Interview: Jim Sturgess Across the Universe in ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’

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CHICAGO – Although the name Jim Sturgess might not be recognized, his work in ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘21’ has certainly made him identifiable. He is in a newly released film about the Irish Republican Army, “Fifty Dead Man Walking.” Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

Sturgess plays real-life Martin McGartland, a stalwart soldier for the IRA in 1980s Belfast who decides to become an informant for Britain’s Special Branch, who were trying to infiltrate the IRA to quell some of the violence in Northern Ireland.

At first lured by money, McGartland becomes more aware of the lives he is saving (thus the title). With help from his contact, Fergus (Ben Kingsley), the conflicted McGartland tries desperately to do the right thing for himself and his family.

Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland in ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’
Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland in ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’
Photo credit: Phase 4 Films interviewed lead actor Jim Sturgess. In his spirited perspective, he talks about the historical perspective on the film’s conflict, his characterization and his past films and upcoming projects. Martin McGartland still lives under a threat of elimination. How did you want to honor him through your portrayal?

Jim Sturgess: Just to show him as a real person, I think, instead of a cinematic hero – which would be way to easy to do. He was a very everyday ‘lad around town’ who was pulled every which way. He was conflicted regarding whether he was doing the right thing, and that shows the honesty of it.

He was drawn in by financial gain and as time went on and he started to save people’s lives he certainly came towards a moral perspective. It was important that he was able to be seen as a hero and a dirty rat, all in the same breath.

HC: How does the Catholic faith play into both the violence of the IRA and the hope to do the right thing as depicted through Martin’s actions?

JS: It’s easy to fight for a cause when you have religion on your side. But I really didn’t go down the religious path. Martin wasn’t religious.

There was this great war between Protestants and Catholics, with many people in the middle, in the gray zone. The film focuses on that gray area.

HC: What kind of understanding did you come to know regarding the IRA, the unionists and the wounds of Irish history?

JS: Mostly that it goes back a long, long way. The IRA in the 1980s was a different military organization than it was in the 1970s. What was cool is that Kari [Skogland], the director, spent a lot of time in Belfast before any of us got there. She got among the people there and gained a lot of trust.

We actually had ex-IRA men on set and representatives from Britain’s Special Branch, who set up against them. Amazing that all these people got together to help us tell the story.

Of course I don’t condone the way that the IRA went around and did what they did. But when you speak to someone one-to-one you hear a viewpoint. And whether you believe in it or not it’s a viewpoint. When you see them with their kids and their families, it becomes a bit confusing that these people were able to bring about so much violence.

HC: What fascinated director Kari Skogland most about Martin McGartland? What characteristics did she insist upon from you regarding Martin both from her screenplay and in her direction?

JS: She didn’t insist on anything, she was willing to trust the actors, and she let me and Ben [Kingsley] do our thing.

A lot of it was already there in her writing, from the minute I read the script I got so much off the page. Which came from her ability to write a good story and to write good characters.

Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess in ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’
Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess in ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’
Photo credit: Phase 4 Films

HC: You and Ben Kingsley developed a peculiar yet endearing relationship in Fifty Dead Men Walking. What kind of buzz did Ben give you as an actor when doing your scenes together?

JS: Just his infectious enthusiasm for acting. It’s insane – that guy has done so many films – and you’d think it was the first acting job he’s ever had. Here’s guy whose worked with Spielberg and Scorsese, and he turned up on our set just hungry to tell the story and to play his character.

And he put me on a level playing field from day one, which I was so grateful for. Obviously I was a little intimidated and nervous to act with someone like him. Within minutes he made it clear that it was going to be one-to-one, he was asking me questions about the scenes. Just the greatest person that I could possibly work with.

HC: When playing Martin, you had to pretend to be severely attacked. What is your personal views on violence in films and how comfortable are you handling the weapons you used in Fifty Dead Men Walking?

JS: Some of those attacks weren’t so ‘pretend’ (laughs). Kari came about the violence in this film from an interesting viewpoint. There was nothing glamorous about the violence depicted, no action fight scenes. She shot a lot of the violent scenes from a distance, so you don’t quite see everything. Your imagination makes it far more disturbing that way.

As for the gun, it was weird. I’ve never held or shot a gun. Even though I didn’t use the weapon in the film, it’s amazing when someone puts something like that in your hand. The weight of it was interesting.

HC: You’ve now most famously played a child of the 1960s in ‘Across the Universe’ and a political activist in the 1980s in this film. What about your actor’s journey do you think has put you on the path to play roles outside your era? And which of the eras did you find yourself most powerfully attached to?

JS: I don’t know if the era has anything to do with it, a character is a character. The time is just where they exist. It’s not like ‘Jim is good at playing 1960s.’ I’ve just been fortunate to play across that spectrum – ‘60s with Across the Universe, ‘80s with this film and even the Tudor era in the “Other Boelyn Girl.”

“Heartless,” coming up later this year, is really about the world I live in, modern day East London, so I have played a universe and an era which is my doorstep. Maybe next is the future, with a spaceship or something (laughs).

Jim Sturgess and Patrick McDonald in Chicago, August 20, 2009.
Jim Sturgess and Patrick McDonald in Chicago, August 20, 2009.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

HC: You sang your own songs in ‘Across the Universe.’ As a singer and admirer of different eras of music, how did getting so close to The Beatles and their songs alter your musical landscape and which Beatles album still resonates with you?

JS: I was a huge fan of The Beatles and ‘60s music and culture, so to be in that film was a playground for me.

At first when I heard it was a Beatles musical, I thought, what a horrible idea (laughs). But when I read the script and saw it was about the times of the 1960s, when art met politics, it clicked for me.

I did most of the singing live on the set. It was more bizarre than you could possibly imagine. You had these “earwigs” that you put on your ear, which would play the music so only I could hear it. 400 extras, a whole crew, hears absolutely nothing and I just belt out the singing by myself, in full grandeur, with no musical accompaniment from the rest of the room. I had to get over that self consciousness pretty damn quick (laughs).

HC: You’ve done an American accent for ‘21’ and now an Irish accent for this film. Which one is easier to get away with and why?

JS: Neither (laughs). When you’re doing an American film, it for an industry owned by Americans. There are a lot of people that are going to be watching you from America. And I only had two weeks to work it out. It was a pressure I didn’t enjoy.

For 50 Dead Men Walking, I had more time. And the Northern Irish accent is pretty bizarre, you have to get your mouth around it. I pretty much decided from the day I landed on Irish soil until Ieft I would talk in a Belfast Irish accent. So it became my voice when we began to film.

HC: I noticed on-line that you’re very excited about your uncoming participation in the antimated ‘Guardians of Ga’Hoole.’ Can you give us some buzz on the project and what makes it unique?

JS: Yeah, it’s just phenomenal about this animation. And I’ve just seen it in about 80% form for voice work, there is another 20% to go visually.

It’s an animation project directed by Zach Snyder (”300,” “Watchmen”) who is incredibly visual. For him to work solely on visual, it is an amazing palette for him to play with.

It’s a children’s story that is really powerful and pretty deep. In the vein of “Watership Down.” It has a real sadness and a real weight to it.

I play an Australian Owl.. And it was twelve people watching me in a booth behind glass flapping away (laughs).

HC: Finally, what do you think Americans will never understand about the British and what still perplexes you about life here in these United States?

JS: You had to end with that one. I have no idea (laughs).

’Fifty Dead Men Walking’ releases August 21, 2009, and features Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley and Rose McGowan, directed by Kari Skogland. staff writer Patrick McDonald

Staff Writer

© 2009 Patrick McDonald,

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