It’s 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and Theo James is ready for his weekend to begin.
“Can I get just a single shot of tequila?” the English actor asks a server at a trendy downtown L.A. eatery. Seconds later, James, 30, breaks out a movie star grin and an apologetic “Just kidding,” and takes another sip of espresso.
If there were a faction for class clowns in the dystopian future, James, clearly would be sorted into it, given his talent for deadpan one-liners and his gift for winking, witty sarcasm. There’s little of that sort of levity, however, in the actor’s new movie, “The Divergent Series: Insurgent.”
Opening Friday, the film is the second in a planned four-part adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best-selling YA trilogy about one special girl who sets out to bring down a corrupt system. A younger sister of sorts to the blockbuster “Hunger Games” franchise, “Divergent” posits a world where an authoritarian regime sorts its citizens into preordained categories, then targets those who don’t fit it.
The first movie arrived last year to a $54-million opening weekend and went on to about $150 million in its domestic run in theaters, proving once again that a dark future is a marketable commodity in the movie business. The follow-up “Insurgent” is noticeably more action-oriented than the first, aimed at bringing in more boys along with the loyal teen girl audience.
In the new film, directed by Robert Schwentke, James reprises his role as Four, loyal ally and handsome, heavily tattooed love interest to Shailene Woodley’s Tris Prior, who is branded an outcast after she’s discovered to be divergent. The story picks up with Tris and Four on the run from ruthless Erudite leader Jeanine (an icy Kate Winslet).
Early on, they reconnect with an important figure from Four’s past, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who urges him to help foment rebellion by joining his Dauntless group of warriors with her forces of Factionless outcasts. Suspicious of her motives, he is reluctant to sign on to the plan.
“What I liked about him is he’s not Joe Hero,” James said of Four. “He’s a quiet person in some ways. He’s authoritative. He has a good moral objective. He’s not just willingly accepting of any kind of leadership destiny.”
Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)Link
Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)Link
Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)Link
Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim), Four (Theo James) and Tris (Shailene Woodley) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)Link
Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Lionsgate)Link
A poster for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Lionsgate)Link
A poster for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Lionsgate)Link
The London-based James has his own reluctance about stepping into the spotlight as an action hero: “Action guy, hunky dude, in terms of career longevity, it’s not great.”
The youngest of five children, James studied philosophy at the University of Nottingham and spent time traveling before enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He began to pursue acting full time about five years ago, although he says he was always a performer — his first love was music, specifically saxophone.
“Now I’m scared to touch one,” he says of the instrument. “I feel like I’ve lost all my powers. It saddens me.”
His career got a jump-start with a small turn in Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger,” and with various roles on British television, including as the ill-fated Mr. Pamuk on Season 1 of “Downton Abbey.” He made the jump to Hollywood playing a vampire named David in “Underworld: Awakening” before landing the role of Four in “Divergent.”
“We needed somebody who was a man, who was really strong and could push,” “Divergent” director Neil Burger told The Times in an earlier interview. “Shailene’s an actress who pushes on the other characters, and we needed someone who could push back even stronger. Shailene was just a little intimidated by him, and she hadn’t been by any of the other actors.”
“Divergent” turned out to be a great launching pad for its young stars — Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ brother Caleb, won raves for “The Fault in Our Stars,” while Miles Teller, who appears as the mercurial Dauntless lieutenant Peter, earned acclaim for his work in the jazz-drama “Whiplash.”
After the film’s release last year, James, too, said he instantly noticed an impact on the range of roles he was offered.
“Scripts and opportunities changed and increased, but that’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s easy to be wooed by what comes easy and the glamorous ones, those kinds of projects, whereas I was pretty sure I wanted to, at least for three or four years, be very specific with what I do and do smaller stuff.”
In the last year, James has acted in three films outside the “Divergent” franchise, all of them independent efforts with either a literary or prestige bent due for release in 2015. He appears as Guy Clinch in an adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel “London Fields” opposite Amber Heard and Johnny Depp for first time feature director Matthew Cullen; he plays part of a young, struggling couple in “Franny” with Dakota Fanning and Richard Gere for writer-director Andrew Renzi.
Most recently, he was cast a priest in director Jim Sheridan’s “The Secret Scripture,” Sebastian Barry’s novel, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize.
James said that returning to his “Divergent” role last year — “Insurgent” was shot largely in and around Atlanta late last summer — he and screen partner Woodley felt it was important to advance the relationship between their characters and make the scenes between them emotionally complex.
“Sometimes the nature of a big movie, the nature of the material, the scene doesn’t have the richness that you’d want it to,” James said. “We always personally worked together to make it make sense and make it as real as possible in that hyper real world. We talked about how there would be fractiousness and distance between [Tris and Four].”
Their off-screen rapport helps fuel Tris and Four’s chemistry, Woodley said.
“I feel lucky that we’re doing these movies together,” Woodley said in an interview last year. “We look at this business in the same way. We both really love the art of filmmaking and love being on a movie set…. But also don’t revolve our lives around it. We both have very private lives that we hold dear and don’t necessarily want to share with the world.”
That instinct to hold on to a certain amount of privacy, even while building an acting career, is a key point for James. Maybe a keen sense of humor helps guard against revealing too much?
“I find sharing intimate details with people that you don’t know an interesting concept,” he said. “I like to keep some things to myself.”
That’s one reason, he says, he studiously avoids social media — though there are others as well.
“My type of personality, I’d probably get into trouble because I’d say something inappropriate,” James said.
Times staff writer Noelene Clark contributed to this report.
— Gina McIntyre| @LATHeroComplex
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