In 2008 Jim Sturgess was about to become a movie star, the kind of actor who combines good looks, talent, and the sort of cinema charisma that attracts audiences. The Englishman had starred in 21 as an American M.I.T. math whiz who wins a fortune counting cards and beating the system at blackjack in Las Vegas, as well as in Across the Universe, a brilliant ode to the Beatles, directed by Julie Taymor, in which he sang and played a cross between Lennon and McCartney. Quite a year. Loosely based on a true story, 21 made $160 million worldwide, and Sturgess, who is tall and handsome and makes smart look sexy, was poised to be, perhaps, the next great leading man. Movie stars—even potential movie stars—are rare; they can be great actors (think of Paul Newman or George Clooney or, more recently, Robert Downey Jr.), but, more elusively, they must be alluring to the paying public. Magically, a star is able to combine his own personality with the character’s, resulting in a melding of the familiar and the new.
Hollywood saw that possibility in Sturgess, and in 2008 he was offered leading roles in big studio movies—everything from the romantic leads Hugh Grant was getting too old to play convincingly to superheroes. He turned them all down. “I wasn’t all that tempted,” he told me in July on the phone from his home in London. “Although it’s hard to say no when it’s more money than you’ve ever seen in your life.” Instead, Sturgess, who is now 30, chose to act in an independent film called Fifty Dead Men Walking, playing an Irish informant. He forsook a very commercial American accent for an Irish accent so thick his mother found it disturbing to speak to him. “She’d say, ‘Speak properly,’” he said, rather proudly. “‘I can’t understand a word you’re saying.’”
This delight in the difficult, the challenging, and the obscure has kept Sturgess busy in movies that no one has seen. In 2010 he was touching and unrecognizable as a man with a disfiguring port-wine birthmark covering his face in Heartless, and he was compelling in Peter Weir’s The Way Back as a Polish prisoner (yet another accent) who escaped from a Siberian detention camp during World War II.
In truth, I was simultaneously impressed and a little disappointed by Sturgess’s choices. I wanted him to be a star rather than a great-looking character actor. And yet I wasn’t surprised: When I first met him in 2008 at the lobby lounge in the Mercer hotel in New York, he was about to play Peter Parker in a workshop for Taymor’s musical version of Spider-Man. Although the project looked promising then, Sturgess knew he didn’t want to be on Broadway, but he loved Taymor and was still in an Across the Universe afterglow. “We lived that movie,” he told me. “I was working on it for nine months.” He looked over at our waiter. “I was so in the movie that I still find it strange that everyone doesn’t break into Beatles songs all the time. I half expect that waiter to sing.”