Interview: Jim Sturgess on his new fantasy 'Upside Down'
Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst star in this visually breathtaking story set in two worlds with opposing gravities
British actor Jim Sturgess got his big break in Julie Taymor’s 2007 film “Across the Universe,” a story that revolves around songs by the Beatles. Also a singer-songwriter, the part was a perfect fit for the young actor, and he’s continued to make interesting and sometimes unusual choices in his film career, from historical drama (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) to horror (“Heartless”) to computer-animated fantasy (“Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”) to science fiction (“Cloud Atlas”). His new film, “Upside Down” by Argentinian director Juan Solanas, is one of the most original and visually breathtaking films I’ve seen in years. In the film, Adam (Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) are in love, but they are separated by social class, a political system determined to keep them apart, and a pesky little physical problem: they live on twinned planets whose gravities that pull in opposite directions—he’s on the poverty-stricken planet below, she’s on the wealthy exploitative world above. Solanas makes the most out of this premise and creates two worlds that are completely foreign and fascinating to watch while also reminding us of many of the issues we face on our own planet.
I talked to Sturgess in Los Angeles about this unique film.
MSN Movies: It’s interesting that you are also in “Cloud Atlas,” another recent film that has an unusual premise and is visually stunning. Is this part of some conscious game plan of yours to make movies that are “out there” in some way?
Jim Sturgess: Oh, no, there’s no game plan at all! It’s all pretty moment-by-moment. You finish a project and start looking for something that might interest you. A lot of the films I've made are a reaction to something I’ve done right before. With this I had just come off a Peter Weir film called “The Way Back” which was shot outdoors in the wilderness. It was a true story about these guys who walked on foot from Siberia to India so we were dealing with a pretty harsh reality. I remember thinking how cool it would be to do something next that was completely different from that, something fantastical like a fairy tale.
The amazing visuals in this film are such an important part of the story. When you first read the script, did you have a good idea of what these twin planets would look like?
No, it was quite confusing to me, actually! I had no idea what this down-below world looked like. And what’s this up-top world, how’s it going to look? Is this some kind of crazy sci-fi movie? I couldn't grasp it at all but it really intrigued me and I wanted to find out more. So the director sent me sketches of some of the visuals he was planning and and I realized oh, okay, it’s not futuristic, it’s more a kind of alternate reality—another possibility.
Did you find you were all obsessing on the physics of the whole set-up? How people with opposing gravities could interact with each other?
Juan and the production team had constant discussions about the logistics of the thing. The very first scene we shot with the two realities took a whole day and we ended up having to reshoot it because the eyelines were a bit off. But then they really got it down and the results are pretty amazing.
I know you shot one scene in a room with a mounted camera that revolves a full 360 degrees like that scene from the Fred Astaire film where he dances up the walls and ceiling of a room.
Yes, it was that scene that inspired Juan to try it in our film. When they showed me the Fred Astaire thing I thought wow, that is just incredible.
How cool that you got the chance to follow in his footsteps!
(Laughs.) I felt pretty humbled by the little flips I did in that scene compared to what he had to do which just blew my mind!
I loved all of the opposing gravity stuff but there were times when I had to stop and try to figure it out. Like the TransWorld Building where you and Kirsten both work. If it’s connected to both planets, does that mean the planets don’t rotate? Because if they did, wouldn’t that break the building in two?
Fairy tale, man! Fairy tale! Do you question “Jack and the beanstalk!” Do you try to figure out “The Princess and the Pea?” But in truth, we were always trying to find fun ways to play with the gravity. I remember in one scene, we were already rolling and had done several takes and I said to Juan, “Wouldn’t it be cool if my tie suddenly got loose and flipped up?” He loved that idea so it’s in the film. It was cool to have these constant reminders that you were in this different world. We did a lot of things at the spur of the moment.
Was this the first time that you got to fly in a film?
Yes! That was great!
Does it take a lot of training?
Yeah, a lot more than you think! When you watch those films you’re like, okay, they’re just sort of bouncing around. But actually those wires really yank you up and if you don’t learn how to really move with it you look like you’re just being pulled up in the air by a wire. You have to learn really detailed choreography for that stuff for it to look right. It was a lot of fun.
I thought you and Kirsten Dunst had such a great chemistry. Did you know her before the film?
No, just from her movies like “Virgin Suicides,” ‘Eternal Sunshine,” and the Spiderman films. I was very excited when I found out she was on board and she was so much fun to hang out with. This was one of those movies where nothing was a problem, it was just a great time all around, which is how it should always be—but isn’t! Kirsten and I spent a lot of time laughing on set.
Did you laugh the day you did the upside-down kiss? I heard Kirsten say that she can’t believe she got to do that twice in her career!
You know, we never really talked about it! We were so caught up in the world of the film that I honestly don’t think anyone thought about the Spiderman connection. It’s only now that we’re doing press that people are talking about it. But come on, you can’t do a film about an upside-down world and not have an upside-down kiss!
I thought the actors who played you and Kirsten as kids were just great. Did you have a chance to work with the boy who played you?
They were amazing! The guy who played me was a kid called Elliott Larson and he was on another level, man. He’d come onto set and I’d say, “Hey, Elliott, how are you doin, man?” and he’d say, “I came to watch you move. I need to watch how you work.” I was like, wow, this kid is more dedicated than I am!
Even though we’re seeing such a different world in the film, it’s amazing how many analogies you can make to our own world, especially the exploitation of the planet “below.”
That’s what’s so great about it. You get that it’s a fairy tale and set in fantasy but it also touches on a lot of big ideas about the world we live in. I loved all the stuff about the anti-gravity beauty cream that my character invented! Really cleverly woven in there, all these little digs at our obsession with staying young.
To me this feels like a film that can connect with audiences. I really hope that it gets the opportunity—independent films can often get lost. I hope people find it!
“Upside Down” is currently playing in in select cities.