Divergent Star Theo James Shares His Approach To Playing So Many Literary Characters Over The Years

Signing on to portray a character based on a bestselling book seems like it could easily be a double-edged sword. If it takes off, playing a popular character can send an actor into a whole new stratosphere of fame. If the established fans don’t like the adaptation, you’re the face that broke their hearts. English actor Theo James has most certainly had experience when it comes to this very thing, considering throughout his career he’s played a number of literary characters. From Divergent, to Mr. Malcolm’s List, I suppose you could say he knows how to grab that sword. 

Theo James, who has also starred in Sanditon, The Witcher and The Time Traveler’s Wife series, recently spoke to CinemaBlend about this topic. Ahead of the release of Mr. Malcolm's List, he shared what his approach has been over the years when it comes to portraying already-beloved literary characters. Said James,

I think to summarize it, I'd say [I] use the source material cause you have it, even if you want to do different things and diverge from it and in choices, whatever, use it because it sets you in the world. And then secondly, once you've read the material, put it aside, don't look at anything else. Don't look at anything online and, you know, make your own decisions because that's the thing with being an actor, you kind of have to be trusted to interpret it in the way that you see fit, so you can't be beholden to how other people might view the character or view the interpretation of the character. You just have to kind of block that noise out. But I mean, I'm still figuring it out.

Theo James gained worldwide recognition in 2014 when he played Four alongside Shailene Woodley’s Tris in the Divergent movies. What started as a successful and promising franchise began to fall apart with its sequels, and fans never got to see the Divergent movies conclude, perhaps due to the films being rushed by the studio, per the words of Lionsgate’s own CEO. 

While an experience like Divergent may have burned another actor, Theo James has continued to come back to book adaptations, and even video game adaptation Castlevania. Between 2019 to his exit only recently, he starred in PBS’ Sandition series, which is based on Jane Austen’s work. The actor also led HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which will not continue into Season 2, but which also featured well-known characters. 

As the actor shared in our interview, with these many roles under his belt, his approach has become to use the source material for background and then trust his own instincts as an actor and he absolutely does not read the online chatter when it comes to how he adapted these characters to fans' liking or not. It’s a smart approach and goes to show Theo James has learned a lot over the years about how to get on with the business of acting. Yet, as he shared as well, he’s “still figuring it out.” 

In recent 2022 movie releases, Mr. Malcolm’s List, Theo James plays the character Captain Henry Ossory in the regency romance based on a book by Suzanne Allain. The character finds himself caught in the middle of an elaborate prank set by Zawe Ashton’s Lady Thistlewaite targeting Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù’s Mr. Malcolm after he stops courting her due to her not meeting the requirements of a secret list – leaving her embarrassed by her peers. She enlists her childhood friend, Freida Pinto’s Selena, to woo Mr. Malcolm with the intention of humiliating him as well. 

You can see Theo James in Mr. Malcolm’s List, now playing exclusively in theaters. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.