He may be preoccupied with an extraterrestrial crisis in his latest blockbuster Life, but space suits aside, Jake Gyllenhaal tells Gemma Dunn he doesn’t fear the unknown

Jake Gyllenhaal has driven his body to the limit in the name of research. Take, for instance, Everest, the 2015 epic for which he spent hours in altitude simulators before filming at the mountain's treacherous Base Camp for three months. Sport drama Southpaw saw him train like a fighter (six intense months in the gym), while he dropped 30lbs and hitched rides with on-duty paparazzi for 2014's Nightcrawler.

But in a change of pace, the shape-shifting actor insists the only prerequisite for his latest venture was to simply enjoy himself.

"A lot of the commitment I've made to characters or backstory, the history or the amount of months or time I put into preparation, I didn't really do for this film," says the Californian of his role in Daniel Espinosa's space movie, Life. I decided I wanted to see what it was like to have pure fun, you know? This is a fun movie - it's about something scary, but it's really all about fun," insists the 36-year-old, who received a Bafta nomination earlier this year for this role in Tom Ford's neo-noir thriller Nocturnal Animals.

But be warned if you're planning on watching it on the big screen - there are a lot less laughs than toe-curling scares.

The sci-fi thriller follows a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station, whose mission to discover more about a single-cell organism on Mars turns terrifying when they realise the rapidly evolving life form could have been responsible for causing extinction on the planet, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

"I think Daniel Espinosa wanted to create a world that was suffocating," says Gyllenhaal, of the cramped, zero-gravity setting. "In other movies, you can separate yourself from the reality of what you're seeing. Daniel wanted to create an environment where everything was truly alive - not only feeling that from the creature itself, but also truly alive emotionally."

Joined by a stellar cast, including Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, Gyllenhaal - who stars as Dr David Jordan - admits to being enthralled by the larger ideas behind each character.

"It was a beautifully paced, terrifying script," declares the A-lister. "It's a fun idea - you think you know where it's going, and then it evolves into something where you really, really don't. The life form is literal, but it's also an incredible metaphor for what can happen. Curiosity is one of the most important human traits, but I think searching too far can be full of hubris. In that way, the life form is a repercussion for that kind of curiosity."

Today, Gyllenhaal - sporting a black tee, blazer and jeans combo - is on a break from an exclusive 10-week run on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George. He may be missing his Life sidekick Reynolds (the Deadpool star was prevented from travelling on the day of the interview due to the New York snowstorm) but he's on fine form, open and engaging, though, as ever, careful not to give too much away.

His often abstract answers are likely a product of his time spent studying Buddhism at Columbia University. But while Gyllenhaal's self-reflection is profuse throughout our chat, it's never self-assuming. "I believe deeply in exploration and curiosity," he continues, his expression masked by an impressively groomed beard. "I think it's essential to living a real life and being alive to be curious."

On that note, would he fancy testing out his new-found astronaut skills aboard one of Richard Branson's future Virgin Galactic flights? "Erm, no!" he retorts, breaking into a smile. "I'm more interested in the internal journey than the external one."

Does the very idea of life beyond our planet terrify him, then? "The idea of terror or paranoia, just generally, is always something that's universal," reasons the actor, who co-starred with his older sister Maggie in 2001 cult psychological thriller, Donnie Darko. "I don't know if I have the same paranoia about some sort of creature from another planet - I'm a little bit more terrified about the things that are happening on earth right now, that somehow some sort of alien creature has come into play in America, but no, that's not something that terrifies me - though in this movie it does."

The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, it's easy to assume Gyllenhaal's cinematic future was written in the stars. He made his screen debut when he was just 11, as Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers. But for him, it's all about constant change.

"My desire is to be able to see that I'm constantly changing and interested in different things," says Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Jack Twist opposite the late Heath Ledger in the landmark 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain. "The choices of project I want to be involved in, that I have the opportunity to be involved in, change along with it."

Next up, he can next be seen in Okja, a Netflix original sci-fi fantasy movie directed by Bong Joon-ho; Stronger, a tribute to the heroic journey of Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman; and drama Wildlife, opposite Carey Mulligan and directed by Paul Dano. He's also busy with his new production company, Nine Stories.

So what else does the future hold for the man who has it all to play for? "I don't have a desire," Gyllenhaal replies. "A lot of people have desires to tell one story, or they've always wanted to do or this and that, and that's never really been me. I believe in life that target-drives forth the arrow."

Life opens in cinemas on Friday, March 24