Jake Gyllenhaal can do intelligent but obsessed ( Donnie Darko, The Good Girl and Zodiac), vulnerable macho ( Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead) and action hero ( Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) - on-screen qualities that come together in Duncan Jones's sci-fi thriller Source Code, shot mostly in Montreal last spring.
Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a military pilot unwittingly commandeered to "test drive" a top-secret program that inserts an operative into a parallel reality to assume someone else's identity. Over and over again, Stevens is thrust into a Chicago commuter train eight minutes before it blows up to attempt to uncover the identity of the bomber. Each time the train explodes, he "comes to" in an isolation pod for a debriefing before being sent back to repeat the loop, each time with more information and a growing determination to somehow change the outcome.
The actor spoke about the role after its premiere at the SXSW film festival last month.
Movie actors are used to doing multiple takes of one scene, but in Source Code Stevens returns to the same scene. Was that a challenge?
Although it was a very tight, fast-moving script, if you do enough preparation, which was essential with this, the emotional side of the story is allowed to come out. The first day of shooting was nerve-racking. Although we had rehearsed like crazy, and knew what and where every person would be doing and going, we knew we could never veer off that course.
You won an award for your performance in the London revival of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. Did your stage work influence your approach to Source Code?
Yes! I would often do six or seven pages of script in that pod by myself. I'd play a whole scene out, then director Duncan Jones would let me go right back in. So it wasn't about gathering pieces, it was more like theatre. I felt very empowered as an actor, as you would on stage.
So even within the repetitive scenes you found variations?
To free up the actor's instrument, you have to give yourself permission to feel you don't have to hit a mark or the same result and you'll get somewhere fascinating if you just let yourself go free. Every actor is different. Some actors like to know they have to hit a bull's eye - but I'm not one of those actors.
I hear you were responsible for bringing Jones on board.
I had a relationship with one of the producers, who sent me Ben Riley's script, which was an amazing read. But I also thought its success would depend on the director, and I immediately thought of Duncan. He and I had a general meeting about a part he wanted me to play in another movie. As we were saying goodbye I said, "There's a script you might be interested in," and he said, "Okay, cool, send it to me." I thought he'd never want to do it, but five days later he said, "I'm in."
Did the theatre vibe you felt while working on Source Code also extend to your fellow actors?
When you make a movie like this, a smaller film you've kind of been championing from the beginning, and certain things go your way - like getting Duncan, and the casting of Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, who created my favourite character on stage in Angels in America, and Michelle Monaghan, who is a really reactive actor - people will often say, "Oh this is a star-driven vehicle." But I reject that notion, because I really felt part of a company of actors making this movie. Which was so important because, more than the explosions and action, Source Code is really about character.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail