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Jake Gyllenhaal: Playing a widower in Demolition showed me how Hollywood portrayals of emotions don't always reflect real life.

By Keeley Bolger

Brooding. Intense. Serious. Scroll through Jake Gyllenhaal's back catalogue, starting with 1999's October Sky, 2001's Donnie Darko and picking up with 2014's Nightcrawler, and you'll see why those adjectives are appropriate when describing his style.

An actor's actor, were it not for his gift of pulling off punchy performances in these films - as well as subsequent roles in the critically-acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, Southpaw, Zodiac and Jarhead - his meticulous choices and disciplined approach to work (be it gaining bulk, shedding weight, performing his first fight scene in front of 2,000 people for Southpaw, or living nocturnally in preparation for Nightcrawler) might, instead, be called "hammy".

Duly then, his latest offering, Demolition, is simmering with Gyllenhaal's special brand of intensity. Only this time, amid the broodiness, there's a flash of playfulness, expressed in the form of an unapologetically joyful dance sequence amid the hubbub of New York, which sees his character unselfconsciously weaving in and out of his fellow commuters.

Laughing, the 35-year-old actor recalls the moment director Jean-Marc Vallee, who also helmed Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, broached the subject of the boogie, a week before filming was supposed to start.

"I thought, 'It's gonna be a bit humiliating'," Gyllenhaal admits. "But I like that feeling, and that's a great thing about being an actor. Jean-Marc had the camera on his shoulder and I just walked out into the street and, as all the commuters were coming down the street, started dancing through them and around them.

"There was construction going on and I just dismissed all the cones and ran through the construction and danced with different people. If you're doing something really crazy in New York City, most people tend to ignore you."

The dancing was by no means the most unusual part of Demolition, though.

The offbeat tragicomedy centres around Davis (Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker whose life changes forever when his wife Julia dies in a car accident. Numb to the fallout, his family and father-in-law Phil, who also happens to be his boss at the bank, are perturbed when Davis doesn't live up to their expectations of grief.

The only person who can penetrate his aloof attitude is Karen (Naomi Watts), and later her troubled teenage son, Chris. The two are introduced when Davis sends a letter to a vending machine company to complain about a faulty machine at the hospital where his wife died, and Karen, one of their customer services reps, replies.

"He starts up an imaginary relationship with this company, telling them all the things that he's feeling," explains Gyllenhaal.

Soon, his letters expand on his wider feelings, and he and Karen form an allegiance. At the same time, Davis finds an unusual but helpful emotional outlet when he starts dismantling his possessions, including his marital home.

Clearly, it was an enjoyable experience for the actor.

"Jean-Marc allowed us to tear up the house ourselves," explains the actor with a chuckle. "It was incredibly cathartic, I felt like a kid.

"I often say, and I do think it's true, that it's a lot harder to create than it is to destroy. But it's really hard to take apart a house yourself."

Last September, the film was chosen to open the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, something which is evidently a point of pride for Los Angeles-born Gyllenhaal. "There's nothing nicer than to feel you've earned something," he says.

The son of movie director Stephen Gyllenhaal and acclaimed scriptwriter Naomi Foner, and younger brother of award-winning actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, he made his acting debut in 1991 as Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers.

In his late-teens and early-20s, drama October Sky and cult favourite Donnie Darko set the wheels of his career in motion, before his portrayal of conflicted cowboy Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain, alongside the late Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams (later becoming godfather to Ledger and Williams' daughter Matilda), earned him a Bafta and an Oscar nomination.

Next, he teams up with Amy Adams in thriller Nocturnal Animals and also stars in drama Stronger, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, due for release next year.

But for the time being, his mind is on Demolition.

"This movie is not really about the conventional ideas of how I'm supposed to grieve," explains Gyllenhaal. "Grief can be anything, really. We have a conventional idea. Movies, particularly, teach us how to supposedly love or hate or fight, and I think this movie is beautiful, because it doesn't say you're supposed to do anything.

"Grief is whatever you make of it, and as long as move through it, you're doing all right."

Demolition is in cinemas from this Friday

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