Interview: The Way Back's Jim Sturgess
Imagine hiking 4,000 miles. Now imagine doing that hike over icy tundra and a seemingly unending desert. Now imagine having no food and barely any supplies. Now imagine that you are meant to be the strongest member of your party, which consists entirely of inmates who have escaped from the gulag. It’s hard enough to even think about that level of pain, but in Peter Weir’s The Way Back, Jim Sturgess lives it.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down in a roundtable interview with the young actor to discuss his newest film. Talking about accessing his character, meeting actual survivors of the journey, and working with a tight nit cast and crew, it was a fascinating look behind the scenes of a truly epic film. Check out the interview below.
Was it easier shooting on location because you didn't have to imagine yourself freezing like you would have on a sound stage?
Yeah, actually it's true. It took me a while because I'm like, “God, I'm just not giving a performance here,” because most of the time it was totally real. You know what I mean? So yeah, there was no acting required when you're freezing cold and Peter Weir's going, “Okay, you've got to be freezing cold.” It's like, “Yeah, I'm there. I think I can do that.”
How did you come to this project?
Peter was seeing actors in London and we sort of knew that he was in town. Peter asked to see me within the group of other English actors kind of thing. So I went down to a hotel in London to go and meet him, but I was actually filming another film at the time. We'd been doing night shoots so I hadn't even been in bed. You know, I'd been filming all night and had gone home, splashed some water on my face, just like, “Come on, get yourself together.” So I went down to go and meet him and it was a fairly kind of lucid meeting to say the least. [laughs] Because when you're filming it's just impossible - it takes every moment of your life. I'd managed to flip through the script. I had a vague idea of what it was all about, however I went totally underprepared for Peter Weir who's probably the most detailed and prepared man you could possibly meet in life. You know, it wasn't the greatest meeting from my point of view, and he was so kind. We talked and he told me all about what the film was about and what he was hoping to do."
"But I left sort of feeling like I hadn't done enough for myself, you know? I felt kind of disappointed. I felt, “Well, fuck it, I'm just going to put myself on tape and write him a letter and hope for the best.” So I did that and luckily that seemed to seal the deal as it were.
Are the tapes going to be on the DVD?
They're in the film. We spliced them in and no one even knows [laughs]. I don't know. I have no idea. It was horrible. It was like in this hotel room. I was just kind of holding the camera.
We had books and documentaries, just sort of giving us a historical background of the time and what was kind of going on for these people. Finding out about the camps and what people went through. I managed to track down real Polish survivors who were living in England, so I was really lucky to be able to do that. I met up with three or four people who this had really happened to, who would give me first-hand information about certain things. And then one guy had not only survived the gulag system but escaped, so to meet a real escapee for me who was playing this escapee, I was so pleased that we managed to track him down.
I went to his home in England and met his family - his son and his wife. They were living proof that he made a life for himself. He had a son who's now in his 40s. It was a really eye-opening sort of experience to sit in a room with someone who that had really happened to, who wasn't particularly strong-looking. Even in his photographs he showed me, as a boy he wasn't a tough-looking guy at all. He was regular, normal guy. And then to sort of realize, which was my biggest shock I think, that it didn't happen that long ago because he was right there in front of me.
To me, I learned some stuff about the Nazis and the German invasion, but nothing really about the Soviet side. But it always felt like any of the research I was doing with Peter and any of the books he was giving me and the documentaries, it was always that grey, black and white image of a camp or a person or whatever. So in your mind you're able to just pretend that that happened years and years and years and years ago, and here was someone who was sitting next to me reminding me that it was a pretty recent tragedy.
What did he tell you that informed your character? Was there something he said that stuck with you throughout filming?
God, his sense of humor probably. He still had a lot of his humanity intact. He was still able to find things in the stories he told me. I remember him belly laughing telling me this story about when they used to huddle around one blanket, one person would pump up a fart and he thought that was hilarious. But yeah, just loads. As a boy as young as he was, pulling clothes off of dead people that he knew just to keep warm. Stealing the half-deads' clothing because he knew that they were gone, even though they hadn't gone. You knew they had no chance so you would take their clothes because you wanted to get first dibs on them. That's a hard thing to know that you've done that and you've seen that, and to go to bed with that every night. He was full of stories like that.
We were sort of guided by Peter in that sense. He would set up the scenarios or whatever, and I think we all just had total faith in whatever he was doing. So I personally didn't feel the pressure for the particular scenes, just as long as I felt like I captured what Peter wanted which was a sort of real man, not a hero but forced into this particular situation, that he wasn't some sort of survival expert.
We talked about how he might [know about survival]. Peter said, “Where do you think he gets all this from? How much do you think he knows about the outdoors?” We came up with a whole backstory about the Polish boy scouts. I found out a whole history of the Polish boy scouts that were operating around the areas that we felt my character might have come from. So we felt, 'Okay, so he's got a boy scout knowledge of survival,' you know? From my point of view it's just to try and keep Janusz as real as possible.
Do you have to be reliant on Peter Weir to make sure the subject matter is treated with respect, yet you're not making a film that plays like this is an “important movie so therefore everything we do is important” in tone?
Yeah, we sort of knew, and even from the nature of the script... The script on paper was quite a bizarre read because it was really Peter's director's notes even. You knew it didn't read like an average Hollywood movie. You sort of go, 'What's going to happen?' So I think we all really pretty quickly knew what Peter was trying to do and sort of strip everything down, even emotionally.
From an acting perspective, there was no scenes of, you know, me and Colin [Farrell] sort of crying as we said good-bye at the border and giving each other a hug as he hands over his knife. It was like, 'No, that's not real.' Certainly people who went through this quite very young, even my dad's generation, I had to teach him how to give you a hug. You know what I mean? So, yeah, Peter was very cautious, and for us too, when to turn on the emotional tap. But he talked about the more you hold it down, the more powerful it sort of becomes. That's when you watch it, when I watched it for maybe the second or third time - I've seen it three times now - that it really becomes more apparent. You see the real details in everybody. There's no tricks. You know, you're not going, “Okay, I'm going to do my crying scene now. This is going to be really emotional,” and then I'd think about dying puppies and burst into tears. You know, there's something that you can feel is really held deep down. But that was Peter's guidance, definitely for all of us.
A lot. So much so that it's sort of impossible to put down on paper. I guess it all comes into your subconscious, really. You're just spending time with really interesting, really amazing people. To spend time with Ed Harris...he's an acting hero of mine so that's a big deal for me. But no, just to be in a film with him where you might have a couple of scenes, or you might do a few scenes together and then you've got a few days off. We were on set all day, every day, all together going through this epic sort of journey. We all feel bound for life by that.
Are there any really exhilarating moments while you were shooting that you can recall?
Yeah, I mean there were loads because as much as it was hard, and it was difficult at times - it was a very physical film - but almost as much as it was hard all the time, that was what sort of energized you the most. I mean to film out in the Sahara Desert and to be woken up, as often happens when you're making a film you have to get up at like four or five in the morning, to sort of be woken up by that prayer that they pray, that they blast over the loudspeakers. As you wake up to sort of Morocco coming to life and you drive a two hour journey through the desert as the sun is rising over the sand dunes...I saw landscapes and visual stuff that I'll never forget. It was special.
For me, it was a life experience; it wasn't just making a film. We had our own journey that we all had making the film. Friends were made with such a [great] team of people, from the makeup team to the costume team to the lighting guys, the camera department. You're a traveling circus. We went on this sort of epic adventure and bonds were made. It was just a huge, big deal. And then we wrapped in India with all those kids kind of around us, it was really quite powerful and emotional. And then you've got the gift of the film at the end.
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