Jim Sturgess on the Disappointment of 'Cloud Atlas,' Meeting the Beatles and His New Sci-Fi Film

Jim Sturgess Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

Jim Sturgess Headshot - P 2012

The English actor discusses his new film "Upside Down," why Asian audiences were more enthusiastic about "Cloud Atlas" and how he made George Harrison's wife cry.

Jim Sturgess stars in a sci-fi film as one half of a love forbidden by a totalitarian and barbaric oligarchy on a future earth.

Yes, again. And, ironically enough, his new movie, Upside Down, was shot long before last fall's colossal, mind-bending, big-budget think piece Cloud Atlas. It's just taken Argentine director Juan Solanas this long to put the whole thing together.

The movie is semi-high-concept, featuring a pair of twin planets that touch at the north and south poles. The lower planet, where Sturgess lives, is a moribund police state that has been pillaged for its natural energy, which is sent up through a trans-world corporation to the rich higher world (a not-so-veiled allegory; Solanas says that he was commenting on the first and third worlds, and the terror of his nation's former dictators). Kirsten Dunst co-stars as the girl whom Sturgess meets and falls in love with as a teenager, before the pair is torn apart by the authorities.

VIDEO: World Turned On Its Head in 'Upside Down' Trailer

The film hits theaters in limited release this month; the hope is that it will perform better than Cloud Atlas, a domestic bomb ($27 million) that disappointed Sturgess.

"It was a shame to me that maybe American audiences didn’t pick it up so much. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shame," he says. "It was a shame that people didn’t even get to have an opinion. It didn’t really get kind of distributed in a way that people were even able to know it was on, I guess."

The Hollywood Reporter: I spoke to Juan a few minutes ago and he said once he met you, if you didn’t say yes, he’d kill himself.

Sturgess: No pressure, right? He told me the same thing. "If you don’t do this, I’m going to kill myself." I felt obliged just to keep him alive.

THR: Had you ever had a director tell you that?

Sturgess: No, never, no. But it’s nice to hear.

THR: It’s a good negotiating strategy.

Sturgess: For sure. I might try it with a director. If you don’t give me the part, I’ll kill myself.

Film Review: 'Upside Down'

THR: I couldn’t tell how much of the film was post-production visual effects versus filmed on real-life sets. How much were you talking to a tennis ball?

Sturgess: There wasn’t as much as I thought, actually. I knew it was going to be a fairytale kind of fantasy film, so I was prepared for that: Okay, you’re going to be probably stuck in a green room talking to a green tennis ball hanging on some green wires. And I was just amazed; they built these incredible sets and try to make it as real for you as possible. There were loads of stuff we shot on location, on the streets of Montreal and in actual buildings.

THR: Cloud Atlas, it didn’t do well here in America, yet it did much better overseas, especially in China.

Sturgess: The Asian culture, it’s an idea they’re much more familiar with, the afterlife and life rippling through time, that kind of thing. So it was interesting that they really connected with the material. It was a shame to me that maybe American audiences didn’t pick it up so much. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shame.

THR: It was at least a very different experience from most movies.

Sturgess: Back in the day, when there was a cinematic event, something that was new that you could all go see and watch and have an opinion on, whether it was good or bad. It was a shame that people didn’t even get to have an opinion. It didn’t really get kind of distributed in a way that people were even able to know it was on, I guess.

THR: Off topic, but I was wondering if you ever met Paul McCartney after making Across the Universe?

Sturgess: I never met Paul McCartney. I met Ringo [Starr]. I went to a screening that he was at. Me and Evan Rachel Wood were actually in Los Angeles at the time, and we were having dinner together, and we suddenly got a call from Julie Taymor saying, "Where are you in the world?" And I said, "I’m in Los Angeles, I’m with Evan right now." So she said, "Go to the screening, Ringo is there, he’s watching the movie for the first time." So we jumped out of the restaurant, jumped in a car, went over there, and we spent the whole time watching him watch the movie. It was weird, like wow, that’s actually one of the Beatles sittin' right there. And in London, George Harrison’s family all came to the screening, and I ended up having a really, really really long conversation with George Harrison’s wife. And another time, I was sitting at a restaurant and George Harrison’s son, Dhani, came up to me. He said, "Oh, you were the guy in the Beatles movie -- I’m George’s son," and he looked just like him.

THR: So they liked it?

Sturgess: Yeah, George Harrison’s wife was in tears and was really touched by it. It was a really special moment. And then when we were shooting The Way Back, I became friends with Mary McCartney, she came onto the set and did some photographs, because she’s a great photographer, so we got to know each other quite well.

THR: What did you think of [One Day co-star] Anne Hathaway’s Les Mis performance?

Sturgess: I haven’t seen it, to be totally honest. I haven’t had a chance to see it. There’s a lot of films I didn’t make, and normally I’m good, I try to see everything, especially around awards season, but I’ve been busy.

THR: Back to Upside Down, there were political elements that were personal to Juan in this film, with allusions to the rule of dictators in Argentina. How much did you talk to him about it?

Sturgess: I realized how much of a personal story it was to him quite early on. One of the first days of filming was when I was in a burning house and they were pulling me from my Aunt Becky, and Juan said to me, "I searched high and low for this particular car, this old vintage car -- the Ford Falcon," and he said to me, "I had to use this car, because that was the car I remembered as a kid, people coming and taking people away to kill them in Argentina." I was like wow, holy shit, that’s a big thing to have in your mind.

THR: So what is next for you?

Sturgess: In the world of independent filmmaking, you’re never quite sure what’s happening when and where. But there’s a film called The Big Shoe, and then another called The Lion’s Share, which I’m very excited about. Which is set in Africa, based on the point of view of the Somali pirates.

THR: That’s a bold point of view to take.

Sturgess: I was really blown away when I read the script. It really gives a voice and a perspective to a big problem. But you see the origins and foundation of where the problem came from. And, of course, it comes out of desperation and the situation they’re in. It gives them a definite voice. Sometimes you read a script and you just think, "Wow, I would love to go and tell that story, and I don’t even care what happens to the film, I would just love that experience." And often that mentality makes a great film. So, go to Africa and spend some time there is something I’d kill to do anyway.

THR: So when’s it happening?

Sturgess: Hopefully, it’s happening at the end of this year. It’s a director named Nathan Morlando. I met him, and you could just tell when someone has the passion and energy behind making that project. His wife is his producing partner and they seem really invested in the story and spent a lot of time in Africa ... An amazing African actor, Djimon Hounsou, who was in Blood Diamond, he’s going to play the head Somali pirate. He seems like the man for sure, he’s an incredible actor.

THR: So is it your ship he's hijacking?

Sturgess: No, I play a journalist who basically goes to try and uncover that story and that world. An American guy who goes to Africa with a pretty naive head on his shoulders and soon gets taught a few lessons.

THR: Well, as you said about independent films, it’s got to be interesting to follow these projects around and not be sure when and if you’ll see them.

Sturgess: It’s a dice game. It’s so crazy. You see all the work that goes into it, even all the work that goes into it before it gets to the actual production. What Juan had to go through to get this idea on screen. It takes a warrior to get it through, but that’s where the passion is. It can be so frustrating. Sometimes there’s not enough money behind it, it can collapse last-minute with the distribution, lots of things can come into play. But it’s exciting.

THR: It’s nice to see people want to play in that sandbox.

Sturgess: You find most of the interesting stories are the ones that are slightly harder to get made. [What you are] looking for is something interesting or fun or that says something about the world, and often they’re in the independent world a bit more, which is a shame.

THR: So have there been movies you’ve made that didn’t make theaters?

Sturgess: Very recently. I made a British independent film [Ashes, co-starring Ray Winstone and Luke Evans] with a friend of mine, called Mat Whitecross. We made it for no money, so much heart. It was a story, his father had just died of Alzheimer's, and he wrote this really clever script, he wanted to write something about Alzheime'rs as a way of dealing what he was going through. He’s a very smart guy, a great filmmaker, and he didn’t want to make a heavy brow, depressing movie about the disease and the horrible things you go through when someone you know and love is suffering through dementia, so he used the disease as a way of fragmenting the story, he basically made a thriller. You follow this guy, you’re not quite sure what he’s done in his past, and he can’t quite remember, and as he’s piecing together these fragmented memories, you discover more and more about the dark past this guy had.

It was a film I was really proud of, we worked so hard on it, and, unfortunately, right at the very last minute, when it got to the distribution, the distribution company seemed to fold, and it was the last one they had to distribute, and they kind of slipped by the wayside. And it was so painful to know it was going to go straight to DVD and it wasn’t going to get much of a life, and it was not a testament to the quality of the film at all.