These days, it's a bad idea trying to tell Jake Gyllenhaal you've got him pegged. The 25-year-old shifts in his seat when I repeat his past comments, about his two new films, Brokeback Mountain and Jarhead, being "liberating" experiences. To the effect that, far from pegging him down, they avoided putting him into the "boxes" previous directors had shoehorned his curio screen persona into.
But no: "I have no agenda in myself for how I want to appear with other people," he explains in a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel. "My agenda is to tell stories that I care about and that move me. And those were two stories that moved me. I didn't go, 'Oh, if I do Brokeback Mountain, it's not gonna put me in a box.' I'm crying after I finished the script and I'm, like, 'I will do anything to do this movie.'"
Despite graduating through fabulously dishevelled indie hits such as the fiendish Donnie Darko, you get the impression that, now, Gyllenhaal is a man not easily knocked off his ramrod agenda. Eighteen months ago, when he was promoting climate-change blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, he declared, "This is the last teenage role I will ever play in my life." And was he ready to become a star? "I've been ready my whole life."
The start of 2006 sees Gyllenhaal as poster-boy for the New Gravity, the programme of serious films - Munich, Syriana et al - currently rinsing down SFX-daubed Hollywood. No longer a teen star, he's grown up. Jarhead sees him going to war, while he plays a graduate mathematician opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the long-delayed drama Proof. And, first, he ages from 20 to 40 in Ang Lee's adaptation of E Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain. Gyllenhaal plays Jack Twist, a jobbing Wyoming cowboy who falls in love with his co-worker Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), and the pair conduct a two-decade-long affair. When he was 16, he first talked to Gus Van Sant, then attached to direct, about the "gay cowboy script" doing the rounds. The actor says: "It wasn't really a delightful subject for me at the time. So I backed away from it."
Gyllenhaal evidently matured enough to take on the role. Brokeback Mountain runs with the quintessential Ang Lee theme - repressed sensibility - and, as Jack and Ennis pick up wives, children and regrets down the years, masterfully crafts both a classic love story, and a modern fable of permissiveness and tolerance. What it isn't is a gay-rights movie; it's universal enough to avoid categorisations. Which, naturally, pleased Gyllenhaal. "That, to me, is what this movie hopefully tries to destroy. Your idea of what love is and what sexuality is, can be whatever you want it to be," he says.
The kissing-Heath-Ledger question, then, feels a bit trite. (For posterity, it was "exfoliating" [Empire], it "hurt" (New York Times) and, says Ledger, was "just like kissing a person" [Entertainment Weekly].) Gyllenhaal also resents distortions in the American press that he first interpreted the characters as straight men who happen to fall in love with each other. This, he says, is an over-simplification. "I think the two of them had no real concept of what 'gay' was... I think Ennis did more than Jack does." He means the fact that Heath Ledger's taciturn farmhand, vitally, appreciates what their love means in the conservative Midwest.
Wouldn't Jack, had he been born 20 years later, be the more likely of the two to have decamped for the coasts to live the "gay lifestyle"? "Of the two characters, he's definitely the more 'gay'. I definitely think he's had more experiences than Ennis has. The most difficult thing for me when I was playing it was knowing that I was going to have to guide him and show him the ropes and be convincing in that."
Gyllenhaal - initially coltish and passionate, later broken and sour - pulls it off, though the film rests finally on Ledger's gruff gaze and mountainous silences. Jarhead, on the other hand, is most definitely all Gyllenhaal's. Another literary adaptation, this time of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoirs, it's less successful than Brokeback Mountain. Resting on a risky cinematic premise (we all know war is hell, but did you know it's boring too?) it demands an inventive script, which is conspicuously absent.
Lucky then, that the photography is acrid and apocalyptic, and as sardonic Marine recruit "Swoff", Gyllenhaal keeps this tone ringing loud and clear. Originally, director Sam Mendes thought of his lead actor in the fey indie-boy mould, until he saw him on stage in 2002's West End hit This Is Our Youth and was surprised by his physical clout. Mendes still doubted, though, that Gyllenhaal could display the necessary "ugly" emotions for the role and the audition was not convincing. "I did a really bad job. And then I got ugly. Then I got really upset," says Gyllenhaal. "I didn't punch him in the face or anything, but I would have if he hadn't given me the part." He's still unsure how he managed to convince Mendes. "Ultimately, it was just my passion for it - calling him up in the middle of the night and telling him that and letting him know."
Asked about his own opinion on recent US activity (and probably mindful of the flak his sister Maggie received for her comments about America's responsibility for 9/11), Gyllenhaal sounds like a geopolitical agnostic. "Just as a young person, all you have is questions. I don't really have a stance as of yet. But the questions were never answered. Because of that, slowly I have become more and more unhappy with the situation. Just like a parent, if a child asks you a question and you don't have an answer or you lie to them, it's not good parenting. And I feel the same about the President."
After his stint with Sergeant-Major Mendes though, he does praise the "extraordinary" work done by the armed forces in Iraq. Gyllenhaal has friends currently stationed there, but is from precisely the kind of background least likely to pack their kids off into the military. He's the son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah, Homegrown) and screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Bee Season). He grew up in swanky Hancock Park, Los Angeles; his mum's best friend is Jamie Lee Curtis, and Paul Newman taught him how to drive.
Gyllenhaal has inherited the leftie proclivities - Future Forests and the American Civil Liberties Union are two societies he backs - but is striking out for himself. His performances in Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain are almost as off-kilter as his first ones, but now they're set at the centre of far more mainstream films. But his choice of roles suggests that he's still keen to avoid off-the-peg parts, as he did when he was starting out. "For me, growing up as a teenager was more like struggling with, y'know, identity in general, just who I was. I could very easily in the way I was feeling be talking to a big rabbit [as in Donnie Darko] and maybe I could be having an affair with an older woman [The Good Girl]. Those topics were more realistic."
His next film is Zodiac, about a San Francisco serial killer of the late Sixties. Gyllenhaal is playing Robert Graysmith, the ex-illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author who obsessively investigates the killings. Gyllenhaal's starting to get a little forensic himself; he's been recently videotaping Graysmith. What's he like? "Extraordinary. He's a bulldog and at the same time, full of an innocence I could never equate with a bulldog. He cares about doing the right thing in a world that seems so perverse, it seems impossible to do the right thing in." The actor's probably got a filing cabinet full of notes already. "I've noticed that playing a real person, you can interpret it how you wanna interpret it, but sometimes the personality is the key to making the story work."
Does his need to go the extra yard come from having to suffer a little to compensate for his bourgeois upbringing? "We all suffer. There's no need to do it any more than we need to. I don't know, I..." He brightens. "No! That idea's old now. Again. For a long time, I think I thought acting was suffering and I feel very differently right now."
'Brokeback Mountain' goes on general release on Friday; 'Jarhead' is released on January 13; 'Proof' is released on February 10Reuse content