Divergent star Theo James on his career ascension

HE may be the star of mega movie franchise the Divergent trilogy, but Theo James is keen to keep his feet on the ground, writes Claire Black.

Theo James grew up in Oxfordshire and trained at Bristol Old Vic. Picture: Getty
Theo James grew up in Oxfordshire and trained at Bristol Old Vic. Picture: Getty

According to Theo James, if he was subjected to the sort of personality tests that feature in Veronica Roth’s novels, the one which would give him the most trouble would be candour. Why? Because he’s a private person. Well, that doesn’t bode well, does it? And nor does the fact that I’m going to be allowed to spend one-twelfth of the amount of time it’s taken me to travel to the interview actually in the presence of the actor himself. Truthfully, this is not really a surprise, even if it doesn’t really lend itself to a very satisfying encounter. These are the rules when you’re one of the key players in a mega movie franchise.

James is Four, love interest and right-hand man of Beatrice “Tris” Prior, the heroine of the Divergent trilogy – a Young Adult literary phenomenon in the vein of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books – that was the basis for last year’s Divergent and the second instalment, Insurgent. James and the rest of the cast will be shooting the final part in what’s becoming the standard two-film package during the summer. It’s not bad for a boy from Oxford. OK, he’s not a boy, he’s 30, but that’s not the point. What I mean is that it’s not bad – in fact it’s even a little surprising for someone who did his training at Bristol Old Vic and who, until relatively recently, was best known for a part in Downton Abbey which required him to cark it in flagrante (he was the Turkish diplomat who seduced Lady Mary and died in her bed).

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“Anyone in this business who says they always had a plan is talking complete bollocks because that’s impossible,” James says (and I probably should have mentioned he’s a bit sweary). “That’s just not the nature of what it is. Not even the greatest actors who have ever lived, not every part of their career have they been able to pick and choose. But at the end of the day I think you do things you enjoy doing. And when you’re trying to start a career you choose things or take things which pay the bills and you hope it develops and you have to be smarter, and it’s then that the plan starts forming more clearly.”

James has a kind of earnest demeanour and I don’t think I’m leaping to any outlandish conclusions to suggest he might be the tiniest bit sensitive about being in a franchise aimed at the younger end of the cinema-going audience. But he really shouldn’t be. Set in a dystopian future where humanity has been divided into factions and the politically oppressive regime is just begging to be challenged by a plucky young heroine, the books are a cut above plenty of other fiction written for teenagers.

Last year’s Divergent was an entertaining romp with Kate Winslet doing a fine turn as the villain. Shailene Woodley is an interesting actor who can pull off the kind of heroine that you can really root for if you’ve got a daughter and would like her to imagine there are more possibilities available to her than preening, pouting and being rescued by a man. As it goes, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more polite statement of “I’m doing this role not because I think it is the best I’ll ever be offered but because I want a long career and this is a great place to start”.

“You have to be smarter especially with these kinds of movies because as great as they are and they do open lots of doors and they’re very fun, you do have to think carefully about what you do in between,” he says. “It’s a long journey and I think it’s easy to get swept up being something cool of the moment but what really lays your foundations for your career is the harder stuff.”

Plenty of actors talk about wanting to mix it up but they don’t necessarily have the skills. James is probably better placed than most, having served his time at the Bristol Old Vic where he did a postgraduate course after studying philosophy at university. “With anything you have to create a bit of elbow space,” he says. “But then there’s an element of what comes up and what feels right at the time. At the moment, working on the franchise means you’ve got a very specific period in between each film, which is relatively small because you have to do a month of press as well. So at the moment it’s about using those slots as well as I can to choose things that are different, to try to show a part of me that’s not been seen.” He pauses and looks a bit sheepish. “That sounds so f***ing boring.”

Wearing a checked shirt, jeans and boots, it’s the tortoiseshell specs hanging on the neck of his T-shirt that stand out as a little different from soon to be movie star attire. James is very handsome. Taller than I’d expected – movie stars are notorious for being short – but less built than he looks on screen, it’s those big, brown eyes that get you. He’s very polite too. He offers me water. He asks me where I live and even looks interested as I answer. And then he asks me another question, and another and another. I think I had guessed he was a little nervous but it was only when I listened to the tape that I hear him say “OK” as we’re about to begin. It is the kind of “OK” that suggests he is about to undergo some kind of painful medical procedure. The questions, it seems, are a delaying tactic.

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So since he knows where I live, where does he live, here or like most other movie stars, in Los Angeles? “Here,” he says, fixing me with a stare. “Pretty much here. Well, a bit of both but here is my spiritual home.” He smiles. He’s joking. Good. I was getting a little bit worried. “Here is where my family live and where my friends from uni are.”

James was born in Oxford. The youngest of five, his family are resolutely un-showbiz. His mum worked for the NHS, his dad is a business consultant. He’s close to them and his brothers and sisters. Maybe they provide a bit of ballast for his movie career?

“Family is very important,” he says. “We’re a jokingly cynical family. I remember my eldest brother, the first time I wrote a song when I was about 13. It was really cheesy. I sat him down and I had my guitar and I opened my heart. I finished the song, which was f***ing terrible, and they all just burst out laughing. He still takes the piss out of me now, he calls it ‘Why?’.” He laughs. “It was like why do I feel these things or something like that.” He laughs again. “You can’t take this stuff too seriously. If you start taking yourself or it too seriously I think it can be damaging. One thing that’s fascinating psychologically is to watch other people and how they do it.”

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Rumours of romance have swirled around James and his co-star Woodley since the promotional hoopla for the first movie began. “She’s great,” is all he says about her when I inquire. So, I try a different tack. Making a second instalment with the same people on set surely makes it a more fun experience?

“On the one hand it makes it much easier. On the other you have to make sure you don’t become lazy or complacent. You have to keep reminding yourselves to be on your toes.” He pauses, perhaps weighing up how open to be. “One thing Shai and I found is that when you come back after a year at first you think it’s fine because we’ve done the characters, it’s all good, and then you get on set and you do that first scene and it’s like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t just come back, you’ve got to get into gear’.”

Since Screen International named him as one of their “Stars of Tomorrow” back in 2009, as well as that infamous turn in Downton Abbey, there have also been appearances as the bullying rep in The Inbetweeners Movie as well as the role of a vampire, rather surprisingly called David, in the Underworld movies. And now, of course, with the Divergent trilogy on his CV, things are looking pretty positive. His upcoming films this year include London Fields alongside Johnny Depp and The Secret Scripture with Rooney Mara.

From the outside, signing on to a franchise such as Divergent looks like a… I search for the word...

“Whirlwind,” he says. “In some ways it’s definitely something that you haven’t experienced before when you do these press tours and you step out” – and this time he is the one to hesitate. “You need to psychologically prepare yourself at least a little bit because if you’re a bit hungover and tired the screaming is…” He shakes his head.

As to whether you can resist being changed by such an experience, he’s sure it’s possible. At least for him. “It’s not like I go to trendy parties, it’s not particularly my thing, not that there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t think it needs to change you unless you want it to. Unless you’re f***ing Brad Pitt and then you definitely can’t go to Costa coffee to pick up a frappucino. It’s my job, I do it and then I go home and hang out with my mates. I don’t need to mix the two.”

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I wonder if acting is what James thought it would be, maybe even what he hoped it would be?

“In some ways yes, and in some ways no,” he says. “The job is what I expected it to be in a good way – it’s very gratifying and it’s challenging. Getting into a part is really fun – you have to go quite deep and there’s a lot of research to be done. To be honest, one thing that’s tricker is what’s happening now with how connected we are globally is the blurring of the lines between being an actor as your job and being a celebrity.

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“That is tricky. Some people embrace it, some people like it and props to them if it works for them. But it can be a bit difficult because at the end of the day all this other stuff is irrelevant, it’s my job. You never want to perceive yourself through anyone else’s eyes and whether that’s the media of a social thing, or someone coming up to you in a bar. You want to maintain the fact that it’s a job, that’s what it is.”

I kind of admire his commitment to keeping his feet on the ground. But at the same time I can’t help thinking about the teenage daughters of a friend of mine. When they heard I was interviewing James, she nearly had to scrape them off the ceiling. The contrast between the devotion of the fans to these movies and the stars who are in them and James’s low-key approach is stark. Is he aware of how invested the fans are? Does he care?

“You definitely don’t want to f*** it up,” he says. “I think it’s great that they’re reading, but really when you’re doing a film that’s an adaptation of the book you do the prep and then you know the character and you decide on how you’re going to play it and that’s it. You can’t be too informed by other people.”

What did he read when he was a teenager?

“The Hobbit,” he says. “Young Adult fiction didn’t really exist when I was that age. When you were younger you read Hardy Boys or The Famous Five and I remember reading a whole series of ghoul and ghost stories when I was about 10. But then it was The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and then on to books for adults.” He hears himself say the word with the American pronunciation and immediately repeats it sounding very English with a tiny shake of his head.

“I’ve been doing the accent for too long,” he says with a slightly sheepish laugh.

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• Divergent Series: The Insurgent (3D) (12A) is on general release now


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