March 25, 2008 -- He'd never been to Vegas and he'd never played blackjack. Gambling meant "the horse races and the dog track … and fruit machines (slots)," and Vegas was an "iconic place" of casinos and indulgence.
But for 26-year-old British actor Jim Sturgess, the role of Ben Campbell, an MIT student who hustles casinos for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the movie "21," was something he couldn't pass up. The newcomer sat down with Rolling Stone's Peter Travers on "Popcorn" on ABC News Now to discuss his new film and the age-old temptations of Sin City.
The movie, opening Friday, March 28, is based on Ben Mezrich's best-selling book, "Bringing Down the House," the true story of a group of MIT students who did just that — won big at a number of Las Vegas casinos, lived the high life and then... got busted for it.
Partying Vegas Style
To prepare for the role, Sturgess and the rest of the cast (which includes Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth) took to the Las Vegas lifestyle. So much so, in fact, that living there for a month and a half took its toll on the young actors.
"We burnt our candles at both ends," said Sturgess. "The reality we were living as young people in Vegas for the first time and experiencing all it had to offer — the line between reality and work blurred.''
To keep the hard-partying cast on track, director Robert Luktic imposed three rules, Sturgess said. "One: be on time. Two: don't look like s***. Three: I don't want to know what you did last night."
From Merry Ol' England to Beantown
Sturgess was in the court of Henry VIII and an entirely different world of decadence, shooting "The Other Boleyn Girl" when the call came to audition for "21."
"I was really stuck out in the middle of nowhere, in some old castle somewhere in rural England,'' Sturgess said. "I had to run around and find someone with a camcorder and film myself and put myself on tape.''
He sent away the tape and thought that would be the end of it.
"I really didn't expect anything was going to come of it," he said.
To read Peter Travers' Rolling Stone Review of "21," please click here.
Luktic and Spacey, also the film's executive producer, were impressed. Their search for a local Boston student ended with a Brit.
"I was amazed that Robert Luktic wanted to cast me for the film,'' Sturgess said. "I'd never done an American accent before."
He worked hard to perfect the accent, as the Boston accent is such a distinctly regional sound. Luktic "didn't want him with a thick accent,'' Sturgess said. "We wanted him mild — not jumping out in any way."
As a result, Sturgess created a vocalization that "had inflections and colors of a Boston accent, but were very mild.''
Bacteria to Beatles
The fast-paced Vegas scene was a new world for Sturgess, who grew up in a small village outside London. He began acting in his parents' attic, inviting neighbors and cousins to be involved in plays he had written and directed.
Sturgess remembers one such living room production: "It was about bacteria living in your mouth. All these characters, it was bizarre … [each piece of bacteria] had its own personality … it was set inside a person's mouth!"
His big break came last year in Julie Taymor's "Across The Universe" — a project he was initially skeptical about. The film was described to him as a "Beatles musical." After his first audition, Sturgess had his doubts.
"It was a terrible idea," he said. "I didn't think it was a great project — I just turned up and sang some songs."
Next on his agenda? How about a certain Web-slinging super hero? Sturgess has been discussed to play Peter Parker in the Broadway stage musical version of "Spider-Man" that Taymor is producing, with songs by U2's Bono and the Edge. So far, Sturgess has just participated in a workshop, but he is confident the project will be a success.
"[Taymor] has the ability to take pop culture and give it a new spin,'' he said.