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Jake Gyllenhaal takes to the ring in ‘Southpaw’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Jake Gyllenhaal knew very little about boxing when he signed on for the movie “Southpaw.” Luckily, he had a strong motivation that helped bring him up to speed.

“Mostly I was driven by fear. The fear that I would look like a fool and my inability to accept that,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles.

“Learning any skill at a certain level, particularly to look like you know what you’re doing, is intimidating,” Gyllenhaal says. “I was pretty nervous every day thinking about that first day of shooting, but that ended up being my drive and my motivation.”

Fear apparently works. Gyllenhaal trained twice a day for five months, dropping 15 pounds in the process and chiseling himself into incredible shape.

In the film, which hits theaters Friday, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the undefeated light heavyweight champion, who is a beast in the ring, famous for being able to take punishment. He’s riding on top of the world until his wife (Rachel McAdams) dies in an altercation, at which point his life plunges downward and he loses everything, including his young daughter (Oona Laurence).

It is the first feature film written by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter and is directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”). Gyllenhaal says he was drawn to the underlying story of personal redemption rather than the idea of a sports movie.

“I think winning a fight is winning a fight; triumphing in your life and relationships is what it’s all about, and I think that’s really what the movie is about,” he says.

Billy Hope is not left-handed, but Gyllenhaal says the film’s title isn’t really about that.

“It’s more about the challenges that life hands you and that you have to switch up and know your technique and the way you approach life,” he says. “Because we ultimately don’t have a say — but we do have a say in how we approach it and how we respond to it.”

It may be about more than sports, but Gyllenhaal spends a lot of time bleeding in the ring. And over the course of shooting some punches inevitably connected.

“I got hit, we hit each other,” he admits.

“We spent about two weeks pre-shooting in pre-production with fighters going over the choreography. It was basically like memorizing lines, just memorizing lines with your body,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s like dance in a way.

“And then, as we got that stuff down, we would improv. We would talk to each other, and as we were moving around the ring I would say I’m going to throw two jabs with the left hand and then let’s pop each other by mistake two right hands at the same time,” he says.

As he remembers the action, Gyllenhaal starts speaking in the cadence of a ringside announcer.

“OK, I’m going to block the first jab, get hit by the second one, now I’m going to slip that right hand, OK, let’s go. And then we would do that and say all right let’s try it again, OK, get a little closer, get a little closer, get a little closer, and after a while you get a rhythm of the thing and you move on. Take me in the corner and just wale, just wale on my sides, then I’ll come out and push you off, we’ll tie up,” he says.

He pauses.

“So it’s just a lot of communication after a while,” Gyllenhaal says. “And occasionally you get the communication wrong and you get hit, you know?”

Now 34, Gyllenhaal has been on a roll in recent years. After breaking big with “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, he ran through a mix of commercial blockbusters and prestige pics for a while; lately he’s been tackling gritty dramas such as “End of Watch,” “Prisoners” and last year’s Oscar-nominated “Nightcrawler.”

“My job is a blessing, I love it. As I get older I just want to be able to do it for longer. I’ve sort of emphasized the past few years the craft of it. I get a lot of joy out of being on stage and in rehearsal, the preparation — more so than all the other stuff,” he says. “All that other stuff is cool, but I think I’ve changed directions a bit.”

Obviously he doesn’t mind working hard. And a bit of fear may factor in here too.

“There’s always somebody more talented than you, there’s always somebody who will fight harder, there’s always someone who’ll spend more hours researching, there’s always someone like that,” he says.

“I try not to take for granted the opportunities I’m given. I try and give everything to what I am given,” Gyllenhaal says of his success. “I think a lot of it has to do with luck, but you’ve got to work hard too.”

TLong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘Southpaw’

Opens Friday

Rated R for language throughout, and some violence

Running time: 123 minutes