Theo James: 'Looks have their drawbacks as people then have preconceptions of what you're like as a person'
His smouldering looks made him a Hollywood heart-throb but English actor Theo James, who acted alongside Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies, says that he's more than just a pretty face. By Stefanie Marsh
Forgive me if I rehash an old sexist joke - but it's hard to recognise Theo James with his top on. The one he's wearing, teamed with blue jeans, is sensible, navy, long-sleeved - not even skin-tight. Doubly disappointing for the Oxford-born actor's sizeable female fanbase, who like to watch this "smouldering at all times", "incredible hunk" dressed in as little as possible.
At the London cafe in which we meet, he is alternating between sips of coffee and green juice through a straw.
"Actors can be very boring to talk to," says the 32-year-old star. "I only want to talk about this juice."
He laughs - perfect teeth. He frowns - brooding brow. He is in a relationship, probably still with Irish actress Ruth Kearney (he won't go into it).
On the internet, James is seen mostly through the lens of young, pulsating female lust - gifs of him with his pecs out and a montage of his clips strung together to Justin Timberlake's SexyBack.
Parts in The Inbetweeners Movie and the UK supernatural drama Bedlam have been overshadowed by his roles in the £440m-grossing Underworld franchise,in which he plays a vampire revived from the dead by Kate Beckinsale's fellow vampire, and alongside Shailene Woodley in the dystopian Divergent film series (the first grossed £235m, although the fourth and final movie was shelved last year amid talk of a possible TV adaptation). The hunky action hero label has stuck to him like velcro for eight years now. Not necessarily with his say-so.
"Yeah. That's what has to be escaped from," he says.
Perhaps he feels boxed in as "too perfect-looking", an actor/model? "Well," he says, smiling through his alarm. "I hope they don't say the latter because I may as well jump off a cliff." Yet for a long time, he was the face of a Hugo Boss fragrance.
"Well, you are a model and an actor," I say.
"I'm not a model.
"It's a tricky one, right, because I can't decry it, can I? But purely in terms of career progression, if you don't want to do things that are representative of that image, and if you have half a brain - yes, that's definitely something you have to escape. The aim is to be multi-dimensional."
This year, he hopes, will be the one that changes the incredible-hunk typecasting.
"I'm 32. As fun as those films are, they're not particularly representative of who I am as a person. I've got to get past that," he says.
Just in time - ignoring the "big clusterf***" that James says the film adaptation of Martin Amis's London Fields was - all the signs are there that he may be about to succeed.
First there was his role in last year's War On Everyone, in which James played a funny, aristocratic drug-addict.
He's just finished a run at Hampstead Theatre in the American two-hander Sex with Strangers, starring alongside Emilia Fox. The role involved stripping off on stage for live sex scenes, which doesn't appear to have fazed him.
He says: "Nudity happens in probably 70% of films. I was interested in this story because it's about what modern sex is, what modern love means - and you don't turn around to the director and say, 'There's going to be no sex'."
But the major game-changer comes this September, when he will star in Backstabbing for Beginners, an adaptation of UN whistleblower Michael Soussan's autobiography. Directed by the highly-respected Danish film-maker Per Fly, it tells the story of how Soussan helped bring to light the UN oil-for-food scandal, in which Benon Sevan, the former director of the oil-for-food programme, was accused of accepting bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime.
James plays Soussan opposite Sir Ben Kingsley's Sevan.
Its timing is perfect. Here is a tale of institutional corruption, the release of which coincides with the newly politicised atmosphere in Hollywood. Whistleblowing has an undeservedly glamorous reputation, says James. "With Snowden, he's become an icon. Yes, whistleblowing has become more acceptable - but the interesting thing about Michael is that he didn't become a hero. People did f*** all about it. He left the UN and found it very hard to get work for about 10 years afterwards."
The youngest of five (he has two brothers and two sisters), James grew up in Witney, just outside Oxford. His father worked as a consultant, his mother for the NHS - a clue as to why their son ended up one year in a summer job, "picking up equipment from disabled people… who had passed away recently. That was really hard."
He holds strong views on NHS funding cuts. "I have friends who are junior doctors. What they get paid is unbelievable for the experience they have."
He attended Nottingham University and graduated with a philosophy degree. He had been acting here and there in amateur productions - but his mission was to go global as guitarist and frontman of his band, Shere Khan. Acting won, and it was while at the Bristol Old Vic drama school that he caught the eye of an agent.
Urban myth holds that his film career took off after his cameo as Kemal Pamuk in the first series of Downton Abbey (ratings soared when his character died of a heart attack after a forbidden tryst with Lady Mary). In fact, it had been his first film role, a small part as a personal trainer in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, that attracted the big Hollywood studios, who began to cast him in power sci-fi.
The roles emerged "by proxy" - he says he never relied on his looks. In fact, they have their drawbacks: "There are preconceptions of what you're going to be like as an actor, as a person. People I've worked with have said to me: 'I assumed you were going to be a d***'."
James divides his time between north London and Los Angeles, where people were said to be left mystified by the vote to leave the European Union.
"Americans tend to have a very positive view of Europe - the culture, the history of it."
Of course that was before Trump became president. Is Hollywood now worried about a new McCarthyism; a "fake-news" version of the deep cleanse of alleged communism in the film industry?
"You could say that it's impossible in four years to make those kind of cultural changes, you have to have a lot of power and he is not popular enough. But we said he'd never be the Republican candidate, then we said he'd never be president."
Are these the subjects his army of fan girls are keen to discuss with him? "One thing I couldn't get used to was that a lot of people after the show would ask, 'Can we have a picture?'. I'm a little allergic to selfies and I'm not on social media - I find it a bit invasive, and very self-centred. So I would say, 'I'm not going to take a picture, but I'm happy to chat to you'."