Jim Sturgess: the One Day star reveals why he can't relax
When Jim Sturgess, best known as the star of the movie version of One Day, started the five-month shoot for the new BBC drama Close to the Enemy, he realised he had a problem.
"I was going through quite a tough time in my life and was suffering from bad insomnia," he says. "I'd fall asleep OK, but be wide-awake at three o'clock in the morning, then I'd be a zombie throughout the day. It's fine if you don't have anything to get up for, but when your pickup's at 5.30am, you're kind of screwed."
He laughs. "Thankfully, the character I was playing was in a pretty similar state, and I would just get into a zone of being so focused on what I was doing that I'd get through."
If Sturgess worried his sleeplessness would show on screen, he can relax. In Close to the Enemy, set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in 1946, he is in virtually every scene, playing Army Captain Callum Ferguson, persuading a German scientist kidnapped by the Allies to disclose intelligence regarding his country's development of the jet engine.
Written and directed by the renowned Stephen Poliakoff, it's engrossing, intelligent, highly entertaining drama, and Sturgess, 39, in his first television role, is a tour de force. "I was so interested in Callum because he was like a character playing a character," he says, sitting on the producers' Soho roof terrace, enjoying the last of the day's sun.
"He was equally as obnoxious as he was charming, and equally as vulnerable as he was in control. He wears his charm like a suit of armour, with very few chinks in it."
Sturgess wears his charm, too; though, in contrast to Callum, he is disarmingly warm and open. With dark floppy hair and a ready smile, you can see instantly how his handsome boy-next-door quality made him the shoo-in for Dexter, the male lead in One Day, the 2011 film version of David Nicholls's bestselling novel.
Still, the role wasn't easy, with the book's devoted fanbase criticising every deviation from the original text. "The book was very close to people's hearts and it's always a challenge to personify someone's imagination, but I was blissfully unaware of that when I took the part," says Sturgess. "And people were very kind to me."
They were much harder on his co-star, New Yorker Anne Hathaway, who was widely considered far too glamorous to play the heroine, frumpy northern Emma. Particular vitriol was reserved for Hathaway's Yorkshire accent, which Time magazine said was "heinous enough to almost bar her from visiting England".
"Anne had a really rough time," says Sturgess. "Her accent became a thing and it didn't deserve to be a thing.
"I thought she sounded perfectly English; whether it was strong and northerly enough I don't know. I actually think what happened was, because it was a northern accent, Americans thought she was trying to do a really bad British accent. They were like, 'They don't say grass [with a short a], they say grass [with a long a]'. Then it all got on the internet and everyone jumped on it and it was actually totally unfair.
"There are many English actors playing American iconic characters with American accents. I've sometimes thought: 'Why are they asking me to play this guy from the Bronx?' But acting is a blank canvas – it would be really dull and boring if we all had to be like the characters we were playing."
Raised in Farnham, Surrey, Sturgess doesn't like to reveal details about his family, but we can surmise they're a middle-class bunch, since they sent him to Frensham Heights, a local private school, known for its "alternative" approach to learning.
"Through all my education I was bottom of the class. I didn't concentrate. It wasn't that I wasn't intelligent, but I was disruptive; I only shone at the practical things."
Although he showed acting talent and became involved in a local theatre group, he kept his dramatic activities a secret from his friends. "I was more into skateboarding and hip-hop music. That was cool and being in a play was not."
After school, he found a job in a restaurant, and was "washing dishes and smoking weed until my mum said: 'You've got to do something'". He took a place on a higher national diploma course in media performance at Salford University, where he "was really brought out of my shell. It changed my life, it completely gave me a focus for the first time".
He started acting again and, after graduating, was snapped up by an agent. He moved to London and for years combined playing in a band with being a jobbing actor in shows such as Heartbeat. He auditioned for every part going, including, on one occasion, a tiny role in a Poliakoff production.
"It was for something like a car-park attendant with three lines, and I turned it down for another part with four lines. When I auditioned for Callum, we had a laugh about me turning him down. Stephen said he remembered me and had been watching me ever since."
Poliakoff witnessed Sturgess have his big break with the 2007 Beatles movie musical Across the Universe. Since then the actor has deliberately followed an eclectic career path, juxtaposing parts in Hollywood films such as The Other Boleyn Girl, where he played George Boleyn, with indie movies such as the IRA thriller Fifty Dead Men Walking.
He rejected a lot of big-money roles because they didn't "speak to me. It's always a very strange feeling turning down huge opportunities, but at the end of the day you want to feel you've gone in the direction you wanted to go in," he says.
He is currently in London after a long stint away filming, first, Feed the Beast, a US miniseries in which he plays a "coked-up chef" next to Friends star David Schwimmer, then climate-change blockbuster Geostorm, with Ed Harris and Gerard Butler, in New Orleans.
Bouncing between continents makes it hard to maintain a relationship, he says, and right now he is single after his relationship with Bae Doona, his co-star in Cloud Atlas, the German epic sci-fi version of David Mitchell's novel, ended last year (presumably the "tough time" that sparked his insomnia).
"Of course, at some point, I'd like to find the right person, but it's a very nomadic lifestyle," he says. "It's the part of the job that is most rewarding and exciting, but it doesn't come without a few downsides, like making it harder to dig your roots in."
He has a close-knit group of mainly musician friends, who hang out at the studio he has installed in his north London home. "When I'm back, music's always something I chip away at." He and his band, Tragic Toys, have recently released some demo tracks, with proceeds to help fund treatment for a friend with multiple sclerosis. "He's in his 40s with four kids, and is completely incapable of moving and talking."
The insomnia persists. "Just out of nowhere, I wake up in the middle of the night," he says. Part of it is anxiety as, for the first time in years, he's "resting".
"I should enjoy the time off, but once you've been an auditioning actor who really doesn't know where the next job's coming from, being panicky is kind of built inside you," he says, smiling. Judging by the brilliance of Close to the Enemy, I doubt the time off will last long.
Close to the Enemy begins screening on Sky TV's Rialto Channel at 8.30pm on Tuesday, June 27. The first episode falls within the channel's Unlocked and Loaded week (June 24 to 30) when Sky Basic customers will be to access the channel.
- The Telegraph, London