From acclaimed filmmakers Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) comes the stunning, epic and powerful Cloud Atlas, based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. Through various genres and time periods, spanning 500 years, and with the actors playing a variety of characters that cross genders and races, the story contains drama, mystery, action and love, interwoven in such a way that illustrates how everything is connected and that the actions and choices in one era can have consequences in another. The film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw and James D’Arcy.
At the film’s press day, actor Jim Sturgess spoke to Collider, in both a roundtable and 1-on-1 interview, about the necessity of going into this film completely open to the experience, what he thought of the book when he read it, the themes he connects with most, the process of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, the approach to playing so many different characters, how nervous he was to take on the role of an Asian man, how much fun it was to get to be a bit of an action star, and the process of working with these filmmakers. He also talked about finding work now that’s just as creatively fulfilling, and the appeal of the sci-fi romantic drama Upside Down. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: Do you feel that people need to go into this film, just completely open to the experience?
JIM STURGESS: Yeah, you have to just let it wash over you a little bit, and then it all starts connecting it for you. Knowing the material so well, with knowing the screenplay and reading the book, seeing the film for the first time was the same for me, even having been a part of it. I still was like, “What is happening?!” And then, you just allow yourself to let it all fall into place for you.
When this idea was presented to you, what was your impression of it and when did you realize that the filmmakers actually knew what they were doing?
STURGESS: I guess it was a case of, if anyone could have a go at pulling it off, it would be these people, particularly Lana. She seemed so confident with what they were hoping to achieve that I never really doubted it, to be honest. I never had a moment where I was like, “This could go horribly wrong!” I guess I did, but I didn’t mind because we were trying to do something new and exciting, in the cinema world where it is getting a little stale. Although there are great films always being made, but not on this kind of scale. It’s such a big, epic film. It wants the audience to think.
At what point did you read the book?
STURGESS: I read the book once I knew I was going to be doing the film. I read the screenplay first and was baffled and excited about it, on so many levels. I had to read it twice. I read it just before I went to bed, and then I woke up and read it, first thing in the morning. And then, I spoke to Andy and Lana and they explained it to me. They came to London to meet me, and helped me piece together what it was that they were hoping to achieve. And then, I read the book. It was such an exciting way to go into the book ‘cause I knew that I was going to be making this film, and the book is so dense with all the ideas. I didn’t realize that the structure wasn’t going to be the same. There was all this information, and then it just cuts you off and you’re like, “What happened?!”
Which themes did you most connect with, in the film?
STURGESS: Love is a big theme in the film. It appears in various forms, in all of the six stories. It was great that we got to really play one of the strongest themes of love, in the film, with Sonmi (Doona Brae) and Hae-Joo Chang, and Tilda and Adam Ewing. They’re heartbreaking love stories. I think everyone connects to that emotion, so easily. There’s the idea of your legacy and the responsibility that you have while you’re alive. That was a big theme for me. That’s what made me think a lot about what you’re going to do with your time here and what it means to be alive. As someone who enjoys creating things or writing things or making pieces of music or making films, those were all the themes in the book. That lives on forever. It made me really think about all that stuff.
Obviously, something like this is an experience that will never happen again. Were you able to really enjoy and appreciate that, while it was happening, or was it more looking back on it, after the fact?
STURGESS: It’s so sad that it’s never going to happen again. It’s always after, a little bit more. I’m getting better and better at appreciating the moment while you’re in it. You do it and it’s hard work and you make such good friends as you’re going along, but it’s always afterwards that you reflect on what you’ve just done. And then, you think “Shit, that was one of the greatest moments of my life!,” and you appreciate it even more. But, I’m definitely getting a lot better at enjoying the process. The process is the best part of the experience, rather than the end product. I just want to try to enjoy it, as much as I can.
Did you have a different approach or preparation process for this because you were playing roles that you’d never be able to play, under different circumstances?
STURGESS: Not so much. The approach, as far as playing the characters, was pretty similar. You just had to do it multiple times. The approach of looking into the character and working out what that person is about, represents and goes through emotionally, is all very similar to what you would do on any other film, really. You just had to do it multiple times.
What was it like to see yourself playing someone of a different race?
STURGESS: That felt really special. That was definitely the big [draw], and the fun part that you knew was the risky part. There was very little CGI, as far as the make-up went. It was old school theater make-up being put onto a giant screen. But, the minute you saw Hugo Weaving and Tom Hanks just jumping straight in and going for it, everyone followed suit.
Was there a character that you were most nervous about embodying?
STURGESS: The one I was most nervous about was Hae-Joo Chang. For a lot of the other actors, they might change gender or race, but they were minor characters. For me, my main character was an Asian man. Some of them just appeared in a scene, as an Asian man, but I really had to carry a character for the journey of the story. I was a bit nervous about that, but then you have to just go for it. Luckily, I knew that it made sense. I understood why I was playing that character.
Even though there have already been people outraged that the filmmakers didn’t just hire Asian actors to play the Asian characters, do you feel like this is really one of those instances where people just need to see the film to get passed that?
STURGESS: Yeah. A lot of people came to some pretty quick conclusions, justifiably so, on limited information. A little information is always a dangerous thing. So, I can understand some of the outrage that came from seeing the trailer and the posters and some of the imagery because they weren’t given the full picture of the whole scale of everybody moving around and shifting age and race. I really understand it, and I understand a lot of Asian American actors, in particular, more so than actresses, feel very under-represented in mainstream Hollywood cinema, and I think they have every right to feel that way. But, I do feel this is a slightly different beast. It isn’t a whitewash that can often happen. The idea is bigger than that. When you just hear about it, it sounds racist, when actually it’s beyond racism. It’s an attempt at transcending that, hopefully. You start to just believe in the character, after awhile.
Was it fun for you to get to be a bit of an action star, in the futuristic sequences?
STURGESS: Yeah, there were moments when I was like, “It doesn’t get better than this!” I’d never done it. It was hard work, actually. I had to stop drinking beer, for a start. It was a new experience . We had these stunt training rehearsals, which we had to do quite a lot of. I was surprised about how much work goes into a small sequence. When you watch it in the film, it lasts 20 seconds, but that was a good month’s worth of learning this kind of dance and fine tuning it. First, we learned how to do it on the floor, which was one thing. But then, they put you on a plank, 10 feet up in the air where you can fall off, and it’s a whole other thing. The plank kept getting thinner, and that became harder. And then, the plank wasn’t a plank, but it was a grid thing with bits sticking out of it. Then, they were like, “Actually, you’re not doing it in shoes. You’re going to do it barefoot.” It was constantly new things being thrown at you. The last thing was, “And you’re going to do it with your shirt off.” I was like, “Fuck!” I was panicking, but it was cool. As an actor, you’re blessed because you get to travel through time, to a certain extent, when you play different characters from different periods in time. I had never been to the future, so that was awesome. I loved it!
What was it like to work with The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer? How was that dynamic?
STURGESS: It felt connected, definitely. It felt like Tom, Lana and Andy shared a very definite vision of what they were doing. Although such different personalities, they were clearly united in their vision. I really got to just be in a Wachowski experience, for most of it. It was great that Tom was around, and coming in and out, but for me and Doona [Bae], in particular, we were really with the Wachowski team for 98% of the experience. They come as a single unit, although so different in their personality. They’re such different people. Andy has got his own thing and Lana has got her own thing, but they clearly love each other so much and they clearly have an internal dialogue that they share. I never saw them argue. I never saw them conflict. They respect each other so much, and they’re just such good fun. The biggest shock of all was just how much fun they made it for all of us. They just looked like they were playing and enjoying every minute of it. Me and Lana were just like, “This cannot end! We can’t finish this! What are we going to do?!” We would email each other, after the film was done, and just be like, “I feel flat.” They were going to get me a job as a runner in the editing studio ‘cause I just didn’t want to leave the project. I would have carried on in the post-production of the film, if I could have and they’d have let me.
Upside Down is a film with another really interesting concept. Do you find yourself naturally drawn to these bigger concept films?
STURGESS: Not necessarily. You just try to find something where you go, “Oh, that’s crazy. That’s interesting. That’s heartbreaking. That will be a challenge to do.” I’m always looking for a new way to be challenged, and Upside Down just looked like fun. I’d just come off a film called The Way Back, which was grueling, tough, very raw and very real with no CGI. We were just stuck in these bare landscapes, learning how to survive. So, each film is a reaction to the last film that I’ve made. I’d been doing this very bleak film, and then I got the script for Upside Down and it looked fun and much more youthful, but still with something intriguing about it. That was a big physical challenge, doing that film.
Is it hard to find something creatively fulfilling, after doing a project like Cloud Atlas?
STURGESS: It does feel like, “Wow, what do I do now?! Really? Only one character? That’s boring!” Yeah, there was certainly a feeling, while we were making it and now that it’s over, that it was really special and once-in-a-lifetime. But, the minute you read a great story with a great moment or character, you fall in love with a new character, all over again. I just read a script really recently that’s really simple and really focused on a very stripped down, very basic, very emotional story. I found myself totally drawn to that because it’s so different from something like Cloud Atlas. There’s always great stories and great characters and great directors that you want to work with, as well. It hasn’t lost its interest, at all.
Cloud Atlas opens in theaters today.