“Friends come out to see me. I took a road trip with friends, which we still talk about. Sorry I’m rambling—is this the kind of thing you want?” he asks.
It’s pleasant and informative, sure, but as he asks that question I’m thinking, “No.” I probably have all the information needed to write an informative Wikipedia edit on the actor, but I’m not getting to know James in any real, meaningful way.
It’s perhaps owing to this familiar surrounding of his local pub, and the fact that after this interview he’ll be catching up with friends, that it feels like we should be having a more casual pub chat. James has just returned to town for the weekend in the midst of filming in Ireland for The Secret Scripture—a Jim Sheridan-directed film based on a 2008 Sebastian Barry novel of the same name, about a woman in a mental hospital and the tight grip of the Catholic Church in Ireland during the 20th century. In the film adaptation of Scripture, Theo James stars as Father Gaunt—the film’s villain—alongside Rooney Mara. The shoot itself has been heavily documented within the press, grainy paparazzi photos of James enjoying a cup of coffee on set, or gently clutching a baby circulating under extraordinarily sparse headlines like, “Jack Reynor & Theo James Get To Work on The Secret Scripture in Dublin,” and “Spot Theo James! The Secret Scripture starts filming in Dublin.”
At this point, after giving up on the literal interpretations of location I’d exhausted, I try to find out a little about the actor. I ask him about the music he likes and what he does for fun, trying to build a picture of a man who has a surprisingly light Google footprint.
“We’re still trying to find an angle here,” he jokes.
[It seems fitting that our conversation is having a series of false starts: James and I are already in our second location, the back of a pub in Islington, North London. Though, at least with that communication reset, I can place the blame squarely on noise level—the first pub was simply too loud.]
Abandoning any formal interview approach, I admit that I Googled him and couldn’t find much. As I say this, I’m hoping that he isn’t offended.
“I’m glad there’s not much information,” he responds.
This is probably, by his own admission, partly due to his private nature. James eschews celebrity parties and doesn’t reveal some information in interviews.
“I don’t think I’d want to share those elements of my private life,” he says.
Here are a few things I do know about Theo James: he’s a musician and helmed the guitar and vocals for London-based group, Shere Khan until 2012. He starred in another best-selling book adaptation, Divergent, in 2014, (and will star in its subsequent sequels). In Divergent James plays the illusive, brooding Four. In Divergent you are at first not sure if he is a villain or a hero. James was once a guest editor for IMDb. His contribution included a top 10 list of his favorite films. This list features Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Steve McQueen’s Shame. Regarding Shame, James praises Michael Fassbender for his ability “to evoke so much with so little dialogue.”
We land on the subject of adding to your digital presence by posting on Twitter and Instagram.
“I don’t have it and I never will. Other actors I know are really good at it and they rock and roll it, but it’s not for me. If I post a picture of us having a drink now and get loads of views or comments and stuff, then suddenly you’re quite exposed and you’re in a world of work. I just like being present.”
And there it is: No need to quiz him on his favorite vacation spots or what he thinks of various filming locations. Theo James reveals that—for a man who travels the world shooting and promoting films and enjoys holidays in far-flung destinations, with family spread as far as Australia—the most important location for him is in the here and now.
“I think people struggle with that now, being present in a time and place. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness now and that’s about the ability to be present and not constantly affected by erroneous sources around you—that stimulus through a computer or through worries. It’s about being fully present.
“Most of the information is completely useless and it’s totally mind numbing,” he continues, “because it doesn’t actually add anything to your sense of self. And interacting singularly with an interface—there’s a limited amount of learning that can be experienced.”
I ask him what he feels is distracting him.
“Actually, what is distracting me? I’ve been wondering that myself because I have been really like ‘I need to shift.’ I do feel distracted. I don’t know about you but I am just kind of consciously, recently just trying to fucking look at less.”
And with fame comes an extra layer of existential crisis when wasting time looking at stuff online.
“Everyone says [looking at things about yourself online] is the cardinal sin, but you inevitably do it by accident all the time, or you may see it on a newsstand or whatever. You end up forming a perception of yourself based on other people’s opinions; a perception outside your own self, which is a fucking mind fuck because you start perceiving yourself as something that you aren’t,” says the philosophy graduate.
So what’s the Theo James solution?
“Read more. Read every time you go to bed, read in the day—because at least reading a book, you can’t be distracted by anything else.”
Much of James’ current reading material was chosen by the actor to help him prepare for acting jobs. He tells me about A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, a book he’s been reading to help him prepare for his role in The Secret Scripture:
“It’s about a priest, about his faith, and obviously all the history of Irish Catholicism with all the abuse of priest power. But also it’s about his sense of self and what it means to deny things. He basically considers himself a good man throughout the whole book but then he realizes he is culpable for the abuse because he hasn’t really faced it.”
A sense of self, being present in one’s life: Theo James and the ideology of now.
“The key thing for any actor is to be present. Aside from the accent or aside from meeting priests, really what matters is being able to be 100 percent present.”
For now that just means sitting in this pub, having a drink, fielding a few questions as he waits for his friends to arrive. For now, it’s enough.
Photographer: Joost Vandebrug at JoostVandebrug.com.
Stylist: Sam Ranger for SerlinAssociates.com.
Contributing Fashion Editor: Rose Forde at roseforde.com.
Groomer: Carol Morley for CarolHayesManagement.co.uk.
Grooming Notes: Ecological Compound, Botanical Eye and Lip Contour Complex, and Phyto-Cernes Éclat Concealer in 2 by Sisley Paris.