The spring blockbuster “Divergent” arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week, bringing the first movie installment based on Veronica Roth’s young adult book series to home video. Earlier this year, Hero Complex sat down with James to talk about “Divergent,” Four’s particular brand of honor and what’s next:
Hero Complex: I understand that you’re a latecomer to the world of acting?
Theo James: I think it was always kind of around. I was always one of those annoying, performing little shits. To pretend that I just fell into it and was like, “Oh my God, whoopsy daisy!” — people sometimes pretend that, and it annoys me. Everyone’s going to try. It’s not like it just happens. But basically, I was 18, I finished school, I vaguely thought about it, but then I didn’t really know how to get into it. I didn’t know anyone involved in it. I went to university. I went away for a bit and traveled and kind of was at a crossroads post-university, and I thought, maybe this is worth a try. So I went to a drama school. Basically, an ex-girlfriend at the time was auditioning for these drama schools, and she kind of told me about it and how it worked, and it went from there. So I kind of started in 2010.HC: Surely you didn’t anticipate being on an international press tour some four years later for a blockbuster movie?
TJ: It’s funny, you don’t really think about it that way. ‘Cause every stage, every little incremental ladder you climb feels like a minor victory in itself, so sometimes I think it’s a bit toxic the way people are hungry for that. Because of the whole mass media thing, they’re hungry for the biggest thing. But I really think that if you want to do it for a career, you have to be motivated by more than just the idea of glamour and the kind of bigger, global things. There are some great, satisfying things to be gained from doing the smaller things as well.
TJ: I immediately had an affinity with him. I thought he represented a kind of male character that you don’t see much these days. To me he had an old-school Hollywood vibe. I mean those kind of actors where masculinity isn’t worn by biceps, it’s worn by kind of true identity. You think of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, they had it in abundance, but they didn’t need to jam it down anyone’s throat. And I felt like he has that, he has this stillness, this quietness, and also, he has quite an arc that he goes on, which is interesting. In the book, he’s a kind of aggressive, closed, dark person, who you know you kind of empathize, but then you’re not really sure of his intentions. But then he begins to open up when he begins to fall in love with this girl, Tris, Shai’s character. And as a result, we understand not only that he’s a bit broken by an abusive father, etc., but he’s also someone motivated by nobility and honor and morality and those kinds of things.
HC: Speaking of Four’s father, it seems rather uncommon to see male characters as survivors of abuse in the movies. Was that a factor in how you portrayed him?
TJ: Yes, because I think that is part of his barrier. Definitely, that plays into his whole character, and I think people that suffer from abuse, especially men, they can often create such an armor because they never want to be in that situation again. They never want to be emasculated like that, they never want to be humiliated like that, that they kind of go the opposite way, and they create something that no one can ever get past, and as a result they can be kind of inaccessible. I think that is definitely a theme in the film, and the theme of him. He’s so closed because he’s been damaged, and he can’t trust anyone for various other reasons, that he’s hard to connect with.
HC: It’s also rare to see male heroes who aren’t antiheroes, but Four is a white hat. He’s a good guy. He wants to save people’s lives.TJ: He does, and that’s why I’ve likened him in a way as well to a military honorability. He has a Petraeus kind of nobility, and also there is that kind of slight Maximus Decimus Meridius crossover. I read in him someone who is really motivated by honor. And then on top of that, he’s not exactly Mr. Joe Friendly. If you think about it, he doesn’t really have any friends in the film. He’s not seen high-fiving people and snogging babes or anything. He’s a bit of a lone wolf, which isn’t great, I guess.
HC: What was the most challenging part of working on “Divergent”?
TJ: Sometimes in these big spectacle films, you are in a big green room, or you’re in the midst of like a fight scene where you have to fight six different people, and you know, it’s like a dance, ’cause you have to be remembering everything. Or you would be on a Ferris wheel or wherever you are, and sometimes the challenge is remembering to bring it back to what the scene is and grounding yourself in the story. The only reason you’re telling the story is because it’s a story between two people, and all the other fights and the graphics and the green screen is just extra. So sometimes that’s hard, and you have to constantly remind yourself to bring it back to what you’re trying to say in the story, and what that scene is about, and what the context of the scene is, and where you’ve been before and where you’re going after.
TJ: I think it’s important for me post-this to make really smart choices and do things that are the opposite of this character, because I think it’s easy to get pigeonholed. You’ve got to fight as hard as you can against that, because in terms of the longevity of your career, if you don’t do that, then you won’t be able to do the things that you want to do later.