Everything is connected in Cloud Atlas. Souls reincarnate across time, rejoin with lost loves, and remedy wrongs from the past. David Mitchell’s postmodern epic novel is structured like a Russian nesting doll with six interconnected narratives—spanning from the 1800s through the 1930s, the 1970s, the present, and into the near and distant future—that invert and converge like a palindrome. The book is so ambitiously labyrinthine that when Jim Sturgess was cast in its film adaptation, written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix series) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), he had trouble understanding any of it. To help their actors make sense of the puzzle, the filmmakers laid out a sea of inspiration photographs on the floor of a rented warehouse where they walked them through each story. “They basically pulled the book apart and put it back together in the way they wanted the film to work,” Sturgess says. “They’d shift things around, take things away, and put things back. It felt like an art display.”
The 31-year-old Brit plays six different characters in the film, most notably Adam Ewing, a compassionate seafarer from the 1850s who’s estranged from his love while on a voyage that’s something like Robinson Crusoe peppered with Heart of Darkness; and, centuries later in a dystopian Korea, Hae-Joo Chang, a science officer of the Union Rebellion forced to choose between his “fabricant” lover Sonmi (a humanlike creature controlled by drugs and enslaved by the corporations who made her) and the greater good. Sturgess commands some of the most tragically romantic scenes in the film, which also stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
Onscreen ardor is nothing new for the actor and singer-songwriter, who broke hearts as Jude in Julie Taymor’s Beatles-scored fantasy, Across the Universe, and as Dexter, Anne Hathaway’s preordained love, in One Day. Like those films, Cloud Atlas is about the universal quest for a soul mate, and in the Tykwer- Wachowskis heroic adaptation of Mitchell’s sweeping romance, that quest knows no bounds. “Love is out-there and primal and intense,” Sturgess says. “It’s something you can’t sum up.”
BULLETT: Were you familiar with the book before you signed on to star in Cloud Atlas?
JIM STURGESS: When I read the script, I didn’t know what the book was about. I just knew that a good friend of mine had read and loved it. Not knowing anything about the book at the time—I’ve since read it—it took me two reads to get any real sense of what was going on. I didn’t understand it at all, but I knew something amazing was hidden in its pages.
How faithful is the film to the book?
It’s so impossible to make a straight adaptation of any book. For every thing that’s been taken away by the pure nature of adaptation, Andy and Lana and Tom have been able to add stuff through the visual medium of cinema to make it something else. In that sense, I hope that the film has its own strength and doesn’t disappoint fans of the book.
Were you a fan of the Wachowskis’ Matrix series?
I remember being in love with the first one. It was everything a film should be: it was smart, it said big things about the world in which we live, and it was pure sci-fi entertainment. Andy and Lana are such forward-thinking people. They’re true artists, and they’re desperate to make an impact.
The Matrix was such a game-changer, and Cloud Atlas seems like it will be too.
When we started working on the film, all the actors sat around and did a big table read. Andy, Lana, and Tom basically gave us a guided tour of the story. They put all these visual aids on the walls to help us understand the different worlds in the story, and they talked us through every idea they’d been having. It was mind-blowing. Tom Hanks said it made him feel as excited as he was when he made his first film. It’s rare to be in a movie that really tries to push some kind of a cinematic boundary, and that’s what actors live for.
The film explores the idea of an eternal soul. Do you believe in reincarnation?
I do now! [Laughs.] You can’t not after making this film. I think everyone has had that moment of, “I know we’ve met before—you’re strangely familiar.” I definitely believe in the possibility that we’ve all walked these paths before in some way or another.
Tell me a bit about your characters’ romantic arcs.
I play Adam Ewing, who has the most romantic of the film’s storylines. He’s torn away from his wife, Tilda, and put on a boat for months and months on end with a bunch of smelly sailors. In another story, I play Hae-Joo Chang, who falls in love with a girl he’ll later have to sacrifice for the greater good of the future. That one’s really heartbreaking.
What does love mean to you?
It means a lot of things. It’s something you can’t control. It can go against every instinct in your body. It affects you—you can’t affect it.
What’s the most romantic thing someone has ever done for you?
My girlfriend Mickey [O’Brien, a La Roux keyboardist with whom Sturgess also makes music under the name Tragic Toys] wrote me a song. It’s beautiful when someone writes something just for you. It’s not a material thing, but it’s completely your own and no one else’s.
What’s your favorite romantic film?
I think Buffalo ’66, the movie that Vincent Gallo directed, is strangely romantic. It’s about a guy who tries so hard to find love, and it’s only at the very end that he lets his guard down. Love comes in so many curious shapes and sizes, and sometimes it happens between two disturbed and complicated people. I think Buffalo ’66 captures that perfectly.
In what ways is it different to portray love in a period film, as you’ve done in Across the Universe and One Day?
Other than the clothes and backdrop of the time, the actual heart of any story is always timeless. In Cloud Atlas, I do a scene in which people are talking about “God’s ladder of civilization,” which differentiates between white and black men. I remember sitting there with the sets and costumes looking so period, but thinking that there are still people today who have that exact same mentality, and it’s shocking. It’s terrifying that some people still have this idea that race has something to do with hierarchy. It just goes to show you how things go round and round in circles—different times, same problem.
You have another romantic sci-fi film coming out called Upside Down, in which you star opposite Kirsten Dunst.
It’s about two people who fall deeply in love the moment they meet, and they’re pulled apart because they’re from two different worlds. It’s very much a Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story kind of tale. But instead of gangs or families, the obstacle keeping these two apart is gravity. [Laughs.] It’s kind of a crazy story.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
Of course I do.
What do you think about polyamory?
What is that?
It’s the practice of being romantically involved with more than one person at the same time.
I don’t know… That’s a tough question to answer. Love is complicated. That’s why people are so fascinated by love stories, because there are no set rules.
Photography by Piczo