The Perception of Cool: Jim Sturgess

Photography by Shelby Duncan | Make up by Sarai Fiszel | Hair by Ramsell Martinez

Harriet Baylis meets Jim Sturgess, star of ‘One Day’, in some very brief down time to talk projects, passions and getting into the role.

‘The perception of cool’ is usually a conversation saved for 3am, with the soundtrack of something from the nineties: grungy with a touch of nostalgia. Had this been the scene for my conversation with Jim, I feel like we could have covered a lot of ground. The reality of our 4pm Thursday afternoon conversation though was not quite as cool but then again if you can start to delve into the perception of what being ‘cool’ means then we must have got something right…

Jim Sturgess is back in London following a seven month stint in New York and a respite period in LA following the success of Feed The Beast in America and the upcoming Stephen Poliakoff BBC series Close To The Enemy. It’s about time we got him back. For those not yet familiar with the two series, in true American/Brit contrast, Feed The Beast is a sexy, drug-fuelled Southern California drama while Close To The Enemy is a gritty postwar story set against a Blitz battered London. We talked about everything from modesty demonstrated by actors to having a face that people want to dress with facial hair.


Jim, you started out as a musician, moved to Manchester, started a band and then became an actor. Talk to me. Yeah, well music and acting were kind of the only two things I was ever good at; I didn’t have too many options. I was always playing in bands from the age of 15 and it was what I was always dreaming about. So I went to Manchester to start a band but ended up taking a Higher National Diploma at Salford University covering editing, screen production and writing, for those interested in the industry. I really fell in love with it and got in with a group of people really into theatre and cinema. So I really got into it, started writing short films and plays. It was really that for me, the play I wrote after university that I was spotted in. Had that not have happened I don’t know where I would be, I owe that man my life. I tell him that on a regular basis.

Does music still play a part in your downtime? Yeah I mean music is pretty self-serving, you don’t need someone to tell you to do it. I don’t think I would find much pleasure in walking around my bedroom acting to myself. I can sit at a piano and put my head in music. The interesting thing is I was told to move back to London if I was really interested in being an actor, meet with an agent. But I ended up starting a band, moved to Manchester and ended up acting, moved to London to act and started a band. You can never plan your life!

Had things been different, where would you be now? I am very glad that my band didn’t do well! I am pleased that acting became the front runner. I am not sure, I could be trekking about in a van up and down the country. It’s hard to sustain a life doing music unless you are at the top of the game.

Well given that acting did become the frontrunner, and going back to the guy who first spotted you in the play, who has been instrumental in your career? I always go back to Julie Taymor (who directed The Lion King and Frida), she cast me in Across The Universe when no one knew who I was. She was looking for a young guy who was musical and could act, but not a ‘musical’ actor. She took a huge chance on me when the studio wanted big-name actors. Had she not done that, who knows what would have happened? She was a huge turning point for me. She gave me a platform; she put a lot of faith and trust in the unknown.

That must have been a mad time for you, the change and suddenly people knowing who you were. Ah man, it was crazy. I was just about to give up on the whole acting thing, the band I was in had just broken up and I was scratching around trying to work out what to do next. Then someone said ‘you should go to this Beatles audition’. I mean it took me to America for the first time; I went to New York for nine months, it was crazy. You can get very bogged down with ‘being cool’, whatever that means, and actually it doesn’t mean anything. When I went to New York and I was in a musical I ended up thinking ‘I don’t care, I am going to enjoy this and have the best time’, I changed my attitude. I ended up thinking ‘f*** it’ and it lead to me meeting so many more interesting people in that head space.

As you get older you do watch yourself less, you get tired of your own face. I did a showreel recently and I thought ‘I have done too many films with a moustache’.

How does your preparation process go when you are taking on a new character? It varies so much, it depends on the character. When you read a script, something happens, you really connect. Someone offers you a part that you have no idea what you are going to do, it’s an accent you have never done or whatever and that is it when the work starts, you have to really dive in and work out who he is, how he moves, what makes him tick, what are his flaws. Normally, it is just a good story and you connect, you want to tell their story. Subconsciously I guess you are always inspired by your surroundings, people around you and it’s all going in somewhere.

Of your characters, which has been the biggest challenge? You know what, when you are on a job you always think ‘this is the hardest thing you have ever done’ and then you go onto another job and think ‘no this is the hardest thing I have ever done’. The Way Back, physically that was really really demanding, in the elements all day every day, for months. It never got easier, never an easy day. I could watch that and think: that was the hardest thing. But then you do a TV show and the speed at which television works, learning lines – that’s a challenge in itself. It’s hard.


Not getting any easier then..! Your advice to younger actors could be that ‘it doesn’t get easier’. Yeah definitely not one of those things where the older you get, the better you get, it’s like going to the gym, you think it may get easier…

Looking at ‘The Way Back’, that is an emotionally and physically demanding job. What does it take to get you out of that head space, what is the decompression process for you? It’s a weird transition. You come back to earth, from trekking across amazing landscapes and having these amazing life changing experiences. You know, sometimes you make a film; sometimes you change your life. Cloud Atlas was that, it was a life changing moment.

Do you watch your performances? Is it a useful critiquing tool or a useless endeavour? I do yeah, you can learn. It’s a double edged sword, you can over analyse. It can paralyse you though and stop the freeness and the organic-ness of what you are doing. I think it is useful, I never quite get those actors that say they don’t watch themselves.

I guess we could take this back around to the ‘what is the perception of cool’, but that is a whole other conversation and could take us deeper than we need to go right now! Hahaha oh yeah. But you know what, as you get older you do watch yourself less, you get tired of your own face. I did a showreel recently and I thought ‘I have done too many films with a moustache’.

You have had some great facial hair progression through your life; I was looking at your photos and was thinking about the various facial hair pieces you have sported. I could be front runner for young actor with the most interesting facial hair.

You clearly have a face people want to dress with hair pieces… I know! Not many people can say that.

As you have grown and your career has developed, have you noticed a shift in your attitude and priorities? Yeah I mean as you get older, outside of the acting thing, the whole industry in which you feel so grateful to be there, but you when you were young you were so eager that you forget to look after yourself. People try to put an idea of you out there, but as you get older you have a stronger sense of who you are. You learn to say ‘no’ more, you’re not comfortable to do ‘this’ or prepared to do ‘that’. If I could say something to my younger self, it would be that – ‘it is ok to say no’, you don’t have to please everybody.

You can get very bogged down with ‘being cool’, whatever that means, and actually it doesn’t mean anything. When I went to New York and I was in a musical I ended up thinking ‘I don’t care, I am going to enjoy this and have the best time’, I changed my attitude.

So what is next, what can we expect to see? Well I have Feed The Beast out now and then the Stephen Poliakoff drama Close To The Enemy coming out in October. Then there is a film Geostorm due out next year. Three very different projects.

So are you going to take a break or keep going with the things that interest you? Well you know I’m home now, reading things that interest me. I took a break after Feed The Beast and now I’m back I am tinkering about. I like this period, you have no idea what’s going to come next – your antennas are up, you are waiting for something that feels right – it’s an interesting time.

Sounds like a good place to be… Yeah I mean it is but then you start panicking you can’t pay the rent! As a working actor, the panic sets in every time, you think you will never work again. You are working and you are like ‘God, I can’t wait to do nothing’ then you do nothing, and then it’s ‘God, my whole life is falling apart, what am I doing’.

Haha, I think that is true for the entire human race – never satisfied. Never satisfied – right!

Never satisfied, but happy to laugh in the face of life’s obscurities. I would be happy with that.

Close To The Enemy is out in November on the BBC. A seven part series that is set against the background of the emerging Cold War. It follows Sturgess as intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson whose last task for the army is to ensure German captive Dieter (played by August Diehl) starts working for the British RAF on urgently developing the jet engine. Callum uses unorthodox methods in his attempt to convince Dieter to work with the British and eventually a friendship develops between the two men, but soon tensions arise as all is not as it seems. Feed The Beast is currently being aired in America on AMC. For an insight into Jim’s musical capabilities (with a good cause), please also check out Jim Sturgess’ Tragic Toys. Set up to raise money for a friend diagnosed with MS.

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