Before being cast as Four in Neil Burger‘s Divergent, Theo James was the lead in CBS’ Golden Boy. Though he doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, James was the perfect choice for Four, with his powerful albeit subtle force. ScreenCrave recently spoke to James about Divergent, and his co-star Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris.
Tell us about the first time you met Shailene Woodley. What was your impression of her?
Theo James: It was actually very refreshing to meet her. You meet on the [screen] test and you don’t know each other so it’s kind of slightly awkward, ’cause you’re doing an intimate scene with someone you’ve never set your eyes on. She’s really refreshing. She’s very open to collaborate and make the scene as good as possible. When you’re doing a big film like this, it’s very easy to get lost in the green screen, but we managed to ground the work and bring it back to the fact that you’re just trying to tell a story about two people. She’s great at that, being very emotionally intuitive and bringing a truth to something even in the craziest circumstances.
What was it like working with director Neil Burger?
Theo James: I’m a big fan of Neil. He’s a very cool dude, but also a very smart person with very good taste. I was very pleased when I saw the film. He managed to keep a lot of integrity and there’s no simplification. There are some really strong themes about choice and identity. Things that people can really relate to and are deeper than the surface level. Whenever things weren’t feeling right, Shai, Neil and I would revisit a scene and do revisions of it to make sure we were all at a genuinely good place with it. We wanted to honor the material and also make it real and specific and good, essentially. Another thing Neil did was to create a world that you genuinely buy into.
What do you think draws Tris and Four together?
Theo James: I think she’s fascinated by him, but also doesn’t understand his motivations. He seems to be very cold and momentarily hot. That is something that a lot of relationships gravitate towards. He sees in her something unique and dynamic in a world where he sees lots of people coming through the system. Inherently I think it’s an interesting relationship because it’s not based on lots of swooning. It’s essentially two people who respect each other and he really respects her. He sees that she’s completely selfless but also strong. And she sees his rippling abs [Laughs].
Can you talk about the more intimate scenes with Shailene?
Theo James: With Shai, as much as possible I just wanted to practice the kissing scene. [Laughs] No, but in a real way, we wanted that to be as good as possible. We wanted it to be good and for it to fulfill the things it needed to fulfill, but to be real and not cheesy. We actually shot that a second time cause the first time didn’t feel quite right. Hopefully it’s earned cause there’s not a lot of batting eyelashes or fawning in the film. It’s kind of a tough, intricate and complex relationship. When they eventually kiss, I hope it’s genuine.
Veronica Roth was very pleased to find out you would be playing Four. Were you thrilled about that?
Theo James: I didn’t really know that. I was glad she was happy with the test. I’m sort of pessimistic so I wasn’t sure she was into it. But when I got to know her more, it became apparent. She was really great because she would be on set and involved, but she was happy to let Neil and us just run with it. She knew that, essentially, this was a very different medium. She let us do our thing. I consciously didn’t want to ask her too many questions. When you have a character, who already has a big fan, you can’t listen too much to outside influence because then it waters down your own instincts.
What did you like about Four and why?
Theo James: I had an immediate affinity for the character. I think we share certain qualities. I love this person who you don’t really know what he’s thinking. He’s the type of person who walks into a room and doesn’t have the loudest voice, but you still feel his presence. Someone who doesn’t speak too much, but you know that he’s thinking all the time. He’s very perceptive, but doesn’t have to speak too much. He has this dangerous stillness that I felt he had when reading the book and the script and I wanted to draw on those things. I love masculine characters who don’t have to be shouting at someone’s face or wielding it down rather than grabbing somebody’s throat. I hope that came across. That’s my favorite part of this character.
Can you talk about working with Jai Courtney, and the adversarial relationship between your character and his?
Theo James: I was very pleased when I found out Jai was going to play that role [of Eric] because he represents the character, in a really good way. Not only does Jai physically represent him, but the way he plays Eric is quite formidable. I wanted them to be almost equal. Two characters who were strong enough in very different ways. Both characters would be functioning together, though not as friends. But at the beginning, Four should be someone who believes in the system. He’s an advocate for the system. He’s like a pseudo-general. Jai is one of those as well. They represent two diverging paths. Jai’s character gets wooed by power and is part of this big military coup, whereas Four represents the more old school way of being hopeful for believing in a system that has a quality. I like the idea of these two characters working for the same team, but also wanting to kill each other on occasion.
Have people perceived you differently since taking on this role?
Theo James: Maybe there is more awareness of me. I don’t think I’ve experienced it too much to be honest at the moment. The press tour we just did was interesting because suddenly we saw some of the fandom, but I don’t think perceptions of me have changed massively. I think it will be important for me as I go on, because there are potentially three films … As much as I love the character, to make smart choices that are different from him and the world that he and everyone else in the film inhabits.
What made you decide to be an actor?
Theo James: It was always part of what I was doing. I think acting is really gratifying and exciting. I thought that if I could try to do this in a professional context then it would be a very fulfilling and exciting way to try and earn a living.
Do you think the film has a hopeful message?
Theo James: I’m not 100 percent sure. I think no in many respects. In analyzing the concept you have to, although you set up a world that is seemingly working, inherently the concept of a faction system is a hard one to swallow because we know that people are motivated by different things. Everyone is multifaceted. The hopeful message is that, in this society, which you think is functioning, you realize that that’s completely inadequate. And the people that are factionless and shuffled to the side, eventually try to break free from that.
Divergent opens in theaters March 21, 2014.