Things could’ve been very different for Jake Gyllenhaal. In 2003, the 31-year-old star was rumored to be taking over for Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man 2,” and was again up for a superhero role in 2005, as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. In the end, those two things never came to fruition, as the actor instead went on to star as a muscled-out U.S. marine in Sam Mendes’s “Jarhead,” a far cry from the disturbed, quiet-type he had been known to play in the past.

Now, seven years later, Gyllenhaal has completely shed whatever identity moviegoers once associated him with by starring in a mix of challenging roles. The latest: LAPD officer Brian Taylor in director David Ayers’s “End of Watch,” a gritty found-footage police movie about two cops who are marked for death by the Mexican cartel.

While promoting his film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Gyllenhaal spoke with Moviefone about the intense training he went through for the role, missing out on two enormous superhero francises and his 2007 David Fincher movie, “Zodiac.”

I feel like we’ve never seen a cop movie from this perspective before — that first person point-of-view.
I think the point of the movie was where the audience can go on a ride-along with two cops, where you got to know them as human beings and really get inside what it feels like to be a police officer. That’s what I think makes it original. And the relationship and the heart between these two guys is everything.

Were you the one holding the camera during the point-of-view scenes?
Yeah, I shot every day.

And I assume you went on police ride-alongs to prepare for this?
We went on ride-alongs for five months, two to three times a week with the LAPD and sheriff’s department and Inglewood PD. We would work with them from about 4:00 p.m. to about four or five in the morning. Then we did tactical training about two or three times a week with live ammunition and training exercises, then fight training almost every morning with [director] Dave Ayers’s best friend, who has a dojo, getting the crap beat out of us by 14 to 20-year-old kids. That coupled with rehearsing on our time off and just spending time with [co-star] Mike [Pena] out of work and getting to know each other.

How do the ride-alongs work? Being the LAPD, do they do these things pretty frequently?
No [laughs]. When I hear an actor say they went on a ride-along to do research for a part, it probably means that they went two or three times. Michael and I went over 40, maybe 50 times. We changed up partners. We kept circling around and coming back to different ones, four or five sets over that period of time. Two guys from that experience are some of my closest friends now. This is unlike anything that any actor I’ve heard in preparation to play a role like that has done. But I don’t know, I could be wrong.

Are these cops skeptical when you first show up? Like, “Oh here’s this big-shot actor trying to play a cop.”
Of course, of course. But also, David Ayers has an inside in a way many people don’t. I am sure there are cops that the studios can call up, but David Ayers is not friends with those cops. David Ayers is friends with a whole other set and that set is going to show you what is really going on, and they did. They were, because of David, more open initially, but it took awhile for us to really make a relationship where we could both trust each other.

I feel like when “Jarhead” came out in 2005, people were saying that you were “going against type.” But after that and “Brothers” and now this, do you find that you’re getting these types of roles more frequently now?
I am interested in anything that has a heart to it. To me, it’s about variation always. That’s what turns me on. I don’t know if I am looking for anything specific, I am looking to work with great artists — people who are committed and disciplined and ready to put in hard work, because that’s what I am ready to do. Inevitably, after you do one kind of movie, everybody starts thinking you should play this kind of role, the role you played in the last one. For such a creative environment, there’s not a whole lot of creativity in that.

It seems sort of silly too, because isn’t that the point of acting? Having the ability to play different types of roles?
Well it should be, but I don’t know if the craft is what’s important to the business, you know [laughs]? I think there are other elements. I just think it’s about the community and the family you make when you make the movie, and the collaboration and being able to support each other and cheer each other on and have no ego about it. And sometimes that’s rare to find.

How close were you to being cast as Spider-Man and Batman?
My whole thing with that is, I think that in passing, once actors get roles it’s their role. To talk about it in any other context is strange. Though I totally understand the interest. It feels like when you talk about a movie that somebody else has done and it’s their role and it’s the character that they created, then you’re glomming on to the character without having any justification or any legitimacy to doing that. Do you know what I mean? It’s theirs. I mean it’s fascinating, particularly for fans of those movies, but I was never apart of those movies, so it’s hard for me to talk about them.

Well let’s talk about a movie you were in: “Zodiac,” which I feel like is a bit of a forgotten movie in the David Fincher canon.
You’d be surprised. I find a lot of [people] widely admired that movie — a lot of filmmakers and students. In my experience, [getting credit] with some of the more interesting film that I’ve made and that I’m the most proud of, I think we all live in a world of immediate gratification, and it’s understandable, because I check my phone every five minutes as I am sure many people do too, and I think that translates out into the world of movies and in terms of how people respond to them. Even a movie like “Donnie Darko” or “Zodiac,” people find these movies and you’d be surprised how often I hear about “Zodiac” in my own life. But it’s a complicated movie. It doesn’t resolve itself like the way other Fincher’s movies do, and I think that was his dream and he succeeded in it, and that’s a success to me.

You mentioned the films you’re most proud. Which ones are those?
It’s funny, I see movies as representations of a period of time in my life — who I was, who I wasn’t — so it’s hard to pick a favorite or ones that are favorites because they were these experiences that have been in my life since I was 15 years old. There are times that I’ve had that have been amazing, like when I made “Jarhead,” it was an incredible experience. It was such an honor to be working with that caliber of director and to be surrounded by those types of people. But I am blessed to say that about a number of movies that I’ve been involved in. I look around my surroundings when I make a movie and I go Wow, how did I land up here with all these people?

Earlier on Moviefone:

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