It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.


Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest role plunges him into the world of terrorism, torture and difficult choices – and it suits him down to the ground. He talks to Nigel Farndale about his life in hollywood and the joy of ‘celebrity godparents’

He may have a large head, but at least it is a film actor’s large head, one that casting directors and cameramen favour. The ‘he’ I refer to is Jake Gyllenhaal, pronounced ‘Jill-en-hall’. The favouritism is to do with the body-to-head ratio: think Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman; big heads, small and compact bodies. True, at 6ft 2in, Gyllenhaal is taller than the average film star, but tall actors can have that golden ratio, too. Look at Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant.

Anyway, I mention this because I am on a low and squashy sofa, while Gyllenhaal is managing to sprawl, somehow, on a high and upright chair. The man is almost horizontal, with his neck disappearing into his shoulders and his long legs foreshortened in front of him, in front of me. From this viewpoint, I can appreciate that his body-to-head ratio is golden indeed.

He is golden in another respect. At 26 he has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. As he himself jokes, he has gone in a short space of time from having directors say, ‘Who is Jake Gyllenhaal?’ to ‘Get me Jake Gyllenhaal’ to ‘Get me someone who looks like Jake Gyllenhaal.’

In the past eight years he has starred in 14 films, but the one that put him on the radar was the strange and possibly deep, possibly meaningless Donnie Darko in 2001. Three years later he had a more conventional box office hit with The Day After Tomorrow, about the apocalyptic effects of global warming. But it is on the three films he made in 2005 that his reputation rests: Proof, about a maths genius played by Gwyneth Paltrow; Jarhead, Sam Mendes’s film about marines kicking their heels while waiting for the first Gulf war to start; and Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s lyrical epic about the relationship between two gay cowboys. Gyllenhaal received an Oscar nomination for that one. Gravity disguised as lightness of manner: that is what critics have identified as the secret of his mesmerising screen presence. Like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, they say, he knows how to emote without words.

In person his manner seems easy, his voice gentle with dark undercurrents. Gyllenhaal’s eyes are blue, and big like a cow’s, his nose is solid-looking and he has a full and sculpted mouth which turns up at the corners. He is talking about how, despite being born there, he is not really a Hollywood person. ‘I just don’t really buy it. But I do buy London, because there is an appreciation of growth here.’

Having no idea what he means by the phrase ‘appreciation of growth’, and suspecting he doesn’t either – he is bright and articulate, was educated at Columbia University indeed, but he does occasionally slip into actor-speak – I ask him about another growth, the one on his face. ‘This?’ he says stroking a neatly clipped Edwardian beard that is dark auburn in colour and at odds with the sloppy, crewneck jumper and T-shirt ensemble he is wearing. ‘I grew it for The Brothers, a Jim Sheridan film.’

Oh, I thought it might be to play the president of Iran.

‘You saw that?’ he says with a laugh. ‘Yeah, right, supposedly he looks like me.’ He refers to his cameo in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch: it was a rap song called I Ran. One of the lyrics was about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being like ‘a hairy Jake Gyllenhaal.’

He still gets recognised, even with the beard. ‘There is a certain type of fan who will recognise you no matter what disguise you wear. But, hey, I have a grey spot right here.’ He points to his beard.

‘Maybe when I’ve got grey all over no one will recognise me. My sister has a grey spot there,’ he points to his head. ‘Maybe it’s something genetic.’

His sister is the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who made her name in Secretary. Must have been weird for him to watch that one, I say, especially the erotically charged scenes in which his sister is stripped and spanked by her boss. ‘Well it wasn’t necessarily erotic for me,’ he says.

I compliment him on his use of the word ‘necessarily’. ‘Thank you. It’s funny, when she was first going for auditions everyone was telling her she wasn’t sexy, not sexual. I remember her buying some skimpy cut-off dress for one audition and it just wasn’t her. Now she is treated as a sex object. Go figure.’

His sister appeared with him in Donnie Darko; are they competitive? ‘I think I was for a time – there was some sibling rivalry – but then we both realised it was a bit dumb. We grew out of it.’

He can afford to be magnanimous because his is the career that has gone through the roof. His parents are also in the film industry – his father is a director, his mother a scriptwriter (she was Oscar nominated for Running on Empty) – but, successful though they are, he has left them behind, too. Meal times at home must be a nightmare. ‘I do get taken down a lot at home. Put in my place. I’m the little brother.’

Thanks to this background, though, he says he is fluent in the language of film, like someone growing up in France is fluent in French. Also he grew up watching his parents go through periods where they were getting awards and enjoying success and then, bang, one bad film and a strange kind of gloom would descend on the household.

His new film won’t be that ‘one bad one’ for him. Rendition is not only thought-provoking and compelling; it also has an ingenious narrative twist which I won’t spoil for you, and which I am not sure I can explain anyway (it is to do with a time shift). Gyllenhaal plays a CIA agent who has to oversee the interrogation and torture of a Muslim terrorist suspect – not in America but in the unnamed country to which the suspect has been flown in what is euphemistically known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. The film explores the moral ambiguities of this policy.

‘You may be torturing an innocent man,’ Gyllenhaal says. ‘On the other hand you may be torturing a guilty man and the information you elicit from him could save the lives of 5,000 innocent civilians.

‘That is the moral dilemma faced by my character in the film. That said, I think for CIA people in those circumstances, moral imperatives do not come into play. They leave that for the philosophers. All they care about is what is working and what isn’t working. Practicality wins over morality. Extraordinary rendition is intended to protect. Sadly, as a policy, it has been over-used and misused.’

Considering what happened to the country singers the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out about the Iraq war, is he worried he is going to get hate-mail accusing him of being treasonous and unpatriotic? ‘I have gotten the usual accusations that this is lefty propaganda. In my opinion I feel like there is not much despargy, dispari, sorry?…’


‘Thank you. That’s going to look good in print: “The guy can’t even say disparity.” I flew in yesterday and my tongue is still on American time. I can see that in America people see this huge disparity between Left and Right, but actually they are more alike than different. If you criticise extraordinary rendition, or Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib, that doesn’t make you a lefty, that makes you a humanitarian.’

Does he feel ashamed to be an American? ‘Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? There is a lot of fear in America at the moment and some of it is justified. I wouldn’t want to lay it all on one political leader.’

Spoken like a politician, or at least a politically engaged Hollywood actor who campaigned for the Democrats in the 2004 American election, appeared in ‘Rock the Vote’ advertising and is talked about as the next George Clooney, or God forbid, Sean Penn.

It’s not unheard of for an actor to become a politician in America, I note: is that a career move he has considered? ‘I think it is a sad time when actors become politicians and politicians become actors, but actually the two roles do overlap. I don’t want to run for office, though I am an active member of the Civil Liberties Union. I believe in the First Amendment. I believe the right to free speech is inalienable and that we put that freedom in jeopardy when we throw out due process with rendition. Personally, I would say extraordinary rendition is not morally ambiguous. It is wrong.’

I can see the headlines now, I say. ‘Hollywood liberal thinks torture is wrong shock!’ He has the good grace to laugh. ‘You can say I’m in favour of it if you like. That might be quite funny. Say I tried to torture you during the interview. Say Jake was torturing me with his boring comments.’

He adds that he knows how annoying it can be when actors start lecturing people about politics. ‘I don’t think audiences need to know my political beliefs to appreciate this film. Nor do they need to know who I am dating. It’s not important.’

I haven’t asked who he is dating, but since he raised the subject, he did make some intriguingly ambiguous comments about his sexual orientation at the time Brokeback Mountain came out. A broad grin spreads across his face and he covers his head with his hands. ‘I know, I know.’ He is single at the moment. For several years he had an on-off affair with Kirsten Dunst. And yet?…

I quote something he said about homosexuality: ‘I don’t think I’d be afraid of it if it happened.’ What on earth did he mean by that? ‘Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I live in a different world. What I was trying to say was why leave out possibilities in my life? It wasn’t meant to be provocative.’

So let’s get it on the record: is he saying he is open to persuasion? ‘No, I am not open to persuasion myself, but the idea of homosexuality is acceptable to me. I grew up in a city where half the people I know are gay. Both of my godfathers are gay.’

Paul Newman is gay! He laughs again. ‘No, he’s my celebrity godfather.’ What’s a celebrity godfather? ‘That’s the godfather that the media give you. He’s a close friend of my family. He taught me to drive. I have literal godfathers and celebrity godfathers.’

I see. And Jamie Lee Curtis, is she a celebrity godmother or a literal godmother? ‘Both. That’s why it is confusing growing up in Hollywood.’

OK, having established that he is not bisexual, was he being quite calculating when he allowed people to think he was? ‘It was meant as a way of saying it was important for Heath [Ledger, his co-star in Brokeback Mountain] and I to have the movie exist as the movie, but also to have people know it was two straight actors playing those parts.’

I think I follow. The chemistry and tension wouldn’t have worked as well if two gay actors had been playing those roles, and because they were both straight it made their sexual awkwardness more convincing, more like it might be for two cowboys. ‘Exactly. Here are these two lonely people who find themselves through love. Love has no bounds and these two people found a connection in this massive, lonely landscape of Wyoming.’

Presumably he got nasty letters from homophobes.

‘Determining what was nasty and what was nice was always going to be hard for me with that movie. But yes, I got an insight into homophobia that I wouldn’t normally have encountered.’

Given that he first tasted fame as an 11-year-old when he played Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers, how come he didn’t go off the rails in his teens like other child stars, Macaulay Culkin, say, or Drew Barrymore? ‘My parents kept my feet on the ground. They had me turn down roles so that I could concentrate on school work.’

They also made him spend the day of his bar mitzvah volunteering at a homeless shelter so that he would appreciate how privileged he was. And yet he feels he did have to struggle to get his parents’ attention, because they were so immersed in their work. One of the reasons he wanted to act, he says, was to command their interest and ‘be a part of their world’.

Something about Gyllenhaal’s intense yet dreamy and deadpan stare suits him to playing mentally disturbed characters, such as Donnie Darko. And according to Robert Downey Jr, who co-starred with him in the serial killer film Zodiac earlier this year, ‘he’s nice all right, but he’s also wet, dark and wild’.

That darker side emerged during the filming of Jarhead. A playful fight with his co-star Brian Geraghty suddenly became serious. ‘Something happened and I just started hitting Brian,’ he said at the time. On another occasion he was filming a scene in which he was to hold down a fellow actor and throttle him. The choking actor had to hit Gyllenhaal in the face to make him let go. What’s with this aggression? ‘Yeah there is that side. That is a part of me. Part of me would like to know what I would be like in battle. Have my courage tested. Would I be an altruist or a coward? Would I run away or engage? The engaging is what I would want of myself.’

So he feels frustrated? ‘No, I would just love to test myself. I loved the marines. I shaved my head for Jarhead and both my parents were, like, F—! I came back from the boot camp and they were terrified.’

His aggression in that film, he adds, was more about a search for authenticity. ‘I like the process of digging for that truth. I try to pay attention to my emotions during the day, bring them to my work. I have sometimes read in a script that my character cries, but not everyone cries when they are unhappy. That’s not how people always grieve.’

When he experiences genuine emotions in his own life – anger, grief, love – do they feel less authentic because he has had to fake them in films? ‘Hmm. Have I devalued the currency? I tell you, when I fall in love in real life it has felt nothing like I have acted it in the movies.’

Recalling the rumours about him and Reese Witherspoon, his co-star in Rendition, I say: just don’t fall in love with your co-star on screen, eh? ‘Yeah, well?…’ He laughs. ‘I haven’t had many opportunities.’

He must find it difficult persuading women to go to bed with him. ‘I don’t think of myself as good-looking. Not at all. When I was a kid I had these huge glasses. I once went to a fancy dress as a Crest toothpaste tube with these huge glasses stuck on. That is how I see myself most of the time. A Crest toothpaste tube with bad eyesight.’

And on that surreal note, it is time to bid the wet, dark and wild Jake Gyllenhaal goodbye. ‘Be nice to me,’ he says with a grin as he stands up and stretches. ‘Actually, I don’t know why I said that. You can write whatever you like, just spell my name right.’