Why Reese Witherspoon Fell for Jake Gyllenhaal

"She just kind of developed this little crush over time," a pal tells PEOPLE

After her painful split from Ryan Phillippe last year, Reese Witherspoon didn’t see a relationship coming – but her nascent romance with Jake Gyllenhaal is the real thing, friends say.

At first they seemed like an unlikely match: Gyllenhaal, her costar in the upcoming CIA thriller Rendition, was already an acquaintance – he was an old workout buddy of Phillippe – and they didn’t have much screen time together while filming for eight weeks in Morocco.

But during a reshoot in L.A., “Jake went and reintroduced himself to Reese,” a source close to both stars tells PEOPLE in its new issue.

And from there, what a friend of Witherspoon’s calls “their little flirtation” just took its course. “Things slowly progressed, but it was never something she thought would happen from the start. She just kind of developed this little crush over time.”

One that is looking a lot like a real romance – even when the duo are apart. While Witherspoon, 31, spent Easter Sunday with daughter Ava, 7, and son Deacon, 3, at her Episcopal church in Beverly Hills, Gyllenhaal, 26, strolled around Venice, Calif., with his parents. According to a source close to both him and Witherspoon, familial devotion is a big part of their connection: “Jake finds it attractive that she’s such a great mom. He really loves kids and wants a family.”

Indeed, the pair would seem to be a perfect match: Both enjoy good books, killer workouts – and Indian takeout. At dinner at L.A’s Il Sole restaurant on March 23, says a witness, “there was definitely some canoodling going on!” They also recently shared a quiet dinner at La Ripaille, near Gyllenhaal’s apartment in New York City.

Still, their mutual determination to protect their privacy may be their strongest bond. Gyllenhaal’s romance with Kirsten Dunst ended a year ago in large part because, says a longtime friend of the actor’s, “Kirsten wanted to go out and have fun and he wanted to stay in, watch a movie and cook dinner. … He’s very into his work, health and family. Reese is perfect for him.”

For a woman whose idea of a party is “to stay home with friends,” the feeling is mutual, says Witherspoon’s friend. “She was happy to meet someone in this town who shared those priorities.” Gyllenhaal’s pal agrees: “They’re super together – this thing is for real.”

For more on Reese and Jake’s romance, check out the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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