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Jim Sturgess Talks About Filming ‘21’

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Jim Sturgess stars as MIT Blackjack team member Ben Campbell in the upcoming movie “21.” The film opens next Friday, March 28.
Peter Iovino—Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

A few weeks ago, I sat down with the charming Jim Sturgess, the up and coming 26 year old British actor best know for his role as Jude in the Beatles musical, “Across the Universe.” In the upcoming film “21,” (based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich) Mr. Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, an MIT student who uses his math acumen to win millions playing blackjack in Vegas. During our conversation, Mr. Sturgess talked about what it was like playing a character who is based on a real life MIT alum, Jeffrey Ma ’94, filming in Las Vegas, and working with Kevin Spacey. Below is an excerpt:

The Tech: Are you happy with the final results of the film?

Jim Sturgess: Yeah, definitely. I saw it a while ago. When you’re making the film you have no concept of how kind of visual it’s going to look. Especially in the scenes when we’re playing cards and all that kind of stuff. While we were shooting those scenes it was fairly kind of tedious kind of work; pushing chips and flipping cards and all that kind of stuff. And then when you see the film you see how dramatic it looks. It was a shock to all of us, I think. The director [Robert Luketic] kept saying just trust me, trust me, it’s going to look great … stuff that you kind of don’t like doing as much. Actually you want to do the kind of big shouting scenes or all the meaty scenes or whatever. But we kind of stuck with it and I think it paid off.

TT: Did you actually understand the math concepts in it?

JS: Not at all. No. Couldn’t get my head round it at all. I mean we tried. On the weekends I had to play basic strategy blackjack, which is pretty much all you can do unless … you’re a mathematical genius, which is why I think it’s so specific to these people’s story. It’s just not something everyday people can do.

TT: What drew you to the movie?

JS: The story, I think. I was kind of approached. I was shooting another film called “The Other Boleyn Girl” at the time, and I just got a call saying that Robert Luketic, the director, wanted to meet me about this film that he’s making … I guess the idea of these kind of everyday people just going against the system like that and coming out on top, which is always a nice take on life. It was just a feel good movie that was exciting to read as a script and I think exciting to watch as a film. And I got to go to Vegas. And I got to wear designer suits which I had never worn before.

TT: Were you worried about doing an American accent since you’re British?

JS: Yeah, definitely, it’s always a challenge. I enjoy a challenge that I’ve never done before. Anyone from England always thinks they can do an alright American accent. And you quickly learn once you’re put in a room with a dialect coach that you can’t … I think I maybe 2 weeks to learn how to do it before we started shooting, so it was pretty rushed. I was nervous about it.

TT: Did you play cards at all before?

JS: No, not at all. Coming from England, it’s not really — I mean we play poker for maybe matchsticks or spare change, or something like that … We don’t have a casino kind of culture as much as you guys do over here. And we certainly don’t have an equivalent to Las Vegas. So that was part of the appeal really, to sort of learn this whole new world that I didn’t know anything about.

TT: What was it like filming in Vegas with all the craziness still going on around you?

JS: It was insane. It was the only time ever a film set seemed inconspicuous. I remember I went to the toilet in the casino and I remember I came back and I couldn’t find the film set. It’s like, it’s in here somewhere. That’s how crazy it is … We were kind of sectioned off in areas of the casino. We couldn’t shut down the whole place. So of course the everyday life and the machines and all that were all going on whilst we were kind of playing, which helped the atmosphere of the film, I think. Somebody would be doing a scene when somebody would be like, “Wheel of Fortune,” and we’d have to cut and wait for that to finish.

TT: Did you get a chance to speak with some of the original MIT team members before or during shooting?

JS: They were a big part of the whole process. They were on set a lot, we hung out a lot, we went out on the weekends, we gambled with them a lot.

TT: Did they win and you lose?

JS: Pretty much. They would kind of shout out, Jim — they were just playing around — what’s the count (shakes head and mouths ‘no idea’) … So it was fun. And I think for them, they were just loving the fact that we were making this film about them.

TT: This film is very different from “Across the Universe,” obviously, because you don’t sing. Do you prefer being a singer over an actor or vise versa?

JS: I don’t have a preference, really. I’ve always done both. I’ve been sort of writing music, and playing music, and being in bands and stuff like that since I was about 15. And kind of acting — it’s always just kind of been both. I’ve never had to separate the two. I’ve never felt I had to separate the two. I still kind of feel like that. “Across the Universe” was a kind of dream job really because it was both molded into one, which then became a whole different difficult and complex thing; having to sing your kind of dialogue. Singing a song is one thing, singing what you’re supposed to be thinking or saying is another. And then trying not to laugh is another. I was pleased I didn’t have to sing [in “21”].

TT: Did you see any similarities between your character in the movie and yourself?

JS: Yes, certainly. I think the fact that he needs a sort of push or kick start to think outside the box and not live in a kind of safe environment, which is just so easy for all of us to do. And I think I could see a lot of myself in that. I think acting really is one — the only reason that stops me from being like that. You’re often kind of thrown into these difficult situations which make you have to think and behave different … Other than that, he’s a very intellectual human being, which I am not. [The former] would probably be the main similarity that we share and I think most people share.

TT: Now that you’ve done “Across the Universe,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and “21,” do you find that you’re getting recognized more?

JS: Not really, no. No, I wish it would (laughs), but no. No, I’m joking. “Across the Universe” was really the only film that’s come out. Which was mainly more so here in America and I’ve been in Belfast shooting another film the whole time it’s been out.

TT: What film was that that you were shooting?

JS: It’s a film called “50 Dead Men Walking.” It’s about the troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, kind of the Catholics and the Protestants and all that stuff.

TT: Not the feel good movie.

JS: No. And no singing in it either. So I’ve really been kind of living in that little bubble since the film’s come out so I haven’t kind of stepped out into the real world I guess.

TT: What was it like working with Kevin Spacey?

JS: It was cool. He’s an amazing actor, a great guy, fun guy, and a very intense guy … I’ve seen so many of his films and he’s someone I certainly have been so aware of … I remember he phoned me when I first got the part and I was back in London, and I just got a phone call and it was an anonymous number and I answered it, and said ‘hello.’ And he said, (in an intense American accent) ‘Hello, this is Kevin Spacey.’ But then we went out and we had lunch back in London because he lives in London. I went to see his play that he was doing at the Old Vic … [and] then we just hung out then and it was cool. He just felt like a kind of friend.

TT: Did you have a lot of free time when you were filming, especially in Vegas?

JS: On the weekends we did. A lot of times we shot 6 day weeks and we only got one day off. I remember we did a scene where on the weekend we’d all been out and partied and did all this crazy stuff that you do in Vegas, and then we woke up and pretty much the next of filming was acting what we had just done the night before. The line between reality and work was slowly blurring. Vegas it’s easy to kind of get into trouble over there. Not trouble, but fun, which we definitely did.

**The official movie review for “21” will be in the April 4 issue of The Tech.