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Jim Sturgess on Toronto’s Buzzy-But-Confusing Cloud Atlas

Jim Sturgess. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The last time we saw Jim Sturgess on-screen, he was Anne Hathaway’s soulmate in One Day. Now in the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas, he ditches the staid fare to play a futuristic South Korean rebel commander, a violently ill nineteenth-century lawyer, and a smattering of other roles like “poor hotel guest” and “highlander.” Each is a character in one of the six intersecting story lines. We sat down with Sturgess to discuss the film’s accessibility, his Asian transformation, and getting props from a South Korean mother.

How are you describing Cloud Atlas to people? Or do you even try?
I find it really hard to describe, and I often think if you can’t describe it in sort of one quote then it’s probably quite an interesting film. Do you know what I mean? It’s an impossible film just to kind of sum up in a sound bite, really.

I was going to say it’s kind of a departure from your past movies, but it’s probably a departure for everyone in the cast.
Yeah, I don’t think there’s a film like it. You can’t say, “Oh, I shot a film pretty similar to that.” And that’s what was great about the whole process, because even though we had big actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry and Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent, they’d never done anything like that, either.

Did they have to pre-visualize you as an Asian?
I think Lana said, “We did a few graphic tests, we took a photo of you, and we played around with your face to see what it might look like.” Cause I think it works on some people and doesn’t so much on others. I was pleased. I was up for having a go.

A friend of mine who saw it said that you were a very sexy Asian.
Oh, that’s even better. That’s even better. Great. [Co-star] Doona Bae’s mum actually came on set. That was the biggest sort of accolade I could have got. Doona’s mom came on set and she said [adopting generic Asian accent], “Ah, you look like very nice Asian man.” So I’ll take it from her.

They did something with your lids, obviously, right?
Yeah, it was actually very simple. We sort of did a whole lot of makeup tests to try and see what would work, and we tried everything. You know, changing my nose and my face, and it ended up being too much. And all it was really was just these simple little things that just kind of went over your eyes, and they blend it all in. And I had a black wig. That was really it.

Did you ever run into anyone on set and not recognize who they were?
I did. When [his lawyer character] Ewing walks past the tribe people and hears the whipping, I look at this woman and she sort of looks back at me. I didn’t know that was Halle Berry. It wasn’t until we wrapped the shoot that day and she peeled off all the makeup. I said, “No way, I didn’t even know it was you.”

I imagine you would shoot one character and then shoot the next one?
I wish. No, we mixed it all up. Some days even two characters in one day.

Was that difficult?
It was and it wasn’t. Most of the time we’d do two or three days, four days, maybe even a week as [his Asian character] Chang, and then we might do a couple days of Ewing and then a day of Chang and then a week of Ewing, and then another four days of Chang. You went to work each day knowing what character you were playing and you had enough preparation to know what that story was about and the feelings and thoughts. But luckily for me, they were very similar stories, just different times.

Which character took the most prep time?
Probably Chang. It was a very intricate thing getting the eyes just right. It took about two hours in the beginning and I think we got it down to about an hour, just over an hour.

You’ve seen it once now. Do you feel like you kind of get it? What does it say to you?
To me, it’s really about your legacy. Just whatever you choose to put out there in the world represents you, and you have a choice how to live your life. So you can fill it with acts of kindness, you can create and make pieces of art and write music. Or a simple entry into a journal could potentially and hopefully affect somebody else at some point. Who knows where, how, and when, and it’s your responsibility to make the most of that.

Were you listening to people talk about the movie after the premiere screening yesterday?
Well, you go to those parties afterwards where everybody tells you how amazing it is, and you start kind of not being able to hear it after a while. And you never know if it’s even their true opinion, you know, because obviously you’re in the film so they’re only going to tell you what you want to hear. So, yeah, everyone seemed very positive after the screening we had yesterday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your average cinemagoer is going to feel the same way.

It’s a challenging movie, that’s for sure.
Yeah, I know people are going to dislike it, for sure. It wouldn’t be as ambitious and extreme if there wasn’t both sides of the coin. It’s so hard to get people into the cinema, anyway, but it would be nice to think that someone might go more than once just to piece it all together a bit more.

Each individual story is easy to get into. There’s that, at least.
Yeah, exactly. It’s such a big film with so many different ideas and feelings and genres, I’d be surprised if someone just went, “Oh, that’s boring, I didn’t really get it.” I try my hardest not to do that when I go to the cinema because I know how hard people have worked to put that up on the screen. But I’ve fallen short. You know, you’ve watched the film and it lasts two hours. And then you go, “What did you think?” You go, “I don’t know, let’s go and get some food. Let’s go and have a beer.” And you just think, No, man, someone worked fucking hard to get that up there on the screen.

Jim Sturgess Can’t Explain Cloud Atlas Either