Interview: Theo James


Theo James is a working actor and not a superstar that’s about to watch his world turned upside down by the potential success of his latest big screen endeavour, co-starring alongside fellow rising star Shailene Woodley in the upcoming adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best selling young adult novel Divergent (opening in theatres this Friday with two other entries in a planned trilogy headed towards production). If one pays attention to tracking numbers, Divergent is currently on par with an opening that could equal that of the first Twilight film, meaning James is about to be noticed wherever he goes.

However, in a downtown Toronto hotel room after a crazy red carpet premiere the night before, James is really relaxed and realistic about any potential success the film could bring him. A veteran of British television and mostly known for smaller character work in feature films, this marks James’ potentially biggest break in the industry yet. He has a kind, working class, down to earth affability that matches his similarly self-reflective co-star. Inspired by classic cinema and the desire to keep working at the profession that he loves, James has thus far been able to deftly balance the fan expectation that comes with an impending juggernaut franchise with a humility that suggests someone who can maintain a long carrer.

In the film, Woodley plays Tris, a young adult in a futuristic world where her hometown of Chicago might be the last gated outpost of humanity. With a society divided into factions based on bravery, intellect, and kindness, Tris is forced to choose a path that will define the rest of her life. When a standardized simulated test reveals that Tris is a danger to society – a divergent who can play into the best and worst attributes of all thought processes – she keeps her perceived “affliction” a secret and joins the warrior class known as Dauntless, where she’s trained to become a police officer and warrior for the state under the tutelage of the kindly Four (James) and the hardnosed Eric (Jai Courtney). A secret divergent himself, Four takes Tris under his wing as they uncover a plot from the intellectual class (led by Kate Winslet) to overthrow the government.

James talked with us about his character’s internal struggles, what being in a franchise could mean for his career, his fears of being objectified, why people seem to be drawn to dystopian narratives, and why he approaches every job the same way regardless of size or potential success.

In Divergent, Four is a character with a deep internal struggle and a tragic past in a film full of characters with internal struggles that can’t ever let it be known that they’re struggling with their feelings. But while some characters can let those struggles slip through their personalities and their interactions with others, yours can only barely do it in private because Four has kind of conditioned himself to be a bit colder so he isn’t found out. What’s it like being in a story that’s full of emotion, but playing the person who has to keep everything bottled up until he nearly implodes?

DIVERGENTTheo James: Well, that’s what I loved about the story and what attracted me to it. He’s an extremely complex character, but he’s also a kind of male figure that you don’t see in movies – especially movies of this genre – very much. At the beginning, it’s hard to be sure of his intentions. You aren’t sure if he’s a good guy or not. She’s trying to work things out, and she spends most of the movie trying to understand and in a lot of ways catch up to him. He essentially comes from a place of great mistrust: he has an abusive relationship with his father, which is something people don’t normally talk openly about, then on top of that, he’s also something that he doesn’t quite understand. He doesn’t understand why people want to try to wipe him out, since he’s divergent himself. And yet despite all that, he still believes that the whole faction system and democratic system is going to break down, so he has to keep that all close to his chest, and he can’t trust anyway.

That kind of plays into the beauty of the story with Shay because they need to trust each other, and through trusting her, he’s able to warm up and start to come alive again somehow, and he gets to show his true self for the first time in his life. For example, when he decides to show her the simulation of the fears inside his head, there isn’t some conversation that they have. He doesn’t have to sit down and talk emotionally about how his dad beat him up when she sees that in his past. I don’t think he’s someone that could actually openly talk about that when that point arrives. It’s simple, but the premise is very emotive and cathartic for him. He’s a guy that shows rather than tells. He shows her everything about himself, without ever saying anything, really. I love that kind of idea about being forthright in that way while still maintaining mystery.

He’s also a character in this kind of a story where he can be seen as an outside, subversive element within the world, but also really interestingly Four is someone who actually believes that the very system that puts him in danger could actually work. That’s an interesting added layer for a character like that.

TJ: He does! Exactly! I feel like he almost has this classic general-like quality. He’s kind of an old guard kind of person who believed in this system, and that’s something that I really had to settle in my head before hand. You look at the faction system in reality and you ask, “Well, would that be a viable construct?” Probably not, but to get into this character you have to look at different ways of thinking and then ask if maybe what happened before was so cataclysmic and so horrendous that they had to create something so different from what came before. I’m getting off track slightly, but to me, he’s the old system and he believed in it and he can see how it’s being manipulated, so he’s trying to fight for that.

When you book a role like this for yourself in something that’s positioned to be a massive franchise, how does that effect your performance when you know there’s a lot riding on it and a lot of pressure? This seems like a character where you can use a lot of that same kind of nervous energy that that you have and put it into the performance.

TJ: It is useable. You have to use whatever kind of energy you have, and sometimes you can try and you can fuck it up and do the wrong thing. (laughs) What’s good with this is that I’m actually not that well known and I haven’t been doing it for too long. So you get to a film and there’s a relatively big cast like this film has and it forces you to step up to the mark. There’s no kind of beating around the bush.

With this character, and to be quite honest we already share a lot of traits, I had to be him. I think that helped because when you have to step up to the plate like this you have to embody him fully. It forces you to always be on point and on topic.

Conversely, I try and not be aware – or as much as you can be – of any wider implications of this being a big movie. In reality, I am a huge pragmatist and a huge realist, and until something happens, you’ll never ever know. Part of an actor’s journey is that you’ll do jobs, and these are jobs that everyone wants to see succeed, and on every job you do, there’s someone saying it’s going to end up being X or Y. Some of them turn out to be great and some of them turn out not so great. It kind of makes you numb to the hype.

It’s your first job and your last job every time?

TJ: (laughs) Kind of, or more precisely it’s just another job where you’re doing your thing.

So being fairly new to the business, but this is also a film where you’re out front and centre on the poster. Are you afraid of being slotted or typecast because of the kind of film it is and the very specific marketing needs and audience it’s being geared towards? Are you at all worried about being marketed in a way that might not go hand in hand with being seen as a serious actor?

TJ: Definitely, Yes, and becoming physicalized, too. I mean, in reality I’m not 22 like the character in the film. I’m 29, and I’ve been doing other stuff before and since, and I wouldn’t really want to be put in the position where at this point in my life I become a “teen dream,” because that’s just not the reality. (laughs) I think what I have done and what I need to keep doing is that after this kind of a film, you need to make bold decisions and choose extremely fucking carefully. Inevitably what will happen is that opportunities will open and you get choices presented to you that you definitely need to be strong enough to say no to. Then the stuff that you really want to go for, you’ll still have to hustle for and still have to fight for, so I think that will be my challenge: to play everything in opposition to that.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that or this, because when I saw this on Sunday for the first time with Shay, we looked at each other and we were relieved because you don’t ever know what you’re going to get as an actor even from reading the script and playing a character. This is a good movie, and I think it’s more mature and able to straddle the YA kind of filmmaking into more adult films. But I think you’re right. Inevitably those kinds of generalizations are bound to happen.

That would explain why you are following this up with the Martin Amis adaptation London Fields and with something like Franny.

TJ: Yeah. I mean, London Fields is kind of based on a fucked up novel and I get to play this kind of a strange character who’s naive, harsh, and someone who couldn’t be more different. It’s a completely different kind of genre. It has kind of a Leaving Las Vegas vibe to it… Wait, that’s not what I’m thinking of… Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! That’s what I meant.

It’s a fine line between the two.

TJ: (laughs) That is true. And then Franny was more to do an old school kind of drama. It’s shot on film and really just about people. Those were very deliberate choices for me, so I definitely think I’ll have to push myself to keep making those kind of choices.

One of the things you have done throughout your career that kind of plays into what you’re doing here with a series that’s based around a franchise of books, is that you have worked on series before. You say that you don’t know when you see any movie that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out in the end, when someone approaches you with an entire series with an arc that’s already laid out for you as an actor, is there ever a trepidation where you have to immediately skip ahead or ask questions about what’s coming in the weeks, months, and years ahead? Do you ever question how long you will be able to play this character satisfyingly as an actor?

TJ: Yeah, that’s definitely a big question and there are definitely lessons that I’ve learned with regards to that. You can really only tend to go off the first episode or installment that you’re offered, but on the one hand something like television offers you usually a way to really explore a character that can get deeper and deeper into a character. You look at actors like James Gandolfini or Bryan Cranston, and those kinds of arcs are extremely complex and extremely interesting characters.

But you’re right, you don’t have that much control over how things are going to work out. I found one thing is that you need to mix your excitement – because when you see a first script or a pilot that you like, you tend to say “YEAH!” and you imagine that best possible case scenario – with the cynicism that keeps you questioning. I think as an actor if you want to have any sort of longevity, you have to keep questioning everything, every scene. I’m not saying to not trust your director, because on something like this, Neil Burger is a great collaborative type and a very smart guy. But for your own self, you should make sure you’re questioning all the time that the quality and the message is 100% clear.

Do you wish your role on Downton Abbey lasted longer than it did?

TJ: (laughs) No, actually, but I did very briefly wish it. That was my second job, and they sent me this script and the character dies in the script. You know, I was a jobbing actor. I took a job. In a way at the time it didn’t change my life at all because that was a show that got big later. I did the job. I had to pretend I knew how to horse ride, which I couldn’t. (laughs) Then I left.

But sometimes it’s oddly more interesting and memorable to people to have these kind of small roles in bigger productions that end up becoming juggernauts than having a starring role in them. Sometimes you can walk into something that you don’t think will be much and it ends up becoming memorable almost as a sort of side effect of being there.

TJ: Yeah! It’s true, and that’s a really interesting place to be. I guess if you kind of pop in and out of something you can be in something great like Downton Abbey, but you won’t suffer in some ways that you might come about when things tend to elongate. But certainly I had no idea when I took that job that anyone would remember it.

Divergent also marks the most physically demanding role of your career. How hands on were you allowed to be when it came to the more dangerous stuff your character has to do?

TJ: I know everyone always gives this answer because it sounds cool, but I did basically everything. There was one part of a move where (stunt coordinator) Colin (Follenweider) did it because I just couldn’t do it, and it’s in one of those early fights with Shay and it’s kind of like this MMA move that looks really cool. I didn’t know how to do it. (laughs) I tried. I failed. (laughs)

I thought it was really important with this character to have that physicality before, as well. You need to feel it in his bones, you know what I mean? He’s a guy that needs to feel and appear dangerous. Also, that’s honestly the fun stuff in many ways. Again, going back to one of your earlier questions, in order to bring that kind of reality to it, if I didn’t think I could do all this stuff and be strong enough to do that, I don’t think I would have (A) felt enough like that character and (B) that people would have respected me playing it. Does that make sense?

Totally. And it certainly seems like you were able to connect to the people who love this character and the book that he comes from. I was able to see last night at the red carpet just how big of a deal this is for some people. I had heard of the books and what they were about, but I really had no idea they were this massive. When you were growing up or coming up as an actor, did you ever have any dreams of your own of doing anything literary in its origins?

TJ: Yeah, and I mean, there’s lots. In terms of the kind of actor I wanted to be, my brother was a huge film buff and he really got me started by watching Steve McQueen movies and early Brando, and Paul Newman films, all of that classic kind of masculinity in movies was always a big draw to me. But conversely, I was also kind of a huge nerd growing up and I love The Lord of the Rings books, and those had a huge influence on me, as well. I also really enjoyed the Robert Harris novel Fatherland, and I thought that was always a great idea for a character and for a big screen thriller. I know they did it for TV and radio, but it’s this great neo-noir about this guilty, fucked up, chain smoking guy in this parallel universe in a post-World War II where the Nazis had won. I would love to play around in worlds like that as an actor.

And you get the chance to play that kind of character in a modern young adult film now, in a lot of ways.

TJ: That’s true! Yeah, I guess I can see that now.

It’s not that much of a jump between sort of the classic, quiet badass of a Steve McQueen film to this internalized hero.

TJ: Yeah, and that’s really cool and I’m glad that came across because I love that about the character, because there’s something really charismatic and fun to get to play that kind of “quiet badass,” as you say. I don’t think you ever see that very much anymore with this gravitation towards big movies or little indies with very much in-between. You can see it more often in indies, but in bigger movies like this it’s usually, like, (makes a roaring and screaming sound while beating his chest). (laughs)

You went for a philosophy degree at the University of Nottingham, so as a philosophy major, what do you make of this current wave of and obsession with dystopian films and post-apocalyptic narratives? It seems like there are more of these kinds of films now than ever before.

TJ: Yeah, and you wonder whether that’s a trend or what it stems from. I think on one hand you do question whether the generation younger than me, because it’s become a lot pertinent for them than it was when we were teenagers, is that degree of consciousness about these sorts of things. Growing up, if there is talk of burgeoning populations, depleted resources, and over in the UK where they do these kinds of comparisons to Post-World War II like it’s Churchill 2.0. Then you look at the population figures, global warming, maybe subconsciously they are questioning very openly what their futures will look like and what the futures of their kids will look like. Will they change in a way that we can’t recognize and will it be better or worse? On a more basic level, though, I think it’s a more easily accessible fantasy to say that there’s this city like Chicago and place it into a scenario where it’s just different enough to feel like an adventure through time.

Neil said this, and I really like this point and I don’t know if you got it when you saw it, but at the beginning of the movie I like to think that this isn’t necessarily a dystopia, but just a future. You question the reality of how this system works and you can go in kind of skeptically to it. Something seems working, but something seems off. It’s not immediate Blade Runner dystopian darkness. Maybe it’s something, maybe it isn’t. Neil said that you need to build something that’s vaguely cohesive so that there are stakes when it all breaks down. It has to feel real in order for it to feel like an event instead of just throwing everyone into the shit and more shit happens and everyone dies.

That plays nicely into the film’s themes of making choices and adapting to life as an adult. How do you apply your own choices and decisions as a working actor into being a “big movie” kind of actor or a “little indie” kind of actor?

TJ: I there are two things that all actors learn when they have to get along in any situation. You have to adapt no matter what you work on because every three month job, every new office, every journalist you meet, they’re all going to be different, and in the acting community you get the extreme of that. It can feed the best kind of creativity, but it can also feed a lot of the worst stuff, in terms of high ego and self obsession and that sort of thing.

I always say that with every job you start thinking you know everything. You just finish something and you think, “Fuck. I know how this works! Yeah, I’ll pat myself on the back!” (laughs) Very quickly, you learn that you don’t know anything and you learn the whole movie, and you’re learning, learning, learning, and then you finish the movie and you’re, like, “Whew! I got it! Now I know!” Then you can go back to a new set and think, “I got it, motherfuckers! I don’t give a shit!” (laughs) The two things you need to balance the most are those extreme feelings and how to manage that cycle.