He’s relatively new to this action hero business. But Jake Gyllenhaal, who has the title role in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” has figured out how you make swordfights — or in his case, scimitar fights — work.
“You’ve got to get across the danger, flirt with potentially getting hurt, actually hurt,” he says from London. “Viewers will accept nothing less. When you come right up to the cutting edge with the violence of the fight, you run risks. But anything less than me not risking losing a finger or an eye is just ‘weak sauce.’”
He chuckles at the British expression he’s just trotted out. And he knows his reputation — sensitive guys, “indie films,” “Brokeback Mountain.”
“It’s an absurdly different sort of movie for me to do,” he says. “Not at all what other people would expect from me or I would expect of myself. That’s the challenge of it, not taking the easy way.”
Besides, he says, “I’m tired of taking myself so seriously. Seriously.”
Whatever that screen image, Gyllenhaal, 29, is an off-camera workout beast. It seems that every candid Internet shot of him involves jogging, cycling (sometimes with pal Lance Armstrong), breaking a sweat. He dreams of playing pro football legend Joe Namath on the big screen and a pro baseball player in a new film of the musical “Damn Yankees.” He beefed up big time for “Jarhead,” and took “ripped” to new extremes for “Prince of Persia,” Jerry Bruckheimer’s big-budget adaptation of the popular video game.
“Swordfight training, parkour training, working in a gym with acrobats and the actual inventors of parkour, David Belle and his team. You need to do that before you get chased across the roofs of kasbahs in Morocco.
“It’s not just getting it down. You have to be in good shape so that you can do it take after take after take, in that heat, sweating to death.
“The sweating to death actually works. You WANT to look like you’re sweating to death.”
Gyllenhaal put in the months of prep because he wants to make his first action-adventure flick come off, and he wants to not screw up a video game he knew long before super-producer Bruckheimer made that call and invited him to spend months in Morocco.
“I actually played the first, side-scrolling version of the game that some people will remember, when I was a kid,” he says. “And then I took a brief 20-year hiatus. After I read the script, I picked up the game again to see what it was like. It was research for the movie. Just research. I ended up playing all the way through the shoot, pretty much.
“I’d see something on the game and suggest the stunt guys take a look at it, and they’d go, ‘Yeah. We can do that.’ Climbing that wall on crossbow darts? We actually did that. They shot those into the wall and we used them as a ladder to get to the top. No wires, no big special effects. Just bolts from a crossbow and stepping from one to the next.”
Gyllenhaal’s enthusiasm for all this action shtick is a direct reaction to his upbringing, he declares.
The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Waterland”) and screenwriter Naomi Foner (“Running on Empty”), younger sibling to Maggie (“Secretary,” “Crazy Heart”), Jake says that “with the sort of stuck-up movie tastes that my dad and mom had, that maybe my sister shared, I was all about popcorn movies. ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘The Goonies,’ ‘E.T.’ Those are the movies I loved, no matter what my parents said.
“If you were to tell the 8-year-old me back then that today I’d be playing the Prince of Persia, jumping off buildings, sword fighting and getting the girl, my head would have exploded.”
He just finished another action film, “Source Code.’ He has others in mind, and wouldn’t mind a second “Prince of Persia,” “should the audience decide that.” But there is risk. When a “Proof” comes and goes with a poof, or “Rendition” fizzles, few notice. A big summer “tent-pole” movie, Bruckheimer’s successor to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise? If Gyllenhaal doesn’t pull them in, attention will be paid.
Jeffrey Wells of the popular online movie-news site Hollywood-elsewhere calls him “a reliable and believable actor” with the “big shoulders and nice pecs” that make him a fine candidate for “prostituting himself in the service of ... Prince of Persia.” Wells compares the imminently likable Gyllenhaal to Liam Neeson, another big guy with real acting chops who’s not above dipping his hand into the popcorn.
And to hear Gyllenhaal tell it, the cost and risk — the shoulder injuries, the year of an actor’s life that such films typically eat up — was totally worth it. His inner 8-year-old finally got what he wanted.
“It’s pretty badass.”