Theo James portrays a character with plenty of walls in 'Divergent'


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David Letterman did it. Twice.

And then Sylvester Stallone opted to double down, too.

What else was actor Theo James to do March 12 when confronted with the prospect of drinking raw eggs in front of a studio audience and, later having it broadcast to millions at home, on "Late Show With David Letterman"?

The "Divergent" star tipped back the glass and slid one egg down his throat and then watched as Mr. Letterman cracked a second egg. He bravely drained the glass again, as the band played "Gonna Fly Now" from "Rocky," which had inspired the eggy exercise.

For a chaser, Mr. Letterman shared the symptoms of salmonella infection associated with consuming raw eggs. You don't want to read them at breakfast -- or any time, for that matter.

The next day, Mr. James was back on the publicity pony and feeling fine, he said in a phone call from Philadelphia. "I had to have a couple of stiff vodkas afterward to sterilize my stomach," the 29-year-old Brit quipped, adding you have to be game for that sort of thing.

He does, after all, play a (nearly) fearless character nicknamed Four opposite Shailene Woodley's Beatrice "Tris" Prior in the film based on the Veronica Roth novel. It opens in theaters tonight.

The story is set in a futuristic Chicago when people are divided into distinct factions based on virtues: Abnegation, which values selflessness; Candor, which prizes honesty; Erudite, knowledge; Amity, peace; and Dauntless, bravery. To be Divergent, means you don't fit neatly into one of those categories and you're different -- and dangerous.

Teenagers go through an aptitude test and then a public "choosing ceremony" where they decide on a faction that will determine the rest of their lives and whether they stay with their families or abandon them.

"It definitely raised questions of social hierarchy, identity. There's this element of choice which I found interesting," Mr. James said of the narrative.

"[Tris] makes this big choice at the beginning of the story and that kind of sets it up and it's that whole idea of determinism -- whether one choice affects her destiny, whether she can shape her future with decisions she makes or whether everything is predetermined."

He also liked the story's exploration of fear in a faction where people are supposed to be fearless or act as if they are.

"I think the concept in the film is interesting. It's not about being fearless -- because that's obviously just part of our human psyche, it's impossible to avoid -- but it's just about how you get over that fear and how you respond in the face of fear."

"Divergent" is positioned as the next big young adult franchise that could follow in the footsteps of "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight" if all goes well. Ms. Roth wrote two more best-sellers in the series, "Insurgent" and "Allegiant."

Mr. James is pacing himself, though.

Asked how he's preparing for the craziness to come, he said, "I'm almost too much of a realist, and I'm obsessed with not counting any chickens before they've been hatched. So, until that kind of knocks on the door and I have to deal with it directly, then I'm not really thinking about it."

Days earlier, he had seen the movie and thought it smart and with its own integrity.

"So I hope it's successful," he said, "because I think it warrants it. In terms of any kind of massive, life-changing stuff, I can't even really go there."

He is the youngest of five children, though, and they find some of the Hollywood hoopla "hilarious."

Kate Winslet, who plays the head of Erudite in "Divergent," knows a little something about projects that spawn slavish devotion. "Titanic" is still the second most popular movie of modern times.

"She said to help each other out as much as possible and to be a unit when you're in something like this, it's really important," Mr. James said

He spent six months on the production with Ms. Woodley, but he has gotten to know her even more as they have shared planes, dinners, press tours and, no doubt, red carpets.

"She does have a really strong sense of self. She's only 22, but she has strong beliefs and she sticks to them."

Neither of the "Divergent" stars is a show-business newbie, though.

Mr. James starred in the well-reviewed but short-lived CBS cop drama "Golden Boy" with Chi McBride. He was a hunky young vampire opposite Kate Beckinsale in 2012's "Underworld: Awakening," played Kemal Pamuk (who famously died in Lady Mary's bed) on "Downton Abbey" and has two more movies awaiting release.

The crime mystery "London Fields" stars Amber Heard and Billy Bob Thornton, and he appears alongside Dakota Fanning and Richard Gere in the indie "Franny." Neither has a release date yet.

Asked about his pathway into Four, he said, "In every character, you try and find parallels with yourself. ... There's 50 percent not of you -- which is the fun of being an actor -- and there's also 50 percent which you find in you, whether it's very real or whether it's something you have to dig a bit deeper for."

The similarities: The way Four views his identity, his strong moral conscience (Mr. James says he tries but isn't always perfect) and how "he can be quiet, he doesn't have to be the loudest voice in the room and I am sometimes like that. I can be reclusive and the kind of darker side of me, which we probably share.

"Also, I built his structure on his past, really. He comes from an abusive father, he escapes an abusive father and what people tend to do -- especially men -- once that happens to them at a young age, they build up very strong barriers, emotional barriers, almost physical barriers so that they can try and feel protected as much as possible."

Four has put up so many walls that he's hard to get to know and to read, Mr. James said. Later, you discover Four is a man motivated by ideals. "A good guy, actually."

And someone who knows how to handle himself in a fight, just like Mr. James who did pretty much everything in terms of stunts.

"Shai, obviously, did as much as she could but there were some things she couldn't do, like jump off a six-story building with no wire. I was lucky enough, mine were mostly combat.

"You want to do everything because I'm a guy and I've got brothers and love that stuff. Also, if he's supposed to be a soldier and you don't live it for the film, then it's kind of empty. You want to live it as much as possible, to also inform the other scenes."

He only lived the tattoos, including an elaborate one on his back with 40 separate pieces that took three makeup artists three to four hours to apply, on screen. Most of the time, you see only the ink curling down the back of Four's neck, teasing moviegoers for the big reveal.

Mr. James understands why readers have embraced the novels.

"In terms of young people, I think it's very relevant. Veronica wrote it when she was 21 and it does reflect that period in people's lives, post-school and pre-college, when they have to make choices very early and they may not be sure of the choices and also they may not even understand the choices.

"And they may not even have formed their identity fully -- I think in this generation, people tend to form their identities later and later, in comparison with our parents and their parents. They come to it later, and I think that really strikes a chord."

Add to that the thread about people not fitting in, even more of an issue in a connected, social-media driven world.

"People sometimes feel like they don't really know exactly where they belong, but they feel like they're supposed to, and I think that resonates as well."


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