'Divergent' star talks chemistry, Philly

Theo James is best known in the U.S. as the ill-fated Mr. Pamuk in "Downton Abbey."
Theo James is best known in the U.S. as the ill-fated Mr. Pamuk in "Downton Abbey."
Posted: March 21, 2014

"DIVERGENT" star Theo James said the first step toward building good romantic chemistry with co-star Shailene Woodley was ignoring her.

"I definitely held myself back a bit in the early stages," said James, who thought it would help the on-screen relationship if he stayed behind his character's reserved facade.

He plays the mysterious Four, a sort of drill sergeant who supervises the brutal training of recruits (Woodley included) wishing to join the most militant of the many factions sharing control of a post-apocalyptic Chicago.

Being a bit stand-offish wasn't hard for James, who feels he was cast as Four because they have much in common.

"I think I'm like him. I think he has a kind of quiet empathy and a strong moral compass, and he tries to abide by that. Although I think I fall off the wagon sometimes," James said. "He's also someone who can be maybe too quiet. He's comfortable stepping into the background, and for better or worse, sometimes I can gravitate toward that."

There'll be no fading into the background now for James, holding down one of the plum roles in what promises to be one of Hollywood's latest tentpole franchises (filming of two sequels is already underway).

James has worked in British television, but he's a stranger to American audiences, save for those who recognize him as the long-haired Turkish fellow who seduced Lady Mary Crawley in "Downton Abbey," then croaked in her bed.

That was one of the first acting jobs for James, who studied philosophy for several years, traveled the world, and started training as an actor comparatively late. He says the delayed start helped him as an actor, and believes it helped him land the part of Four, a fellow very mature and sure of himself.

"I think it's good to have a lot of life experiences before taking on a challenge like this. You can bring something richer to the role, and you're ready for it," said James, who was astonished, after getting to know Woodley, just 22, that's she'd been working professionally for 15 years before 'Divergent.' "

"The thing that's so unbelievable about her is she's so down to earth. I don't know how I would have responded to it at her age, when you think of all of the other things that come with it, it's a very difficult position to put people in," said James, who's recently had a taste of the limelight - ziplining his way, for instance, with Woodley onstage to do a few minutes with Jimmy Kimmel.

"I'm a 29-year-old dude, and I've only been (acting) since 2010. I think I would have been a much different person had I started down this road earlier, and probably not a better person."

Woodley, he said, was a very easy person to like once he let his guard down. They didn't have to work hard, he said, to produce the chemistry that audiences are seeing on screen.

"You definitely know something is there, you can tell you're connecting with someone. And it's good when it comes naturally. Actors can manufacture it, but when you feel it, it's that much easier to build on. And Shai is emotionally very intuitive, very strong, and has a very admirable sense of her own identity," he said.

James was just as impressed with child-star-turned-actress Dakota Fanning, his co-star in "Franny," a movie he shot in and around Philadelphia last autumn.

"That was such a great experience. I kind of loved the city, the whole area. It's a first-class city, but small enough that you can sort of wander, and get a grasp of it. We shot out in Brandywine and it was the perfect time of year. I'd never seen such brilliant colors in the trees," said James.

In the city, they filmed some scenes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation, which impressed James.

"That was mind-blowing. The size and the scope of that collection, the history behind it. Barnes had a such an incredible eye for paintings. You're looking at these amazing works, and then you stop and think about how much it's now worth, it's incredible."

"Franny" opens later this year.

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