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“Many of the movies I’ve loved the most have had similar themes about rules being broken and bent. I love that.”

About a third of the way into The Double, the novel by José Saramago upon which Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, Enemy, is very loosely based, the Portuguese author warily advises, “There are times when it is best to be content with what one has, so as to not lose everything.”

While it may be practical guidance for most of life, it’s also the kind of overly cautious reasoning that governs far too many Hollywood decisions: the nothing-ventured, nothing-gained logic that can transform a promising young actor into a blockbuster drone.

Gyllenhaal says he intentionally didn’t read Saramago’s book so that he and his fellow Enemy collaborators, most notably French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, were free to fashion a sexual thriller about identity that was unshackled by its source material. But even if he had read the novelist’s counsel in The Double, it’s obvious Gyllenhaal has no intention of heeding it.

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Having starred in the big-budget studio spectacles The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Gyllenhaal is going back to his provocative indie-roots, when he hitched himself to singular projects, like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain, driven by distinctive directors like Ang Lee, David Fincher and Sam Mendes. By revisiting his professional beginnings, the 33-year-old has collected some of his best notices in years.

“It’s taken me a long time in my career to realize that you can’t be good at everything. You sometimes have to give something up. There are limits,” Gyllenhaal says. In a few weeks he will head to the Dolomites, where he will try to scale the world’s tallest mountain in Everest, a tragic tale of a particularly disastrous summit attempt. “I do care about the stories people want to tell. But then I want to get back to my honest self for the directors I work with.”

Few actors as established as Gyllenhaal would have agreed to star in two movies, consecutively no less, for Denis Villeneuve, who had not yet directed an English-language feature. After shooting Enemy, Gyllenhaal played opposite Hugh Jackman in Villeneuve’s crime drama Prisoners, which was released theatrically first, late last year.

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The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, and brother of actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake has been acting since the early 1990s. But it was in 2001’s Donnie Darko, in which he played a teenager tormented by disturbing thoughts, that he separated himself from his acting brethren. The performance was mesmerizing in its no-safety-net audacity, and in just a few years Gyllenhaal landed lead roles as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, a Desert Storm soldier in Jarhead, and as a sleuthing editorial cartoonist in Zodiac.

The movies may have represented diverse genres, but they were noticeably united by a common theme: Gyllenhaal’s characters were undaunted, willing to risk it all for what they believed in. The actor, in retrospect, now sees the choices in a parallel light: when he went all-in for a role, the payoff was immeasurable. He also recognizes more clearly that every professional choice matters, as there’s no rewind for poor decisions. “The movie business is largely just stuffing actors in this place, and this place and this place,” Gyllenhaal says. “But it’s time in your life that you can’t have back.”

Yet it wasn’t until he met Villeneuve that Gyllenhaal truly changed course and resumed being an actor rather than a celebrity. Not long after the pricey Prince of Persia fizzled in 2010, Gyllenhaal recommenced working in the low-budget realm where story and vision trump superheroes and fast food tie-ins. Subsequent to filming the critically acclaimed police drama End of Watch, Gyllenhaal met with Villeneuve, who previously had written and directed the Middle Eastern drama Incendies, which was short-listed for the foreign-language Oscar.

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Working with screenwriter Javier Gullón, Villeneuve was busy adapting Saramago’s novel into Enemy, and wasn’t looking for an actor for hire but a full creative partner: the performer wouldn’t just be trying on a suit, but helping design it, figuring out what story they were going to tell, and how they would tell it.

“Denis was looking for like minds who understood the idea and were fascinated by it,” Gyllenhaal says. Even though Gyllenhaal finds research and preparation irresistible — he spent months trailing real policemen to prepare for playing a cop in End of Watch, and lost some 20 pounds to play a spiritually starving crime journalist in Nightcrawler — he wanted to be a blank slate for Enemy.

“It was actually really important for me not to read the book at the time because I feared having an obligation to the book rather than to the discovery we were all undertaking,” he says. “Many of the movies I’ve loved the most have had similar processes about rules being broken and bent. I love that.”

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“It’s taken me a long time in my career to realize that you can’t be good at everything. You sometimes have to give something up.”

The idea of both the book and movie is dramatically simple and existentially profound: a history teacher discovers that he has a perfect (down to the smallest scars) doppelgänger wholly unrelated by birth who happens to be an actor. While The Double is more interested in the broader concept of a secret twin, Enemy aims to explore deeper questions of identity, and how one mirror image can contaminate the other man’s life, notably in his personal and sexual relationships.

For any actor, the chance to play two versions of yourself in the same film would be too good to pass up. Gyllenhaal saw something more meaningful in the conceit. “I was at a point in my life where I was struggling with the idea of reconciling parts of yourself — that we can exist just as one person. Perceptions of who we are are never deadly accurate. I think we all come across as different people to different people in our lives.”

The process yielded a movie that is indisputably creepy but also profound, and requires a close viewing in order to discern which double Gyllenhaal is playing at certain moments (it’s not necessarily the one you think). What audi- ences take away from the film remains to be determined, but there’s no question the experience of making Enemy changed Gyllenhaal as an actor. He agreed to star in Villeneuve’s follow up movie, Prisoners, before he had even seen the final cut.

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“It was just a shot in the dark — it was all about the relationship I had with Denis. For me, that’s what movies are all about,” he says. “Acting is a very strange job, as well as an amazing one, because it requires great trust. Your relationship with a director is very sacred, a sensitive space. I just can’t do it with everyone. And that’s what I have discovered about myself.

“It’s all about a level of commitment — how far will you go for a director you believe in? How far will you go for a story you believe in? I’ve always worked as hard as I can on everything I’ve done. But now I feel like I’m listening to myself and realizing that we have a finite amount of time, and how you spend it is really important.”