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March 28, 2008.
Ben Mezrich's non-fiction book Bringing Down the House – about MIT
master math student Jeff Ma and his blackjack team – 21
details the story of Ben Campbell and his card-counting crew that ravages
Las Vegas casinos for little over a year (making oodles of bucks along the
way). Under the guidance of their conniving, beguiling professor Micky Rosa
(Kevin Spacey), the five-student team secretly hits the casino winning
blackjack games with their card-counting skills while skirting the edge of
the law and their prime adversary, a suspicious loss prevention consultant
Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) who hunts them down through the casino's
Starring the 27 year-old Englishman Jim Sturgess – he had previously played
Jude in the vibrant musical drama, Across the Universe and recently
was in the fine costume drama The Other Boleyn Girl – the film
focuses on how he harnesses his math and memory
skills and evolves him from a shy, insecure genius from the working-class side of
Boston into an arrogant, greedy king of the casinos.
As directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law), Ben's
journey involves a brief romance with his gorgeous team member, Jill (Kate
Bosworth), wrestling with his professor
– a senior MIT math professor for
control of the team, evading a beating from Fishburne and ultimately
returning to his original goal of paying for his schooling in Harvard
Did you feel any apprehension in doing this film? After all it is about
I was more excited than apprehensive. It was my first experience being in a
glossy Hollywood movie, so I was excited to see what that was all about. I
was excited to work with Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, two actors that
I'd seen. I was excited to work with Kate [Bosworth]. There wasn't any
apprehension. I was just desperate to get out there and make the film.
apprehension in doing the sex scene with your co-star, Kate Bosworth?
There's always some apprehension about doing a sex scene, but luckily, by
that time me and Kate became really good friends so it was laidback. We saw
if for how silly it really was and made light of it.
get a chance to gamble while in Las Vegas?
While we were there – definitely. One, it was a huge part of getting into
the whole world that they created [of] these MIT students. Two, that's all
there is to do in Vegas. We were there for about a month and a half, so we
got up to do a certain amount of gambling.
Did you win? How did you do when you gambled?
I guess. I learned not to gamble unless you're counting cards, because it
will beat you in the end – which is why I love the story really, because
Vegas to me was a culture shock. I was surprised at how calculated the whole
place is and how designed it is to take your money. It pays attention to
every last detail, from putting slot machines that pay out more money at the
front so you can hear the sounds of change hitting metal… Everything,
everything is calculated. I think the story's great in the way these MIT
students took some of that money back. I think I was one of the few actors
to leave up, but I certainly had my downs and thought, "oh my god I've lost
all my per diem."
Did you learn how to count Blackjack cards like in the movie?
I wanted to desperately. It's really not as easy as you think. These guys
are so mathematically-minded, which I'm not. Plus, they worked out this
strategy for a long time before going to Vegas and they had many years of
mathematical training. To learn how to do that in two weeks in preparation
for a film just wasn't going to happen. Jeff explained it to me time and
time again, the theory of it, and I understood the theory, but putting it
into practice is just a completely different thing.
How good were you in math?
I was never very good at math. That's why I enjoy this role the most,
because I get to pretend that I am somehow mathematically minded. I like the
thought of some of my math teachers from the past…
subtext of this film is gambling addiction. Did that theme resonate with you
and are you now more reluctant to gamble?
Spending the amount of time in Vegas that we did you see some people that
you're like, why are you throwing all that money into that machine? It
seems ridiculous to me. I think it can be an addiction. It's also a lot of
fun like anything like that. But I didn't come away thinking that gambling
was a particularly great idea. They [the characters] were never gambling.
That's the whole point. Certainly, the life seduced the character of Ben,
which I think is easy to do if you spend some time in Vegas. I think it's a
place designed to seduce you, but the film tells you to have as many
experiences as you can because that's what makes you the man you are.
Which casino did you like the most?
The Palms Casino. Jeff Ma, who the story is based on, would often take us
there. They have this Playboy bunny kind of lounge and it was as ridiculous
as it got, so that was a favorite spot for us.
Kevin Spacey can be a tough taskmaster to work with. How was it working
He's just tough about the nature of the work and getting it right. That goes
for anybody. He wasn't tough on me specifically at all. He cares about
making the right film, about his performance [and] about all the other
actors that are around him. It's not toughness, just passion. It was
exciting to see someone so immersed in his work. At that time he wasn't only
acting in it, he was producing it. His company was very involved in the
making of it, and he was just about to start doing this [Eugene O'Neill]
play [A Moon for the Misbegotten] that he did at the Old Vic [Theater
Company in London] and then on Broadway. He had pages and pages of dialogue
he was learning for his play while doing the film.
And going toe to toe with Laurence Fishburne? He must be pretty intense.
Amazingly intense, but it's an intensity that you look for and hope for. You
want it to be like that. Certainly the scene where Laurence Fishburne was
knocking seven bells out [out of someone], I couldn't say it was fun, but it
was definitely exciting. [Fishburne] kind of intimidated me off-camera as
well as on-camera. He gave me a big "Laurence Fishburne man-hug" at the end
of it, which I think is the most pain I was in throughout the whole day,
when he hugged me at the end.
He contrasts nicely with Kate Bosworth though.
They're all such good actors. There's nothing more exciting than being put
in a space with good actors. You only learn and try to up your game. It was
Do you think 21 could have been made in the UK?
This film could never be made in the UK. We don't have anywhere like Las
Vegas at all. It's a completely different culture of gambling. Gambling in
England is much more putting money on dogs, horses and that kind of stuff.
did you get that Massachusetts accent?
We talked about it very early on with [director] Robert [Luketic] and
various people in the studio about what we're going to do with the accent –
as far as whether he's going to have a thick, South Boston accent. We all
decided that it's a very colorful, charismatic accent, so we wanted to keep
it milder so that he doesn't jump out in any way.
Well they vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Being English you think you have some American accent tucked in there
somewhere. Then you realize you just don't. You're put with a dialogue coach
and you work out how certain words have to sound.
Do you think you are skilled at accents?
I don't know. It's a big part of the acting process. Finding the way your
character speaks is a big part of finding your character. It's rare that I
do my own accent. When I did, Across the Universe, I did a Liverpool
accent, which is very different than my own way of speaking. I just did a
Belfast accent in, Fifty Dead Men Walking, which is probably the
hardest out of all of them, a thick Northern Irish accent. I find it
exciting. I like working on accents. I don't know how good I am at it, but I
enjoy the process. When you work on an accent, you really find your
character and the way he speaks.
What kind of accent did you have to use for playing George Boleyn in
The Other Boleyn Girl?
Just very posh. I needed a dialogue coach to push me in the right direction
with that one, making sure I sounded my Ts.
What's your native accent?
I guess you called it a standard sort of London accent, not a cockney accent
and there's a thick London accent which I don't have.
Did you enjoy making a big Hollywood film? Is this something you'd like
to do more of?
It was fun. It was interesting. It is different in certain ways and very
similar in other ways. Across the Universe was my first experience
with a big film and it really didn't feel any different from that except
there weren't giant puppets and people breaking out in song every five
minutes. But as far as the scale of it, I was used to it. It wasn't any
different than that really, but of course, I would love to do some more [big
your next film to come out will be Crossing Hope.
It has a huge ensemble cast in that film. It's amazing being in a film with
a lot of those actors. People like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta,
Ashley Judd, and then a great mix of ethnic actors from all over the place.
It really tells lots of stories about the complexities of immigration here
in America and different backgrounds with their different stories. I played
an English guy and you never consider an Englishman to be an immigrant, but
it was a very exciting experience. I never got to work with Sean Penn or
Harrison Ford or Ashley Judd. My story was separate as a lot of them were.
They were Crash or Traffic-esque in the way that the stories
are told, but I did get to meet all of them [the other actors] so that was
cool. All my stuff was shot in about six days back to back.
Could you relate to your role in 21?
Yes and no. There was a point in my life when I didn't really know what I
wanted to do. I looked into going somewhere like drama school and knew I was
interested in acting. I found out that drama school was just ridiculously
expensive, so it was impossible for me to go there because there's no way I
have that kind of money. [Despite] being disheartened by that, I realized
that I had to do more than I would have done had I gone to drama school
through the experiences that I had in my life. I was lucky enough that Julie
Taymor understood those experiences and knew what I had been through. That's
why she wanted to cast me in that role. It was actually life experiences
that got me to where I [didn't even] dream of getting to.
What were you doing when Julie tapped you for the role of Jude in
Across the Universe?
I'd been playing in a band and just hanging around London, getting into
various mischiefs, I suppose. It was going very up and down. It was a huge
relief when the band finally split up. It was hard work. We all put a lot of
work into it, but being in a band is a fairly hairy rollercoaster ride. It
was a relief when it was over and when it was over I wandered around not
quite sure what I was going to do next. She found me at a point where I
needed to be found.
That whole experience must have made you appreciate the stability of
being a working actor.
Exactly, I had been working at some pretty terrible jobs throughout the
whole time, so this feels like a more secure job than anything I've ever
did you learn about the '60s?
A lot. The '60s was a time that had inspired me anyway, so I was very aware
of stuff from the ‘60s. I read a lot of books. I knew about Ken Kesey in a
big way. I'd even been to see him at the end of a festival. I was interested
in all kinds of stuff: The Grateful Dead, [Jack Kerouac's] On the Road,
the whole culture. When I read the script and realized it was tapping into
all of those things it was so exciting to me that Julie was switched on by
all that stuff. It was great spending all that time watching all these
documentaries, all this stuff about the Vietnam War, rock and roll, and
Woodstock. I liked seeing Joe Cocker do this amazing performance at
Woodstock and than meeting Joe Cocker. We had such a good time. It was my
first time really spending time in New York. It was a great young cast,
there were all the dancers and artists and musicians. It was a melting pot
of madness and creativity. It really felt like what I imagine it might have
felt like in the sixties. I hung out with Don Nates who was a painter
because I wanted to brush up on my drawing skills. So one day I'd been
painting and injecting paint into exploding strawberries and exploding it on
walls and the next day I'd be hanging out in a studio with a lot of
musicians and we'd be playing music. The next day we'd be acting. It was so
much fun. It was incredible.
Would you ever consider becoming a director?
Yeah, I think so, only because when I was experimenting with what I wanted
to do, we started making short films and putting on theater productions by
ourselves. There was definitely a point when I was making short films and
interested in that kind of path. I see so many films that I'm in and I don't
know how they do that, so I don't know if I'll be good at it.
How are you at watching yourself onscreen?
You get more used to it. The first time you watch your performance it's very
difficult. I've seen 21 three or four times now and so you relax a
bit and know how it sits. You can start enjoying as a film, but you're
always like, "Oh what am I doing?"
How about forming another rock band?
Well I still play music and I still write music. Most of my friends are
musicians back in London. It's still a big part of what I do and who I am. I
instinctually like doing it.
No I haven't done any shows or gigs. That takes a lot of rehearsal time. I
definitely continue to write and play music. Whether anyone will listen to
it is another thing, but I'll definitely continue to do it.
Is it true that you will be in a Spider-Man musical directed by Julie
Yeah, we actually did a workshop for it, which is how this all started.
[Julie Taymor] asked me and Evan [Rachel Wood] if we would come down and
help with this workshop that she was doing. So, it was a chance to work with
Julie and Evan again. I look up to Julie so much, so I said, "yeah." At that
point, I didn't really know anything more about it. We just did two weeks
[of it] and hung out with Bono and Edge, and sang songs about Spider-Man. It
was an incredible experience. When you're around Julie Taymor and people
like Bono, it's very creative and very exciting. As a young actor and
musician, it was an incredible experience to be so involved in that. We then
did a rough performance of the play as a read-through and we sang through
the songs. It's going to be an incredible piece of work as ridiculous as it
sound, which I think is the appeal.
So you'll be starring in that?
I don't know. I haven't spoken to Julie since. I don't when she plans to do
it. It's a timing thing. It all depends when it comes to the surface.
If you're good will they want you for the Spider-Man 4 movie?
I don't think I would do that, no.
Where you always a singer? How's your singing voice? Do you expect to be
cast in more singing roles?
I was a singer and I was playing in a band back in London before I was cast
in Across the Universe. I play music and music's been a big part of
my life for many years. I never expected to combine being in a film with
singing, but it was a really interesting way of taking music, and I've done
acting as well, so it was a nice blend of all the things I've been
interested in all in one project.
Can you sing one of the Spider-Man songs?
I can't remember any of the words.
must to be nice to get a job where they don't ask you to sing.
Yeah, music and acting had always been kind of separate [for me]. When
you're acting, it's one thing. When you're playing in a band it's another.
So it was nice to combine the two, but I never wanted to be a musical
theatre performer or only star in musicals. It's nice that I've done some
acting that's very separate from acting as well.
Do you have a dream project of someone you'd love to play?
No, not at all, I don't think about making a plan that I don't know anything
about. You read a script about something your really interested in… I could
never say I want to work with this person in this thing playing a comedic
role as a Jewish priest. They just happen.
So it's not as though you see these superhero movies and say one day I'd
like to play one of those guys?
No, I've never seen myself as an actor that might pass as a superhero. So
I'm amazed that I'm even being considered for the Spider-Man role. Maybe
it's the long legs.
Or a music biopic?
Yeah, that is always scary. When there is talk about playing someone you
really admire that is sort of a scary prospect.
Who would that be – beyond what you've done so far?
The Joy Division film – Control. I took my hat off to [actor] Sam
Riley because it's a big deal to play someone who's so iconic. There are
people who absolutely love Ian Curtis [the late lead singer of the dark
pioneering '70s band]. It's just a brave kind of thing to do I think.
Is there a musician you'd love to play?
Oh god, I mean there are so many. I guess someone I'm interested in is Nick
Drake. I've always wondered what was going on in his mind. He's a beautiful
poet and a beautiful artist.
Good choice and great music. You could also do the late founder of Pink
Floyd, Syd Barrett.
He'd be great. He'd be another one. I'd get to take lots of acid and spin
out, lose my mind.
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