Frame Grab: Jim Sturgess’ novel challenge in ‘One Day’
Jim Sturgess first met Anne Hathaway at what is known in Hollywood as a chemistry read, an audition to test two actors’ shared magnetism. Hathaway had already been cast as Emma Morley, the bookish protagonist of the English love story “One Day,” and Sturgess had made it through two rounds of auditions for the part of Dexter Mayhew, Emma’s roguish best friend and the object of nearly two decades of her longing.
“It’s kind of weird to meet for the first time,” said Sturgess, who turned up for an early August interview in Beverly Hills with two days’ worth of stubble and a garment bag slung over his shoulder. “Not only is she this massively famous Hollywood actress, but … there’s like five people watching to go, ‘Have they got chemistry? Haven’t they?’”
The palpable chemistry between Emma and Dex is at the heart of “One Day,” an adaptation of the bestselling 2009 British novel by David Nicholls that tracks the delicate arc of a friendship and opened in theaters Friday. It begins with Emma and Dexter’s 1988 graduation from the University of Edinburgh and revisits the characters on that same day over 20 years, through career flops, romantic flings, tacky apartments and even tackier haircuts.
The novel — a three-hankie version of “When Harry Met Sally” — has such an avid following in the United Kingdom that Sturgess, a fair-skinned, 30-year-old London-born actor best known for his role in the 2007 Beatles movie musical “Across the Universe,” felt a certain amount of trepidation about tackling the character.
Over the course of the story, Dexter evolves from a handsome, overprivileged TV host who sleeps and drinks his way through London’s finer nightclubs to a melancholy thirtysomething whose eyes are ringed with dark circles and whose temples are flecked with gray.
“In England the book is a phenomenon,” Sturgess said. “I see it everywhere I go … on the Tube, in the park, in the pub on the table. It’s starting to freak me out a little bit. Everybody has their Dexter in their own lives. I’m sure not gonna be everyone’s Dexter.”
“One Day” director Lone Scherfig, who previously helmed the 2009 coming-of-age drama “An Education,” praised Sturgess for making difficult choices in the role.
“Jim dares to make Dexter quite unsympathetic,” Scherfig said. “Jim’s instinct was to be a really superficial TV host, to go for it. The smarminess makes Dexter’s development all the more heartbreaking.”
Sturgess’ own youth was more like Emma’s creatively thwarted 20s — as a teenager he intended to be a rock star, and the garage band he played in became something of a small-town sensation in Farnham, Surrey, where he lived. But when Sturgess’ bandmates left for college, he found himself washing pots in a restaurant.
“I got promoted from pot-wash boy to salad boy and I remember being really excited about that and then thinking, ‘Hang on, no, actually that’s… terrible that I’m excited about being promoted to salad boy.’ So I took a big look at my life and said, ‘No, I’ve gotta change, I’ve gotta do something about that.’”
He enrolled in a two-year media and performance program at the University of Salford in Manchester — more an effort to get close to the city’s storied music scene than out of any sense of academic ambition. But a one-man show he wrote and performed there won Sturgess an agent and some TV roles.
In his mid-20s, he brought his guitar to an open casting call in London for a film musical and snagged the lead as a Liverpudlian artist named Jude in Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe.” Roles quickly followed in studio films — a gambling math whiz in “21" — and independent ones — a street hustler recruited to spy on the Irish Republican Army in “Fifty Dead Men Walking.”
Sturgess’ performance last year as Janusz, a Polish escapee from a Soviet gulag in Peter Weir’s “The Way Back,” meant reenacting a 4,000-mile trek through Siberia with arduous shoots in desert and snow.
“As harsh as the conditions were at times, Jim did not seem to wilt,” said Colin Farrell, a costar on that film. “There didn’t seem to be any getting him down, really. It was a life-changing experience, not to do with career, just personally. What he went through was pretty gargantuan and pretty profound.”
Unlike his U.K. contemporaries Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) and Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel”), Sturgess has yet to take the kind of role that gets an actor memorialized as an action figure —"I’m not much of a superhero,” he said, lifting his shirt to expose his slight frame.
Instead, he’s pursued more personal projects: He just finished shooting “Ashes,” a low-budget English drama in which he plays a man whose father (Ray Winstone) suffers from Alzheimer’s, and he is recording an album with his longtime girlfriend, keyboardist Mickey O’Brien.
It’s the kind of quiet path more likely to appeal to the wised-up, 40-year-old Dexter at the end of “One Day” than the carefree young man at the beginning.
“You assume it’s [Emma’s] story because it’s Anne Hathaway,” Scherfig said. “You identify with that character. She’s so easy to love and to understand. Dexter’s development is much bigger. He has much bigger things to fight with. Hopefully the biggest change is that late in the film you can all of a sudden see, ‘Oh, my God, did all of that time pass without us noticing?’ The film’s message is that we should be very careful with how we spend our time.”
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