Theo James

To Theo James, Timing Is Everything

The Time Traveler’s Wife star on love, life, and learning from the past.

"There are lots of things that I would change in my past," Theo James says, through his signature irreverent smirk. "But they are too X-rated to say in an interview."

For the uninitiated, James knows how to play the heartthrob. He joined Downton Abbey for one episode in the first season as the flirtatious Mr. Pamuk, who dies in Mary's bed after seducing her. From there, he played the brooding and mysterious Four, alongside Shailene Woodley, in the dystopian teen flick Divergent. Stans of the franchise (the hive is alive and well) will recall James's baby-faced interviews, already filled with swagger. But like many good things (wine comes to mind), James just gets better with time. Not only has he evolved professionally — landing parts in the under-the-radar period drama Sanditon and the sophomore season of the biting HBO satire White Lotus — he's also grown into a softer, calmer, and arguably hotter version of himself with different priorities. Personally, he's firmly focused on family, which includes his wife, Ruth Kearny, whom he wed in 2018, and their nearly one-year-old daughter.

His rise to stardom has taken time, but James is a fan of the slow burn (he lives by the slogan "no regrets" and doesn't believe in love at first sight). In the last eight years, he has managed to grow up semi-out of the spotlight, focusing on prestige jobs like futuristic sci-fi drama Archive and the upcoming Mr. Malcolm's List (out this July), rather than the big-budget blockbusters of his past. His most recent project, HBO's The Time Traveler's Wife, casts James as the troubled, era-hopping Henry DeTamble — the series is based on the best-selling book of the same name, which hit stands in the early 2000s.

Theo James
Isaac Anthony

Fans of The Time Traveler's Wife will recognize the same themes and heart as the book but appreciate the new adaption's modern twist, which includes special effects, new character developments, a comedic spin, and a (kind of) present-day setting — when Henry isn't traveling through the past, that is.

If you're familiar with the plot, you know that the drama-meets-romance-meets-comedy — directed by Game of Thrones's David Nutter — bounces around time periods. We see romantic leads Clare, played by GoT's Rose Leslie, and Henry at many different ages. And, through no control of his own, Henry is thrown in and out of the present, mostly at random and always completely naked (clothes don't have the same time-traveling capabilities) giving the series the same romantic appeal as Outlander. Albeit, with slightly less sex and more steamy makeouts.

The love story at the heart of the book's new imagining mirrors James's own life. Clare and Henry meet for the first time (for him, anyway) during Henry's — for lack of a better word — fuck-boy phase. It's a situation James knows well. "I think my wife (we met in our mid-20s) if we went back there now, she wouldn't want to hang out with that guy," he says. "He did dumb stuff and was stupid and angry. It's so true in a way; you evolve constantly."

In this new adaptation, the audience gets to know a younger, messier version of Henry — a deliberate departure from the source material. "In the book, we hear about the wild guy in his youth. There were kind of glancing references to it, like, 'He fucked lots of people and he was an alcoholic and all these things,' but we never see it," James explains. "I think that is the difference here. We get to see the dick-ish, arrogant, nihilistic twat, who hasn't evolved into the statesman or the thoughtful person that he becomes."

Theo James Polaroids
Theo James

Similarly, James admits to having a less-than-perfect past. "When I look back on myself in my mid-20s, I was a very different person. I was trying to prove so much and worry too much about what other people thought. And, of course, you don't lose all of that, but you evolve out of it a little bit. Well, hopefully," he says. But the passage of time has prepped and primed him to join the likes of Oscar Isaac and Regé-Jean Page as The Internet's Boyfriend. Someone who says all the right things, not because somebody told him to, but because at some point, he probably said the wrong thing and grew from it.

Theo James
Loewe Coat. Isaac Anthony.

Of course, time naturally moves the needle of self-evolution. But so do big life changes, like becoming a parent. James and Kearny welcomed a daughter in August 2021, and when asked about how fatherhood has changed him, James is torn between gushing about parenthood ("It definitely changes you in an amazing way") and not wanting to be one of those people who only talks about his kid. He even apologizes for the effusiveness, adding that if he were me, he would've told himself to "shut the fuck up."

"It's discombobulating at first," he says. "Especially with your first child because your whole life changes, but ultimately it makes you — definitely for me, at least — a much more solid person." The actor says he used this newfound selflessness when transforming into the older and wiser Henry.

Theo James
Loewe Coat. Isaac Anthony

"You still do all the same shit that you did before," he elaborates. "But for example, obsessiveness, worrying about X or Y — it does calm that kind of outlook on life because it makes you realize that certain things are a bit more important."

That clarity is no doubt part of James's new brand of swagger and confidence. Getting older has changed him, and that's a good thing. But when thinking about his past, he doesn't have many regrets because it's all sculpted him into who he is now.

"Maybe the best way to look at your past is to say that [it] kind of built you as a person," he says with a smile. "So, maybe I wouldn't change fucking anything, baby."

Read on to learn more about James's robust drink order, where he'd travel in time, and the surprising song that's been stuck in his head for two decades.

Theo James
Isaac Anthony

What is your favorite drink?

The structure of drinking on a great day would be a martini: vodka, with a twist. You have a strong drink to, kind of, loosen up a bit. And then you have the wine, something like a full-bodied red. And then, when you finish dinner, go back onto the hard stuff. But I tend to keep on one ... if I'm on vodka, you're going to stay on vodka. Otherwise, it really fucks me up.

I was going to say, that's a lot of mixing!

The problem is, I think it's with age. My hangover is just getting worse and worse. I went out on Friday with the cast of the thing I'm doing at the moment, and I was still hungover on Monday afternoon.

If you could travel to any time in history, where would you go?

I would love to see my parents before they had children. [They] have five children. It's a big, busy family. And my parents — great role models — I respect them deeply, but I'd love to see them young, not knowing which direction life's going to go. A bit like Clare and Henry, I'd like to see them finding, learning, and evolving in life in their early 20s. I think that'd be fascinating. Because you always think of your parents as something only connected to yourself, they've only ever been around when you've been alive. Of course, they had long, complex lives before you were ever there.

What shows are you streaming right now?

Kind of conventional ones. Succession. Love that. Obsessed with that. Then I pretend to not watch Selling Sunset.

Do you have a song that you listen to, to amp you up before an audition or a big scene?

I don't have an amp-up song. But I love '90s hip-hop, as everyone does. That's my kind of amping-up music. And then, I was talking about this the other day, do you ever have songs that are stuck in your head, kind of, your internal jukebox? I think I've had Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" stuck in my head for about 20 years.

Speaking of '90s divas, what's your favorite Mariah Carey song?

I always used to like that song "Hero." [Singing] "And then a hero comes along / With the strength to carry on …"

Theo James Polaroids
Theo James

Who's your favorite villain?

My favorite villain is, I would say, a very dark character. It's Ralph Fiennes [who plays Amon Goeth] in Schindler's List. Diabolical, man. Horrendous, horrific, and disgusting, but also a fascinating film and an amazing performance.

If you were required to spend a thousand dollars today, what would you buy and why?

It would be to a charity called Winston's Wish, and it helps with young children suffering bereavement of a parent and that's very important to me.

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

Could Be Worse.

Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.

I saw this thing on YouTube yesterday about Mali and this king who was apparently the wealthiest man to ever live. And so, I'd love to go to Timbuktu. Also, it's a cool name, but yeah, there's some amazing history in that part of the world, and I haven't really been there.

Theo James
Isaac Anthony

Is there an outfit you regret wearing?

So many. One of my first appearances on a, kind of, chat show thing, I didn't know anything, and they said, "Oh, we're going to give you a stylist." And I thought, "What does that mean?" I thought I'd just, you know, bring some shit suit or whatever. They brought a suit, and I'm colorblind. And she gave me this suit and it kind of looked gray and I thought, "Oh, that's a gray suit. It's pretty good." Put the suit on. And then, my friends sent me a picture of me on this show and it's like sparkly silver, and I look like a fucking magician, basically.

What's your favorite joke? And can you tell it?

I can't. I only know X-rated ones, sorry.

Most important question of the day, obviously. What is your bagel order?

Bagel order would be plain with cream cheese, but it reminds me of a story. I was in [New York City] during [Hurricane] Sandy. I lived here for a bit then, and I remember the Hudson obviously flooded everywhere. It was horrendous and caused lots of damage.

But I was living on the west side downtown, and everywhere was closed. The power was out. My building was flooded, but the only place that was open was this bagel store. So, we would wake up in the morning and go and eat these delicious bagels and then have bagels for breakfast, lunch, and tea. So, that's a random, not-interesting fact.

I saw in another interview that you were a big swearer. What's your favorite curse word?

Motherfucker is my first.

That's a great one. Solid choice.

Yeah, that and, "Go fuck yourself," is quite nice.

Photographs: Isaac Anthony, assisted by Ross Zavoyna. Grooming: Min Min Ma. Polaroids by Theo James. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking: Christopher Luu. Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart. Social Direction: Danielle Fox. Senior Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello. Associate Photo Editor: Amanda Lauro. Video Director: Maggie Delgadillo. Executive Producer: Bree Green.

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