The Actors: ‘Prince’ Gyllenhaal is game

With roles in indie or edgy fare like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Jarhead,” “Zodiac” and “Donnie Darko,” Jake Gyllenhaal has not been the sort of actor whose face you see on the side of a Slurpee cup or along the toy aisles of American retail. That is changing this summer, though, with the 29-year-old actor’s title role in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which is not only based on a video game but was also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a master blaster in the popcorn-movie sector.

On a recent trip to promote the Disney adventure film, Gyllenhaal seemed wide-eyed but also amused by his career detour into blockbuster madness. He grinned at more than 4,000 fans who cheered him at a pop-culture expo called WonderCon but also kept an ironic detachment from the scene; during a question-and-answer session, a fan asked the actor what moment in history he would visit if he could turn back time (as his character in the move can do), and after a pause he answered with a straight face: “I would go back and watch my birth.”

Clearly, Gyllenhaal is not taking himself or his new movie too seriously, although he gushes about the movie’s dazzle, adrenaline and vintage movie-serial soul. “I actually jump out of a window and land on the back of my horse, just like in the old movie, Zorro-style,” he said with the expression of a teenager who just hopped off, like, the best roller coaster ever. It’s no surprise that the athletic actor, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain,” finds himself going from indie-spirited work into the Comic-Con cinema zone; that’s the template after the success of Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire in summer franchises.

“Prince of Persia” is based on the popular video game of the same name and, in winking tone and special-effect emphasis, it might be framed as a landlocked version of Bruckheimer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. (“Persia” will be just the fourth PG-13 film in Walt Disney Studios history, joining the three “Pirates” films.) The film was set to be released last summer but, according to producers, was pushed back due in part to the longer-than-expected timetable of the special-effects work.

Gyllenhaal stars as the daring Dastan, a street urchin turned prince, who teams up with a fiery princess named Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) to stop an evil ruler ( Ben Kingsley) from unleashing a sandstorm that will destroy the world. Along the way, Dastan gets his hands on a powerful weapon that can wind back time.

Gyllenhaal says he “over-prepared, wildly” for the sword-fighting, horse-riding, fistfighting and rope-climbing needed for the job and treated the whole experience like a rollicking ride through a Kipling epic. He said the shooting dates in Morocco and the outsized presence of Newell (" Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Donnie Brasco”) lent to the sense of safari.

“He’s a big, robust guy; he’s really a general, like how you imagine a D.W. Griffith might carry himself on the set,” Gyllenhaal said. “He would use a bullhorn if you handed him one. He’s got this bellowing, old-school British accent — you hear him from behind the camera, ‘That’s smashing, Jake, smashing. Well done, my boy.’ You’re not living in ‘The Sheltering Sky,’ but it’s easy to pretend you were in this old British Empire moment.”

Newell, who has known Gyllenhaal since he was a youngster, said the actor is ideal for the role because he has an aura of effortless charm around him and an almost boyish sense of wonder. “He puts a human heart in the middle of a movie that will absolutely need one to connect with the audience,” he said.

Gyllenhaal finished filming “Prince of Persia” a year ago and is now off on a different sort of career pursuit (he will appear in two offbeat comedies this year, David O. Russell’s “Nailed” and Edward Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs”).

He says his time in the desert was, on one level, really just a wardrobe experiment. “I grew up with filmmakers and I consider myself a filmmaker, sort of, but as an actor taking on a role I know that I’m just a piece of a situation. What I mean by that is you become part of the story that will be up there on the screen and that makes you want to try a really wide variety of situations. You try on a coat, you wear it for a while and you give it back. That’s what acting is.... Sometimes as an actor you just want to try something on.”

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