LOS ANGELES (AP) — Most movies made from young-adult best-sellers feature dashing leading men and “Divergent” is no exception. Taylor and Liam step aside. Soulful Brit Theo James could be the next YA obsession.
The star of the 2013 CBS police drama “Golden Boy” is relatively unknown on the big screen. But as the adaptation of Veronica Roth’s sci-fi novel hits theaters on Friday, that’s about to change.
“It’s extremely hard to quantify,” said James in a recent interview. “I’m a pessimist by nature, so I don’t believe something until someone has kind of punched me over the head with it.”
In “Divergent,” an action-thriller set in a dystopian future where everyone is divided into “factions” by their values, James plays the brave Tobias “Four” Eaton. Four dwells in the group named Dauntless and acts as a mentor and eventual love interest to heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley).
When “Divergent” producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher went looking for their hot hero, they did screen tests with about 20 would-be stars. “It was disaster after disaster because Shailene blew them away,” said Wick. “She’s so strong.” But after meeting James, “we were completely excited,” added Fisher. “He was tough, but he still had that `I can get hurt’ thing that James Dean had.”
Once the 29-year-old actor was cast, fans took to social media to debate whether he was the right choice to play Four. Some felt he was too old for the role. Others thought he was too much of a pretty boy to portray the gritty character.
But James says he never caught a glimpse of the skepticism circulating about him. “Diving into Internet speculation is like playing with the devil,” he said. “It’s tempting, of course. But I just had to believe that I could play the role a certain way.”
From the moment he read the first scene of the “Divergent” script, James knew how he’d embody Four. “I wanted to use a bit of Paul Newman in this character because he had that way of being likable, very still in the eyes and dangerous,” he said.
Exercising a bit of method acting when tackling the role, James distanced himself from the rest of the cast when production began. “I wasn’t the friendliest guy because in the beginning, Four is such a closed book,” he said. “I wanted to maintain that a bit.”
Sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room on a sunny afternoon, James was the farthest thing from cold or intimidating. A constant grin on his face, he often burst into a deep chuckle, especially when contemplating his new label: Heartthrob.
“My whole body just tensed up,” he said, adding that he’s “still not quite there” when it comes to feeling comfortable in his own skin. “But I’m not the boyish man I was at 25 when I was trying to prove myself to everyone all of the time. I do feel more confident now. But with acting especially, you climb one ladder and you see there are thousands more. There is a long way to go, yet.”
After high school, the Oxfordshire native attended Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (both Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons are alums). Following two years of study, he took a few jobs acting in “terrible, deeply embarrassing short films” before landing a role in Woody Allen’s 2010 comedy “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”
“It was like six scenes, but it was a good job,” he recalls. That same year, he appeared in the popular British TV drama “Downton Abbey.” “It was fun, but by no means did it change my life,” he said of the role. “I’d already had to hustle by the time it aired in America.”
Despite the hype surrounding “Divergent,” James says he’s sure he’ll continue to battle for roles after the movie comes out. “The things that I want to go for after this are going to be the things that I will have to fight for,” he says, adding that he admires the talent and choices of Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender.
“This stage is very important because I don’t want to get banned into a category,” he says. Signed on to star in “Divergent” follow-ups “Insurgent,” which begins shooting in May, and “Allegiant,” he’ll play the bold hero for a few more years. But he’ll also appear in the upcoming mystery “London Fields,” opposite Amber Heard, and in the drama “Franny,” starring Dakota Fanning and Richard Gere.
“Sometimes the best parts are the leading men,” he says. “But the little parts can be similarly gratifying.”