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admin / Thu, Mar 21, 2024
‘You can’t always win in this industry’: Theo James on fame, Guy Ritchie and the actor’s hustle

The actor found fame as the cocky finance bro in The White Lotus. Now, as he stars in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, he talks to Tim Lewis about being ‘irritatingly competitive’, giving up music for acting – and whether James Bond really is on the horizon…

When Theo James read the script for the second season of The White Lotus, the British actor wasn’t immediately sure what he could bring to the part of Cameron. The character was “another finance bro”: cocky, suave and superficial. “Interesting,” he recalls, “but we’ve seen it a hundred times.”

At the audition, though, the 39-year-old James was won over by Mike White, who writes and directs the hit HBO series, a comic psychodrama revolving around the employees and hyper-wealthy guests of the fictional White Lotus hotel resort. The first season was set on Maui. The second, with a mostly new cast, relocated to Sicily and was more explicitly carnal and lascivious. Cameron was part of a foursome, with his wife (played by Meghann Fahy) and another couple (Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza) whom Cameron appears to want to dominate physically and sexually.

James decided to have fun with Cameron. He told White that he would make him super-handsy: always touching and squeezing shoulders, asserting his alpha status. And in every scene, within reason, he would be eating or drinking, sending the message that his appetite was voracious. White loved the ideas and gave James the part. “Mike wanted to tread the line between lover and bully, between charmer and sociopath,” says James. “I kind of understood that character: his effervescence. Cameron was 40% me and 60% people I came across at university and afterwards. There’s something deliciously charming sometimes about those complete cunts. You hate to be around them, but also love to be a part of it.”

And the 40% that’s James? “I’ve been irritatingly competitive all my life, annoyingly,” he says. “Deeply, irrationally competitive – to the point where it’s detrimental. I’m getting a little better, but it was definitely part of my identity. And still is.”

James had a very solid career before The White Lotus. He was the freedom fighter Four, opposite Shailene Woodley, in the hugely popular Divergent trilogy, and an aristocratic vampire in a pair of Underworld movies with Kate Beckinsale. On TV, he starred in the ITV historical drama Sanditon, based on an unfinished Jane Austen manuscript, and in the 2022 sci-fi series The Time Traveler’s Wife, written by Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat. But his brilliantly creepy performance in The White Lotus has elevated James to another level of fame. “That was a gift,” he says. “It’s not cataclysmic fame, but it has been hugely helpful in terms of opening doors that were harder to open before.”

We are meeting early evening at Chiltern Firehouse, hotel to the stars in Marylebone, central London, in a louche cocktail bar with a mahogany-panelled fireplace, opulent leather banquettes and attentive white-jacketed staff. It’s an appropriate spot in which to talk about James’s new project: he can currently be seen as Eddie Horniman, the incoming Duke of Halstead, in Guy Ritchie’s eight-part Netflix series The Gentlemen. That said, I’m not totally convinced that such a chichi, rubbernecking boîte is exactly a personal happy place for James, who has dark eyes, a couple of days’ beard growth and dresses in low-key blacks and greys. He orders a bottle of beer, sinks into his seat and admits, “It’s funny that I chose this industry because I am a bit allergic to talking about myself. I find it tough, if I’m honest.”

James was 13 when Ritchie’s breakthrough Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels came out in 1998, and working with the director has been something of an ambition. “That film was a cornerstone of my adolescence, in a way,” he says. The opportunity has come with The Gentlemen, a follow-up to Ritchie’s 2019 film of the same name. The original starred Matthew McConaughey as an American who has become Britain’s pre-eminent marijuana dealer, largely through finding impoverished aristocrats and creating football-pitch-sized weed farms in vast bunkers under their estates.

The premise for the spin-off Netflix series is the same, but with fresh faces and settings. Early on, James’s character Eddie inherits his father’s 15,000-acre estate only to find that the family’s main source of income is a subterranean marijuana operation run by Susie Glass (Kaya Scodelario, from Skins) and her father (Ray Winstone), who is currently relaxing at His Majesty’s pleasure. Vinnie Jones is the estate’s omniscient groundskeeper.

“The central conceit is that old-world Britannia is on its last breath,” says James. “And the crumbling house, this crumbling dukedom, is underpinned by criminality. On the face of it you have the upper class winning. But underneath that, ultimately, they’re controlled by organised crime, which is obviously the other end of the spectrum in terms of class. So it’s subverting that.”

Working with Ritchie, who directed the first two episodes and was involved throughout, was never dull. “It was a bit of an odyssey because, you know, there’s the Guy of it,” says James, smiling. “You either give in or… it’s going to end badly for you! He has the script, and the story, but then, on the day, it’s completely rewritten in the room. The first couple of days, it’s a little bit of shock and awe.

“But you can be Ritchied at any point,” James goes on. “Because you stop learning your lines, and he’s like, ‘No, I like that one. No changes here.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve got three speeches.’ You’re always on your toes.”

James is excellent, again, in The Gentlemen, but in a more understated way than The White Lotus: he is the moral compass (in relative terms, at least initially) of a comic caper full of outsized performances. And although the premise is outlandish, Ritchie clearly knows the world of the British landed gentry and how to skewer it. Since 2001, when he bought it with his then-wife Madonna, he has owned and lived in Ashcombe Park, a 1,000-acre-plus estate in Wiltshire. “Guy loves both ends of the spectrum,” James says. “He’s really interested in the gentleman, the idea of what that means, both literally and existentially. But then he’s interested in the elevated underbelly of Britain at the same time.”

Has James snagged an invite to go shooting with Ritchie? “I’ve never been shooting with him and I’ve never been to his country pile,” he replies. “But I’ve heard it’s quite the place.”

James himself wasn’t raised in the rarefied world of The Gentlemen. He was born Theodore Peter James Kinnaird Taptiklis in High Wycombe, the last of five children to Philip, a business consultant who grew up in New Zealand but whose parents were Greek, and Jane, who has Scottish roots and worked for the NHS. He initially directed his performative efforts towards music and was a singer and guitarist throughout his teenage years and beyond. The last of his bands was a rock outfit called Shere Khan, which dispersed in 2012. (There are still videos on YouTube and they’re absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.) “I was in some OK bands, some terrible ones,” he recalls. “But I had a decent enough crack at it that I think I made the right choice. Because I would have failed.”

After university – philosophy at Nottingham – James trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Professionally, and personally, this turned out well. He met his now-wife Ruth Kearney, an Irish actor, and the couple have two young children and split their time between north London and Venice Beach in Los Angeles. And work-wise, James graduated and immediately started landing small but visible roles: in Woody Allen’s 2010 film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and as a grating club rep in The Inbetweeners Movie in 2011.

It’s not exactly four years of bit parts in Casualty and The Bill. “Yeah, totally, and I was very lucky,” says James. “But you’re still hustling and trying to find your space in the industry. And it continues to be a hustle: any career will have constant ups and downs. The idea of just being constantly upward and upward and upward until existential ecstasy-slash-orgasm, I’m not sure that exists.”

James’s big break came when he was cast in Divergent, a dystopian sci-fi film based on a bestselling YA novel: released in 2014, it grossed nearly $300m, against its budget of just $85m. He suddenly had legions of young fans. “There is a specific fervour around that type of movie, and it becomes quite intense for a minute and then it cools off,” says James. “But at that time, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was a boy from Aylesbury… The first Comic-Con I did, my brothers came with me. But that was quite a grounding thing anyway, because they were just taking the piss out of me and we made it a bit of a ride. But it’s a difficult place to understand yourself.”

Initially, James responded by turning against anything that wasn’t acting: he found industry parties “frivolous” and didn’t much enjoy doing press. “I’m quite a private person,” he says, “and you’re expected to give a piece of yourself now. That’s OK, but you need to understand that that is part of a deal one must do with the devil, as it were, whoever the devil may be. But that was my defence mechanism for being nervous.”

All this probably makes James sound much more serious and intense than he is. He is very easy and thoughtful company: I’ve never interviewed anyone who has asked so many questions in return. Part of this might be deflection, but he also clearly has an engaged, restless mind. During the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, he had an “existential crisis” and started wondering whether he would continue acting full-time. Before doing philosophy at university, he had thought about studying marine science. James started looking into whether he could do a postgraduate course in California, so as to not entirely sever his links with Hollywood.

“We had our first child, our daughter, during Covid, like the deep lockdown,” says James. “So it was a strange time, but a blessing in a way, because you kind of recalibrated. And how do I put this? Sometimes I’m like, ‘Do I need to do something to help society in some way?’” He laughs, “Especially when life is pretty short. Acting is… it’s fun. And in its best way, there’s artistry to it, but also, are you furthering mankind in any way? I don’t know. Sometimes I think about it.”

Of course, when the lockdowns ended, there was more demand for TV and film than ever: The White Lotus led into The Gentlemen. But James appears to still be unresolved. He is sometimes listed in the running to be the new James Bond: as auditions go, you could believe his performance in The Gentlemen might easily catch the eye of Barbara Broccoli, the producer who oversees the 007 film franchise.

“Oh, Barbara Brocs…” says James, with a smirk. “I say that as if I know her: never met her, know nothing about it. But I’ll give her a nickname. Everyone’s interested in that because it’s a big part of British cultural identity, but that probably wouldn’t be me. I do think there are better people for that job. And, honestly, it would be terrifying: if you do that, there’s no going back. You’re opening Pandora’s box there. You have got to be willing to live a very different life and have a different life for your family. And that would be pretty tricky. Plus, my mates would take the piss out of me. Because they always say, ‘Bondopoulos – the Greek Bond.’”

Is the speculation flattering or annoying? “It’s flattering, but it’s also every male actor within a certain age,” James answers. “It’s not like it’s two dudes. It’s 50 guys, literally 50 people. So no… I’d like to play a seminal British figure in a different historical period. I know it’s been done so many times, but I’ve always liked the idea of exploring Henry VIII in a way that isn’t defined by the maniacal sociopath. Because he was that, but then there’s also the journey to become that man. And he shaped Britain and our sense of social understanding of what it is to be British.”

Since 2019 James has had his own production company, Untapped, so watch this space. When we meet, though, he is about to go to Vancouver to shoot The Monkey, a horror film based on a Stephen King story about twin brothers (both played by James). Kearney and their two children, the youngest of whom is a little over six months old, will base themselves in LA while James shoots and they will meet up at weekends. James is clear that becoming a parent has changed his priorities and maybe even taken the edge off his competitive streak. “You soften a little bit, don’t you?” he says. “I think I just always wanted to win and you can’t always win in this industry. It’s completely wasted energy.”

James has to get home: bedtime (presumably his children’s) is calling. Having a partner who’s an actor helps with the juggle. “Because they can be a sounding board for everything you do and vice versa,” says James. “I’d understand for her and she me perhaps, if something was very important career wise you might have to make a sacrifice. But, at the same time, you’re able to say, ‘Don’t do that. That’s a piece of shit. We’re not leaving the country for that.’” [Source]


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Follows Eddie Horniman who inherited his English aristocrat father's considerable property and becomes the newest Duke of Halstead, only to find it sits on the largest grass farm in Europe, owned by the legendary Mickey Pearson.

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When twin brothers Bill and Hal find their father's old monkey toy in the attic, a series of gruesome deaths start. The siblings decide to throw the toy away and move on with their lives, growing apart over the years.
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