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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

’21’ tells story of MIT gamblers

Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe takes a chance in his new film, 21, in theaters Friday.
Samantha Urban
Jim Sturgess of “Across the Universe” takes a chance in his new film, “21,” in theaters Friday.

Jim Sturgess of “Across the Universe” takes a chance in his new film, “21,” in theaters Friday. (Samantha Urban)

In 1994, the MIT blackjack team used its mathematical prowess to count cards at Las Vegas casinos, reportedly winning millions and inspiring a best-selling nonfiction novel, “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.”

Their story is now being turned into a film, “21,” directed by Robert Luketic (“Monster In Law,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton”) and starring Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”), Kevin Spacey (“Superman Returns,” “Beyond the Sea”), Lawrence Fishburne (“The Matrix,” “Akeelah and the Bee”) and Kate Bosworth (“Superman Returns,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton”).

The book and film are loosely based on the experiences of Jeff Ma, a Chinese-American MIT student who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1994. Ma was a member of the MIT blackjack team during its most profitable era in 1993 and 1994.

Ma is played by Jim Sturgess in the film. When asked if he minded the race change of his character, Ma seemed unconcerned.

“Who would you want to play you in a film about your life?” Ma asked. “Do you make your decision based on who looks the most like you? Or do you pick someone cool, someone talented? Whenever people asked me that question, I never once said Jet Li or Jackie Chan.”

In fact, Ma said he would have been more offended if they had cast a Japanese actor, which might imply that the filmmakers didn’t see a difference between the ethnicities.

Ma emphasized that the race issue is not important to him. He was too busy enjoying being a consultant on the film and even performing a cameo as a blackjack dealer in a pivotal scene in the film.

“I loved spending time with the cast,” Ma said. “I liked all of them.”

While discussing the differences between the film and his personal experiences, Ma elaborated on some key changes.

“For one thing, in the movie, my father is dead. I’m not sure how he’ll feel about that when I bring him to the premiere. I also wasn’t trying to get into medical school like Jim’s character is. But I think those things add motivation and make it a better film. It’s not a documentary. It’s fun.”

Today, Ma is no longer allowed to play blackjack in any casino. Thanks to facial recognition technologies, casino security is immediately alerted to his presence when he walks in the door. He can hang around in the casino and play craps or slots, but if he plays blackjack, he is usually asked to leave.

“Do I consider what we did cheating?” asked Ma. “Absolutely not. If you and I played Scrabble together and I’m simply better than you because I use my brain to know more words and remember what letters are left, is that cheating? Card counting isn’t illegal.”

British actor Jim Sturgess had an unusual filming experience while trying to properly convey Ma’s story and the Vegas lifestyle to which the MIT students became accustomed. Sturgess had never been to Las Vegas and found the lights, sounds and disconcerting time lapses a bit much.

“After filming each day, the cast and I would all go out and drink and gamble all night,” Sturgess said. “Then we’d wake up the next morning and film ourselves doing the same activities we’d done the night before. So the boundaries between shooting and your private life would get very blurred.”

Sturgess noted that he is nothing like Ma and proved to be exceptionally horrible at card counting.

“But overall, I never really felt like I was ‘playing’ Jeff,” he said. “It was more like I was telling a story. I think it’s important for the film to have its own story.”

Sturgess also commented on the fact that, although he’s become something of a heartthrob here in the States thanks to his performance as Jude in director Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical, “Across the Universe,” he hasn’t really seen that side of his fame yet.

“I’m only just now realizing it,” Sturgess said. “When ‘Across the Universe’ was released, I was already working on another film, so I didn’t know the Americans had such a positive reaction, a much more positive reaction than England had.”

“The British are much more protective of the Beatles, as I am too,” he said. “So while I’m in England, I still have a relatively normal life.”

“I walk around London, desperate for people to notice me,” he joked.

Up next for Sturgess is a trip back “across the pond” for his next film, “Heartless,” which will be shot in London. Sturgess said that he is excited to return to London and tell a London story.

“Every city has a great story to tell,” he said.

Sturgess also said that he wouldn’t rule out pursuing more music endeavors.

“I write music all the time and I have been since I was 15,” he said, when asked about the possibility of recording an album. “I just enjoy playing music, and most of my friends are musicians and in bands. If people would like to hear some music, then I’d be happy to play it.”

There are also rumors going around that Sturgess might reunite with director Julie Taymor as the lead in her Broadway musical adaptation of “Spiderman.” Sturgess said that Taymor is a mentor to him and that when she called and asked if he would come and write songs with U2 for the musical, he was eager to help. But he is still mulling over the offer to play the musical’s lead web slinger.

“I don’t know,” Sturgess said. “If it were ‘Batman,’ I’d definitely do it. We did a rough performance for the people from Marvel and Sony and it went well. It’s just that everything sounds cool when Bono sings it, but it would sound different coming from someone else.”

As hesitant as Sturgess sounds about Spidey the Musical, it’s nothing compared to “21” director Robert Luketic’s combination of excitement and anxiety about the film, a departure from Luketic’s previous work.

“I wanted to show people that I could do something that didn’t involve wedding dresses,” Luketic said, before the regional premeire of the film at the SXSW film festival. “The studio took a chance on me. In that way, it was like being a first-time filmmaker all over again.”

The inspiration, the actor and the director of “21” all agreed on one point about the film: They want audiences to take away the sense of fun and triumph that the MIT students felt throughout their experiences. “21” hits theaters Friday, March 28.

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