did people recognize me? Um, no,” he concluded, flashing an enormous, satisfied smile, like he’d discovered the secret to reclaiming the anonymity that one loses when one becomes a movie star. “All of the entertainment industry that we’re involved in, in a way, it’s a pittance,” he said of his experiences shadowing those who deal with life-or-death situations. “It’s not substantial. And I think that’s a really great thing.”
Chase great characters, not movies that will be great for your career.

There is a popular media narrative about Gyllenhaal’s recent career choices, and it goes something like this: In 2010, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — a mega-budgeted, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced video game adaptation starring Gyllenhaal, that was meant to launch a new franchise for Disney — crashed and burned at the domestic box office. Stung by his rejection as a blockbuster leading man, Gyllenhaal forsook crass Hollywood extravaganzas and returned to the well-regarded, little-seen world of independent film to shore up his bona fides as a Serious Actor.

There are two slight problems with that narrative, however. One, Prince of Persia and 2004’s spectacularly dumb The Day After Tomorrow are the only two massive Hollywood spectacles on Gyllenhaal’s resume — the rest are challenging, director-driven features with more (relatively) earthbound budgets. And two, Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite see his career unfolding so schematically.

“I just felt myself moving away from those types of characters, really,” he said. “It’s not about not doing movies like Prince of Persia, or big movies — it’s just about being able to get deeply into a character, no matter the size of the film.”

So would Gyllenhaal still be interested in, say, joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe? “Not more than anything else,” he said with a shrug. “I mean, there’s no hierarchy of interests for me.”

If Gyllenhaal comes off as tepid about strapping on a superhero suit, it’s probably because he prefers a much looser artistic experience. “At least for this film, and I think for other films as well, Jake wants the ability to create,” Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy told BuzzFeed News. “And to explore, and to bring something to the character that’s his and make the imprint and create things. At the same time, he was very respectful of the script. He never changed a word of the dialogue. He approached it as a play. Every night we rehearsed for three months before we did the movie. I would go to his house three times a week, and we would talk and eat and practice and explore.”

For Gyllenhaal — who also served as a producer on Nightcrawler — that meant pushing Lou in every direction imaginable for a scene, like when Lou’s assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) accidentally splashes Lou’s car with gas. “When I say that line about, ‘You spilled gas on my car and if you do that again…?’ — I [did] that line seven different ways,” said Gyllenhaal. “I screamed and grabbed him by the throat at one point, and then I did another one where I was very quiet, one where it was fun to say and I just wanted him to know. There were so many different intentions, and Dan and I were experimenting. Not with the words, but with the intentions.”

That drive to get the most out of the material is something Gyllenhaal learned very early on in his career, dating back to the 1999 film October Sky, when he asked his co-star Chris Cooper for some advice. “He said to me, ‘Just don’t have any regrets leaving a scene,’” said Gyllenhaal. “And I’ve really taken that very seriously.”
Let your characters stick with you, but know when to let them go too.

Gyllenhaal’s dedication to playing Lou was indeed all-consuming. “I’ve never seen anyone work the way he had to work on this film,” Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler co-star Rene Russo told BuzzFeed News. “He was in labor. I could see it. And when the cameras were off, we did not have a word. The level of concentration had to be so laser-like that I did not talk to him in between anything. I’d go to my trailer, and he’d go to his.”

Present for virtually every frame of the film, Gyllenhaal said he essentially lived the role during the course of the month-long shoot, with Lou still banging around in his head at night after he’d gone home. “Lou was there the whole time we were shooting,” he said. “I spent three months basically living this character, and also memorizing these lines.”

Gyllenhaal noted that his experience as a producer on End of Watch taught him the unforgiving realities of an independent film shoot. “I knew I had to just be ready to roll, you know? Oh, we’re supposed to shoot scene 32? Oh fuck, we lost that location. We need to shoot scene 98, that big, long soliloquy, in an hour. No problem! So that was how I approached it. There was no shaking [Lou] on the weekends.”

Occasionally, Gyllenhaal’s acting experiences would stay with him for several years afterward. “I’m holding a gun in this movie which I’m [shooting right now], and I’m supposed to not know really how to hold the gun. I’d had to unlearn everything.” He laughs. “So I am faced with things like that sometimes. It’s interesting.”

For Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal stripped away much of his hunky bulk, making Lou a leaner, more sinewy figure — someone who could convincingly evoke a human coyote, the organizing metaphor Gyllenhaal and Gilroy struck upon during one of their lengthy rehearsals. To get there, Gyllenhaal simply ate less and often ran to set from his home. When asked whether there was anyone — like a nutritionist or a personal trainer — to help him through that process, he initially fell back into one of his fits of self-consciousness.

“I’m very aware of how this will sound in the written word, but I believe that — how do I say this?” He paused. “When you’re a performer of any kind, your body is really your instrument. You have to be aware of it. You have to take care of it. Contrary to what people believe in, that not taking care of it is the cool thing to do,” Gyllenhaal continued. He noted that since Lou was such a loner, it didn’t feel right for him to be able to rely on a team to help him shed and redistribute his body weight. “Here we are eating this meal, and I order, and I eat it, and then I’m satiated. Well, [Lou’s] not a guy who gets to have that feeling. And what is that feeling like? That was the exploration for me,” he said.

Of course, Gyllenhaal also has to live in the world with his character’s body after the director yells cut — and as he had alluded, sometimes other actors have a difficult time reconciling that tension. “I mean, that’s an enormous subject,” Gyllenhaal said, his already enormous eyes somehow getting wider. “To me, it’s about understanding myself. It’s really hard to talk about it and not sound lofty, so forgive me, but it really is, and it has to be. … I was like, ruthless in trying to tell the story in a way that people could really see it. But, again, I do think that it’s a much bigger issue. I mean, Where’s the line? is the fascinating question.”

Gyllenhaal has already completed shooting two other movies, the fact-based climbing thriller Everest with Keira Knightley, and the boxing drama Southpaw with Rachel McAdams, both likely for release in 2015. And in November, after wrapping production on Demolition in New York with Naomi Watts, he’ll pretty much immediately go into rehearsals for the Broadway debut of Constellations. He’s basically been working non-stop for three years.

“There’s movie-hard, and there’s life-hard,” Gyllenhaal said when asked if he’s tired. “There’s movie-tired, and then there’s life-tired. I’m excited. I’m enervated. There are the days where I fall asleep, when they’re doing a lighting setup, like, in the chair, or sitting on a couch. … Last night we did a scene … I couldn’t sleep for a couple hours after we did the scene. When I got home, I was just so excited. So I don’t really know — I wouldn’t really say that [I’m tired]. I feel excited.”