In 2011 when Mr Jim Sturgess was cast opposite Ms Anne Hathaway in One Day, the actor assumed his days of blissful anonymity were numbered. Soon, his friends warned, fans of the Mr David Nicholls-penned, multimillion-selling romance would treat him with the same maenadic lust once reserved for a young Sir Paul McCartney, to whom he bears a passing resemblance – same scrappy mop top, same big brown eyes, same sardonic-laconic delivery.
“But it just never happened,” says the easy-going Englishman while sipping a milky tea in a London photo studio. “True story: I got onto a bus with a poster of my face on the side of it. A tourist asked if I could take a picture, so I put my arm around her [he mimes posing for a photo] and what she actually wanted was for me to take a picture ofher and her friend standing by a red London bus.”
Proof positive that 36-year-old Mr Sturgess is the Hollywood leading man you wouldn’t recognise if he bumped into you on the street. But that is likely to change in the next few months. In quick succession he will appear in a string of high-profile movies in which he kidnaps Sir Anthony Hopkins, falls out with Sir Michael Caine, throws darts with Mr Johnny Depp and helps Mr Gerard Butler expose a plot to assassinate the US President, the latter in the epic climate-change blockbuster Geostorm, set for arrival in 2016. “It’s a chance to be in a film that maybe someone will actually see,” he says. “What starts to happen if you do too many obscure independent films is that you can’t make any more obscure independent films because you can’t help those films get funding.”
If strapping on his blockbuster pants doesn’t get him his star on the Walk of Fame, there’s also the screen adaptation of Martin Amis’ apocalyptic black comedy, London Fields. Cherished as one of the great British novels of the past half-century, London Fields has Mr Sturgess playing the appalling, irresistible Keith Talent: underage womaniser, petty criminal, pub darts sensation.
Nice work for a boy from the suburbs. Raised in Farnham, Surrey, a satellite town of London, Mr Sturgess presents his unlikely path to the cusp of stardom as a series of random – certainly unplanned – events. The teenage Mr Sturgess, not a great success at school – “I would skip class and get in trouble” – was a suburban skateboarder first, a garage band singer second, an actor only later.
Music was his great love. There were four of them in his first band; Mr Sturgess sang and played the bongos. “It was our dream, all we did was talk about it and rehearse. Then we did gigs and all the kids from school would come to see us.”
But school ended and the band dissolved. “I was like, ‘What are you doing, stay here and do the band!’ And they were like, ‘No, we’ve got to get our maths degrees and become engineers!’ I was left back at home. It was a bit of a lost year for me. I was working in a restaurant by a motorway, washing pots.”
Salvation awaited him in Salford, Manchester, where he signed up for a media performance course, learning scriptwriting, editing, acting and theatre production. “I loved it,” he says. “It was the first time ever in my life that I’d been top of the class.”
Still, he was happily rudderless. “I had no plan. I didn’t think about what was going to happen when the course ended. I didn’t have a clue. No thought about what job I would do, about money, nothing.”
He wrote a one-man show titled Buzzin’, “a day in the life of one man’s head”. A fellow student brought him to the attention of an agent who encouraged him to move to London, where he began to hang around the early noughties music scene in Camden, eventually helping to form a seven-piece band, Saint Faith.
“There were six of us in a two-bed flat near Great Portland Street station, above a pub. It was a fun time. There was a great energy. And I was really proud of what we were doing.” There was a buzz around Saint Faith. At one point Def Jam executives flew to London from LA to watch them rehearse. “And we blew it, basically,” he says. “We totally screwed it up. There were a lot of big characters in the band. It wasn’t controlled. We didn’t have a manager. We got a lot of attention and we couldn’t handle it. We all went a bit bananas.”
Saint Faith broke up in 2006. All the while, Mr Sturgess had been taking small acting jobs on TV or in commercials to pay the rent. It was fitting that his big break happened when Ms Julie Taymor, the stage-and-screen director, cast him in 2007’s Across the Universe. Ms Taymor’s ambitious, 1960s-set musical, based around songs by The Beatles, followed a love affair between a Liverpool lad and an American girl. “In a weird way,” says Mr Sturgess, “it was as if everything I’d done in my life – the acting, all the music I’d been involved in – had built up to that point. When I was auditioning it just felt as if this is right for me to do. I was just totally up for the whole experience.”
After Across the Universe he thought he would just return to London, but the parts kept coming: The Other Boleyn Girl with Ms Natalie Portman and Ms Scarlett Johansson, 21with Mr Kevin Spacey and Crossing Over with Mr Harrison Ford. Meanwhile he explored grittier projects: for Fifty Dead Men Walking, about an IRA informer, he immersed himself in the world of the film, stayed in character, kept the Belfast accent even when he wasn’t working. “It was the first time I felt like an actor.”
The fact is that through no fault of his – he has consistently outperformed his material – many of the films he’s made have failed to win widespread critical acclaim, or meet commercial expectations. For the role in London Fields, Mr Sturgess has left nothing to chance. He spent time with an unlikely legend of British sport, the flamboyant darts pro Mr Bobby George. “He became my mentor. I’d go and play darts round at his house. And then Johnny Depp ended up playing my darts nemesis, Chick Purchase. It all just got more and more bananas. There was this moment when I was sitting there having lunch with Johnny Depp and Bobby George, the three of us, at Elstree [Studios]. Johnny had no idea who Bobby was and Bobby had no idea who Johnny was, but they got on like a house on fire. Johnny even stole some of Bobby’s little one-liners and put them in the film. He’s clever like that. He picks things up.”
Other recent professional highlights include working opposite those two lions of British cinema, Sirs Hopkins and Caine. In Kidnapping Freddy Heineken, Sir Anthony plays the Dutch beer baron; Messrs Sturgess and Sam Worthington (Avatar) the kidnappers. “I had this great experience where I had to sit in a cell with Anthony Hopkins. I’m wearing a Balaclava, he’s chained to a wall and he gives this incredible monologue. I just sit there with my arms folded, not talking. We shot that all day. It was a front-row seat at the Anthony Hopkins show. And then he came up to me at the end, and thanked me for being such a great actor. He goes, ‘You were terrific, thank you.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything, man!’ What a dude.”
In Stonehearst Asylum, which is released on 24 October in the US, he plays a young doctor who arrives at a mental hospital and soon realises all is not as it should be. The psychological thriller stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Ms Kate Beckinsale and Sir Michael as the mysterious Dr Salt. Best moment during filming? “I got shouted at by Michael Caine,” he says proudly. “Got the finger-point from him.”
As he makes to leave, heading home for a quiet Friday night with friends, I’m conscious that Mr Sturgess – soft-spoken, phlegmatic, diplomatic – has successfully deflected the attention of our interview away from himself and onto his more famous co-stars. He won’t get away with that for much longer. Pretty soon, other actors will be telling interviewers their best Jim Sturgess stories.