I have an actor blind spot and it’s Jim Sturgess. I should say straightaway that I bear him no ill will, nor do I think he’s a bad actor. On the contrary, I think his self-effacing abilities almost certainly stand him in good stead in his chosen profession. But here’s the thing: I am have now seen him playing leading roles in at least twelve films (including Across the Universe, One Day, Cloud Atlas – in which he was one of the multiple role players) yet I still can’t tell him from Adam. Show me, for example, Geostorm, and I’ll be saying, “Who’s that actor playing Gerard Butler’s brother? I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything before.” I balk at calling this quality “charisma-free” – it’s more “charisma-inverse,” which is a lot more complicated. Interesting, even.
This may be entirely down to me. I could be like Milla Jovovich in the daft-as-a-brush psychothriller Faces in the Crowd (2011), in which a violent encounter with a serial killer called “Tearjerk Jack” leaves her suffering from a condition called prosopagnosia, a sort of face blindness which makes everyone’s facial features look the same. (Milla’s solution to the problem of not recognising the man who nearly killed her is to make fashion sketches of everyone’s ties. But, oh no, what if the killer wears the same tie as her boyfriend? It’s the sort of dilemma you don’t see too often in the movies.)
While watching Faces in the Crowd (and let’s face it, scoffing loudly, even though I have a soft spot for Milla) I felt a kinship with the heroine. Because I too have trouble recognising people’s faces! Show me a friend out of context, in a part of the city where I don’t usually run into them, and I’ll be plunged into a paranoid panic, wondering why this stranger is smiling and waving, and trying to work out if I should smile and wave back (and yes, sometimes I have done this, only to find they were indeed complete strangers who had been smiling and waving at someone standing behind me). Once, in the middle of a date, I went to the toilet and when I came back stood frozen at the edge of the bar, scouring the faces of all the unaccompanied men, unable to pick out the one with whom I’d already spent half the evening. In the end the unlucky bastard identified himself with a quizzical head movement, no doubt wondering why I was standing there like someone who’d just come face to face with the Medusa.
In London Fields (2018), the botched adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel, Sturgess plays one of Amis’s notorious pleb caricatures, a tattooed mockney darts-playing chav called “Keith Talent” who at one point breaks into a Singin’ in the Rain-inspired dance to Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, a mind-bogglingly mediocre set-piece for the ages. At several points during the film, I found myself staring at the wildly gurning actor the way one stares at one of those fancy octopuses that disguise themselves as part of the sea bed, and thinking “How…?” How can one overact to this degree, and yet vanish without trace from the onlooker’s temporal lobe?
The Sturgess Syndrome is of a different order altogether to the Chris Conundrum that once taxed my feeble brain (Evans, Pine, Hemsworth, Pratt, Klein or Owen?) or the Dylan Problem (have you ever seen Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney – an honorary Dylan if ever there was one – in the same room?) or even the Emory Cohen/Alden Ehrenreich/Dane DeHaan Challenge. It’s the opposite of the sort of old-fashioned star power exhibited by the likes of Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum, who were always recognisably Grant or Mitchum even when playing different characters, and it seems to me to be a very modern phenomenon, though I daresay there might have been leading actors like this in the Golden Age of Hollywood who by their very nature have been forgotten.
Sturgess isn’t the only incarnation of this anonymacting, though he is by far the most prominent example of it – if one can use a word like “prominence” in the context of being able to fade into the wallpaper. I spent most of Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (2015) marvelling at the casting decision that had him playing alongside the equally charisma-inverse Sam Worthington, and thanking God for Anthony Hopkins whose presence as the kidnap victim was virtually the only thing standing between this viewer and the sense that they were watching the inside of a Dutch warehouse for ninety-five minutes.
Who now has anything other than a hazy memory of Worthington in Avatar or Terminator Salvation? In Clash of the Titans, his nominally heroic Perseus comprehensively disappears bneath the weight of a supporting cast that includes Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Luke Evans, Nicholas Hoult, Vincent Regan… I might as well recite the entire cast list, since any one of them makes more of an impression than poor Sam.
The über-example of inverse charisma has to be Suicide Squad, in which Margot Robbie and Viola Davis give eye-poppingly memorable performances that the film doesn’t really deserve since they’re backed up by a chorus line of aggressively nondescript white guys: Jai Courtney, Joel Kinnaman, Scott Eastwood, the latter possessed of the astonishing ability to share his famous father’s facial likeness while somehow harnessing it to a complete charisma bypass. Snowden? Pacific Rim: Uprising? The Fate of the Furious? I defy you to remember Eastwood in any of these films.
Will Smith, meanwhile, looks as though he would like to fade into the background, but possesses too much star quality to be able to do so, suggesting this whole anonymacting phenomenon might be a purely white boy thing – payback, perhaps, for those racists who pride themselves on being unable to distinguish one person of colour from another. Perhaps studio casting directors are accustomed to gravitating towards a generic type of blandly good-looking Caucasian actor they assume will appeal to the largest, most general international audience – whereas, in fact, these guys just resemble the results of a computer programme that has morphed one hundred handsome film star faces into one single slightly blurry mock-up of an Ideal Male.
My fellow writer Amelia Mangan and I, who have exchanged many a thought about inverse charisma on Twitter, have long dreamed of casting Sturgess, Eastwood Jr, Courtney, Kinnaman, Hayden Christensen and Garret Fucking Hedlund in a single heist movie in which they would rob banks without bothering to hide their faces under masks or stockings. Or maybe they should just commit their crimes wearing Jim Sturgess masks. Afterwards, the identity parade would be like a scene from Anomalisa, and when the cops interview people who were inside the bank at the time, the witnesses would shrug and say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t remember their faces.” It would be the best goddamm gang of bank robbers in film history. They could call themselves The Forgettables.