It's a typical sunny Southern California day the morning I arrive at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk with Theo James about his new film, Divergent.
Based on the series of worldwide best-selling young adult novels by Veronica Roth, the movie has the potential to make the 29-year-old actor who plays the film's mysterious male lead, Four, and his costar Shailene Woodley, the story's female hero, Tris, household names. If successful, it will spawn a franchise that's expected to rival the Hunger Games and Twilight sagas. However, in the wake of recent box office disappointments also based on YA novels such as Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the pressure on Divergent to deliver is palpable. It's a burden obviously felt by the film's PR team, as the atmosphere inside the building is nothing like the warm weather outside. A storm of urgency is flowing through the hospitality room on the hotel's 14th floor as I await my turn. But when I'm finally whisked away and introduced to the actor, he appears unfazed by the media whirlwind happening outside the door of his suite. Then again, he's been at this for months now, answering the same questions hundreds of times in an extended press ramp-up to the film's release.
"I feel like I'm starting to dream about this stuff," he jokes as he slouches back onto the couch located in the center of the room. "It's not so much the same questions. I don't really mind. It's having one thing occupy your brain so completely for a longish period of time."
That's when I decide to shake things up and dive right into a few of the LGBT-specific questions I've prepared. "What if I told you Divergent could be interpreted as not only a gay allegory, but one that specifically highlights bisexuality?"
He sits up, cocks an eyebrow, and mulls over the question for a long moment before a wide grin settles across his face. "Yeah," he says, nodding his head. "That's an interesting parallel to make. I hadn't connected those dots myself, but there's definitely truth in there."
In the futuristic dystopia of Divergent, society has been divided into factions based on five virtues: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (courage), and Erudite (intelligence). Children are born into a faction and at age 16 given an aptitude test that informs them to which area of society they are best suited. At that point they may choose to stay with their faction and family or join another in which they will remain for the rest of their lives. However, those people with personalities that can fit into multiple areas of society and do not conform strictly to one faction are labeled "divergent." They are viewed as threats to the structure of society, hunted down, and killed for their difference.
The film's familiar story of the struggle of outsiders born different from those around them will resonate with many LGBT viewers who have been drawn to similar allegories found in films like X-Men, but it's Divergent's theme of difference through the multiplicity of one's identity that has the potential to strike a strong chord with anyone who is bisexual.
"The five factions represent the basic levels of conformity and a divergent fits into not one of them, but multiple," James says as he examines the perceived subtext once more aloud. "Yeah, I can see it. That's interesting."
His passion for the project is obvious as he begins talking about the potential for a diverse audience to connect with the themes of the story. "I've been relieved and fairly impressed," he says. "Because I didn't know how many of those parallels would make it into the movie. Thankfully many have, and after seeing the movie a lot of people seem to be asking questions about the nature of society, the nature of being different, the nature of trying to fit in -- deeper questions, which I'm pleased about. "
Born in Oxford, England, as the youngest of five siblings, James says that while he may not identify with an LGBT reading of the film as a straight man, his own experiences bucking the urge to conform with the familiar was one of the reasons the film's story resonated with him. He attended the University of Nottingham and earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy before deciding to follow his dream of being an actor and began training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "Divergent is a story about people who don't fit into a category, that is a big part of the message, but it's also about conformity and forcing people into these simple archetypes. At the end of the day humans don't exist like that. We're multifaceted," he says.
Nevertheless, Divergent's reading as a queer allegory is magnified when compared with the struggles LGBT people now face in countries such as Russia and Uganda, where even the mention of "nontraditional" sexuality is punishable by law. "Is the film direct commentary on specific political issues in reality? No," James says, "but it reflects what's happening in the real world in an obvious way now."
The defining parameters of traditional gender roles are among those questions presented by the film. "We're in a world where masculinity, especially with these big spectacle movies, is often pushed by rippling six packs and forcing an image down someone's throat trying to prove masculinity. Whereas I think true masculinity comes from having a strong sense of self," he says. "Part of what drew me to Four was his concept of masculinity, specifically in how he relates to Tris and their relationship. He's intrigued by her, but respectful of her bravery and her personality traits. He's constantly trying to push her to be as strong as possible. Through that, she is respectful of him and thus they start to respect each other. So it's a mutual relationship rather than one based on her fawning for a man."
He relaxes back into the couch before adding, "Her being strong doesn't de-masculate him, and hopefully that's pushing a more positive message about gender equality."
While action films featuring female leads continue to be a rarity in Hollywood, James is happy Divergent marks the second time he's starred in a movie with a strong woman as the primary protagonist. He previously teamed up with Kate Beckinsale for 2012's Underworld: Awakening and hopes studios soon recognize the desire for more diversity in entertainment. "It's frustrating we still don't see more movies featuring strong women," he says. "But it does seem like things are beginning to change with films like this and The Hunger Games."
However, when I ask James if he thinks we'll see a film like Divergent featuring an LGBT hero in the near future he pauses for a moment and chews on his lower lip as he considers the question before responding. "It's very hard to tell," he says. "Because today there are great shows like Looking, poignant pieces of work that revolve around a central cast of characters that happen to be gay. But I remember when Queer as Folk came out and thinking, Things are changing. Maybe there will be more [shows like this]. And then suddenly there was a drought. Hopefully the day [we have a gay action hero] isn't far away."
Divergent opens nationwide Friday. Watch the official trailer below.