Jim Sturgess, first introduced to American audiences playing woeful, honey-voiced romantic lead Jude in Julie Taymor’s psychedelic Beatles epic, Across the Universe, is about to get intimate with American audiences. AMC’s new hour-long drama, Feed the Beast, which just premiered June 5th. It stars Sturgess as Dion, a chef who opens a restaurant in the Bronx with his best friend Tommy, played by David Schwimmer. Set an extra place at the table for dinner...
It is been a long and winding road that led Sturgess from Surrey, London to the Bronx, New York City. As a kid, his two passions were music and skateboarding, and he speaks in a lighthearted, off-hand manner about his early career prospects. “My parents didn’t have much expectation of me being a doctor or a lawyer. I think they kind of always knew that I was more, you know, creative than I was academic. They didn’t have high hopes for me in that regard.”
His parents, however, were uniquely supportive of all of his creative passions.
“When I was really into skateboarding, my dad helped me build a ramp in the backyard so I had a little mini half-pipe. When I was playing music and I was in a band, my dad would help me make posters for the shows,” he recalls.
When his interests shifted toward acting, their support didn’t waver. “I think for me they were just kind of relieved that I was into something, you know what I mean?” He laughs and explains: “It was more like, ‘Oh good, he likes something. He’s passionate about something rather than just being a complete dropout.’” His nonchalance, however, belies the strength and comfort that a supportive environment provides.
Though not a professional artist himself, his father dabbled in photography and had a connoisseur’s movie collection. “I remember watching films like Brazil when I was young,” he says. Terry Gilliam’s surreal, dystopic masterpiece and Gilliam’s other, lesser-known film, Time Bandits, resonated with young Sturgess. “I guess when you’re a kid and you have imagery like that in front of your face, it’s going to have some sort of an effect.” Who can say what sparks the flame that becomes an artist’s primary focus of expression, but film certainly had an impact on him.
His big breakout role, playing Jude in Across the Universe, allowed him to bridge the two worlds that he was exploring at the time: music and film. Despite his success following that performance, however, he made an active choice to pursue different styles of filmmaking and dive into a variety of roles. “I was very aware that I didn’t want to get typecast or kind of thrown into one position. And I haven’t. I feel really blessed that I’ve been able to move around and play lots of different types of characters in film.”
That desire to keep acting fresh and exciting was born in college in Manchester. “When I was doing theater and when I was younger, it was all about playing different kinds of characters and changing your voice and changing the way you dress and that was always the creative appeal for me, you know, personally,” he explains. Although he never had any formal training, he was rigorous in developing his talent. “We’d put on our own plays and write our own plays and make our own stuff.”
Unlike many attractive, fresh-faced, up-and- coming actors, he has also been able to avoid the trap of fame. He disappears into each role in the way of all great performers. There is no sense of the actor Jim Sturgess: There is only Jude or Janusz or Eddie Dodson.
Sturgess himself is often astonished at the vast range of roles offered to him. “I’m like, really? You want me to do that? Why?” He mentions the film London Fields as one example of a role that took him by surprise. The film is an adaptation of the post-modern Martin Amis murder-mystery thrill ride by the same name and boasts an incredible cast of anti-heroes. “They wanted me to play this really nasty, kind of grimy, east London darts player who kind of represents everything that’s awful about the human race,” Sturgess says, and you feel in his amusing description that he’s both turned on and repulsed by the character. “I was like, ‘Wow, where did you come up with me for that?’” From the mentally impaired Laurence Burrell in a British TV show to MIT blackjack whiz kid Ben Campbell to grubby cheat Keith Talent, Sturgess is a chameleon. “I’m always very pleased and very excited and feel inspired by other’s people’s bravery to cast me in a thing,” he says.
This diversity of characters, however, demands incredible diligence. Often, he has very little time between films and must leap from one film to another with astonishing clarity, like when he finished The Way Back and a month later started production on One Day. “I remember looking in the mirror dressed as Dexter Mayhew from One Day, you know? Clean-shaven, wearing a pair of leather trousers, a sort of ridiculous shirt,” he laughs. “I was dying in a desert somewhere and now I’m a talk show host dressed in a sort of 90s regalia, thinking, ‘Wow. I couldn’t be further from where I’ve just been only a month ago.’”
He builds downtime into his schedule to stay grounded. “You have to kind of mourn the loss of the whole experience. Not just the character but the whole experience and what you’ve just been through,” Sturgess explains. The leaps, however exciting, are also often disorienting. He had no rest between London Fields and Kidnapping Mr. Heineken and the effect was overwhelming. “I went to the read-through still in my make-up and all the tattoos from the last character sitting at a table read with a whole new cast and a whole new production reading in a completely different world. It was too much. And then, within three days, I had my hair cut, my hair was dyed blond and I was suddenly a Dutch kidnapper.”
Perhaps part of the reason he has resisted typecasting is because he is not focused on one specific character or genre of film. “I quite like not having any idea what the next adventure is going to be,” Sturgess says. “You’re antennas are up and you’re sort of looking and you don’t have any idea what it is.” He is thrilled and challenged by the surprise of each new role.
One of the biggest surprises, in fact, was the character of Dion for his new AMC TV show, Feed the Beast. He knew if he said yes to a television project, he would need to be passionate about it. “If you’re going to do it, you’re going to commit to it. You have to feel good about it and want to play that character and be that character as it progresses,” he explains. Two scripts ended up in his hands at the same time: one was a 1950s music industry show and the other was set in a restaurant. He read the restaurant one with no expectations. “I just read it and it was great. It was brilliant. There was something really exciting there so I said yes straight-away.” Everyone
assumed he’d go for the music industry script, as it seemed to match his interests and personality. “I surprised myself,” he admits, laughing. Now, however, he is completely at ease with his decision. “I love being in New York and playing a New York character who cooks and owns a restaurant.”
So how does a musician from Surrey transform into an angsty, rough-and- tumble chef from the Bronx? Even he admits the casting was unexpected. “My first thought was like, ‘Are you crazy? Like, why are you casting me?’” He says. “It’s a kind of healthy nerves, to keep you focused. Okay, I’ve gotta do some serious work now to find out how I’m going to pull this off.” For that, he started with the accent.
He worked with the show’s creator, Clyde Phillips (famous for Dexter), on an accent that would feel true and authentic. “Quite quickly, we were like we don’t want to just do a really heavy accent. I didn’t want him to become a caricature.” They went into production so quickly that Sturgess didn’t have oodles of time to perfect the role before shooting and relied more on his own intuition about the character. “It was a lot coming from the imagination rather than a sort of thorough research,” he explains. What comes across on the screen feels very American and New York without being a hacky, post-Sopranos, mob-genre gimmick.
“Everyone was much more concerned about how I chopped a carrot,” Sturgess says, laughing. Dion cooks with flair and intensity. “He’s a sort of rock star artist.” Sturgess isn’t nearly as passionate about cooking as his character, and being agile and articulate in the kitchen is not a skill that’s easy to fake. “I spent time with some chefs and I went to cooking school a lot before we started shooting, just to sort of get it in my bones more than anything, you know what I mean?”
As the show has progressed, he has tried to cook each meal on his own and it has fostered an unexpected interest in the art form. “As you get a little bit older, you need to find new ways to amuse yourself rather than go out on a bender every night. You start thinking, ‘What can I do to entertain myself that’s a little bit more low key?’ You suddenly find yourself putting on a record and pouring a nice glass of red wine and chopping some onions,” he says. The show caught him at the right moment. “This came up and I thought, ‘What a brilliant idea.’”
As with every character that Sturgess has played, Dion is a new kind of beast. “He’s a bit of a rogue, a bit of a mischief-maker, but he’s full of spirit.” Dion is intense and spontaneous, a whirling dervish in the life of the other characters on the show. “He thinks very quickly and he’s very passionate so that gets him into a lot of trouble,” Sturgess says.
As an actor, Sturgess has a talent for accessing the submerged emotional core of his characters and that skill is on display when he discusses Dion. “He can’t go deep within himself because it’s just so painful in there,” Sturgess explains. “He has a need and a hunger to keep pushing forward and making everything external rather than internal because going inside of himself is just too much of a painful place.”
Sturgess acknowledges certain intersections between Dion and himself. “I feel alive when I feel passionate about something. I don’t mind getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to work. And when I’m not working or filming, you start feeling very… I can see how you can start to sort of go inside yourself,” he says. “I totally relate to that.”
Every character he has played has come with its own set of peculiar hurdles to tackle. For Janusz in The Way Back, Sturgess speaks eloquently about the incredible physical exhaustion that came with the role. With Dion, he remembers one particularly challenging day on set where he had to cook an entire meal while delivering lines. “So we’re both standing in a kitchen, me and my uncle Stavros, and I have to make him French toast,” he says. “Throughout the scene, I had to get the eggs, put them in a bowl, whip them, you know, chop up some croissants, chop some butter, put the butter in the pan, turn the gas on. You know?” He laughs as he recalls the challenge. “And doing all this shit while you’re saying the lines that you just learned in the car this morning. It was impossible. I spent my whole lunch break practicing how to do that. And the director’s like, ‘Oh you’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.’ It’s
impossible!” Everyone on set ate well that day.
Feed the Beast is Sturgess’ first TV project and, though he is adjusting, he looks forward to the built-in structure of television. “You’re not so hungry-slash- desperate to find another job,” he explains. Music is always in the back of his mind. “I’m always sort of messing around with music. I really hope I get to finish something one day. You have to commit yourself to it. You can’t just sort of flake around with it in the background.”