Sally A. Edwards talks to Jim Sturgess about what happens when life throws you a huge curveball and you don't yet realise it's actually done you a huge favour – setting you on a path that's more fulfilling than you could've imagined.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 3 Nø 2 print edition in 2011
Interview, Art Direction and Styling by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Hair and Make Up by Angela Davis-Deacon
These are the tales of a beautiful character through parallel stories, the one of a survivor, an untouched love and a warrior.
One of an unknown London – for the internationals who believe our lives are reflective of those told via Notting Hill or Love Actually. It’s one told with essence and passion. Another involves an incredible journey with Ed Harris’s Dylan teachings and a Bulgarian ex-wrestler who previously worked for the circus as the bottom of the human pyramid. The next of protectors of the innocent and vanquishers of evil...
Now, these chapters would never have transpired had it not been for a very serious band who split under their self-inflicted pressure – forcing our protagonist to jump in at the deep end, take some risks and surface with remarkable life changing results.
This is the story of Jim Sturgess and the tale of his portrayals, so far... Coincidentally this one is told from the same location as a scene in Notting Hill. Entirely different however.
Having wrapped our photoshoot which consisted of several outfit changes, a lot of green tea, chit-chat and laughter, Jim and I have decided to sit outside for the interview. We choose a large outdoor dining table set up on the terrace leading to the grand landscaped garden at The Hempel Hotel. The weather is great with a gentle mild breeze and the atmosphere puts a calm spell on the environment. We sit opposite each other, chess player-style. Jim rips open a sandwich packet and tucks in intermittently, forgetting himself at points and speaking with his mouth full.
His voice smiles with soulful tones, he clips his words and has an infectious laugh. Overall he’s subtly shy but very game and approachable. In-sync with his reputation, he’s laid back and down-to-earth – arriving and leaving independently of any entourage and with detailed directions to the nearest tube station.
I wanted to fathom something out... because you did television from ‘94 to 2000, have I worked this out right?
Then from 2000 you started doing films. Where – during that time, were you a musician?
“Well, I was doing TV acting, I suppose. I was working as a musician and an actor, but I was probably doing a lot more music than I was acting. The acting jobs were one line here, or two lines there. I was trying to get myself involved in anything really. I don’t know, I did fairly big things aswell. I did a TV drama that never got shown, it was heartbreaking. I did this whole thing with Ciarán Hinds and Peter Vaughan. I was the lead in this four part TV show and that was one of the first big jobs I’d got. It was two days before it was supposed to come out, the adverts were running and it was all promoted in the magazines... There was some sort of general election... [The show] was all about a politician and his family and two days before they pulled it off the air.”
FROM BASEMENTS TO RED CARPETS
When was the transition from doing music to taking on the Hollywood film roles?
“Where I came from was a film called Across The Universe – which was a musical – so it was because of that combination I think. I ended up getting that film because I’d had acting experience, I’d been in a band and I was a musician. I think Julie Taymor the director, didn’t want to have musical theatre people in her production, she wanted to try and keep away from that. So the band I’d been in for a long period of time – about three or four years – eventually kind of split up and it wasn't long after that... I think it was because of that that I rocked up to that audition and thought I’d have a go at being in this Beatles musical – which I didn’t think was a great sounding idea at the time. I think had I been in a band I wouldn’t have done... I wouldn’t have done it, no.”
What was the transition like? Weren’t you playing in a basement in Islington with your band?
“Yeah, for a long time.”
So going from there to red carpets and photocalls...
[laughs] “Yeah! It was pretty mad, making the film... I mean I’d never been to America. I was thrust into New York City, I’d got an apartment over there. It was mind blowing really. It all happened so quickly and from the moment I got the part it [all happened] two weeks later. I was in New York and rehearsing for – what appeared to me to be – this enormous production. It was a lot of fun and at that point in my life aswell I had nothing to lose. So I was just up for doing what anyone threw at me – I would just do it. I didn’t have any [feelings of] ‘Oh I don’t want to be perceived like that’ or anything. You know, I just went, ‘Alright, I’ll do that.’ ‘You want me to swim naked and sing at the same time?’ ‘Fine, I’ll do that.’”
[laughs] When you were heavily involved in music, who were the bands that were big and coming up or that would play on the same night as you?
“Bloc Party. And our manager, we sort of got rid of our manager and he was a good friend of ours. We were really kind of up ourselves at that time in a major fuckin’ way...”
That’s my next question! [laughs]
“... To the point where it was just so bad for the band. We were so terrible like that. We got rid of this manager, he ended up managing Bloc Party and took them to where they are now.”
[laughing] It’s not Simon is it?
Really? [laughing] Because I don’t know whether you know or not, I used to work in the music industry. From ‘95 into 2000 I was doing TV Plugging for a lot of Brit Pop bands and it was a really fun scene back then. We used to go to [a club called] Smashing and Simon was there a lot. They used to have wheel barrow races and everyone would really get involved. Now – for me, it feels like it’s much cooler. It’s more self-conscious and there isn’t the same sort of essence of fun that there used to be. Do you think that might come back? Because that kind of thing was around the time of the last up-turn wasn’t it?
“Yeah, I think so.”
Or do you think some sort of new version might come in?
“What do you mean, as far as people having fun?”
Yeah and music being a bit more out there. I know it’s quite out there at the moment, but a lot seems very contained and very commercialised compared to how it was.
“No, I agree with that, yeah. I mean even something like Florence and the Machine which is fairly, sort of experimental is still packaged like a proper, you know...”
That’s right through the machine! [laughs]
“Yeah. Exactly yeah. No, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think the bands could get a real new lease of life again and have that thing. You know, I moved to Camden, I went to live there because of that whole Brit Pop scene. I was pretty young. It was Blur and Oasis. There was a real feeling for a lot of English bands and I just wanted to get in there and be a part of it. [But] I never got into the industry because our band never got signed, we were just a group of kids that were hanging around and playing music, just avoiding doing anything else really.”
Wow! Lucky you.
“I know, I mean that was what was great. That’s why the acting was so good. It funded and allowed me to just be in a band for all those years, you know? So I’d just play music all the time, everyday. That was my day-in, day-out job. We literally spent all day in this little studio in a basement. We had two studios. We had one in Kilburn, then we moved to one in Islington and every now and then I might have to go off for a week, or two weeks and film something.”
How did the rest of the band feel about that, were they all busy with other things?
“Yeah, well, they would just carry on. I mean we probably played about five gigs in about four years. We were so up ourselves! [laughs] We thought what we had was so amazing, that we would unveil it to the world when it was ready!”
So where did you play, when you played?
“We played... Our manager, he used to get so frustrated with us, because he was trying to get us all these gigs and he had all these record companies coming down and it got a real buzz about it. The first gig we did in London was just rammed with all these people from the industry. They all just wanted to check out what we were about. There was seven of us in the band and [all with] fairly big personalities, you know what I mean? So it was fuckin’ hard work. And when it was over, I was so relieved! Because we all held on to it and it was an unpleasant time, it wasn’t fun at all towards the end. It got very volatile and there was a lot of fighting. There was a lot of problems going on with a lot of people, but we all held on to it for so long. Various members left our band and made their own little band and they got a record deal straight away. Then, Ken Thomas who is an amazing producer who we always wanted to work with – he does Sigur Rós and Depeche Mode and stuff like that – ended up producing their album, so it was like the knives were out.”
“But we all held on to it, the main members who started the band just held on because it was good, but we just couldn’t and never would’ve got it together I don’t think. And the idea of maybe going on the road with it filled me with fear. [laughs] I’m so glad that didn’t end up being my life.”
So with regards to music, are you still really keen on it and still involved?
“Yeah, well my girlfriend’s a musician, so we write a lot of songs together and just mess around. We live together and we both play music, so instinctively we just started writing these mad little songs together and its grown from there.”
DYLAN TEACHINGS FROM MR. HARRIS
Nice! So do you introduce your co-stars and crew to music and do they introduce you to stuff?
“Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I did a film with Ed Harris who basically burnt me the entire Bob Dylan catalogue and as much as I’ve known Dylan I’ve never really gone in there, you know? So he was just making me Dylan mixtapes constantly. He became obsessed with it! So, no, it was great for him to be giving me all these CDs of Dylan, so I was playing him stuff. But it’s nice, it happens a lot because when you’re on a make-up trailer you spend a lot of time with people in there. Everyone gets their records out and starts playing music. You start hearing things you never would’ve heard and certainly with [the film], there was a lot of people from different countries. You know Swedish actors and Romanian actors. So it was interesting to hear their taste in music.”
That’s great, because there’s not as much pressure, there’s no show and tell. You’re literally just playing it because you like it.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rather than just putting it on. So you’d have your early morning record that some would put on that had to be pretty chilled out because everyone’s half asleep!”
[laughs] So you’ve played loads of different roles, and obviously you get to learn what it’s like to be other people. What would be a dream role for you, or have you already played it?
“I feel every time I do a part, I love it. I don’t know what a dream role would be because I haven’t read it. I can’t pre-empt something I don’t know.”
I didn’t know whether it might be a duff question, but I was curious. [laughs]
“Yeah, no, yeah. I mean there are certain things when you read them you’re just like, I really want to get inside that character.”
Are there any books or stories out there that you’d really like to get involved in, if they were going to be made into a film?
“I just wanted to be the kid from ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ and I’m absolutely devastated that wasn’t me.” [laughs]
[laughing] There you go then!
“It just looks amazing and that was one of my favourites. You know, I loved that book when I was a kid. That boy’s a lucky boy, man.”
Definitely. So what’s the standout memory from all your films? Is there anything that you’ve taken from a film, whether it’s something that someone said to you, or something that you really carry with you?
“I think working with Ed [Harris] was really amazing. He was one of the actors that I’d really seen and watched who’s so approachable. We became such good friends and he was probably the only actor who’s ever helped me really. It doesn’t happen often, because with a lot of actors you do your own thing and you have your own way of working it out unless you ask personally for advice, but Ed was just so commanding in a really respectable way on the set and I’ve never seen that happen before. It was just amazing to be around. He’s so into it to the point... you know there’s a term that gets thrown around which is ‘method acting’ and I never quite know what that is, or I don’t think many people do – everyone has a method of some description and tries to get involved in the lives that these characters portray and put out there. Ed really goes there and it’s really exciting to watch and be around.”
Brilliant. OK, so moving onto Heartless. Can you explain the film and your character in a nutshell?
“No, [laughing] is the answer to that!”
OK. I’ll do it then!
“No, [laughing] I think that’s the point. I’m proud of the film for the fact you can’t really do that.”
No, I thought I might be able to get to the bottom of it by asking you that question. [laughs]
“Yeah, well it’s the sort everybody’s trying to work out. ‘How do you tagline this film?’ And you say, ‘Oh, it’s about a guy who makes a deal with the devil.’”
But there are so many different layers to it.
“Yeah and that spins you off into something that doesn’t sell the film or what the film is. You know it’s about this guy with a birthmark on his face and he sees demons on the streets of East London, and you know that’s still [not its main crux]... So it is a really hard film to pin down.”
There are quite a few parallel stories going through it...
“Yeah and a lot of genre bouncing aswell. It is a horror film, but it’s more than that. To me it’s as much a love story as it is a horror film. To me there’s as many beautiful, tender moments as there are horrific and scary.”
Did you see Let The Right One in, [now remade as Let Me In]?
That’s paralleled as well.
“Yeah, it was an amazing film, amazing. And I don’t really know much about horror films, when I read [Heartless] I didn’t really think about what genre it would be.”
So do you think the non-fantasy element captures East London’s true side? Because a lot of my friends from the States or out in Europe have this vision of what London’s like and they don’t really know how many sides it takes...
“I think it captures something about London that... It’s so easy to see London through the eyes of fuckin’ Notting Hill or Love Actually, or it’s so easy to see it through a Mike Leigh Council Estate sort of movie. So I was really excited about it because I really wanted to make a film in London. I really wanted to make a modern, contemporary story and I didn’t want it to be a Guy Richie gangster movie or you know... and when this film came to me, it was sort of subconscious in my mind that I wanted to do something about the world that I live in, I suppose. I’m not from MIT in Boston, I’m not from Belfast either and I’m not from 1960’s New York. So it was really nice and I understood it. I mean when I read that script I understood what Phil [Ridley, writer of Heartless] was trying to say. So it touched me on a really personal level – by just tapping into that idea of the violence that goes on in our streets and the hoodies, and the knife crime. You know actually, when we made the film, there was that boy Ben Kinsella who got stabbed to death for no apparent reason and that happened on the top of my street, I mean seconds away from my house and that was while we were filming, so it was really... you know you felt like it was really important to tap into that violence.”
So with regards to the film, what do you think the ultimate message is with to your character as one and East London’s attitude as another.
“It’s about beauty and love really, and what that is. This guy thinks that he’s just so painfully unbeautiful and of course he’s a very beautiful person, so that would be his personal journey I suppose. What was the other question?”
It was about East London’s attitude, because it’s really tough and gritty, but it’s getting very gentrified and a lot of people don’t like that...
“Yeah, and it’s very trendy which is not the roots of East London really. You know it was salt of the earth, East London people. Yeah, so it’s interesting, I think for anyone to speak for East London, Phil Ridley is the man to do that. He was born in the same flat that he lives in today. He was born in that room, you know? He had a home birth and he still lives there. He knows East London like the back of his hand and that’s his playground, so I think if anyone’s going to tap into the attitude of East London, Phil’s the man. He’s written so many amazing plays that have had the voice of East London running through them.”
Are there any stand out or memorable experiences from on-set for you?
“Yeah, I remember when Eddie Marsden came in, because he grew up around the streets that Phil grew up in and that was why he was so desperate to play just a very small part in the film. He’s just amazing, so to see him and Phil talk about all these old characters – I mean that’s very true what you’re saying, they were talking about the old East London from when they were growing up. They’d be like, ‘Oh, do you remember old Chalky? He used to come round?’ ‘Oh yeah, Chalky who had one arm.’ So there was obviously all these characters and you got a sense... They didn’t know each other, but they knew all these people growing up, like ‘Oh do you remember old Teddy who used to work at the launderette...’ You know, these people aren’t real, I’m just... but they had all these characters, that they all knew and that were all...”
[At this point we’re interrupted by Andrew Wyatt, singer from Miike Snow who is belting out a song, like a crooner from inside the rooms. Andrew is here for a BLAG shoot too. Jim starts laughing...]
Do you want to go and join in?
“I’ll play the bongos...You know, and I don’t know whether that sort of thing still exists?”
I just think everything is changing so quickly. You don’t really have famous locals like you used to have, it’s kind of what I was saying before about the music industry... I hope I don’t sound bitter!
“No, East London’s changed since I’ve been living in London.”
Moving onto the soundtrack, you’re on it aren’t you?
“Yeah. We ended up doing three [songs]. It was weird, Phil said he was going to write all these songs for the film and everyone was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”
Does he normally write songs?
“No, I don’t think so. Well, he wrote one song for PJ Harvey who performed it for one of his other films called The Passion of Darkly Noon. So he kept telling everyone ‘I’m going to write 12 songs.’ Or something like that...”
And you’re going to record them all. [laughs]
“No, no. At that point that wasn’t even talked about. I heard some of these songs and I had never expected to sing on them at all, but they were extensions of the script. They were Phil’s words and they were about the character. They were coming from the point of view of Jamie, the character. Then someone suggested, ‘Oh maybe Jim should sing one.’ and I was like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know... I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve done Across The Universe. I don’t want this to be a sort of gimmick.’ So Phil was the same and we said, ‘Well, look why don’t we just record one and see how it sounds and see how it feels. See whether it’s the right thing to do or not.’ So we were both pretty open-minded about it. He wasn’t 100% sure it was the right thing to do and neither was I. So we just recorded one and it seemed to be alright. It seemed to be an extension of the film rather than a gimmick. So then he went, ‘Here, can you sing these other two?’ [laughs] So I was like...” 'Oh, alright.' [laughs] Yeah! So it came out of that.”
SURVIVAL, OWLS & TWO WORLDS
Now I want to speak to you about three of your newer films. So the first one is The Way Back.
“We shot it in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. It’s very loosely based on a book called The Long Walk. It’s the story of these prisoners in a Gulag – a Soviet Labour Camp in the Second World War. They basically escape from this camp – as many people did, and walked on foot from Siberia to India and got rescued by the Embassy out in India. They walked through frozen waste land, just epic proportions and survived. They got into Mongolia and discovered that it was still under communist rule, they were unsafe there so they had to keep going, through China through the Gobi Desert – you know across an entire desert, then got to Tibet, then kept going. Went over the Himalayan Mountains and got themselves to India.”
“Yeah, it was a pretty amazing film to shoot. We learnt these survival [techniques]. Well, we tried to understand how these people could have possibly survived, how much they would have had to walk each day and how you made fires in the certain environments you were in. How they would obtain water in the desert and lived off condensation from the sand. It was pretty amazing to discover all that. Not that if you put me in the desert I would last two fuckin’ minutes! [laughs] but I had an understanding of it.”
Then, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and that’s Zack Snyder’s latest smash. You did a voice for it didn’t you? “Yeah, it’s an entirely animated project, about an Owl Kingdom. I play an Australian Owl. As we all do! So it’s kind of mad, but it’s good fun.
“It’s animation like I’ve never seen before really. Zack Snyder was so visual with 300 and Watchmen. So for him to do something that’s totally animated, capturing that visuality is right up his street. If you’re going to do something like that you want him to be directing it. It’s quite violent. I mean it’s a kid’s story, but it’s about this warrior... It sounds ridiculous and it kind of is, but it’s these warrior owls that have armour and weaponry on their claws. It’s about these ancient owls called The Guardians who come back to fight the pure ones. It’s pretty heavy shit, you know?”
So, it’s one for the kids and the adults, right? [laughs]
“Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s nice because I’ve been asked to do animations before and I always wanted to do one [but] I really wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to do just a cute story. So when this came up... I mean it reminded me of Watership Down and those sort of things that I love, so it was really exciting.”
Next is Upside Down with Kirsten Dunst. Is there anything you can say about that one yet?
“Yeah, yeah. I mean, God, when you explain it, it sounds ridiculous. It’s about these two worlds – it’s a fantasy story, so it’s not set anywhere. These two worlds exist on top of each other, so if you looked up to the sky you would see – pretty close by, they’re almost touching – another world and it’s about gravity. It’s about these two people who can’t be together.”
And are you in one place and she’s in another?
“Yeah, she’s up top and I’m down below.”
TRAVELLING & MANCHESTER
Wow, interesting. So I wanted to speak to you about travel. You were born in London, raised in Surrey and now you’re back in London. Did you travel much before you were acting?
“Yeah, well, I mean I went on holiday to Europe and stuff. I lived in Manchester for a period of time – if you can call that travelling, but it got me out of my comfort zone. I was living in Salford which was a pretty rough part of Greater Manchester, so yeah that was an eye-opening experience for me.”
I’m sure, because I can never imagine what it would be like to be born and raised in or around London and then go somewhere else because I’ve always had that fight to get to London, because that’s where my Dad was from.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
So, now that I’m here having lived in so many places across the UK I don’t think I’d live anywhere other than London. I think if I was going to live somewhere else, I’d try abroad.
“I think I would too, yeah. For me moving to Manchester was one of the most important things that could happen to me and I’m so glad that I did it, but I was able to come back to London with that experience in hand. You know there’s a real spirit to the North, but I was mugged on a regular basis, it was pretty heavy going. I mean the second day I was there, I went into the local shop and I was just buying cigarettes and alcohol or whatever, and the woman was just laughing behind the till and I thought it was my accent, but it was actually because there was a group of kids outside who she knew full well were going to mug me for everything I had. I think the oldest was about 15 and the youngest was 10! I was getting mugged by a 10 year old boy. He was like, [In Manchester accent] ‘Have you got a cigarette, mate?’”
Or are you going to ask me directions and then start on me?
“[laughs] Yeah. I gave him a cigarette which I felt very weird about, then he took the packet off me. Being mugged by a 10 year old boy is a very strange feeling because you don’t quite know what to do, you can’t knock him out! So it was very weird. When they got their rusty knives out, I was like ‘OK.’ It only takes one. Like [thump sound], you think you’ve been punched, but you’ve been stabbed in the kidneys.”
Urgh. Anyway, sorry onto other things... Have you discovered any hidden gems when you’ve been out on location?
“What, places I’ve fallen in love with?”
Anywhere you just really love and would go back to, or anywhere with a little essence you’d like to bring back here?
“I haven’t really been anywhere that exotic really, you know, Belfast.”
“Morocco was lovely, I really liked it there and then that was hard, because we were right out in the middle of the desert, but it was amazing to be around that culture and I would definitely go back. I would love to see Marrakesh, places like that and spend some more time there as a traveller rather than someone who is filming. We spent a lot of time in the middle of a vast empty desert.”
HUMAN PYRAMIDS & THE WRESTLER
So you don’t really want to run back. [laughs]
“Yeah, it wasn’t something I’d be keen to do, but I love the people there and it’s always the people isn’t it? I mean every time you go [away] you fall in love with these amazing people. They’re so welcoming and certainly the people of Morocco are just so... My driver had invited me round to his house for dinner within hours of meeting him, ‘You’ll have to come and meet my family, we’ll look after you and we’ll feed you.’ That’s just great. I wish people were more like that here. Bulgaria was weird because it was the complete opposite. They’re very closed people, I guess with communist oppression. It has a very sort of cold feel to it, so I was really kind of weary of it. My driver didn’t speak to me for about two weeks, [laughs] but then after a period of time you got to know him and it was something really special. So it was just a very different approach to someone who had invited me to his house within hours of meeting, but then it became a very special friendship that I had with this Bulgarian driver who was an ex-wrestler.”
Oh really? [laughs] Wow, that’s brilliant!
“And an ex-circus performer aswell. He was the bottom of the human pyramid. [laughs] So he had some great stories about the circus and stuff.”
Why do you think so many creatives leave the UK to increase their success?
“I didn’t know they did. Do they? I find England a very creative place.”
I find it gets capped. A lot of actors have to move to the states.
“I mean that’s the film industry. I get annoyed with [it] in general, but certainly the British film industry and that’s why I genuinely hope that Heartless gets a platform to breathe, because I mean there’s so many films that are just all the same and people in Britain are just so scared... You know, I wish that the film industry had the same level as the music industry because we have so many great bands that come out of England and so little great films come out and when they’re great, they’re great. Like a Shane Meadows film.”
That’s only been over the last five or so years hasn’t it? Where there’s been some real gritty in-depth stuff.
“Yeah and heart and funny too. But you know obviously America just thrives on its film industry, so if you’re an actor I can understand it.”
SUPER POWERS & SUPER HEROES
I just feel it’s become so financially obsessed here, it feels like one big financial district and anything creative gets, ‘No you can’t do that because of money.’ ‘No, you can’t do that because of budgets.’
“So it’s not like that in other places?”
I don’t know, because I was about to say if you look at Hollywood, they’re getting a lot of money from alternative investment in turn influencing the final products.
“I mean I’m so worried about the film industry, I can’t believe... We’re just getting these franchised movies which are fine, which are great for what they are now and they’re actually very creative, but when everything is becoming that and everything is the next superhero film and [they’re] plucking these super heroes – I’ve never even fuckin’ heard of, out of obscurity. And I read a script and it’s going so well and I think, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Then suddenly there’s a scene where he puts on a green costume and you’re like, ‘I can’t do that! I just can’t.’”
But I tell you what, I think TV is still really strong from the States.
“Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s taken a whole new thing with huge actors. Well, The Wire started it off for me. When I saw that and I saw the quality of the writing and the acting. I didn’t go to the cinema for the entire boxset. I just had this film that I fell in love with. It lasted months and months of my life. You can’t deny its strength really.”