When rock star dreams die...
Jim Sturgess takes his acting very seriously, so when the role of Dexter came up for the movie of the much-loved romantic novel One Day, the pressure was really on. Here, he talks to Vicki Reid about finding success after his rock star aspirations eventually fell apart
Published 21/08/2011 | 05:00
The novel One Day is a book that people like to give to their friends. So much so, that since its publication in 2009, word of mouth and critical acclaim have led it to be published in 31 countries and become the bestselling British novel of 2010. Last month its millionth copy was sold. And now it has been made into a film.
Written by David Nicholls, One Day is essentially a love story between two friends, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, which unfolds over the course of 20 years. They meet on July 15 (St Swithin's Day) 1988, during an evening of drunken partying on their final night at Edinburgh University, have a sort of one-night stand and vow to stay in touch.
And so the book does, too, dropping in on their lives every July 15. It charts their careers -- Emma, an idealist with dreams of being a writer, initially struggles in the backwaters, working in a Tex Mex restaurant while composing bad poetry in her spare time, before becoming a teacher and finally a successful writer of children's novels.
Nicholls describes the book as "a redemption story. It was about how these people make each other better, how friendship improves them both". And every reader wants the same thing, for this flawed and funny couple to fall in love with each other.
The production team behind the film has taken no chances: Nicholls, already a successful screenwriter, wrote the script; Lone Scherfig, who caused a sensation in 2009 with the Oscar-nominated An Education, directed; and Anne Hathaway, a bankable Hollywood star, was chosen for Emma.
How to cast Dexter?
"'It was really important to find an actor who could be touching and appealing and attractive," Nicholls says, "and convey all that in a character who isn't particularly eloquent or full of self-knowledge, who at his lowest point is pretty repulsive".
That person is Jim Sturgess. Probably best known for his first feature film, Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (2007), a musical love story told through Beatles songs, Sturgess could be described as an industry secret, whose career to date has been an intriguing mix of Hollywood (The Other Boleyn Girl and 21) and independent films (Fifty Dead Men Walking and Heartless).
Sturgess hadn't read the book before he auditioned, and thus was unaware of the passion it inspires among its devotees. "I didn't really think about it at all when we were making the film," he admits. "It's only now that people keep asking me how it feels to play such a well-known and loved character that I'm starting to think, 'S***, I hope I've been all right'."
We have met in a quiet pub in Camden, north London, on a rather surly June day, when the weather is contradictory enough that Sturgess is wearing a winter coat over a short-sleeve shirt. He is tall, fine-boned and looks younger than his 30 years. His good looks are obvious, but with an everyman quality, as Julie Taymor notes during a phone conversation a few days later.
"He is movie star in his looks, but without losing the reality. You feel like you could live next door to him."
Over the next couple of hours we drink many pots of tea, and his initial polite reserve relaxes into an easygoing charm.
Sturgess has no cause to worry; he brings a beguiling insouciance to Dexter, and between him and Anne Hathaway there is a warmth and a spark in their on-screen relationship that makes it easy to believe in and care about (you will cry) the vagaries of their friendship. Sturgess first met Hathaway at a "chemistry read" ("like a blind date, except with all these eyes watching you"), before he was cast, and was instantly put at ease. "She was really lovely."
During the shoot itself, he says, "I felt connected and bound to her, and I would always wish I was doing a scene with Anne. When it was an Emma and Dex day I felt good about it."
Filming began in July last year, and over 10 weeks they shot in London, Paris, Edinburgh and Dinard in Brittany. During a phone conversation Scherfig talks of the friendship that developed between her lead actors. "There is a lot of respect between them, I think they genuinely like each other."
Part of the appeal of playing Dexter, Sturgess says, was that he was "a character that first off I didn't particularly like, and I thought that was fun, to play someone who is a bit vulgar and overprivileged, a bit arrogant and irritating. But then I found myself really defending him". The key, he thinks, lies in "making sure that people understood where that arrogance comes from. And most arrogance and vulgarity comes from an insecure and slightly desperate place".
Intriguingly, Sturgess used Dexter's costumes as building blocks towards gaining an understanding of him.
"Normally you make a film and you think 'OK, what does my character do?'" he says, "and then you go and learn what he does; if he's a welder, you start welding, if he's a policeman, you start learning about being a policeman. But Dexter doesn't know how to do anything other than be charming and superficial. So when we were doing the costume fittings I remember thinking, this is a great place to start finding out who Dexter is. It is about what shoes go with which shirt, and how my hair looks with this outfit. It became a really fun way of playing around with him, because he's all about display, and what he puts out there."
The film revels in Dexter's wardrobe. Where Emma initially hides her beauty behind owlish glasses, sturdy Dr Martens and terrible haircuts, only gradually morphing into a stylish, confident woman, Dexter cuts a swath through the 1990s in flamboyant designer suits, expensive loafers (no socks) and sunglasses nonchalantly tucked into a top pocket.
Growing up it was music, rather than acting, that dominated Jim Sturgess's childhood. Born in London and raised in Surrey (he shuts down, politely, when asked about his family, "for no other reason than they'd rather keep out of it"), he says that school was a succession of low grades -- "I always struggled to concentrate in a classroom" -- in everything except music and drama. He remembers a local theatre group holding auditions at his school when he was eight.
"We quickly worked out we could get time off school and our hands shot up."
He loved the experience of performing for the first time. "Instantly I was attentive and engrossed and enjoyed every minute of it." But even though his parents encouraged him to do more acting, Sturgess remained non-committal. "Secretly I loved it," he says, "but I wouldn't tell anyone." Instead he consigned himself to years of chorus lines and small parts, while "wishing it was me up at the front".
At 15 he joined a band, "which we all took very seriously. We used to hang around in a mate's garage, dreaming of being the Stone Roses." They played gigs in local pubs, lying about their age, feeling like "rock stars within our own little social circle". He ignored acting he says, because "skateboarding was cool, being in a band was cool, being in a school play was not".
When it came to college, he applied for a two-year HND course in media performance at Salford University, with the main aim of joining another band. "I was interested in all the music that was coming out of Manchester at that time." It changed his life, he says, when he met a group of people who "really cared about filmmaking and theatre and acting". Sturgess had been brought up on Hollywood blockbusters and now suddenly he was being introduced to work by British filmmakers. Mike Leigh made a huge impression on him: "Suddenly," he says, "cinema didn't seem as far removed as I had always thought it was."
Sturgess and his friends entertained themselves by making endless short films, and he took to the stage again. At the end of his course, after a performance of a one-man show that he had also written, a member of the audience approached him and suggested he should get an agent.
"I just scuffed my feet," he remembers. "I had no concept of an agent, I had no idea you would need one. I didn't even know I would be a professional actor." This person was an actor, who then recommended Sturgess to his own agent, who took him on without even meeting him.
In 2000 Sturgess moved back to London, and promptly joined a band. He smiles at the irony. "I moved to Manchester to join a band and ended up getting into acting, and I moved back to London to become an actor and ended up joining a band."
Called Saint Faith ("looking back it was a horrible name"), it was a collective of seven musicians, with Sturgess initially making music videos for them, before involving himself with songwriting and eventually singing. Over the next four years he continued to act -- mostly small roles on television -- mainly to fund his "ability to exist as a musician", but was becoming increasingly disillusioned. The band, meanwhile, was attracting serious interest, but the cracks were beginning to show there as well. "We started arguing among ourselves and eventually it imploded." It was around this time, in 2006, that Sturgess heard of open auditions for a musical film. Armed with his guitar, he went along with no preconceptions.
"It was like auditioning for The X Factor, and I didn't know anything about it, and had no interest in being in it." It was only when he was flown to New York to meet the film's director, Julie Taymor, that he realised, "it was actually a really exciting thing -- and then the nerves kicked in".
Filmed over nine months in New York, Across the Universe was a hugely ambitious project. Set in the 1960s, it involved an ensemble cast, 33 Beatles cover versions, animation, puppets, dancers and a cameo from Bono. Described by one critic as "somewhere between Moulin Rouge! and Help!" it told the love story between a Liverpudlian artist (Sturgess) and his activist girlfriend (Evan Rachel Wood). For Sturgess, "It was the most liberating thing I'd ever done. I just thought, 'I'm going to enjoy every dying second of this'." Taymor talks of how "lucky we were to find Jim. It was astounding how he could take those songs and really make them his own".
After filming, Sturgess remained in New York, "hiding", he says now, and it was only the offer to play George Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson that brought him back to Britain (where he is still based), in 2007. Having nowhere to live, he found himself sleeping on the floor of a friend's flat in Maida Vale in west London. "I'd go and film with Natalie and Scarlett and come back to sleep underneath rails of people's underwear."
By now he had an American agent, and offers from Hollywood were coming in. He filmed 21 with Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey; a glossy little number about a group of students who made thousands of dollars at Vegas gaming tables before losing it all again.
His future as the next It-boy looked increasingly assured, but Sturgess made a conscious decision to sidestep the seductions and concentrate on making films that meant something to him. This is a reflection, Taymor says, of 'his strong sense of self'.
His choices have not been without controversy. Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Kari Skogland, was based on Martin McGartland's 1997 autobiography. Sturgess played McGartland, a young Catholic from west Belfast, who in the 1980s became an informant for British Special Branch and infiltrated the IRA. "He was a hero to some people and an enemy to others," Sturgess says, "so I was conflicted all the way through making it, as to what his intentions were." The film was swiftly disowned by McGartland. It was critically well received, but did very little at the box office.
Sturgess has a talent for accents and ability with language, which every director I spoke to attributed to his musicality.
He has managed to combine his love of music with his love of film, co-writing and recording two songs for the soundtrack of Heartless (2010). Directed by Philip Ridley and made on a shoestring budget, it was a surprisingly beguiling gothic horror tale about a lonely photographer living in a nightmarish vision of London, involving marauding demons and ancient cults.
He has an enormous capacity and commitment to research, which included six months delving into the history of the Soviet gulags and meeting camp survivors for The Way Back (2010), directed by Peter Weir and also based on a book, Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk.
Written in 1956, the book chronicled what the author claimed was his escape, along with six other inmates, from a Siberian gulag camp, through the Gobi desert and all the way to India. Rawicz was accused of making this story up, and Weir spent years searching for possible escapees, finally discovering documented evidence of three people being accounted for in an Indian hospital who claimed to have come over the Himalayan mountains.
Starring as one of the escapees alongside Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, Sturgess admits that he arrived on set over-prepared. "When it came to rolling the camera I felt like I was holding the entire Polish history on my shoulders, and I lost my confidence completely. It took me a while to get back on track, because I'd over-thought it way too much." For all the exposure One Day will inevitably bring him, Sturgess, one imagines, will continue to forge his career following the more unusual, intriguing opportunities that suit his sensibilities. He has also written songs with his girlfriend of eight years, Mickey O'Brien ("a phenomenal musician", who plays keyboards in the band La Roux), and they are currently in the process of recording them for an album.
His next two films are diverse; Upside Down is a "fantasy love story about forbidden love", directed by Juan Diego Solanos. It stars Kirsten Dunst and is set in two alternate universes. Ashes, directed by Mat Whitecross, is a film noir, a two-hander between Sturgess and Ray Winstone, written by Whitecross as a homage to his father, who died of Alzheimer's.
For now, Sturgess faces the summer being asked the same question many times over. Why have people responded so strongly to Dexter and Emma? It's simple, he says. "Love is such a powerful subject matter, because it comes in so many different shapes and sizes. It's about timing, fate, failure, redemption. It's frustrating, but really fascinating, watching these two people try and work it out. And I think everyone can relate to that."
'One Day' is out next Friday
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