An Interview with Jim Sturgess
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Jim Sturgess Bets on "21" to Transform His Acting Career
by Brad Balfour
Based on Ben Mezrich's non-fiction book "Bringing Down the House," about MIT master math student Jeff Ma and his blackjack team, "21" details the story of Ben Campbell and his card-counting crew that ravages Las Vegas casinos for little over a year (making oodles of bucks along the way). Under the guidance of their conniving, beguiling professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), the five-student team secretly hits the casino winning blackjack games with their card-counting skills while skirting the edge of the law and their prime adversary, suspicious loss prevention consultant Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who hunts them down through the casino's security cameras.
Starring the 27-year-old Englishman Jim Sturgess—he had previously played Jude in the vibrant musical drama, "Across the Universe" and was in the fine costume drama "The Other Boleyn Girl"—the film focuses on how he harnesses his math and memory skills and evolves from a shy, insecure genius (from the working-class side of Boston) into an arrogant, greedy king of the casinos.
As directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "Monster-in-Law"), Ben's journey involves a brief romance with his gorgeous team member Jill (Kate Bosworth), wrestling with his professor, a senior MIT math professor, for control of the team, evading a beating from Fishburne, and ultimately returning to his original goal of paying for his schooling in Harvard Medical College.
Q: Did you feel any apprehension in doing this film? After all, it is about gambling.
JS: I was more excited than apprehensive. It was my first experience being in a glossy Hollywood movie, so I was excited to see what that was all about. I was excited to work with Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, two actors that I'd seen. I was excited to work with Kate [Bosworth]. There wasn't any apprehension. I was just desperate to get out there and make the film.
Q: Any apprehension in doing the sex scene with your co-star, Kate Bosworth?
JS: There's always some apprehension about doing a sex scene. But luckily, by that time me and Kate became really good friends so it was laidback. We saw it for how silly it really was and made light of it.
Q: Did you get a chance to gamble while in Las Vegas?
JS: While we were there, definitely. One, it was a huge part of getting into the whole world that they created [of] these MIT students. Two, that's all there is to do in Vegas. We were there for about a month and a half, so we got up to do a certain amount of gambling.
Q: Did you win? How did you do?
JS: I guess I learned not to gamble unless you're counting cards, because it will beat you in the end, which is why I love the story, really. Vegas to me was a culture shock. I was surprised at how calculated the whole place is and how designed it is to take your money. It pays attention to every last detail, from putting slot machines that pay out more money at the front so you can hear the sounds of change hitting metal… Everything, everything is calculated. I think the story's great in the way these MIT students took some of that money back. I think I was one of the few actors to leave up, but I certainly had my downs and thought, "oh my god I've lost all my per diem."
Q: Did you learn how to count blackjack cards like in the movie?
JS: I wanted to desperately. It's really not as easy as you think. These guys are so mathematically-minded, which I'm not. Plus, they worked out this strategy for a long time before going to Vegas and they had many years of mathematical training. To learn how to do that in two weeks in preparation for a film just wasn't going to happen. Jeff explained it to me time and time again, the theory of it, and I understood the theory, but putting it into practice is just a completely different thing.
Q: How good were you in math?
JS: I was never very good at math. That's why I enjoy this role the most, because I get to pretend that I am somehow mathematically minded. I like the thought of some of my math teachers from the past…
Q: The subtext of this film is gambling addiction. Did that theme resonate with you, and are you now more reluctant to gamble?
JS: Spending the amount of time in Vegas that we did, you see some people that you're like, why are you throwing all that money into that machine? It seems ridiculous to me. I think it can be an addiction. It's also a lot of fun, like anything like that. But I didn't come away thinking that gambling was a particularly great idea. They [the characters] were never gambling. That's the whole point. Certainly, the life seduced Ben, which I think is easy to do if you spend some time in Vegas—I think it's a place designed to seduce you. But the film tells you to have as many experiences as you can because that's what makes you the man you are.
Q: Which casino did you like the most?
JS: The Palms Casino. Jeff Ma, who the story is based on, would often take us there. They have this Playboy Bunny kind of lounge and it was as ridiculous as it got, so that was a favorite spot for us.
Q: Kevin Spacey can be a tough taskmaster to work with; how was it working with him?
JS: He's just tough about the nature of the work and getting it right. That goes for anybody. He wasn't tough on me specifically at all. He cares about making the right film, about his performance [and] about all the other actors that are around him. It's not toughness, just passion. It was exciting to see someone so immersed in his work. At that time he wasn't only acting in it, he was producing it. His company was very involved in the making of it, and he was just about to start doing this [Eugene O'Neill] play ["A Moon for the Misbegotten"] over on Broadway, that he done over at the Old Vic [Theater Company in London]. He had pages and pages of dialogue he was learning for his play while doing the film.
Q: And going toe to toe with Laurence Fishburne; he must be pretty intense?
JS: Amazingly intense, but it's an intensity that you look for and hope for. You want it to be like that. Certainly the scene where Laurence Fishburne was knocking seven bells out [out of someone], I couldn't say it was fun, but it was definitely exciting. [Fishburne] kind of intimidated me off-camera as well as on-camera. He gave me a big "Laurence Fishburne man-hug" at the end of it, which I think is the most pain I was in throughout the whole day.
Q: He contrasts nicely with Kate Bosworth, though.
JS: They're all such good actors. There's nothing more exciting than being put in a space with good actors. You only learn and try to up your game. It was very exciting.
Q: Do you think "21" could have been made in the UK?
JS: This film could never be made in the UK. We don't have anywhere like Las Vegas at all. It's a completely different culture of gambling. Gambling in England is much more putting money on dogs, horses and that kind of stuff.
Q: How did you get that Massachusetts accent?
JS: We talked about it very early on with [director] Robert [Luketic] and various people in the studio about what we're going to do with the accent—whether he's going to have a thick, Southy Boston accent. We all decided that it's a very colorful, charismatic accent, so we wanted to keep it milder so that he doesn't jump out in any way.
Q: Well, they vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
JS: Being English, you think you have some American accent tucked in there somewhere. Then you realize you just don't. You're put with a dialogue coach and you work out how certain words have to sound.
Q: Do you think you are skilled at accents?
JS: I don't know. It's a big part of the acting process. Finding the way your character speaks is a big part of finding your character. It's rare that I do my own accent. When I did "Across The Universe," I did a Liverpool accent, which is very different than my own way of speaking. I just did a Belfast accent, a thick Northern Irish accent, in "Fifty Dead Men Walking," which is probably the hardest out of all of them. I find it exciting. I like working on accents. I don't know how good I am at it, but I enjoy the process. When you work on an accent, you really find your character and the way he speaks.
Q: What kind of accent did you have to use for playing George Boleyn in "The Other Boleyn Girl"?
JS: Just very posh. I needed a dialogue coach to push me in the right direction with that one, making sure I sounded my Ts.
Q: What's your native accent?
JS: I guess you called it a standard sort of London accent—not a cockney accent, and there's a thick London accent which I don't have.
Q: Did you enjoy making a big Hollywood film? Is this something you'd like to do more of?
JS: It was fun. It was interesting. It is different in certain ways and very similar in other ways. "Across the Universe" was my first experience with a big film, and it really didn't feel any different from that except there weren't giant puppets and people breaking out in song every five minutes. But as far as the scale of it, I was used to it. It wasn't any different than that really, but of course, I would love to do some more [big Hollywood films].
Q: Could you relate to your role in "21?"
JS: Yes and no. There was a point in my life when I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I looked into going somewhere like drama school and knew I was interested in acting. I found out that drama school was just ridiculously expensive, so it was impossible for me to go there because there's no way I have that kind of money. [Despite] being disheartened by that, I realized that I had to do more than I would have done had I gone to drama school, through the experiences that I had in my life. I was lucky enough that Julie Taymor understood those experiences and knew what I had been through. That's why she wanted to cast me in that role. It was actually life experiences that got me to where I [didn't even] dream of getting to.
Q: What were you doing when Julie tapped you for the role of Jude in "Across the Universe"?
JS: I'd been playing in a band and just hanging around London, getting into various mischief, I suppose. It was going very up and down. It was a huge relief when the band finally split up. It was hard work. We all put a lot of work into it, but being in a band is a fairly hairy rollercoaster ride. It was a relief when it was over. When it was over, I wandered around not quite sure what I was going to do next. She found me at a point where I needed to be found.
Q: That whole experience must have made you appreciate the stability of being a working actor?
JS: Exactly. I had been working at some pretty terrible jobs throughout the whole time, so this feels like a more secure job than anything I've ever had.
Q: What did you learn about the '60s?
JS: A lot. The '60s was a time that had inspired me anyway, so I was very aware of stuff from the sixties. I read a lot of books. I knew about Ken Kesey in a big way. I'd even been to see him at the end of a festival. I was interested in all kinds of stuff: The Grateful Dead, [Jack Kerouac's] "On the Road," the whole culture. When I read the script and realized it was tapping into all of those things, it was so exciting to me that Julie was switched on by all that stuff. It was great spending all that time watching all these documentaries, all this stuff about the Vietnam War, rock and roll, and Woodstock. I liked seeing Joe Cocker do this amazing performance at Woodstock and then meeting Joe Cocker.
Q: Did you feel any apprehension in doing this film? After all, it is about gambling.
JS: We had such a good time. It was my first time really spending time in New York. It was a great young cast, there were all the dancers and artists and musicians. It was a melting pot of madness and creativity. It really felt like what I imagine it might have felt like in the sixties. I hung out with Don Nates, who was a painter, because I wanted to brush up on my drawing skills. So one day I'd been painting and injecting paint into exploding strawberries and exploding it on walls and the next day I'd be hanging out in a studio with a lot of musicians and we'd be playing music. The next day we'd be acting. It was so much fun. It was incredible.
Q: Would you ever consider becoming a director?
JS: Yeah, I think so, only because when I was experimenting with what I wanted to do, we started making short films and putting on theater productions by ourselves. There was definitely a point when I was making short films and interested in that kind of path. I see so many films that I'm in and I don't know how they do that, so I don't know if I'll be good at it.
Q: How are you at watching yourself onscreen?
JS: You get more used to it. The first time you watch your performance, it's very difficult. I've seen "21" three or four times now, and so you relax a bit and know how it sits. You can start enjoying it as a film, but you're always like, "oh what am I doing."
Q: How about forming another rock band?
JS: Well, I still play music and I still write music. Most of my friends are musicians back in London. It's still a big part of what I do and who I am. I instinctually like doing it.
Q: Do you perform?
JS: No, I haven't done any shows or gigs. That takes a lot of rehearsal time. I definitely continue to write and play music. Whether anyone will listen to it is another thing, but I'll definitely continue to do it.
Q: Where you always a singer? How's your singing voice? Do you expect to be cast in more singing roles?
JS: I was a singer and I was playing in a band back in London before I was cast in "Across the Universe." I play music and music's been a big part of my life for many years. I never expected to combine being in a film with singing, but it was a really interesting way of taking music, and I've done acting as well, so it was a nice blend of all the things I've been interested in all in one project.
Q: It must to be nice to get a job where they don't ask you to sing.
JS: Yeah, music and acting had always been kind of separate [for me]. When you're acting it's one thing and when you're playing in a band it's another. So it was nice to combine the two, but I never wanted to be a musical theatre performer or only star in musicals. So it's nice that I've done some acting that's very separate from acting as well.
Q: Is it true that you will be in a Spider-Man musical directed by Julie Taymor?
JS: Yeah, we actually did a workshop for it, which is how this all started. [Julie Taymor] asked me and Evan [Rachel Wood] if we would come down and help with this workshop that she was doing. I look up to Julie so much, so I said, "yeah." So it was a chance to work with Julie and Evan again. At that point, I didn't really know anything more about it. We just did two weeks [of it] and hung out with Bono and Edge, and sang songs about Spider-Man. We then did a rough performance of the play as a read-through and we sang through the songs. It was an incredible experience. When you're around Julie Taymor and people like Bono, it's very creative and very exciting. As a young actor and musician, it was an incredible experience to be so involved in that. It's going to be an incredible piece of work, as ridiculous as it sounds, which I think is the appeal.
Q: So you'll be starring in that?
JS: I don't know. I haven't spoken to Julie since. I don't know when she plans to do it. It's a timing thing. It all depends when it comes to the surface.
Q: Can you sing one of the Spider-Man songs?
JS: I can't remember any of the words.
Q: If you're good, will they want you for the "Spiderman 4" movie?
JS: I don't think I would do that, no.
Q: And your next film to come out will be "Crossing Hope."
JS: It has a huge ensemble cast in that film. It's amazing being in a film with a lot of those actors. People like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, and then a great mix of ethnic actors from all over the place. It really tells lots of stories about the complexities of immigration here in America and different backgrounds with their different stories. I played an English guy and you never consider an Englishman to be an immigrant, but it was a very exciting experience. I never got to work with Sean Penn or Harrison Ford or Ashley Judd. My story was separate as a lot of them were. They were "Crash" or "Traffic"-esque in the way that the stories are told, but I did get to meet all of [the other actors] so that was cool. All my stuff was shot in about six days back to back.
Q: Do you have a dream project with someone you'd love to play?
JS: No, not at all. I don't think about making a plan that I don't know anything about. You read a script about something your really interested in… I could never say I want to work with this person in this thing playing a comedic role as a Jewish priest. They just happen.
Q: So it's not as though you see these superhero movies and say one day I'd like to play one of those guys?
JS: No, I've never seen myself as an actor that might pass as a superhero. So I'm amazed that I'm even being considered for the Spiderman role. Maybe it's the long legs.
Q: Or a music biopic?
JS: Yeah, that's always scary. When there is talk about playing someone you really admire, that is sort of a scary prospect.
Q: Who would that be, beyond what you've done so far?
JS: The Joy Division film, "Control," I took my hat off to [actor] Sam Riley because it's a big deal to play someone who's so iconic, and there are people who absolutely love Ian Curtis [the late lead singer of the dark iconic '70s band]. It's just a brave kind of thing to do, I think.
Q: Is there a musician you'd love to play?
JS: Oh god, I mean there are so many. I guess someone I'm interested in is Nick Drake. I've always wondered what was going on in his mind. He's a beautiful poet and a beautiful artist.
Q: Good choice and great music. You could also do the late founder of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett.
JS: He'd be great. He'd be another one. I'd get to take lots of acid and spin out, lose my mind.
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