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How'd they do that? Star's Prince of Persia acrobatics

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

The Prince of Persia video-game series distinguished itself with the superhuman gymnastics of its hero, who ran along walls and jumped over buildings like a Middle Eastern Super Mario.

To translate those digital acrobatics into a live-action movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the filmmakers trained star Jake Gyllenhaal in parkour, the French-originated art of free running, previously seen in such films as Casino Royale and District 13.

"It was the first set of sort of training that I started to do," Gyllenhaal said in an online session from London last week. "First I was working with gymnasts, starting to work on landings and things like that while I was doing regular cardiovascular training and other things for the role. I didn't really start doing the serious parkour stuff until we got to Morocco and we started choreographing the scenes on top of casbahs. I think the hardest part of doing it is really the focus and sort of being present and training your mind to not worry about whether you're going to make the landing but just focusing on being present in the moment."

Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan, an acrobatic warrior who must protect a mystical dagger. His wardrobe was designed to help him execute parkour stunts while still resembling a historically accurate outfit.

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"I would get suited up every morning and take 40 minutes to put on my costume," Gyllenhaal said. "I had these crazy intense boots that I wore that were like all parkour style so that I could do the stunts. I think you can see it on the poster a little bit, I had all these different things that were attached to my costume, and it took a long time. So it was kind of like getting prepared for some big sporting event."

Parkour might get Gyllenhaal the most attention for its dazzling physical display, but it was one of many things the actor had to learn for the movie. "It required a lot of technical work that I usually do in movies," he said. "This was learning how to do the rudimentary aspects of parkour, learning how to swordfight, which involves learning martial arts and having martial-arts training and learning choreography, really complicated choreography, having two swords that I use, learning how to horseback ride proficiently in a way that I could do stunts [and] learning a British accent."

Jordan Mechner created the original Prince of Persia video game in 1989. When he designed the side-scroller for Apple II, parkour hadn't even been invented yet. Now the martial art lets actors re-create the moves Mechner imagined on early computer screens.

"Having spent 20 years working with the games and trying to create this kind of running, jumping parkour action, I saw a sequence cut together of Jake as Prince Dastan fleeing over the rooftops of the city and being chased by guards shooting arrows at him," Mechner said in a separate interview. "That just brought a smile to my face, because that was the kind of action that I'd imagined creating the games. Yet it was fully realized on the screen, it's just so visceral, so vivid, so much more."

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opens May 28.

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