Jim Sturgess headlines a new generation of reluctant leading men.
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.”
Then (and now), Sturgess seemed much more interested in the moviemaking-as-experience idea rather than career (or star) building. As an actor and a person, he wanted to live another life—to soak up and become one with the atmosphere of Vegas, Eastern Europe, Belfast, or wherever the film world took place. “Some people have snapshots,” he told me. “My postcards—my gifts—at the end of these trips are the films.”
Which is why I was secretly thrilled to see Sturgess in One Day (see “On Set,”) as the romantic lead opposite Anne Hathaway. Although the film has a melancholic undertow, it re-establishes Sturgess as a potential movie star. Based on the best-selling novel, One Day follows a couple that meets on the same day for 20 years. Sturgess plays Dexter Mayhew, who starts out callow and effortlessly charming and, as he ages, becomes lonely and adrift. It’s a subtle performance—complex and haunting. “I thought Dexter would be a really fun character to play,” he said. “He’s vulgar and obnoxious, and that’s fun. But he was a lot more tragic and desperate than I thought. Truthfully, I spent a lot of my time being miserable.”
He’s not alone. Sturgess may have started a non-movie-star movie-star movement: In today’s Hollywood, the most interesting actors are reluctant leading men, more interested in character than close-ups. For instance, Armie Hammer may be model-handsome, but there’s a warmth and humor to his portrayals that counter his all-American perfect looks. In The Social Network, he played both Winklevoss twins and imbued each with a distinct personality and an intriguing mix of entitlement and generosity. He is about to take a chance by playing the entirely unsympathetic Clyde Tolson in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic. Tolson was rumored to be both Hoover’s longtime lover and henchman—hardly a safe part guaranteeing leading-man status.
Similarly, Joel Kinnaman lost weight and obscured his appearance to play a secretive recovering–meth addict detective in The Killing on AMC. A star in his native Sweden, Kinnaman is attracted to outsiders rather than conventional heroes. Joel Edgerton also has affection for darker characters—he’s gravitated toward playing men who are motivated by their volatility: the mixed–martial arts athlete in Warrior, which premieres September 9, and Tom Buchanan, the rampaging id who drives the conflict in Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D version of The Great Gatsby, filming this year.
Like Edgerton, Oscar Isaac combines a kind of muscularity with sensitivity in Drive, out September 16, in which he is fascinating as a doomed ex-convict. Isaac is good-looking enough to coast on his appearance, but he gives his characters—particularly the tricky role of Joseph, the human father of Jesus in The Nativity Story—a complicated individuality.
In the same vein as Sturgess, Dominic Cooper seemed poised to be the next Brit-turned-American rom-com star after playing the love interest in Mamma Mia! But his career-changing turn in The Devil’s Double, as both Uday Hussein and his body double, Latif Yahia, is riveting and chilling in a way that is completely unexpected. Cooper has countered the star system by inventing distinct and varied characters rather than honing a particular persona.
Due to his distance from commercial films, Sturgess was required to audition for director Lone Scherfig to get the part in One Day. “I had to do a screen test,” he said matter-of-factly. “They also wanted me to read with Anne to see if we had ‘chemistry.’ There was all this awful pressure—it was very nerve-wracking—but Anne was great. In the end I didn’t mind auditioning or the screen test. I feel like you know it’s a great project if they ask you to audition.”
In all likelihood, in the eyes of Hollywood, One Day will relaunch Sturgess, but he is still not interested in becoming a classic leading man. “As corny as it may sound,” he said to me, “I have a love of cinema. I don’t want to be a ‘celebrity’ or a ‘movie star.’ That was never my goal.”
While I may long for these new leading men to be movie stars and replenish the ranks of Hollywood, I probably shouldn’t. Their goal—to create original characters in intriguing circumstances—is more interesting. “I can’t imagine that it’s any fun to be typecast,” Sturgess told me. “I’d rather risk failing than repeat myself. And if that means that I never become famous, that’s okay.”