Jake Gyllenhaal: 'I am a little more terrified about things on earth than a creature from another planet'
He may be currently preoccupied with an extraterrestrial crisis in his latest blockbuster Life but, space suits aside, Jake Gyllenhaal insists he doesn't fear the unknown. In fact, change is what the actor relishes, he tells Gemma Dunn.
Jake Gyllenhaal has driven his body to the limit in the name of research. Take, for instance, Everest, the 2015 epic for which he spent hours in altitude simulators before filming at the mountain's treacherous Base Camp for three months. Sport drama Southpaw saw him train like a fighter with six intense months in the gym, and he dropped a phenomenal 30lbs for 2014's Nightcrawler, as well as hitching rides with on-duty paparazzi.
But in a change of pace, the shape-shifting actor insists the only prerequisite for his latest venture was to simply enjoy himself.
"A lot of the commitment I've made to characters or backstory, the history or the amount of months or time I put into preparation, I didn't really do for this film," admits the Californian of his role in Daniel Espinosa's space movie Life.
"I decided I wanted to see what it was like to have pure fun, you know? This is a fun movie - it's about something scary, but it's really all about fun," says the 36-year-old, who received a Bafta nomination earlier this year for this role in Tom Ford's neo-noir thriller Nocturnal Animals.
But be warned if you're planning on watching it on the big screen - there are a lot more toe-curling scares than belly laughs.
The sci-fi thriller follows a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station, whose mission to discover more about a single-cell organism on Mars takes a terrifying turn when they realise the rapidly evolving life form could have been responsible for causing extinction on the planet, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.
"I think Daniel Espinosa wanted to create a world that was suffocating," says Gyllenhaal of the cramped, zero-gravity setting.
"In other movies, you can separate yourself from the reality of what you're seeing. Daniel wanted to create an environment where everything was truly alive - not only feeling that from the creature itself, but also truly alive emotionally."
Joined by a stellar cast, including Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, Gyllenhaal - who stars as Dr David Jordan - admits to being enthralled by the broad ideas behind each character.
"It was a beautifully paced, terrifying script," says the A-lister. "It's a fun idea - you think you know where it's going, and then it evolves into something where you really, really don't.
"The life form is literal, but it's also an incredible metaphor for what can happen. Curiosity is one of the most important human traits, but I think searching too far can be full of hubris. In that way, the life form is a repercussion for that kind of curiosity."
Today, Gyllenhaal - sporting a black tee, blazer and jeans combo - is on a break from an exclusive 10-week run on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George.
He may be missing his Life sidekick Reynolds (the Deadpool star was prevented from travelling on the day of the interview due to the New York snowstorm) but he's on fine form, open and engaging, though as ever, careful not to give too much away. His often abstract answers are likely a product of his time spent studying Buddhism at Columbia University.
"I believe deeply in exploration and curiosity," he says, his expression masked by an impressively groomed beard. "I think it's essential to living a real life and being alive to be curious."
On that note, would he fancy testing out his new-found astronaut skills aboard one of Richard Branson's future Virgin Galactic flights?
"Erm, no," he retorts, breaking into a smile.
"I'm more interested in the internal journey than the external one."
So does the very idea of life beyond our planet terrify him?
"The idea of terror or paranoia, just generally, is always something that's universal," reasons the actor, who co-starred with his older sister Maggie in cult psychological thriller Donnie Darko.
"I don't know if I have the same paranoia about some sort of creature from another planet - I'm a little bit more terrified about the things that are happening on earth right now," he laughs.
"That somehow some sort of alien creature has come into play in America, but no, that's not something that terrifies me - though in this movie it does."
The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, it's easy to assume Gyllenhaal's cinematic future was written in the stars. He made his screen debut when he was just 11, as Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers.
But for him, it's all about constant change.
"My desire is to be able to see that I'm constantly changing and interested in different things," says Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Jack Twist opposite the late Heath Ledger in the landmark Brokeback Mountain. "The choices of project I want to be involved in, that I have the opportunity to be involved in, change along with it."
Next up, he can be seen in Okja, a Netflix original sci-fi fantasy movie directed by Bong Joon-ho; Stronger, a tribute to the heroic journey of Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman; and drama Wildlife, opposite Carey Mulligan and directed by Paul Dano. He's also busy with his new production company, Nine Stories.
So what else does the future hold for the man who has it all to play for?
"I don't have a desire," he replies. "A lot of people have desires to tell one story, or they've always wanted to do this and that, and that's never really been me. I believe in life that target-drives forth the arrow."
- Life opens in cinemas today