Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae play multiple roles in “Cloud Atlas,” written for the screen and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. Their enduring love threads through a single story that unfolds in multiple timelines over the span of five centuries as their characters meet and reunite from one life to the next and strive to overcome oppression of one form or another.
Sturgess portrays idealistic young San Francisco attorney Adam Ewing, who travels to the Pacific Islands in 1849 where he experiences the horrors of the slave trade and sees an opportunity to do something about it. His single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future. Bae, in Western guise, plays Ewing’s beloved wife, Tilda. In 2144, Bae takes center stage in Neo Seoul as the fabricant Sonmi-451, genetically engineered to spend her brief existence as a compliant restaurant server in an ominously totalitarian society built atop the ruins of a flooded Seoul. Encouraged to nurture forbidden independent thoughts by sister fabricant Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou), Sonmi embarks on a path from which there can be no retreat. With the help of revolutionary Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), Sonmi takes her courageous and perilous first steps toward a far-reaching insurrection.
At the press day for “Cloud Atlas,” which opens in theaters on October 26th, Sturgess and Bae talked about their pivotal roles in the powerful and inspiring epic. They discussed their favorite characters, how the directing process worked with three directors, how the novel gave them insight into the film’s story, and what it was like acting opposite Tom Hanks and Xun Zhou. Sturgess also described his upcoming role in “Electric Slide” and Bae, who is making her Western screen debut in “Cloud Atlas,” revealed she is learning English.
Q: What was your favorite role of the multiple roles you played?
Jim Sturgess: It’s hard to pick a favorite because you have to invest in and love them all. The two main characters I play are Adam Ewing and Hae-Joo Chang, so I love those two equally and considered them almost the same person – the same idea, the same soul, the evolution of Adam Ewing’s soul coming into Hae-Joo Chang. I enjoyed doing all the Chang and Sonmi stuff. We had so much fun doing that, because in the Adam Ewing stuff, I was just basically being murdered by Tom Hanks. That wasn’t quite as fun as running around with a gun and hanging out with Doona.
Doona Bae: My favorite is Sonmi 451 definitely. When I first read the script, I immediately got into her. I could feel connected with her. I think I became Sonmi on set. She was my favorite.
Q: How do you prepare for playing multiple parts in a single movie? Do you ever get confused?
Sturgess: (joking) We’ll find the Scottish thug in Neo Seoul. No, I never got confused. I was also well prepared. The best thing I did, which was an idea I got from Tom Hanks, was that he pulled all the pages out and put his stories separately so he could really focus on it as a short film almost. Doing that gave you a much clearer idea of your journey so that really helped. And obviously, the make-up took two hours each time, so you were pretty clear which character you were about to play.
Q: How were you cast? Was it a long process?
Bae: Lana and Andy said they’d seen some of my movies including “Air Doll,” a Japanese film, and “The Host,” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” So they just called me and I had an audition and I got the part.
Q: Jim, did you have any trepidation about playing the Asian role?
Sturgess: Yeah, of course. No, I did. I was confused because they asked me, “We would like you to look into the Adam Ewing part and the Chang part.” They were the two that I was told about at the very beginning and I hadn’t read the script. While I was reading it, I didn’t know about the other actors, and I was wondering why do they want me to play this Asian character in this story? So I was cautious. I was like what is this about? What are the reasons? Because it needs to be justified, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so comfortable doing it. But they explained to me that whatever actor played the Adam Ewing character had to play the evolution of that soul into the Hae-Joo Chang part. And then, I found that everyone was going to be switching – the three main prejudices of age, gender and race, and it was about transcending that and that not becoming an issue. It’s about the soul and everything is just thrown on top of that. So then, I felt like all the caution went out the window and I was like okay, that’s great.
Q: Can you talk about the directing process and working with two different sets of directors?
Sturgess: At the very beginning of the process, it was all three of them. They were sort of one unit and one vision. Both Doona and I had pretty much 98% with the Wachowski team. Certainly, early on, Tom was involved in all the make-up decisions and the costume things. We did rehearsals and Tom would be there which was really interesting to have three directors giving points of view, which all seemed very unified and united. They all seemed like they shared the same ideas and I never saw an argument between anyone. Everyone was just exciting to work with. But then, obviously logistically, once we got to film, the two teams split. So then, I felt like we were working with Andy and Lana for such a huge part of it. And then, we would get to go and play maybe one or two days on Tom’s team. I got to play the Scottish thug in the pub. It was just one day’s filming getting into a bar fight. It sort of allowed you to let off a bit of steam of all the intensity that we were going through with the other characters where the stories were on our shoulders, but we could go into another person’s story and just have a bit of fun. So it was great.
Q: At what point in the process did you read the book? And, having read the book, did it make you see life differently given all the perspectives about life being a continuum?
Sturgess: I read the book after I read the screenplay. I’d heard of the book so when the script arrived and it said “Cloud Atlas” on the front, I knew that it was based on a really exciting and ambitious book. So then, I was like if they’re trying to make a film out of an ambitious book, that’s probably going to be even more ambitious. All I remember is that the script was like a bunch of scripts. It was twice as thick as all the other ones. It was 200 pages long, I think. I remember reading it and being pretty baffled by the whole thing, and then I read the script again in the morning. Then I had a meeting with Andy and Lana and found out that I was going to be involved. I read the book prior to finding out that I was going to make the film. It definitely helped. I mean, the more you get into the story and the more you read the script, the more you read, and I think it’s the same with the film. They more you watch the film, you’ll be getting more and more stuff and it will sink in more and more. So yeah, it definitely opened up my mind about ideas of life and love and the afterlife and previous lives and your time here on this planet and how everything that you do has potentially some big effect or small effect no matter what somewhere along the line, consciously or unconsciously.
Bae: I hadn’t heard about the book before I got the script, and the script was so hard to understand for me because my English was even worse than now. So I had to read the book first. I read the Korean version of “Cloud Atlas” first and it was so exciting to read it because the main theme and the story tell about reincarnation. I’m quite familiar with that kind of thing because in Asia we are very familiar with Buddhism which is related to reincarnation. It mixed very well with Western culture. I found it interesting.
Q: What are the Wachowski’s like these days on the set?
Sturgess: They’re fun. That was the biggest shock of all really. Both of them are super smart in a way that I’d never experienced before and they’re such different personalities. I mean, Lana and Andy are two very different kinds of people, but they’re so connected in a way. They’ve obviously been working together since they were this big, tiny. You don’t really know much about them because they don’t do interviews and they keep to themselves, so you never really know what to expect. It was just amazing how much fun they brought to the set and for all the actors. They were so joyous and it just made the whole thing a silly, fun and playful game that we were all jumping into. It was ambitious and nervous to change genders and race and age. It could have all gone horribly wrong, so it just needed a real playful mentality for all of us to jump in and enjoy the process and hope that that comes onto the screen. It’s such a philosophical film with big ideas, but I feel when you watch the film, it also feels pretty fun and sort of playful and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Q: After you went through the whole process and then saw the final product, did it make sense and were you able to say “Now I understand”?
Sturgess: Yeah. For sure. No, it was like that. We also got to see all the stuff that other people did. The comedic stuff that Jim Broadbent brought to the film was just amazing to watch. I thought wow, whatever you take from the film, you can also really enjoy the ride and let it wash over you, and whatever you take from it is whatever you take from it. You don’t need to be weighed down with trying to understand all these complex ideas. You can just enjoy a film.
Q: What was Tom Hanks like to work with for you?
Sturgess: Apart from the fact he was trying to kill me every moment, he was actually an amazing guy. I’m sure you’ve met him. He’s a force of nature. Again, just to see somebody who’s been acting and has acted in so many amazing, big productions all through his career still look like he’s having the time of his life. I think that everybody had the same experience which is that nobody had made a film quite like this, and it was sort of a jump into the unknown for everyone, and so it made everybody unite. We were bound by the fact that none of us had done anything like this. It almost felt like it was Tom Hanks’ first film, too.
Q: Doona, can you talk about working with the Chinese actress, Xun Zhou? Did you know her before this film?
Bae: No. Before this project, I hadn’t heard of her, but I knew that she was the most famous actress in China. She’s so charming. When we were on set, I felt a certain power from her. I loved her acting. [SPOILER ALERT] When her character, Yoona-939, died, it felt so real, and because her acting was so convincing, I couldn’t bear it. She’s a great actress, I think.
Q: Jim, now that you’ve left your teen heartthrob phase behind you, do you still have people coming up to you singing Beatle songs?
Sturgess: Yeah, I feel like I might have that for the rest of my life. Just people singing Beatle songs at me. It doesn’t happen often, but there was a big group of people. The “Across the Universe” film really attracted an age group of young people and opened up their eyes and ears to the music of The Beatles. I didn’t take any kind of credit for that at all. I think that music has something in its DNA that just turns people crazy. I happened to be singing it, but I think the songs are what turn people on.
Q: Were you shocked that you had become this big teen idol? Was it hard to believe you were getting so much attention?
Sturgess: Yeah. It was crazy once “Across the Universe” came out. I started two starring films back to back, which were “Across the Universe” and “21,” and they came out quite quickly after each other. So, coming from nothing to having two big studio films was a bit of a shock.
Q: Is your beard for a role or just for being Jim in real life?
Sturgess: (laughs) It’s my “out of actor’s work” beard. No, it’s actually a disguise for a mustache I have to grow for a film I’m just about to start, and rather than walk around with a big, hairy mustache, I’d rather grow a beard, and then the day before we shoot, I’ll shave the rest.
Q: What are you shooting?
Sturgess: I’m doing a film called “Electric Slide.” It’s a period piece set in the 1980s. It’s a true story about a bank robber known as the Gentleman Bank Robber. He was a real guy called Eddie Dodson who basically robbed 64 banks in 9 months and managed to rob 4 banks in one day.
Q: Is he American or British?
Sturgess: He was American. He lived here in Los Angeles so it’s set here in L.A. and he ran a vintage furniture store on Melrose Avenue.
Q: Who are you doing it with?
Sturgess: The director is a really great young guy called Tristan Patterson. It’s his first feature film. He’s made some amazing documentaries which I’ve seen before anyway and we’re fans of the documentary. When he asked me to play the part and once I met him, I just knew he’s got it.
Q: Is Eddie in prison?
Sturgess: No, he died unfortunately. I can’t get to meet him, but there are plenty of people around who still remember him.
Q: Are you shooting it here?
Sturgess: Yeah, we’re shooting it here in L.A.
Q: What about you, Doona? Do you have any other projects coming up?
Bae: I don’t know yet. Actually, after “Cloud Atlas,” I’ve been learning English in London. I turned my job from Korea and I just focused on working on my English. So now I think I’m ready to work on something.
Q: Is it a fun adventure as an actor to have the opportunity to play multiple roles in one film?
Sturgess: It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was like the biggest joy you could get from being an actor. It felt like what it was like when you first dreamed of being into acting and it was all just dressing up and playfulness. It’s unheard of that you get to play more than one character in a film, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get that opportunity again, certainly playing different races and genders. So, it was everything that you could have imagined would be why you would want to do something like that as an actor.
Q: Did you play a woman, too?
Sturgess: (laughs) No, I meant everybody, the other actors.
Q: Did you want to play a woman?
Sturgess: Yeah, I kept begging them. Can this character be a woman?
Q: On to bank robbing!
Sturgess: Yeah, I’m going to rob some things.