'End of Watch'
'End of Watch'

Of all the dark horse Oscar hopefuls this year, none deserves more consideration than Jake Gyllenhaal for his role as an LA cop in David Ayer's "End of Watch." It's such a competitive year for leading actors that I hope this performance in a this well-reviewed indie film will be seen. Critics groups may give it some attention.

Jake Gyllenhaal, time to dance

Major movie stars have a hint of danger about them; Gyllenhaal, who hits 32 in December, is one of many boyish American leading men who are earning gravitas as they age. "End of Watch" marks Gyllenhaal's finest and most aggressively mature work to date.

Gyllenhaal was raised with sister Maggie in L.A. by director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner in a rich artistic soup of an environment, with people like Steven Soderbergh living over the garage. Gyllenhaal has always embraced theater as well as film, from the 2002 play "This is Our Youth," which won him the London Evening Standard Theater Award for outstanding newcomer, to his well-reviewed recent New York stage debut in the off-Broadway play 'If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet.'

Gyllenhaal broke out so early as a teenager in the 1999 true story "October Sky" that it took a while for him to grow up on-screen. After Richard Kelly's strange 2001 psycho-drama "Donnie Darko" earned him an Independent Spirit nomination as Best Male Lead, Gyllenhaal burnished his acting cred by playing a series of sensitive, sweet young men in low-budget indies such as "The Good Girl," "Proof" and "Lovely & Amazing."

While it was not Gyllenhaal's finest hour, the 2004 disaster epic "The Day After Tomorrow" marked the actor's biggest global hit to date: a total $544 million. He scored critical raves for two 2005 films, Gulf War actioner "Jarhead" and Ang Lee's tragic gay romance "Brokeback Mountain," opposite Heath Ledger, which earned $178 million worldwide and scored Gyllenhaal the supporting actor BAFTA and his first and only Oscar nom.

His biggest misfire to date was the $200-million would-be franchise "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," a well-made but featherweight B-movie adventure from Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell. After losing "The Dark Knight" to Christian Bale, "Spider-Man" to Tobey Maguire, and passing on "Avatar," Gyllenhaal took on a major action role in a summer tentpole, or so he thought. Instead, many reviewers argued that Gyllenhaal was miscast, and despite his buffed-up physique, failed to carry the action adventure.

Thus far Gyllenhaal has been viewed as a likable leading man best suited to naturalistic dramas. And like most actors his age, there's a gap between his thespian bonafides and his ability to put butts in seats. While Gyllenhaal earned upbeat reviews in dramas "Brothers," "Rendition," "Zodiac" and "Love and Other Drugs," the films disappointed at theater wickets. But he ably carried Duncan Jones' time-travel thriller hit "Source Code," opposite Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan. (I interviewed him at the time.)

During "Source Code," Gyllenhaal decided to get serious about his future roles and ignore studio paydays. He's working with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated "Incendies") on two films: "An Enemy" is in the can and "Prisoners" is in prep. (No longer in development is musical "Damn Yankees," in which middle-aged Joe Boyd sells his soul to the devil to become a young baseball slugger; I'd have liked to see Gyllenhaal, a trained singer, do this one). 

Whether or not "End of Watch" ends up at the top of Academy voters' screener piles, we can be sure that Gyllenhaal's best work is still to come.

Gyllenhaal called me on the phone from New York:

Anne Thompson: You're on a roll: you got your best reviews to date for your latest film 'End of Watch' as well as your off-Broadway play 'If There Is, I Haven't Found It Yet.'

Jake Gyllenhaal: I don't read them. I find it overwhelming; the stage work is still alive, so those type of things get in your head. It's best not to think in terms of that, it ends up affecting you, whether it's good or bad. So I stay away and do my work.

AT: Did you make a recent change in your approach to choosing projects?

JG: It was a perfect storm of a lot of things happening. The reality of life itself was hitting me hard, at 30. It was not a calculation. I had spent the majority of my 20s blessed by being able to work consistently. I grew up thinking I understood the business of making movies. I got to a point where I said, 'What do I want my life be? It's about more than career.' So I don't put my career before my life anymore.

In my 20s, I did start off very young, there was a sense of searching for identity anywhere. The movie business presents you with an identity and you put it on. You play different characters. As an actor it's rare to find someone in my age range who is able to define themselves clearly at a young age.

There's that my parents got divorced two years ago; I have two nieces now. I started looking at work as trying to learn about my life as opposed to strategizing. I never thought about my work that way, never with a sense of objectivity. I was inspired by a piece of writing or a director or a character. It was not a question or discussion of doing one big one, one small one.

What has really happened: I was saying to myself, 'how do I feel most free?' If I am blessed with the opportunity to do good work, studio or indie, most of the time it has to do with the interaction with the director, to try to help the director toward the vision he always had. I have to do more than expected from the character I'm trying to play.