BY BILL ZWECKER Sun-Times Columnist

LONDON — For young actor Tom Sturridge, there was one scene in ‘‘Pirate Radio’’ that ‘‘really, truly and absolutely involved no acting on my part whatsoever.

‘‘Trust me, I was as terrified in that moment as I appear on screen,’’ said Sturridge, chatting recently about filmmaker Richard Curtis’ film about the rogue radio station ‘‘pirate’’ ships in international waters in the North Sea in the mid-1960s. Disc jockeys played rock ’n’ roll 24/7 to a British audience because the government-owned monopoly, the BBC, refused to play it.

In “Pirate Radio,” Philip Seymour Hoffman (center) and Nick Frost (right) play disc jockeys on a “pirate radio” ship in the 1960s.

The ‘‘moment’’ Sturridge spoke of was the first time he met Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who arrived to play one of the key DJs on the ship.

Sturridge’s first introduction to Hoffman ‘‘literally came in that scene in the film, where I walk in and take him a cup of tea, turn and walk out and he slaps me on the ass,’’ said the actor with a big laugh.

‘‘Then suddenly, I hear, ‘Oh, Carl,’ and I think, ‘Oh, f—, Now I’m going to have to go back and improvise with Philip Seymour F-ing Hoffman!’” said Sturridge, who pointed out that ‘‘unlike the rest of the cast who were invited to join the film, I had to audition and fight for my part.’’

Sturridge plays a naive young man who is kicked out of boarding school and then sent by his mother to live with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy) on the pirate radio ship he runs in the middle of the North Sea.

The twentysomething Sturridge admitted he was ‘‘clueless’’ about the phenomenon of the pirate radio ships when he first learned about the project. Yet, as for the music, Sturridge said, ‘‘You had to have been born and raised in some sealed-up cellar — no matter what your age — not to know about this music … the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Dylan and all that stuff.’’

While the film is firmly grounded on a very specific script, penned by Curtis, the writer-director explained that while he previously was never a big fan of actors improvising with his material, in this film, it seemed right.

‘‘We had camera guys all over the place and they could zoom in on whatever seemed to be the most interesting things going on,” Curtis said. “It was, after all, a story about a bunch of guys living for very long stretches of time on a boat. I wanted the dialogue to feel real, to make everyone sense what it was like around the dinner table in those close quarters, with mostly quick-witted fellows tossing out barbs and zingers all the time.’’

Yet, first and foremost, Curtis and his cast understood it was all about the music — something Sturridge, and fellow cast members said was almost like a religion for their director.

‘‘Richard is scary about this stuff,’’ said Nick Frost, the English actor best known to American audiences for such films as ‘‘Hot Fuzz’’ and ‘‘Shaun of the Dead,’’ who plays the very amorous, chunky DJ Dave in ‘‘Pirate Radio.’’

‘‘He’s a regular walking encyclopedia,” Frost said. “Not only does he know virtually every rock ’n’ roll song from the 1960s, but he will pick out a relatively obscure 45, and be able to tell you what the even more obscure song is on the flip side!’’

Along with outfitting his entire cast with iPods featuring some 300 songs from the mid-’60s, Curtis felt it important to have that music blasting from speakers all over the boat, during lunch breaks or any time they weren’t filming specific scenes.

‘‘You just couldn’t escape it — nor did we want to,’’ said Talulah Riley, who plays Marianne, Sturridge’s character Carl’s love interest and the visiting niece of Quentin.

Even all these decades later, Nighy can’t believe ‘‘how dense the government was about that music and how important it was to so many people. ‘‘There was something like 25 million people — half the British population — who was tuning in every day and night to listen to those illegal radio stations, simply because the BBC only broadcast two hours of popular music a week!’’

As someone who remembers growing up in that era, Nighy chuckled as he recalled sneaking ‘‘a transistor radio under my pillow to listen late at night.’’

In many ways, the ship itself became a character in the film.

‘‘She was perfect,’’ said Curtis, remembering how they found it.

“We went all over the coast of Britain and finally found her skulking in Scotland … an old fisherman, just perfect.’’

Ironically, as pointed out by Sturridge, none of the crew got seasick during the six weeks they actually shot at sea, in Portland Harbour, just off the Dorset coast of England.

‘‘It was only while we were on one of the huge sets they built on land — but created on giant gimbals of various weather settings — that people actually did get seasick. Kind of funny, if you think about it.’’

~ by jennylilbit on November 9, 2009.

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