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Movies: 21 star Jim Sturgess got a crash course in card counting

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, March 28, 2008

By Michael Janusonis

Journal Arts Writer

BOSTON Jim Sturgess recalls he was in the remote English countryside waiting to have his head chopped off when he got the call from director Robert Luketic to send an audition tape for the lead role in the high-octane casino thriller 21.

“So I wound up running around trying to find a camcorder to film myself. I put it together in an evening and didn’t really expect anything to come of it.

“I did it with an American accent … or I tried,” adds the wiry London-born actor.

But lightning struck for Sturgess. Not only did Luketic like what he saw in Sturgess’ taped audition, in the end the 26-year-old actor did not have to lose his head as George Boleyn in the historical drama The Other Boleyn Girl, which he was filming at the time in rural England. That deed was accomplished out of camera range.

From 16th-century rural England Sturgess found himself leaping nearly five centuries to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and then on to glittery Las Vegas. There he had to learn the ins and outs of blackjack so he would look as though he knew what he was doing in the role of Ben Campbell, a star player in the brainy MIT group that took the casinos for as much as they could by counting cards at the blackjack tables.

“It was almost like Blackjack Camp for a while. We would go and learn how to play blackjack all day and then, in the evenings, put our newfound skills to the test … or not, as the case may have been. I lost a whole load at the tables, but then I managed to make my money back.”

Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas, Sturgess hooked up with Jeffrey Ma, the real-life prototype for the Ben Campbell character, who went by yet another alias in Boston author Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, which is the basis for 21. (When Mezrich wrote his book in 2002, Ma wanted to keep his identity secret, which is the reason for the alias.) In the early 1990s, the now-35-year-old Ma and several fellow MIT students went to Vegas and, using a scientific method, beat the odds big time at the blackjack tables.

For 21, Sturgess and his fellow actors shot scenes right inside the casinos, mainly at Planet Hollywood on the Strip. “We would corner off sections of the casino. It was great. It added to the whole feel of the place that there were all these people playing around us as though it were an everyday occurrence in a casino.”

Although everyone seen in the background in the casino scenes is a movie extra, “certainly around that there were real people. People would come over and watch what was going on.

“It was amazing how inconspicuous you became, which is incredible for a film set. There was one time when I went to the toilet and when I came out, I couldn’t find the set.

“I think Vegas is the only place in the world where you can lose an entire film set in one room.”

On screen Sturgess sounds a little like American actor Tobey Maguire, although in real life he has a thick British accent that he hid on screen with the help of the movie’s dialect coach, plus the fact that “when you’re growing up in England there are a lot of American films to watch.” Yet even now he says he sometimes finds himself “slipping into a bizarre transatlantic accent” thanks to the experience.

Accents are all a part of the job for a young actor such as Sturgess, who says “it’s nice to tell stories all over the place. His next film is set in London and he’s eager “to do a film about a place where I live and have such an attachment to.”

But Dead Man Walking, the film he made just after completing 21, is set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The film is based on another real-life character, a Catholic lad who is recruited by British intelligence “with money and cars, encouraging him to get involved in the [Irish Republican Army] to get more information for them.” Playing the “middle ground” proved to be a dangerous game and Sturgess says the man, who is still alive, “was shot six times and survived. I never spoke to him. I was apprised to keep a fair distance from him, as he’s in hiding.”

While shooting the film, Sturgess says that although the man’s real name is used in the film, he was told to use a fictitious name for the character whenever he mentioned his role in public “because it was a tender thing for this community. There was one time when a kid threw a rock at my head, but most people were very supportive.”

Because he has played characters based on real people in his past three films, Sturgess is asked whether he feels a responsibility to try to be faithful to that person.

“For 21, certainly not. I didn’t feel as though I was playing Jeff Ma,” although Ma visited the movie set several times and even has a small role as a blackjack dealer in the film. “It was a fictitious character, a fictitious story, although very much based on real events. But the film had to be its own thing and tell its own story with all this information based on real events.

“Ben Campbell in 21 lived with his mother in Boston without a father and was trying to raise money to get into Harvard Medical School. That’s not Jeff’s life at all. And there’s the ‘small’ fact that I’m not Chinese [as Ma is] as well. It is its own story and I felt that my character certainly is a fictitious character.

“And someone like George Boleyn [brother of Anne Boleyn, the woman beheaded by King Henry VIII after a brief marriage], there’s so little information about him that you don’t feel any pressure. You get a few facts about what may have happened to him and the rest you have to make up.” Certainly it’s not something to get upset about … or lose one’s head over.