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The Way Back - Jim Sturgess interview

Jim Sturgess in The Way Back

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JIM Sturgess talks about some of the pleasure and pain of filming The Way Back for acclaimed director Peter Weir, including getting to grips with food poisoning in the desert, the extreme cold and possessing leadership qualities.

He also talks about coming back to the real world after such an amazing experience and recalls some of his favourite memories of being on-set and surrounded by the elements.

Q. I can imagine that you jumped at the chance of working with Peter Weir… possibly without even needing to see a script?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I knew Peter was casting for this film and I knew what it was about but I actually went to the meeting just to meet him and have a conversation… to have that first initial meet. I would have played any part in this film.

Q. But I then gather you went away and made a tape because you weren’t convinced that you’d done enough to convince him at that meeting?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah, there was a bit of that because I was shooting another film [Heartless] at the time, so I was in the process of doing a load of night shoots and I was just completely wiped and exhausted and wired. I was filming quite a difficult character on that film, so I just sort of left and because it was a blurred experience in my mind I just thought: “I hope I’ve done the best that I could do.” But then I thought I had one chance and one chance only, so I’ll just throw everything at it. So, I wrote a letter and put myself on tape and sent it to Peter with my fingers crossed.

Q. What was the hardest aspect of finding your character, Janusz, to begin with?
Jim Sturgess: It was just to find that leadership quality without him being a hero, really. That was the challenge and the tone that both Peter and I were trying to find. We didn’t want him to be this intense, revengeful, Hollywood sort of… you know “I have to get back”. There’s a kindness thing about him. In fact, he’s told in the script that ‘kindness will kill you’. So, he couldn’t be this survival expert. So, we were trying to think: “How does he know he can survive in the wilderness?” And we came up with some stories and some ideas. You know, the idea that he’d have a very basic boy scout knowledge actually.

It’s not that he’s this great survivalist. He’s a country boy and he sort of hopes for the best but his will is strong and that gets him through. So, that mixed with the Polish/Eastern European accent… he was a hard one to get comfortable with! But it actually even took a few days… it wasn’t until we really got out of the Gulag that I thought: “OK, now I feel I can lead this group.” But to be a young actor and have to feel like you’re leading an actor like Ed Harris, who is a real cowboy at heart… you know what I mean? But Ed and I developed a really great relationship as we made the film but it was quite a daunting experience.

Q. How important was it to you that you got to meet some real Polish survivors?
Jim Sturgess: That was invaluable. It was so important and it stayed with me forever. I was so glad that I put that effort in to go and visit and spend time with them because it made it so real. You can look at all these amazing black and white, grainy images of the real thing but it always felt like a million years ago, no matter how much I tried to understand it. Even with school, when you learned about the Second World War it felt like such a long time ago… so, for me, it was just such a shock to my system with someone who didn’t look that old. He looked amazing, actually, considering how old he was… I think he was 94.

So, to sit there and talk with him and hear his stories straight out of his mouth and know that he had endured stuff that you are about to emulate throughout the film, of course it stuck with me throughout the whole time. In fact, anytime it felt a bit difficult, or we were hitting the wall of exhaustion, you had to plough on because you had to respect the lives of some of these people that you had actually met personally.

Q. Was there anything he told you that he hadn’t thought of, that had perhaps entered into his mindset?
Jim Sturgess: He said it just became his life. He didn’t know anything else. After months of doing it, it was just about keep moving forward and keep getting to the next place, and keep surviving and putting one foot in front of the other, almost to the point where it became quite normal to be like that, to behave like that and to have those pains of hunger… you get used to it and it’s part of your everyday life. I think that helped me to believe that these people could survive because they got hardened to it quite quickly.

When I heard the stories from his mouth, and from what I’d read, the fact you can even survive the train journey from Poland to Siberia in the first place was just: “F**k!” I mean that would have killed me off in the first place… and it did to many people – many people died on the train alone! So, I think it got to a point where what hadn’t killed him made him stronger and his endurance levels were so up there.

Q. It made you realise it was an achievable goal?
Jim Sturgess: Absolutely. Another thing I got was that these people were just built of stronger stuff. You know, these people that were caught up in the war, there was a different mentality. They were built in a different way to a lot of people and they take nothing for granted. A war can bring that on, I suppose.

Jim Sturgess in The Way Back

Q. How was getting your head around an accent, while coping with the physical aspect of the performance?
Jim Sturgess: The Eastern European accent is a hard accent to own and get your mouth around. It’s a very easy one to let it own the performance. So, that was the challenge for the three of us who had to work at that and make it a part of the character and your own voice. As far as the Polish stuff was concerned, we got the phrases quite early and practised and practised and practised. I remember speaking it to an actual Polish person and I sounded like a four-year-old child! So, I kept going until I felt comfortable doing the scene. So, out of all the accents I’ve ever had to do for films, the Eastern European one has been the biggest challenge.

Q. How physically and emotionally beat up did you feel after completing the shoot?
Jim Sturgess: It took a while… a really long time to come down from it. It was so epic in my life. It was more than making a film… it was a life experience and life changing in many ways. I was just seeing the world and walking across parts of the world that I had never been to. And so it was… I remember sitting back down at home and in the pub and just feeling really strange about being home and back in the world of creature comforts and wishing, actually, that I was back out in the mountains freezing my ass off [laughs]! It always feels quite detached when your mates go: “How was it?” And you’re like: “Yeah [pauses], it was good. So, anyway did you see the football last night?” But I did keep in contact with the other guys and there would often be emails passed such as: “How are you back in the real world?”

Q. What was the hardest scene for you to film, emotionally or physically?
Jim Sturgess: That’s an easy one for me. We were out in the desert and I think I had food poisoning. Ed and I got it at the same time and I think Saoirse got it too. The Moroccan desert, for me, was harder than filming up in the cold in the mountains of Bulgaria. When we first started filming, I was dreaming of kind of getting to Morocco, and that was our light at the end of the tunnel, and then of course we got there and it was twice as hard as being in the cold. The blistering heat, or climbing a sand dune, running for some water… there was the scene where we were running to the well and I was really, really sick that day. I had stomach cramps and needed the toilet every five minutes. We were out in the middle of nowhere… so it wasn’t just one of the hardest days of the shoot, but one of the hardest days of my life! It was hard work.

Q. Did you also feel a sense of isolation when you were out in the middle of it?
Jim Sturgess: We had mobile phone reception and we stayed in a hotel every night, so we would always go home. It was also a big crew… not massive, but we were a big family. It’s always great when people are out on location because nobody gets the chance to just finish off a day’s work and go home to their wife and kids; everyone has to club together, whether you’re a clapper loader, the guy who holds the light… everybody was there, so it had that real sense of camaraderie. And that was another thing that was great about it. Whatever sort of element we needed we got… we really were freezing up in the mountains and we really were boiling to death in the desert.

The Way Back

Q. Was it a case of be careful what you wish for… especially when moving from the freezing cold to the extreme hot?
Jim Sturgess: [Laughs] Yeah! Exactly! We spent a lot of time in Bulgaria dreaming of getting to Morocco and it was this conversation we always had: “Just think, one day we’re going to be in Morocco and it’ll be so warm, it’ll be amazing! Can’t wait…” And then you get there and you’re like: “I’d do anything just to dive into a pool of f**king snow!” The minute we got to Morocco, which was my own personal goal… when that didn’t come we realised it was going to be a huge test of endurance.

Q. So, of all the things you took away from the experience, what was your favourite memory of working with Peter Weir? Did it live up to expectations?
Jim Sturgess: It totally lived up to all expectations! I mean, it was just the smallest things really. Sometimes, we’d be waiting while the cameras were being set up and we’d all built a fire and Peter would sit down and we’d be sitting around the fire chatting. Or we’d be in the middle of the desert doing a night shoot with the stars above us… just sitting there with Peter, we were all in it together, knowing that he’d chosen all of us individually to tell this story. And he hadn’t made a film for such a long time. He’s such a nice guy… so personable as a human being. He has a great spirit. And that was all the time.

It was something I knew going in and it was one of the rare occasions where I was always very aware of how brilliant what we were doing was… or the experience. Often, you look back in hindsight and go: “Oh, that was great!” But it wasn’t like that on this… I knew from day one this was going to be a colossal moment in my life. I mean, you’re standing there and there’s breath-taking sunsets over the sand dunes in Morocco, and you hear that music… it’s so magical a lot of the time. It was actually the landscapes and the scenery that got us all through at times. It’s easier to do that than to be stuck in some stuffy studio for 14 hours, in some built set that looks like a tree-house on the outside and on the inside it’s some Victorian building. So, we had the joy of being in the great outdoors and being these rugged survivors.

Q. Does it make you hope that Hollywood doesn’t completely shy away from the old school style of filmmaking, in favour of more CGI based movies?
Jim Sturgess: Yeah. I’m so hoping that Hollywood can take a turn. I’m sure it will and I hope that it will. I understand it has to get the money back and these superhero action films are a sure way of getting it, because they already had a fan base, so to make another Spider-Man film makes perfect sense. It’s about the economic climate more than anything. But I hope The Way Back doesn’t get lost among all of that because it is a really old school, beautiful, classical film and I’m so proud of it.

Read our review of The Way Back

Read our interview with Peter Weir