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Keeping His Cool

Jim Sturgess trades in his rock star ambitions for an acting career.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Scoop issue 03/24/2008

Jim Sturgess trades in his rock star ambitions for an acting career.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As any bona fide hipster will grudgingly tell you, the hard truth behind effortless cool is that those who possess it are often blithely unaware of their gift. Anyone who took in Jim Sturgess’ soulful, melodic performance in Julie Taymor’s 2007 film, Across the Universe, would be hard-pressed to peg the scruffy-haired actor as a member of the dork squad. But as Sturgess explains it, in his laid-back, soft-spoken voice, his adolescent preoccupation with image almost killed off his childhood love of acting in school plays.

“As I got a bit older I didn’t think it was a very cool thing to do and I didn’t want any part of it,” says the London-born 26-year-old. “I was just more interested in getting into trouble. I joined a band and thought that was cool. I wanted to be a singer and that was the focus of my life for a long period of time.”

Even when he headed off to university in Manchester to study acting, screenwriting and editing, Sturgess still entertained visions of becoming “a famous musician, but it didn’t quite work out like that.” His parents were certainly thankful for his failed rock star ambitions. “They were worried at one point what was going to become of me,” he laughs.

Ever since his mainstream film debut in Across the Universe, Sturgess has been shooting a steady stream of projects that have him poised to become an actor on the rise, with his sense of cool still intact.

For starters, in March, he headlines 21 opposite Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth. Based on the nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, the film follows Ben (Sturgess), a brilliant but nondescript MIT student who is $300,000 away from attending Harvard Medical School. His shifty math professor (Spacey) notes Ben’s extraordinary numerical skills and invites him to join a small team of students who use a special card-counting system to make loads of cash in Las Vegas. Of course, as with such schemes, the financial solution proves far too good to be true.

“He’s a guy who realizes that his whole life, he’s just been playing it safe,” Sturgess says of Ben. “He realizes that he’s never done anything out of the ordinary in his life. He’s just kind of ticked all the right boxes, and actually, in life, that’s not enough to get by or to excel.”

Director Robert Luketic was particularly taken with the actor’s eye for detail and versatility. “I’d seen hundreds of people for this, but I couldn’t find that blend of innocence who could also become dark and be seduced by money and change,” he says. Sturgess auditioned via a camcorder tape he made on the set while shooting The Other Boleyn Girl. “I’ve never seen someone so young have such a commitment and such a prepared take and perspective, like he really cares right down to the minutiae of what bag he has and how he carries and wears it,” says Luketic.

To get into character, Sturgess spent time (and lots of money) immersing himself in the Vegas casino culture, admittedly not the most fortifying of experiences.

“We were kind of going slowly insane for a while. Most people go to Vegas for a long weekend. We were there for like a month and a half,” he recalls. “We could hear the slot machines in our dreams.”

His next two films certainly take a darker turn than casino shenanigans. In Crossing Over, a Traffic-esque collage of narratives about American immigration starring Harrison Ford and Sean Penn, Sturgess embodies a Jewish musician from England who pretends to be highly religious in order to maintain his visa status. And 50 Dead Men Walking, which Sturgess just wrapped, tells the true story of a young “scallywag” from Eighties Belfast who is enlisted by British intelligence to serve as an IRA informer.

Indeed, despite his seemingly mellow, take-it-as-it-comes manner (“I never had any plans to become a professional actor, I just loved doing it…and I still don’t have any plans”), don’t be fooled into thinking Sturgess is simply riding the coattails of charm and luck.

“He’s not a flash in the pan,” says Taymor, whom Sturgess refers to as a mentor. “He’s not just playing his own persona, which a lot of young good-looking guys do. You can fall in love with him, and yet he’s got edge. I don’t think there’s any danger of him becoming a teeny-bopper phenomenon.”