Man at His Best

Theo James is your new leading man

Wayne Cheong meets Theo James to talk about being a leading man and smelling like a BOSS.

BY WAYNE CHEONG | Nov 1, 2015 | Film & TV

Photographs by Cliff Watts

It’s been a relatively short sprint from the post-edwardian drawing rooms of Downton Abbey to the dystopian world of the Divergent series for Theo James. Esquire spent some time with James in Barcelona, in his capacity as the lead for HUGO BOSS’ latest fragrance, BOSS The Scent, where in his usual disarmingly charming manner, he revealed a little about his family, offered a glimpse into his cherished life away from the limelight and confirmed his utter disdain for selfies.

The view from the suite affords a seemingly endless horizon, a brief distraction from the clean interior of the Extreme WOW Suite of the W Barcelona. Interestingly, behind the desk hangs an artwork—a large etching of the W Barcelona that depicts the skeleton of the hotel that I’m currently standing in, before the addition of defined glass and girders, as done by the hand of its architect, Ricardo Bofill. The W Barcelona now stands at the entrance of Barcelona’s port as a silver sail (or a blade’s edge), like a pushpin in a map of low buildings.

I’m just killing time. I have been told to wait while actor Theo James uses the loo. The interview with him is about his foray as HUGO BOSS’ latest face for BOSS THE SCENT. The brand thought it would be fitting to hold the global launch in a location that reflects the seductive quality of the fragrance; thus, the journey to Spain. No complaints when one gets to fly to a land, where football is regarded with the same fervour as religion, where the colours of Barça FC are raised as high as the steeple of a church.

And it’s a beautiful place befitting of its come-hither character. Art abounds with sculptures and installations, a city that Gaudí marked with strange natural architecture. You’d expect Barceloneta Beach to be near empty on a weekday, but surprisingly, the oldest strip of sand, Sant Sebastià, is heaving with a sizeable army of beach goers. A bleach-haired surfer leads a class of teenagers in wetsuits on how to stand on the board; a busker plays a rendition of a pop classic to a handful of picture-taking tourists; tanners in shades of pink and dark brown cook under the sun.

Despite word of a government clamp-down on nudity, few are clad in bathing suits. Nudity does not discriminate; so aside from naked female forms, there is a fair share of nude men, mostly of the elderly, rotund type. As one divested fellow sleeps on his back, unbeknownst to him, a trio of female tourists stops so that one of them can cheekily position herself in the foreground and mime pinching the man’s phallus as her giggling friends snap a picture. I turn away, with a mix of amusement and disquietude, before I see another au naturel gentleman. He is under the public shower, water cascades down on him, as he hops on one leg and examines the sole of the other. Loose skin and genitalia just flailing and jiggling and flapping...

Ah, Barcelona. The city of seduction.

A flushing sound emanates from the next room, followed by the running of the tap, before footfalls prepare me for the moment Theo James, 31, enters the room. A handshake, followed by an inquiry on whether I would like a drink (I opt for water), and we sit. I ask if he got to tour the city.

James shakes his head. “We went to the gym, but yeah, we plan to have a wander around town tonight.”

He sports a scruff, the beginning of a five o’clock shade. His chestnut-coloured hair is tousled, like he just rolled out of bed. Then there’s the attire that he is in (BOSS, naturally)—black like it’s sewn from a shadow; his midnight blue tie hangs effortlessly from a spread collar. The combination of his outfit and cavalier groom-ing gives James an easy facility of nonchalance. I’m sure he has a stylist at hand, but I’m not surprised to hear either that he takes after the men in his family: his father and grandfather.

“My grandfather has a very particular sense of Greek masculinity. He believes a man should dress in a certain way. For a guy of his generation, [dressing up] is part of life. He feels that owning a situation is partly due to how you’re presented, that attiring yourself reflects your own standards."

The make-up of James’ golden standard is partly due to the women in his life. Growing up, his mother, grandmother and two sisters provided the bricks to his character. So, is James a feminist?

A slight crease appears between his brows. “Well, the term ‘feminism’ is tricky. I don’t know about calling myself a feminist, but strong female archetypes are part of my life. I think equality for women has a long way to go, though,” he says. “This is still a patriarchal society. Look at the amount of scripts that are male-driven and the amount of scripts with strong female roles, and you’ll find it’s still disproportionate.“It’s evolving the right way, but progress is still very slow.”

THEO JAMES WAS FIRST exposed to acting when he was cast in a school play. Throughout his teen years, James kept doing plays and short films on the side. It never manifested into anything concrete, but while he was in a production of Patrick Marber’s Closer, a thought entered his head, that acting would be nice and gratifying if he could pursue it as a career.

It’s hard not to take the following incident as purposeful. Randomness occurs often, and the confluence of be-ing at the right place, at the right time just lends meaning to the chaos. But if Theo James had not thought to accompany his then-girlfriend to audition for a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, if he had not decided to audition as well, if he had not gotten in (she didn’t), it’s possible that he wouldn’t be acting, he wouldn’t be the face of BOSS THE SCENT, he wouldn’t be having this conversation with us. Who knows?

TO JAMES, ACTING IS A JOB. There’s no tried-and-tested “formula” to stardom, each gig allows him to pay the bills and offers a learning experience. “The first time I stepped onto a set was for a small part in a Woody Allen film [You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger]. That was a huge learning curve”—James snaps his fingers—“from the get-go. Before that, I was used to theatre. Once you step on to a movie set, it’s different."

His portfolio started to fatten up with roles like doomed Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk in Downton Abbey and a lead in the series Golden Boy, but what really put him on the map was clinching the role of Tobias “Four” Eaton in the Divergent trilogy. Adapted from the Young Adult books by Veronica Roth, James’ presence and his much-hyped chemistry with co-star Shailene Woodley have endeared him to millions of, well, teen-agers. Any actor working on a franchise film has the luxury of riding high and long in the business, but it can also type-cast him or her, or worse, dull creativity.

Playing it smart, James sought out other roles between each Divergent flick. “Being my age, and with the relatively short experience that I have in the industry, I now know what I want to do. There’s no plan; you figure things out along the way while on the job. You make mistakes, you learn from them.

“So I don’t think you’ll ever achieve it. There’s that satisfaction in always looking forward to the next thing or do-ing different things. But as I grow older, I know the sort of actor and person that I want to be.”

James has a rich baritone voice that carries your attention along a sentence until the halt of the period. And then, sometimes, he talks with the grace of a student driver—a thought barrels through and is tripped suddenly by pauses and “uhs” before it changes track. The verbal tic isn’t evident during the interview, but throughout the transcribing, it’s glaring; a far cry from what I’ve seen of him in interviews.

Watch any video interview with James, and he comes across as earnest, thoughtful in his responses and quick with his wit. He’s charming, disarmingly so. There’s artistry to how he handles people, even if he doesn’t know it. Yet, you can’t help but think his affability is also a method by which he deflects questions that pry into his personal life. A magician’s trick.

Like many celebrity interviews, we were given a list of “no-no” questions from James’ management. To wit: no questions regarding Theo’s personal or family relationships. No reference to Theo as a sex symbol or hunk. No questions about his relationship with his girlfriend. There will be no SELFIES [sic] with Theo.

Nowadays, we live in a world where we share part of our-selves through social media, and there’s this strange mix of being an actor and a celebrity.

That inherent need for privacy casts James as a sort of throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood actors whose public image remained sterling and private life, inscrutable. “My view of masculinity ties in with aspiring more to the old-school idea of not having to share everything about yourself,” James says. “Nowadays, we live in a world where we share part of ourselves through social media, and there’s this strange mix of being an actor and a celebrity."

As opposed to the purposeful air of mystique that hung over the actors of yore, these days, it is information over-load. People Instagram what they are wearing, while others tweet what they are having for breakfast. (#raisinbran #needmyfibre #bowelmovement #tmi #rofmlftwOFWGKTA)

James likens the actor role to being self-singular. You are, in a way, a sales-person, pushing a product, which is you. Now you’re hired for a film or as a face for a product. You’re an extension, an ambassador with established loyalties: you want people to see the film; you want people to shell out cash for the merchandise. But there’s a line in the sand to your commitment. After a while, you should be able to hang up your boots, head home and be with your loved ones. Be a normal fucking human being. Your token of self to the altar of celebrity has resulted in a blood debt paid in full. Proceed with life without fear of repercussions. Well, most of the time.

“I had a private Facebook account a while ago,” James confesses, “which was useful because my siblings live all over the world. I like to be able to see their kids and keep in contact.” But even with the fake names, James had to delete his account due to the tenacity of his fans trying to seek him out. “I now use WhatsApp to keep tabs on the family. It’s great.”

I tell him about the notes from his management, especially the kibosh on selfies. He lets out a chuckle. He struggles with diplomacy. “Uh, well, yes. Honestly, I don’t want to sound too preachy because there are other people that I know who use social media. There’s nothing wrong with it. It would be kind of hypocritical of me to be sit-ting on some kind of high horse. But if someone comes up to me and asks for a selfie, I prefer to actually talk to them."

It’s not that different from American comedian Louis CK. He, too, doesn’t like it when people ask for a picture with him. “That feels weird to me,” CK told David Steinberg in Inside Comedy. “It feels odd. It doesn’t feel normal. And so, I don’t do it. They usually come up with a phone in their hand and say, ‘I’m a big fan. Can I take a picture?’ And I go, ‘No, I’m not going to take a picture,’ and they look shocked. Once I’ve established that boundary, I feel comfortable talking to them.”

James agrees, preferring to “share a conversation rather than having the evidence of the meeting on a phone”. “I feel that somewhat cheapens it,” James says, “It doesn’t mean anything. There are thousands of pictures of everyone on-line, so it’s kinda meaningless. I want to talk to you. I want to know what you’re like.

”If his interest in people seems contrary to how a movie star should act, it’s because James subscribes to the Socratic method—not only the critical thinking and the illumination of ideas between individuals, but also how it informs his own belief structure. “Ask what you believe in, and then ask how that leads to self-reflection—I don’t always do it (I mean I make mistakes all the time)—but that way of looking at life is interesting because it’s a softer form of philosophical discussion.”

A thought bubbles to the surface: is Theo James himself when he talks to strangers? More importantly, is the conversation that we’re engaged in real?

“Conversing with you doesn’t mean I’m a different person afterwards,” James says. “I can hang with my friends, and then, afterwards, gear up to go to a junket. You need to put your psychological face on.

“I think you’re the same person because when you’re acting, you bring a bit of yourself into the role; there needs to be an element of genuineness; otherwise, people can read that.”

LATER THAT SAME DAY, after a car ride up the winding roads of Montjuïc, James arrives where a crowd has gathered at the two-storey Eventos Esferic Barcelona. This is where the fragrance will be unveiled. James works the room, a skilled catch-and-release with just the right amount of allure and aloofness. He plays the role to a T, a fine cut of an ambassador for BOSS THE SCENT.

But when we are led to dinner, James is nowhere to be found. Through the window from where I am seated, I spy him exiting the gates with his modestly sized entourage. His obligation concluded and the day finally surrendered to its night-cloaked kin, James will change into something nondescript. He’ll hit Barcelona with its beguiling promises and be one of us.

All outfits by HUGO BOSS. First published in Esquire Singapore, November 2015 issue and Esquire Malaysia, At the Movies Issue, November 2015.