Tall, with the brooding eyes of a philosophy major? Check. Deep North Londoner voice of a rock singer? Check. Practiced in the art of saying only the most appropriate things in an interview? Well …
In an early scene in “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” Theo James found his character, Four, at a table with franchise protagonist and Four’s love interest Tris (Shailene Woodley) and two characters played by Woodley’s recent screen paramours, actors Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) and Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”).
James grimly acknowledges they were aware of the situation while filming. Just kidding
“‘Cause we’ve all (been with) her,” he says. Then he shouts, “In movies! We had several laughs about that.”
He’s quick to joke, but James’ admiration for Woodley, surely one of the best actresses of her generation, as an artist and a person reads as genuine. He is by turns polite and mischievous, profane and thoughtful, but is clearly fond of his co-star.
“Like any relationship, there’s an evolution. But both of us, in terms of the people we were when we started — we’re different now. Shai, obviously she’s always been a great actress, but compared to the first movie, she’s grown as a person in a really positive way. So that not only informs her performance, but it informs our friendship.
“In a nice way, Shai and I — it’s a slow burn. We are 100 percent good friends, but it’s a slow-burn thing; I think there’s still more to come. At least I hope so.”
There’s certainly more to come from the ascendant James, who has only been active since 2010, yet already has 11 credits. This year alone, he has four movies on the slate, including “Franny” with Dakota Fanning and Richard Gere; Jim Sheridan’s “The Secret Scripture,“ with Rooney Mara; and “London Fields” with Johnny Depp. Not bad for an actor who only recently was best known for expiring in the sack on “Downton Abbey.“
The youngest of five in a close-knit family of Greek descent (his real last name is“Taptiklis“), the Oxfordshire-born James attended the Old Vic Bristol Theatre School.
“I had a pretty steep learning curve in film — as I’m still learning,” he says.“The more you do, the more you should be willing to make mistakes. But then I guess the more you do, the scarier it becomes. If you’re Joe Chump, then who gives a (expletive) — you don’t care, do you? Rock ’n’ roll. But if you have something to uphold, it gets a little scary.”
James’ career is taking off, but he’s philosophical about the craft. That’s likely due to his philosophy degree from the University of Nottingham and relatively late blooming (he’s 30, compared to most of his fresh-out-of-the-dorms Insurgent”cast mates).
“You question, as anybody should, the overarching worth of your profession, right? So that’s a question I’ve often asked myself,”says the man whose dreaminess has launched a small army of fan sites.
He says he had “naively” hoped to continue to pursue music — his band, Shere Khan, broke up in 2012, though he’s discussing recording an album now. But when it comes to what he’d do if not in the arts: “I was thinking recently, I’ve always loved the ocean. If I could do it all again, I might do an oceanography degree. You can do ocean archeology, and I thought that might be fascinating to do — manmade structures, where the sea has risen above the structures.”
When pressed about how his university studies affect his acting approach, he hesitates, then says, “It taught me a little bit of a way of analytical thinking, the Socratic method of questioning the affirmative answer.”
“If anyone has a stringent belief they think is 100 percent correct, not necessarily that you disagree with it, but that line of questioning to find truth — that sounds so … pretentious — but in what I do, you need to ask questions constantly. Sometimes that pisses people off.“
“Insurgent.” finds Tris and Four on the run from an unholy alliance of Erudite and Dauntless factions — the supposedly smartest and bravest people in dystopian future Chicago. As the pair ponder whether to join the revolution they unwittingly sparked in the first episode, Tris is haunted by guilt and Four is pushed by his past.
“He’s quite different from the first movie,” says James of his elite-soldier character.“There’s a vulnerability there (that) wasn’t in the first movie. He was this standoffish, kind of cool guy and you don’t learn much about him until the very end. In this, he’s trying desperately to protect the singular person he loves and she’s utterly self-destructive. So he’s on the back foot in a way. And he’s struggling with the concept of leadership.”
To the actor’s credit, Four’s evolution is conveyed not only by exposition as we learn more about his parentage, but by nuance in James’ performance.
“You’re constantly growing. I’ve done other movies in between the two ‘Divergent’ chapters so far,” he says. “I always think that you finish one movie, you start a new one, and you think,” he says, boldly, “‘OK. I did that last one. Now I’ve learned. I know how this works.’ Then by the end of the movie you think,” he says quietly, “‘No, I don’t, really.’
“But in a good way. You should be open to things happening and things changing. Because whatever you expect, it doesn’t tend to be. I’m sure that’s true with any job, but it’s a constant, constant learning process. The minute you think you don’t need to learn anything is probably when you become an actor.”
Lest he sound too serious about it all, he adds something he has observed from the likes of Kate Winslet and Depp:
“The best actors tend to be very professional — but they don’t have to be boring, they can still (expletive) around and have a laugh.”