Hollywood’s Reluctant Leading Man

Jim Sturgess’ new movie, the romance ‘One Day,’ comes out Friday. “Sometimes I get, ‘Are you famous?’ and I say, ‘Obviously not famous enough,’” he tells Lorenza Muñoz.

08.18.11 4:48 PM ET

Jim Sturgess, the 29-year-old British actor that many in Hollywood would like to turn into the next big star, is ambivalent about fame. He cringes at the thought of going on a talk show and does not particularly enjoy premiere walks along the red carpet.

He was forced to start tweeting only because a fan had created his own Twitter account posing as Sturgess. While initially the impostor seemed benign, Sturgess drew the line when the pretender began tweeting about the Twilight series and the romantic escapades of Bella and Edward.

So, Sturgess set up his own authentic account and started tweeting—poetry:  It was nice for a while to dream of being cool, but really it’s fake...The fact that i’m a Geek I just can’t escape!...Or This is how it feels when you feel so small, And the world outside your window isn’t what you thought it was...

Some of his fans were not amused.

“People would write me angry messages like ‘Why don’t you write normal things?’ or ‘What does this even mean?’” said Sturgess, smiling, but then explains, “When I was younger, I looked to actors like they were from another planet. You couldn’t believe you could be anywhere near that world. It was exciting. I kind of like that. I really don’t like the idea of people knowing what I am doing. I find telling everybody what you had for breakfast is really uninspiring.”

Sturgess looks like an average albeit good-looking guy, with short brown hair, chocolate eyes, and a small, nicely shaped nose. He slouches in his tall frame, wears a Thrasher T shirt to an interview and on this particular morning has sticky-looking hair. But on camera, intensity, sweetness, and charm radiate off him. 

His star has been rising steadily after playing Jude in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and then as the naïve MIT math genius turned casino card counter in the hit college drama 21.  

His latest film, One Day, is a romantic drama based on David Nicholls’ bestselling novel about two college friends, Dexter and Emma, and their relationship over 20 years. Costarring Anne Hathaway and directed by Lone Scherfig, the film is the first romance for Sturgess. He said he was drawn to Dexter because of his defects and contradictions. 

“Dex is kind of like the guys you see in London—posh guys that are all into media and are fame hungry; they are kind of revolting,” said Sturgess as he picked at his chicken-salad lunch.  “Out of every 10 scripts I get sent, seven are fairly generic about an American guy who gets the girl and is involved in underground espionage activity. Dex doesn’t fit the mold, and he goes through a real journey. He is a flawed character with an inner struggle.”  

He also knew he would be in good hands with Scherfig, whose last film, An Education, was nominated for an Academy Award and is known for telling romantic tales without the schmaltz. Scherfig found Sturgess’ open honesty and easygoing attitude perfect for the part.  

“It had to be someone versatile and with a laid-back, classy charm but who would also be believable as a loser,” said Scherfig. “There is something very contemporary about Jim. He is super British, but he is an actor who is of this decade.”

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Indeed, Sturgess was admittedly a bit of a loser before he fell into acting. As the middle child of a middle-class English family, he was never a standout student and caused his parents a lot of grief. In fact, he got into acting at the age of 10 because he could rehearse for the town play during school hours and skip class. But he was so good, he got the part.

 “I was quite naughty at school. I was always in the back of the class messing about with the Bunsen burner rather than paying attention,” he said.  “I don’t know if we had ADD when I was a kid, but that would be my excuse.”

As he grew older he was more interested in skateboarding, drinking, and girls than college. When all of his friends left for university, he stayed in his hometown, a suburb of London, and got a job as a “pot wash boy” at a restaurant.

“Then I got promoted to salad boy, and I was so excited about my promotion,” he said. “I thought this had got to change. This can’t be the most exciting thing going on in my life.”

So he went to college and hung out with an artistic group that exposed him to independent film, British film, music, and plays. Within a few years he was in London doing one-man acts based on his own work and his agent sent him to audition for Across the Universe. The cast was as wide-eyed and young as the characters they played in the coming-of-age musical.

“It was one of those magical moments, and Julie was our mother hen,” he said of Taymor. “It was an experience that changed all of our lives in one way or another.”

While he is enjoying his life as an actor, Sturgess is bewildered by the state of the film industry. His last film, The Way Back, about a group of men escaping a Soviet gulag through the mountains and desert, was produced by Scott Rudin, directed by Peter Weir, and starred Ed Harris and Collin Farrell. The film suffered from tepid reviews and barely got distribution, grossing less than $3 million at the domestic box office.

“You don’t have any idea how any film can exist unless it’s a superhero film,” he said. “Adults are not taking the time to go to support adult cinema. So films are for children now. It’s a real shame.”

He has selected smallish projects like the English films Fifty Dead Men Walking or Heartless that appeal to him more for their story than their budget.  

“I don’t think he feels the need to be Mr. It,” said Harris, who forged a bond with Sturgess on the grueling shoot in thigh-deep snow in Bulgaria. “He is under a lot of pressure to do what they want him to do and accept the mantle of young star, and I think it’s a good thing he’s reluctant. He is more concerned with being an actor than a star.”

And so right now, Sturgess can still rely on his everyman looks to take the bus, train, or subway without recognition. But there is a definite curiosity lurking about.

“Some people stop and tell me I look a bit like that American actor…’What’s his name again?’” he laughed. “Or sometimes I get, ‘Are you famous?’ and I say, ‘Obviously not famous enough.’”