‘Cloud Atlas’ Star Jim Sturgess on Playing Multiple Characters in One Movie, Tackling Controversy and Making ‘Interesting’ Career Choices

'One Day' Kiss
Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway share a smooch.
Jim Sturgess began his career in a big way with roles in Across the Universe and 21, films that earned him both critical accolades and commercial success. It’s hard to say which of the two he’ll earn – if not both – from the new movie Cloud Atlas, but the actor says he found some of the biggest challenges of his career when he agreed to star in Matrix filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell.

“I didn’t understand what it was all about or why they would want me to play an Asian man,” Sturgess tells Celebuzz. “It baffled me totally.”

The actor spoke to Celebuzz at the film’s Los Angeles press day, where he explained how he got inside not one but seven different characters for the film. Additionally, he revealed how he came to terms with the potential controversy that might erupt from playing Asian characters as a Caucasian actor, and reflected on how his career has evolved into a series of increasingly interesting and eclectic opportunities.

Celebuzz: What was your initial perception was of this project, and what particular character did you need to key in on first before you could build the other ones around it?

Jim Sturgess: I was only told I was going to play Adam Ewing and Chang. I didn’t understand what it was all about or why they would want me to play an Asian man — it baffled me totally. So I think instantly I was kind of more connected to Adam Ewing because I sort of understood it a lot more when I read the script. I was like, “I could see why I’d do this, maybe, or why they might think of me for this. But this? This is crazy.” So I really wanted to make sure I understood why I was doing that and what the reasons were behind it. So I met with Andy and Lana in London and we sort of talked about that. And they made me understand the ideas that they had about the project and the ambitious kind of goal that they were going for. And my jaw slowly kind of started dropping to the floor. I was like, are you serious? Oh, my God.

In your mind, you’re like, “This could be really, really exciting.” And once I understood that, it was okay for me to play an Asian man because everybody was going to be switching genders, and age, and race and that it was necessary for whoever played Adam Ewing, for that soul to develop into Hae-Joo Chang and the whole idea of all these souls. But I just knew from the offset it was going to be a once in a lifetime [experience] — there was just no way I wouldn’t want to be a part of it.

CB: Was playing Asian characters something that you were specifically concerned about when you went into do this? Not even in terms of the challenge of being able to do it yourself, but just the perception or the reception that the movie might get?

JS: Yeah, I was probably more concerned about the reception it would get than I was about whether I was capable of doing it, in a way. I just wanted to make sure it was okay for me to do that and to change race like that. And I knew from the off of course it was going to be controversial for some people and a bitter pill for some people to maybe swallow. But I understood it for myself and I felt I understood why I would do that. And I felt comfortable that everyone else was doing it around me. And it was coming at all angles, at all sides — just the playfulness about it kind of quashed any stress. But I feel it’s also necessary to tell a much bigger idea. And that bigger idea is actually a very beautiful idea, you know? So I think it’s okay.

CB: What was the throughline that you created or you discussed with Tom and the Wachowskis that you felt like unified the characters that you played, since the recurring theme in the movie is about or the core idea is about how the soul sort of passes through time and manifests itself in different people?

JS: I felt really connected to the soul idea. Adam Ewing and Chang really were telling the same story to me. It was just a fight against oppression and a fight for equality and love, and sacrifice and human kindness. So maybe they’re kind of things that kind of just sat so deeply with both of them. One was unconscious and one was totally conscious. One was just kind of weak, dying, but an innately kind and a good man [who made] that simple act of kindness, unconscious to what affect it would have in the future, but just knows kind of right from wrong, at a time when it’s very easy to follow the pattern of this ladder of civilization. I can understand people in those times were totally caught up in that mentality. It’s amazing to see that he then falls in love with the same girl, the same actress that he was once married to that he’s been yearning to see for all this time. And then when he sees Sonmi-451, I just thought it was brilliant — maybe like being in love in another time.

And then Hae-Joo Chang suddenly takes all those ideas of abolishing slavery, which just evolved. The problem still existed; it had just evolved with time, like everything. Then he becomes this very capable military kind of science officer of a Union rebellion. I love the idea that it had grown out of Adam Ewing somehow. In some way, some ripple effect had brought us to this guy.

CB: The fact that the Wachowskis are doing interviews was such a surprise to most people because they have been so private, but it’s also a testament seemingly to how personal this movie is to them. Was this something that you could tell was very personal for them? Or was the machinery of it so large that you and they were both still focused on, well, today I got to be this guy and tomorrow I got to be that guy?

JS: Lana has brought me close to tears just from talking to me about the film and why it’s important to her. And when you hear her talk about the film and the ideas within the film your hairs just [stand up]. It’s just like, wow. And we really got that when we had the table read-through — Lana and Andy and Tom had basically artwork all across the walls of the room, and they basically gave us a show and tell of all the ideas behind all the stories and just this giant kind of philosophical explanation of what it was we were trying to achieve. Then they played us some of Tom’s music and I was in pieces. And I just thought, wow, we’re really going to try and make this film. And then you look around, it’s like there’s Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent, and you’re like, “Wow, we’re really going to do this.” This is about as cool as it gets.

CB: How much did you look at each character as having his or her own story that you had a beginning, middle and end, and how much was there a larger arc that you looked at?

JS: For us as actors, I think it was just important to focus on your stories and the greater story will reveal itself just by the pure nature of putting it all together. Tom Hanks was the first one that said it. He was like, “Jim, man, just pull your f*cking pages out and put them together and have them as individual short stories,” because once you put all the stories together, they read as just short stories. They’re totally linear – you could pull the scenes on a DVD and stick them together and you would get the Sonmi story as it happened rather than it sort of floating in and out. So once I did that I was like okay, so these are just short stories I have to kind of focus on. The rest will work itself out to tell the greater story.

CB: How careful are you having to be to have to find opportunities like this? It seems like you’re at a point in your career where you could probably prettily easily find things that were more conventional or more commercial.

JS: The first sort of three films I did chose me — I had no choice. I was amazed that I had even been asked, that I even got the part in Across the Universe. And then I did a film called The Other Boleyn Girl, and then I did a film called 21. They were pretty quick, like one, two, three, kind of back to back. I was like, wow, this is crazy. Then I realized I had a decision to make where I could start making choices about films that I was interested in. Not that I wasn’t interested in those films, but you suddenly got given a choice. People wanted you to be in films a bit more. So I made a kind of conscious decision to not go down a certain path. And I made a lot of independent films that I know nobody’s ever really seen. And you get kind of disappointed I suppose at times. You’re very proud of the work that you did and some of the films I thought came out great but nobody ever say them, you know?

The Way Back was one of those. Fifty Dead Men Walking was another film I’d done. A film called Heartless. It was the sort of work that I knew most people really hadn’t sort of seen. But it’s kind of like the ideas within this film — that whatever you do has a ripple effect and something comes out of it. Because Andy and Lana and Tom, they’re movie buffs. They see everything. And so they’d seen some stuff in The Way Back and Fifty Dead Men Walking, which is a film that nobody really saw, that made them believe that I could do this part. So it was because of those films that I think I was asked to be involved. So it all comes out good in the end.

Cloud Atlas opens nationwide October 26. Watch co-star Jim Broadbent talk below about tackling some of the same challenges Sturgess faced on the film.

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