Jake Gyllenhaal in <I>End of Watch</i>
Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch
© Scott Garfield
Jake Gyllenhaal has always been more than just a "pretty boy" actor – but at no time is that more evident than right now. He is making his New York stage debut as Terry, an unemployed, unhappy Englishman, in The Roundabout Theatre's Company's Off-Broadway production of Nick Payne's If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet and plays a very realistic beat cop who ends up over his head in the gritty new film End of Watch, which opens on Friday, September 21.

TheaterMania recently talked to Gyllenhaal about preparing for the movie, why he got beaten up every day, and why he thinks cops make the best acting teachers.

THEATERMANIA: How intense was the preparation for this role?

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: We spent five months on the streets of LA with the LAPD and the Sherriff's Department, two to three nights a week from 4pm to 5am. So when it came time to make the movie it felt like nothing. We were all so prepared that making a movie felt kind of absurd compared to the experience we had on the streets of South LA with the police officers who do this every day of their lives. So in a way it was a five-month recruitment process.

TM: How scary was it to be out there on the streets every night?

JG: On my very first "ride along" someone was murdered. I had no idea what I'd encounter. It was a strange shift. You don't get a call all night, then at 3:30am you get a shooting and all of a sudden you have to deal with that and keep your mind in check. Or the call could be totally innocuous and then turn into something dangerous. It was scary and thrilling and life-affirming and changed my perspective on my life and my work.

TM: How has that perspective changed?

JG: I was going in and observing every single night and often seeing some horrible things and saying "What do I take away from this? How do I translate this into what I do?" I hope that from now on every role I play involves that type of research, because it feeds my life and hopefully makes it entertaining for an audience. Immersing myself in a real world is what makes the craft of acting so much fun. I love what I do because of the reality that I can get into.

TM: How did you physically train for the part?

JG: Every morning we'd go to a Dojo and Michael Pena (my costar) and I would fight these twin 14-year-old kids. And I didn't even have a fight scene in the movie! Our director wanted me to get into that attitude of what it was like to get into a fight. I was constantly sore and in pain. They hit me in the face and all over my body all the time. For five months I had the crap beat out of me, so the shooting of the movie was pretty easy!

TM: How did the police officers feel about having actors observing them?

JG: Three of my closest friends are now police officers. It took awhile to develop that trust. I wanted to get it right and I think people can sense that, especially a cop. Cops are the best studiers of human behavior that I've ever met. Better than the best actor I've ever seen. That's their job. It's their life on the line if they don't get it right. If it's not truthful, they know it. From the beginning, they knew we wanted to tell their story honestly, and I think we did.