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Contender Q&A: Jim Sturgess

The English actor learned to rough it for 'The Way Back,' in which a group of prisoners escapes a Stalin-era Siberian gulag by walking to India.

January 11, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The actor stars in director Peter Weir's film, "The Way Back."
The actor stars in director Peter Weir's film, "The Way Back." (Gareth Cattermole / Getty…)

In Peter Weir's "The Way Back," which opened late last month for a brief Oscar-qualifying run and releases again on Jan. 21, a group of prisoners escapes a Stalin-era Siberian gulag by walking all the way to India. The film is structured very much as an ensemble, with equal moments given to Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell and others, but it is British-born actor Jim Sturgess, portraying a Polish prisoner named Janusz, who is in many ways the audience's point of entry. The story not only opens with him, but also his character's desire to return to his wife is the emotional fulcrum on which the action moves.

Nothing if not versatile, Sturgess, perhaps still best-known for his roles in "Across the Universe" and "21," playfully (and somewhat proudly) noted during an interview in Los Angeles that his career so far has included a musical, a period drama, a Vegas-set box-office hit, a gritty thriller, horror, an epic and an animated film. He recently added to that genre-hopping list with the back-to-back shooting of the romantic comedy "One Day," costarring Anne Hathaway, for "An Education" director Lone Scherfig, and the special-effects action film "Upside Down," for director Juan Diego Solanas with costar Kirsten Dunst.

I read in another interview that Peter Weir had very specific ideas about your accent in the film. Was it to make you sound like you were from a certain part of Poland?

If you hear Eastern European accents, they are so broad you can almost sound like you're making fun of the accent even though you're doing it note for note. It's an easy accent to let own you rather than the other way 'round. I've watched other actors try to pull off the Eastern European accent, and many of them don't do the greatest job. It's so thick. Peter said we just need to find that flavor so it's not so heavy, and we found a way of keeping it real to the people of Poland but not getting so heavily weighed down by it.

The film was shot largely in Bulgaria, Morocco and India in all sorts of weather conditions. What sort of preparation did you have to do for the physical demands of the shoot?

We did a bunch of stuff. Once we were all over in Bulgaria, Peter put us all together for about a month of rehearsing. We were working with a French expeditionist who had done the long walk for real. He would take us out for walks, we would skin rabbits and learn how to build fires and fell trees, how to find dry moss in a forest full of snow, all the kinds of things you would have to know and understand once we started making the film. Once I spent hours trying to build a fire and got it lit with an actual flint and stone. That's a lot harder than you think.

And all the actors were on set pretty much all the time. You were in the background of a shot even if you weren't really in the scene. What was that like, compared with a more conventional shoot?

Most of the time, you shoot scenes and there are two people talking, and if you're not in the scene you're back in your trailer and do some e-mails and whatever, but in this movie, we were all there all the time, all day every day, present on set. So we really had to bond as a group. And we were always outside. So we would just build a campfire and sit around and talk, and occasionally a camera might be put in your face. The performance just disappeared. There ended up being no performance. We just sort of existed in that world, in these landscapes.

Considering the nature of the production — on location, with a fast schedule and a relatively low budget — did it seem Peter Weir had time for the actors?

With the acting, he never allowed us to get sentimental or push the drama. There was a time, and it's in the film, where Saoirse's character is telling a story and a sort of tear came out of my eye, and I was so angry with myself for crying because Peter said no sentimentality, but then I realized it was real because I hadn't wanted it to happen. Peter would be right on top of you if he sniffed any kind of performance. I genuinely believed he could see into the depths of my soul for anything that wasn't real. You never wanted to let him down.

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