It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and Jim Sturgess is drinking a beer at Molly’s Shebeen, an Irish pub near Gramercy Park. The floor is covered in wood chips, and an elderly woman sitting alone at the bar is nursing what looks to be vodka, straight up. We’re here to discuss his role in Fifty Dead Men Walking—a film based on the true story of Martin McGartland, a British agent who posed as an I.R.A. soldier in eighties Belfast. Sturgess plays McGartland, who’s still living in the U.K. equivalent of the Witness Protection Program.
The cast spent a month in Belfast before filming, fraternizing with former I.R.A. and perfecting their accents. “We went to pubs, walked the streets, joined a boxing gym,” Sturgess says. “When I was doing the Belfast accent, I was really loud and cheeky and upbeat, and in real life I’m boring, depressing, you know,” he jokes. “At the wrap party, everybody was trying to get me to speak in my real accent, and I genuinely couldn’t do it.” The movie gave Sturgess, who grew up in London, a history lesson in the conflict: “I didn’t learn anything about it in school; there’s a certain shame in England now about how it was taught in the classroom—when it even was” taught at all, he says. The film isn’t partisan, portraying both sides as corrupt and violent. “The movie left me really confused. When you’re force-fed someone as a terrorist, and then you actually meet them, it just makes it harder to believe that they could have been so violent. But you know some of the terrible things they did, and then it’s back to thinking about why they actually did them,” he says.
He’s been to Molly’s before, while filming Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s Beatles movie, on the Lower East Side. That was his breakout role. The story goes that Sturgess was an unknown actor and musician in London when his agent called and suggested he go to an open call for a Beatles musical. “I thought it sounded like a terrible idea,” he says. But he went anyway, with his guitar, and eventually Taymor singled him out to play Jude.
Taymor liked him so much that he was offered the part of Spider-Man in her now-troubled big-budget Broadway show. “Me and Evan did some workshops for it,” he says, referring to Evan Rachel Wood, his Across the Universe co-star, who’s playing Mary Jane. “They asked me to do it, but there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in the film world for me,” he says. “Musical theater wasn’t something I really wanted to do.”