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Keeping a couple of smuggled Cuban cigars going was difficult for both the real man and the actor who portrays him on screen, 21 star Jim Sturgess. But that helped to develop their bond as Robert Newton discovers.

Music fans will know Jim Sturgess from Julie Taymor’s visually lush Beatles musical, Across The Universe. The arthouse set will recognize him from his recent turn opposite Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl. The rest of America is about to know him in a big way, as he’s all over the casino thriller 21.

In the movie, based on Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story Of How 6 M.I.T. students Took Vegas For Millions, the 26-year-old UK-born Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, a poor Boston boy who needs money to pay for his Ivy League education. Enter mathematics professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who pimps out his best and brightest as blackjack card counters in Vegas, where they have earned him millions of dollars over the years. Naturally, something goes wrong that needs fixing in a big way.

“Normally, any time someone says, This is based on a true story,” Sturgess explains, “your ears are going to slightly prick up a bit. There’s just an extra sprinkle of interest when it’s based on things that happen factually in real life.”

"a very exciting fun rollercoaster kind of journey that just keeps going right to the end"

The movie, which Sturgess calls, “a very exciting fun rollercoaster kind of journey that just keeps going right to the end,” came to the young actor in a non-Vegas, non-Hollywood kind of setting. “I was filming The Other Boleyn Girl at the time I read the script – I was stuck out in rural England somewhere in a pair of tights.”

When director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-In-Law) asked that Sturgess tape himself reading excerpts from the script, the actor scrambled to find a camcorder. Ultimately, the humble Sturgess thought that his impromptu audition tape would not pass muster (we don’t need to mention that it did).

“Robert did such a great job,” he says, “because watching a game of cards is not the most exciting thing cinematically. We would spend hours just lifting cards and moving chips, and Robert was like, ‘Trust me, guys – just keep going.’ It was hard when there was all this mad stuff going on in the casinos we were shooting in. He created something in which you feel you’re inside the game and inside the players’ heads, and there’s the tension of turning the cards over, and the effect is how you’d feel when the stakes are that high.”

While the cast did not learn to count cards per se, they were not completely in the dark either. “We learned basic strategy blackjack. You can’t be good at or bad at it – it’s total luck – unless you’re counting cards, which is a completely different thing altogether.”

Las Vegas, which plays a pretty big part in the movie, was new to Sturgess and some of his cohorts. “I had only experienced it from films, and most of the films I’ve seen set in Vegas were fairly depressing. It was as manic and as ridiculous as I expected it to be.”

Fortunately, Luketic’s insistence on detail and getting all the shots he needed to make interesting the world of high-stakes blackjack did not overtax the cast.

“A lot of it was work, obviously, but yeah – it was a young cast and we all went out on the weekends. The weekends consisted of finding a good Irish bar and just kind of settling down for the evening. When we were in Vegas, I remember someone saying, ‘You should only really go for like three days,’ or something like that. I’m like, Great, I’m going for a month-and-a-half.”

There is a scene in the movie where Ben is leaving the Vegas Hard Rock Café, just as the sun is coming up. He is disoriented, and it’s an experience that many visitors to Vegas have had, considering that there are no clocks and windows in casinos to keep people plunking down the duckets. “When we were filming, I realized that I hadn’t even been outside-outside in I think it was like 4 or 5 days straight. We were filming in the casino, sleeping in the casino.” (Unlike Ocean’s Thirteen, which created a massive casino set, 21 uses all actual casinos to pull of the Sin City glitz.)

While Bostonians might be confounded by the Hollywood version of their geography (which would require some kind of teleportation device to achieve), they are unlikely to lament the marring of their tongue. Typically, Boston characters sound like some embarrassing, phlegm-y mash of JFK and the Pepperidge Farms guy (save for Gone Baby Gone). Not so here, as Sturgess speaks in a thankfully region-free American accent, kind of like Hugh Laurie does on “House.”

“It’s one of those things where you think you can pull it off until someone tells you, ‘No, you can’t.’ Early on, we decided that he wouldn’t have a fake Boston kind of Southie [working class South Boston] kind of accent, because we wanted the character to be as sort of mild and as average and there’s nothing extreme about his personality it all. And a Boston accent is so full of character, and it really didn’t suit what we were trying to do with him.”

Any young actor who finds himself opposite a respected Oscar winner like Kevin Spacey is bound to be a little intimidated, but Sturgess overcame the butterflies.

"you up your game"

“He was someone I’d watched for years,” Sturgess mentions. “I’ve been a big fan, and I’ve been terrified of some of his characters, too. It’s like a game of tennis, if you’re playing someone who’s good – even if you’re not better than they – you up your game and start playing to the best of your ability.”

Another person Sturgess got to meet during the production of 21 was Jeff Ma, the Worcester native on whose story Mezrich based his book. [Worcester is also this reporter’s bailiwick.]

“I met Jeff in Vegas. We were just laughing around, we were joking. He said, ‘You look just like me,’” Sturgess says lightly [Ma is Asian, Sturgess is not.] ”I had just spent some time in Cuba, and I brought back these Cuban cigars – is that illegal? – I had them all strapped to my body.”

“I brought two of them out to dinner with me, and I thought after dinner, we’d have a few drinks and I thought it would be cool if me and Jeff smoked a cigar. He took me out to The Palms, which has this balcony that overlooks the entire city. I was trying to be the cool young actor, and he was trying to be the cool kind of Real Deal. We were trying to light these cigars, and we couldn’t keep these massive giant things alight. It was hilarious, and it broke down the boundaries instantly.”

The ultimate validation on this project for Sturgess came after he asked Ma what he thought of the portrayal.

“Actually, Jim,” Sturgess remembers with a fondness in his voice, “the more time we spend with each other, the more you’ll realize how similar we are. And I was like, OK, that’s good enough for me.”

Published May 15, 2008

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Jim Sturgess


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