Divergent star Theo James: I wasn’t looking for a big franchise…
It’s yet another adaptation of a young-adult book series, following in the footsteps of Twilight and The Hunger Games and speculation is rife it could put 29-year-old James on the path previously trodden by spangly vampire Robert Pattinson. Is he ready to become a global celebrity?
‘I don’t know, we’ll see how big the film is,’ he says. ‘You either take the ramifications in your stride or s*** yourself and become a cocaine addict. Let’s speak again in six months’ time and you can see which way I’ve gone…’
James is refreshingly down-to-earth and self-deprecating to interview. And he likes to swear. Our chit-chat starts with him telling me he’s thinking of moving to my area and asking what the pubs are like.
This may be a polite conversational tactic but his friendly bonhomie makes a nice change from the swaggering ego-mania you occasionally encounter in actor interviews. Here’s his equally un-starry assessment of his leading lady Shailene Woodley:
‘Luckily, she’s not a douche bag – she’s a nice person and fun and relaxed and not too affected by the wider bulls***. We had good chemistry straight away, which was good as we had to move along quickly, and we’re doing a ginormous press schedule that lasts a couple of months so it’s a good thing we get on.’
James’s acting aspirations began in student plays and making short films at university. He read philosophy. ‘It’s useful to have the ability to analyse something a bit more acutely,’ he says of his subject choice.
‘And going to university is a quintessentially British experience of attending lectures, doing exams and getting wildly s***-faced.’
From there, he went to the Bristol Old Vic drama school. His first job was a small role in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, in which he played a man having an affair with Anthony Hopkins’s wife.
‘I asked Anthony Hopkins what he was doing the following week,’ says James. ‘He said: “I’m popping over to Italy where a concerto I’ve written is being performed. After that, I’m off to New York because one of my paintings is on display so I’m quite busy.” I thought: “F***ing hell, I need to start working on other stuff.” It was an eye opener.’
Working with Hopkins left quite an impression on James. ‘It was a small role but he was the first big actor I interacted with and he had an easy charm and a lack of familiarity,’ he says. ‘He’s quite warm and friendly, and he’s just himself – which is a good way to be around people.’
A small role in Downton Abbey followed – he played the Turkish diplomat who dropped dead after having sex with Lady Mary. Then he went on to star in little-seen Sky show Bedlam alongside Will Young (‘he’s a f***ing legend’).
For a recently graduated actor, James pulled off the impressive feat of avoiding the usual rut of unemployment, adverts, Midsomer Murders and Casualty, by going straight in with that Allen film, popping up in The Inbetweeners Movie and, last year, landing the lead role in short-lived US cop show Golden Boy.
‘It feels like I’ve been making incremental steps,’ he says. ‘I did some British TV and bits and bobs here and there. I’ve been lucky.’
Divergent has received mixed reviews, with some critics calling it dull and formulaic – but then again the Twilight franchise was universally derided yet went on to become a box-office smash. Two sequels to Divergent – set in a dystopia where people are sorted into ‘factions’ that govern their behaviour – are in the planning, which would keep James busy into his thirties.
His character has been made older than he is in the book. ‘He reads as if he’s older,’ says James. ‘He’s supposed to be this legendary warrior guy, so it made sense he’d be a bit older. I also gained weight – I wanted him to have that muscularity so he might seem intimidating.’
James has a busy schedule ahead, completing the adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel London Fields in which he plays opposite Amber Heard, and US movie Franny with Dakota Fanning and Richard Gere. ‘He really upped my game,’ says James of Gere. ‘He’s a great actor and is very passionate about it.’
As to ambitions, he’s hoping to build on the Divergent trilogy. ‘I wasn’t looking for a big franchise but it was a lot of fun and can potentially open doors if you’re smart with it,’ he says. ‘After doing a big YA film like this, with the pros and cons that come with it, I wanted to do these other, smaller films.
I want diversity in what I do as that’s what helps you in the long term. It’s more fulfilling and you’ll have a longer shelf life as an actor.’