Created by Stephanie Danler, author of the internationally best-selling novel of the same name, the six-episode half-hour Starz series Sweetbitter tells the story of Tess (Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old who arrives in New York City ready to pursue a new life in a new location, and all that has to offer. When she’s hired to train at one of the best restaurants in the city, she quickly learns what it will take to prove herself in the chaotic, adrenaline-fueled world behind the scenes of the food and wine business. The series also stars Tom Sturridge, Caitlin FitzGerald, Paul Sparks, Evan Jonigkeit, Eden Epstein, Jasmine Mathews and Daniyar.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Tom Sturridge (who plays Jake, the mysterious bartender who has sparked a curiosity and lust in Tess) talked about what drew him to Sweetbitter, why he knows this character so well, who Jake is, what he had to learn to play a bartender, and what he enjoys most about playing this character. He also talked about why he’s excited about being a part of director Dan Gilroy’s latest film, set in the art world, playing Lord Byron opposite Elle Fanning in Mary Shelley, and what he looks for in a project.
Collider: How did you come to this series, and what was it about the story and character that appealed to you?
TOM STURRIDGE: I came to it in the very traditional sense, in that they sent me the script and wanted me to come in and talk to them about it. As far as the story, in general, I moved to New York, two years ago. I came here as a relatively lost soul, not really knowing who I was, and discovered very quickly that this city has an ability to confront those issues, head on. He’s somebody who hates himself and self-medicates. I love that New York challenges you, but at the same time, you can drown, so I felt very familiar with Tess’ journey. And then, as far as Jake goes, he is someone I know, intimately.
We don’t know much about Jake or his history, at all. Is that intimidating, or is that exciting?
STURRIDGE: Stephanie [Danler], the writer of the novel and of the show, gave all of us a pretty strong idea of who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. The first season is like a long film. I think they view it as a pilot and as an introduction to the characters, as opposed to an in-depth investigation. So, it was intimidating, in the sense that I know where he’s going and I know why he’s doing what he does, but as far as I’m concerned, the less you know about somebody, the better.
How would you describe Jake, and how do you think he’d describe himself?
STURRIDGE: I think he, very specifically, would not describe himself. I don’t think he’d ever get into that conversation. I would describe him as someone in a lot of pain, for a particular reason, and who just deals with that with sex and alcohol.
One of the most striking things about this show and the world this show is based in is just how much it takes to keep a restaurant like this going. Did you have to learn anything specific, in that regard, to be a part of this show?
STURRIDGE: I worked in a restaurant for a couple of years, so I was definitely familiar with a lot of it. He’s a barman, so I had to learn at least how to look like I knew what I was doing. I did some training to learn how to mix drinks, but the wait staff were the ones that needed the real training.
The most mysterious relationship on the show is the one between Simone and Jake. What’s it like to explore that dynamic, and to have someone like Caitlin FitzGerald as a scene partner?
STURRIDGE: Caitlin is incredible and amazing to work with. Nothing is explored in that much depth, in the first season of the show, so what was exciting was that me and Caitlin sat down, very early on, before we started shooting with everyone, and talked about exactly what this is about and why we’re doing what we’re doing, so that even if it was only glances at each other, we knew what those glances mean. It was exciting having our secret.
Jake kisses Tess, but then stands her up. Is he just impulsive and does he do these things without thinking, or does he think about how his actions make people feel?
STURRIDGE: I think everybody, ultimately, thinks about how other people feel, even if they don’t act on it. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a person who just blindly charges around. So, in that sense, yes, I think he’s aware of the affect he has, but impulsive is definitely an important word when it comes to him. I also think he’s apathetic. I think there’s a part of him that’s just totally unaware of what a person could feel.
What do you most enjoy about playing this character, and are there challenges to playing him?
STURRIDGE: I most enjoy just being in the universe that they’ve created. As far as him, as a character, I feel pretty close to him. It’s not much of a stretch.
You’ve done your fair share of period pieces. Is it a welcome relief to do something in modern-day, like Sweetbitter?
STURRIDGE: Yeah, it is. But, I treat all of them in the same way. It isn’t that much different. You’ve just gotta pretend to be someone, in a realistic way.
You’re in Dan Gilroy’s film, Velvet Buzzsaw. What was the appeal of that story and what can you say about who you’re playing in that?
STURRIDGE: I can’t say very much because I think he wants to keep the story very much under wraps. I can say that I’m having the best time in the universe doing it. It’s such an amazing group of people, and Dan is such an exciting filmmaker. I’m such a fan of Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. And Robert Elswit is shooting it, who’s just one of my favorite cinematographers. It’s a joy to go to work on it. It’s definitely something to be excited about. It’s compelling.
You also have Mary Shelley coming out. What was it like to play Lord Byron and work with Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley?
STURRIDGE: It was great. I love Elle. She’s a force of nature. Playing Byron is obviously intimidating, but at the same time, when you play a writer, you have access to their thoughts because you have access to their writing. That’s a privileged window into a character.