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Interview with Jim Sturgess, star of 21

Jim Sturgess stars in 21, directed by Robert Luketic, as Ben Campbell, an MIT student who joins a team of five other students who secretly travel to Las Vegas casinos where they win blackjack games with their card-counting skills. Jim has a brief romance with one of the team members, Jill (Kate Bosworth). Kevin Spacey plays Micky, an MIT math professor who's also their team leader. Lawrence Fishburne plays a suspicious loss prevention consultant watching their every move through the casino's security cameras. Based on the true story of MIT student Jeff Ma and on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. Jim Sturgess has previously played the role of Jude in the exhilirating musical drama Across the Universe and will soon be seen in Crossing Over. I had the privilege to interview him.

Columbia Pictures releases 21 nationwide on March 28th, 2008.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How would you compare/contrast your experiences working on Across the Universe and 21?

JS: Across the Universe was my first experience of a big film and 21 didnít really feel that different compared to it except there werenít any giant puppets hanging around the set and no one breaking into song every five minutes. As far as the scale of it, it wasnít any different.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think 21 could have been made in the UK?

JS: This film could never be made in the UK. We donít have anywhere like Las Vegas at all. Itís a completely different culture of gambling. Gambling in England is much more putting money on dogs, horses and that kind of stuff.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you feel any apprehension about visiting Las Vegas?

JS: I was more excited than apprehensive. It was my first experience being in a glossy Hollywood movie, so I was excited to see what that was all about. I was excited to work with Kevin Spacey, Lawrence Fishburne and Kate [Bosworth]. There wasnít any apprehension. I just wanted to desperately get out there and make the film.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you get a chance to gamble while in Las Vegas?

JS: Yeah, it was a huge part of getting into the whole world that they created [of] these MIT students. Thatís all there is to do in Vegas. We were there for about a month and a half, so we got up to do a certain amount of gambling.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which casino did you like the most?

JS: The Palms Casino. Jeff Ma, who the story is based on, would often take us there. They have this Playboy bunny kind of lounge and it was as ridiculous as it got, so that was a favorite spot for us.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like meeting the real MIT students that the film is based on?

JS: It was great to meet the MIT students who spent a lot of time on set. They really felt like a part of the whole collaborative team. It was certainly cool finding out about the story, finding out that itís a true story and then reading the book after reading the script and meeting all the people who this really happened to. We were taking stories from all different kinds of teams with the foundation of the book as the driving force.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you learn how to count Blackjack cards like in the movie?

JS: These guys are so mathematically-minded, which Iím not. Plus, they worked out this strategy for a long time before going to Vegas and they had many years of mathematical training. To learn how to do that in two weeks in preparation for a film was just wasnít going to happen. Jeff explained it to me time and time again the theory of it and I understood the theory, but putting it into practice is just a totally different thing.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you enjoy about your role in 21?

JS: I enjoyed this role the most because I got to pretend that Iím, somehow, mathematically-minded.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right accent to work with for your role?

JS: We talked about it very early on with [director] Robert [Luketic] and various people in the studio about what weíre going to do with the accentóas far as whether heís going to have a thick, Southy Boston accent and we all decided that itís a very colorful, charismatic accent, so we wanted to keep it milder so that he doesnít jump out in any kind of way.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Could you relate to your role?

JS: There was a point in my life when I didnít really know what I wanted to do. I looked into going somewhere like drama school and knew I was interested in acting. I found out that drama school was just ridiculously expensive, so it was impossible for me to go there because thereís no way I have that kind of money. [Despite] being disheartened by that, I realized that I had to do more than I would have done had I gone to drama school through the experiences that I had in my life. I was lucky enough that Julie Taymor understood those experiences and knew what I had been through. Thatís why she wanted to cast me in that role. It was actually life experiences that got me to where I [didnít even] dream of getting to. This feels like the most secure job than anything Iíve ever had.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like working opposite Lawrence Fishburne?

JS: Amazingly intense, but itís an intensity that you look for and hope for. [Lawrence Fishburne], kind of, intimidated me off-camera as well as on-camera. He gave me big ďLaurence Fishburne man-hugĒ at the end of it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What about working with Kevin Spacey?

JS: Heís just tough about the nature of the work and getting it right. That goes for anybody. He wasnít tough on me specifically at all. He cares about making the right film, about his performance [and] about all the other actors that are around him. Itís not toughness; just passion. It was exciting to see someone so immersed in his work.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel about the sex scene with your co-star, Kate Bosworth?

JS: Thereís always some apprehension about doing a sex scene, but, luckily, by that time me and Kate [Bosworth] became really good friends, laidback, knew how silly it really was, and made light of it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How has music been a part of your life?

JS: I was singing and playing in a band back in England before I did Across the Universe. Music has been a big part of my life for many years. I never expected to combine being in a film and singing, but it was a really interesting way of taking music.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you ever consider becoming a director?

KS: Yeah, I think so, only because when I was experimenting with what I wanted to do, we started making short films and putting on theater productions by ourselves. There was definitely a point when I was making short films and interested in that kind of part. I see so many films that Iím in and I donít know how they do that, so I donít know if Iíll be good at it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Is it true that you will be in a Spider-Man musical directed by Julie Taymor?

JS: Yeah, we actually did a workshop for it. [Julie Taymor] asked me and Evan [Rachel Wood] if we would come down and help with this workshop that she was doing. So, it was a chance to work with Julie and Evan again. I look up to Julie so much, so I said,ďyeah.Ē At that point, I didnít really know anything more about it. We just did two weeks [of it] and hung out with Bono and sang songs about Spider-Man. When youíre around people like Julie, itís very creative. As a young actor and musician, it was an incredible experience to be so involved in that. We then did a rough performance of the play as a read-through.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What lessons did you ultimately learn from starring in 21?

JS: Not to gamble unless youíre counting cards because itíll beat you down in the endówhich is why I love the story, really, because Vegas, to me, was a culture shock. I was surprised how calculated the whole place is and how designed it is to take all your money. It pays attention to every little detail, [i.e.] putting slot machines that pay out more money at the front of the [casino] door so that you can hear the sound of change hitting the metal. The story [of 21] is great because of how the MIT students took some of that money back. I was one of the few actors to leave up, but I certainly had the downfalls of going, ďOh my god, I lost all of my per diem and my heart.Ē

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