Jim Sturgess didn’t like being famous. “It was a whole new world to get my head around,” the British star of Across the Universe, One Day and Cloud Atlas says. “I didn’t know how the industry worked. I didn’t know how to play the game. It really freaked me out. I didn’t enjoy seeing myself on posters on the sides of buses.” He remembers attending the Las Vegas premiere in 2008 of 21, a blackjack drama that looked set to propel him onto the Hollywood A-list, and panicking. “I was driving down the strip and seeing my face on all these giant billboards. I checked into a hotel and all the blackjack tables had my face on them, and the room key had my face on it – it was a lot.”
That Sturgess didn’t end up becoming a giant celebrity always felt more deliberate than accidental. The 43-year-old has boundless rock-star charisma on screen – he’s louche, swaggering and handsome, with a beard that wouldn’t look out of place in an NME photo spread. He’s great as heartbreakers (romancing Anne Hathaway through time in One Day), hedonists (Electric Slide’s hippie bank robber) and heretics (in the grisly horror Heartless). A star could have, and probably should have, been born. But while he is loose and funny in conversation over Zoom from his home in London, there’s a bit of unspoken discomfort, too – in the hovering publicists on the call, the recurring allusions to insecurity and anxiousness, and the black paper he’s taped over his laptop camera. “I just hate looking at myself while I’m talking at the same time,” he says. “I hate looking at myself anyway.”
It might also explain why he feels so at ease in his new TV series, in which a preternaturally gifted 10-year-old actor does most of the heavy lifting. Apple TV+’s Home Before Dark is a very modern television hit: it’s on a relatively new streaming platform you may not realise you had on your computer; it’s already on its second season, even though you’ve probably not heard of it; and it’s low-key in its charm, which is also its subtle superpower.
The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince stars as a precocious kid detective named Hilde, who moves to a small American town with her journalist dad (Sturgess). In the show’s first season, Hilde used her investigative skills – mostly inspired by All the President’s Men, her favourite film – to solve a local murder, unravelling a raft of conspiracies in the process. In the show’s second season, which launches on 11 June, she tangles with corrupt politicians and those responsible for dumping toxic waste in the town’s river. Think of the show’s leading lady as Nancy Drew meets Greta Thunberg and you’ll grasp its unique wavelength.
“You have this young girl seeing things so innocently,” Sturgess says. “It’s something kids are able to do, this ability to take out all the noise and all the bulls***, and just go, ‘Okay, what is the truth of this situation? What’s really happened?’”
Prince is astoundingly good in the show, bringing a level of grit and humanity to Hilde that would be impressive for an adult, let alone a 10-year-old. Her scenes with Sturgess, which are full of humour and tenderness, are among the show’s best. He says he is constantly in awe of her ability, along with that of the other child actors who play Hilde’s friends.
“I spend a lot of time with them in a way that I wouldn’t normally with younger people,” Sturgess says. “And I see how brilliant they are, and how professional they are, and how passionate they are. When you’re around those guys, you have to be on your A-game. They’re fast and they’re sharp and I find I just have to keep up with them. And their conversations! They seem switched on in a way that I never was. They’re young kids with old minds, you know? I feel like they’ve been here before.”
What was he doing when he was 10? “I don’t think I thought beyond what I was eating at dinner time,” he jokes. “I didn’t have any concept of thinking about the future at all. Maybe at best I wanted to be a professional football player, you know? Or a fireman or something.” He did do a bit of acting as a child, but only in local theatre and drama clubs. He says he struggled in school, finding classroom scenarios difficult to learn in. He liked drama class though, and got his first acting gig when a local theatre auditioned schoolkids for a play.
“I got one of the parts and I remember teachers and my parents just being like, ooh, he’s focused and connecting with something now,” he remembers. He doesn’t think he’d have been able to hack anything bigger at the time, though. “There’s no way you could have got me on camera and able to remember all those lines, and hit my mark and be on set all day. No way on God’s earth would I have been able to focus and concentrate. I still can barely do it now.”
Sturgess broke through in acting relatively late. By the time he was cast in Across the Universe at the age of 26, he’d graduated from the University of Salford, where he’d studied media and performance, and had moved to London to try and make it as a musician. Across the Universe, a jukebox musical soundtracked by The Beatles, allowed all of his passions to coalesce – alongside Evan Rachel Wood, he sang and danced and acted and swooned. The film made no money, but it got him noticed. Roles came pouring in.
“I got another film very quickly afterwards, which was The Other Boleyn Girl,” he remembers. “Then almost back-to-back with that I was cast in the movie 21 with Kevin Spacey. It definitely felt like something had shifted.” Speaking of Spacey, who since 21 has been accused by multiple men of sexual harassment – allegations the actor has denied – Sturgess has said before that they didn’t get to know each other very well on set. But he also isn’t sure that the public is ready for Spacey’s forthcoming return to acting – in a film in which he plays a sex crime investigator, no less.
“It does feel like people are not as accepting [now] and aren’t just gonna turn a blind eye,” he says. “I think the internet has played a very positive part in that, in encouraging people to speak out and connect with each other and support each other. Whether that really does close some doors [in the industry], I’ll have to wait and see, like everybody else. But there are certain people that you just hope never get the opportunity to make a comeback.”
21 remains the only time a major American studio movie has rested on Sturgess’s shoulders, and it led to a degree of unease about his career afterwards. In the aftermath of its release, he decided to pull back from the kind of superstardom his agents initially had in mind for him. “I wish I could do it all over again and enjoy it a little bit more,” he admits, but says that, back then, he felt the need to retreat. “I turned down some stuff that was a lot bigger and a lot brighter and bolder. Whether that was the right thing or the wrong thing – it doesn’t matter.”
He’s also open about various films he was in that didn’t work at all. Among better-received projects, like Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy and the Wachowski sisters’ Cloud Atlas, he was in Geostorm, in which Gerard Butler fought bad weather, and London Fields, the disastrous Martin Amis adaptation that starred Amber Heard and Johnny Depp before they were locked into court battles.
“I’ve definitely been on film projects where you feel like it’s going great and you’re really excited about how it’s going to come out, and then you watch the finished product and it’s a horror show,” he jokes. “Decision-making on what I work on is something I’ve never got good at, you know? Sometimes you make a good choice and sometimes you don’t, but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s a bit like a Russian roulette wheel that you spin every time you engage with [a script].”
I wonder if Sturgess’s slight resistance to Hollywood might have been impacted by the noise or criticism that’s surrounded some of his films. The release of One Day, for instance, was beset by mean jokes about Anne Hathaway’s truthfully quite reasonable attempt at a Yorkshire accent. It didn’t sour mainstream cinema for him, he says, but he did think the criticism was over the top. “I’m a real stickler for accents,” he says. “If someone does a bad one, I can’t watch the film. But I never felt anything like that while working with Anne at all. I think what happened was that she got a bad rep in America for her ‘bad English accent’, because people don’t know about a Yorkshire accent in America. I’ve had friends in America say it’s the worst English accent they’ve ever heard, but I didn’t think it was fair.”
Thankfully, it didn’t put him off Hollywood altogether. He’s still working there, too – just a month ago he filmed a low-budget indie with Katie Holmes that she also wrote and directed. It might not be the career his agents imagined for him more than a decade ago, but he’s content. As long as his face gets nowhere near the side of a bus, presumably.
‘Home Before Dark’ season two begins Friday 11 June on Apple TV+, with new episodes released weekly