His scene-stealing performance as a philandering finance bro in The White Lotus was a dream role for the part-time Californian—now watch him superbloom as Guy Ritchie’s new lead
Photography by BEN WELLER
Fashion Direction by JAMES SLEAFORD
Words by RICHARD GODWIN
CONNOLLY cardigan, $1,407. OLIVER SPENCER T-shirt, $120. BRUNELLO CUCINELLI pants, $1,395. OLIVER PEOPLES glasses, $424. CHURCH’S shoes, $1,350. IWC watch, $7,900.
Theo James is having a moment. If you caught the second season of The White Lotus, you will recognize him as the moral trash fire that is Cameron, a finance bro on a luxury vacation in Italy, where he hits on his friend’s wife, cheats on his own wife with prostitutes, ingests all the MDMA and Aperol spritzes he can lay his hands on—and, somehow, still manages to be rather charming. You can see why every casting director in need of big masculine energy wants James’ number—and why a million fan-made montages of his pecs are posted on social media.
In the here and now, however, Theo James is having a “mare,” as they say in his native England. We were due to be conversing in the back of a Netflix-issued sedan between the C Magazine cover shoot and the set of The Gentlemen, the Guy Ritchie spin-off crime series in which James, 38, recently landed the lead role. But the car broke down. So, after some logistical back and forth, we are speaking as he pilots his own vehicle through the London traffic. “Driving and thinking, not easy,” he says. But he’s being modest. The man is unflappable, capable of negotiating a seven-way intersection while dissecting the moral-ethical implications of marriage, the sins of the one percent, and exactly what makes The White Lotus so fun to watch.
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“It felt like a strange synthesis of things I had longed to do but hadn’t had an opportunity to do in a while,” James says. “Cameron is a big character, both literally and metaphorically. He’s also dark and complex, and childlike in his simplicity. Those things were interesting to me, in terms of how to bring them out with some kind of empathy.” There is a bit of Cameron in him, he explains—“especially when I’ve had a few drinks”—but the character was largely a composite of people he knew from university (including one who went on to work at Goldman Sachs) and a few characters he has met in the U.S., where he spends half his time: “People who are charming, dangerous, and also total c***s ultimately,” he says.
Swearing aside, James himself proves rather respectable. He grew up in small-town southern England, the youngest of five siblings in a happy-sounding household with many pet guinea pigs. His father was a business consultant, his mother worked for the National Health Service, and the family name is actually Taptiklis. His grandfather was a Greek doctor who initially sought refuge in Damascus, Syria, after fleeing the Nazi invasion, which explains James’ slight Mount Olympus vibe as well his work with the UN Refugee Council.
James met his wife, the Irish actor Ruth Kearney, when they were postgrads at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and they’ve been together ever since, although he is “aggressively private” about his personal life, forswearing all social media and declining to name his two-year-old daughter. “There has been a blurring of lines between being a celebrity and being an actor,” he says. “I just always wanted it to be my job.”
“There has been a blurring of lines between being a celebrity and being an actor. I just always wanted it to be my job”
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For the past six years, his family has divided their time between North London and Venice Beach, where they have a second home. (Kearney’s father lives up the coast in Santa Barbara.) James proves a passionate Californian, raving about Malibu Pier, Surfrider Beach, Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, and Felix Trattoria on Abbot Kinney. The English town he grew up in, Aylesbury, is as geographically distant from the coastline as it is possible to be in the British Isles, he explains, so he finds proximity to the ocean particularly alluring.
“When you first go to Los Angeles as an actor, you often stay in a sanitized hotel and you go to a restaurant that you’ve heard you should go to, and you wonder what the appeal is,” he says. “But when you soften into it, there’s such great history and romance, and there’s something very special about the state of California, the wilderness and climate, the juxtaposition of mountains and the ocean and all those things that were so different from the places I’d grown up in.”
As a lifestyle, it all sounds rather dreamy, but it is fair to say Theo James has learned to take the highs and lows as they come in his career. “As much as you think you have control,” he says, “you have to ride certain whims and waves of the industry.”
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Early on, he was involved in two successful British exports. In 2010 he played a Turkish diplomat who seduces Lady Mary before dying mid-coitus in the first season of Downton Abbey, and the following year he portrayed the obnoxious antagonist in the coming-of-age comedy The Inbetweeners Movie. You can already see the type being cast: handsome assholes.
Meanwhile, the breaks didn’t all go to plan. James had a lead role in the 2018 adaptation of Martin Amis’ classic novel London Fields (as did Amber Heard, with a cameo from Johnny Depp), but the project ended up mired in legal acrimony. His most commercially successful movies have had their downsides, too. Yes, he starred in the popular vampire movie Underworld: Awakening (2012) and won zillions of Teen Choice Awards for the dystopian sci-fi film Divergent (2014), but he was also contractually obligated to ride out the ever-diminishing sequels. “These are movies that are not particularly satisfying in multiple ways,” he says. “Unless studio films are made with exactitude, or with a great storyline, they end up dissolving anything interesting about the material or the theme. I kind of lost sight of what I enjoyed about it and what I was good at.”
It’s notable that he bowed out of the Jane Austen drama Sanditon after a single season—much to the dismay of his fans. This role did give him the rare chance to work alongside his wife. “There was a moment [in Sanditon] I was standing next to her, preparing to shoot, and she turned to me and was like: ‘Theo, what the fuck are you doing? Why are you mumbling and muttering to yourself? You’re putting me off!’” Until then, he’d had no idea that he mumbled to himself before the call to action.
These days James is philosophical about suddenly being so in demand. “When you’re young and hungry, it’s never enough,” he says. “You’re always chasing what’s around the corner. Now I just want to be part of things where I enjoy the process and being part of them. What I realize, getting a bit older, is that as long as you can enjoy what you do enough and you can provide for your family then, you know, it’s enough.”
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Still, The White Lotus was clearly a special thing to be involved in. The shoot at San Domenico Palace, a Four Seasons hotel in Taormina, Sicily, certainly sounds like a riot. Place a bunch of fussy actors in a luxury hotel for months on end and soon you end up with “White Lotus: Twilight Zone Edition,” he says. James also remained in character as much as he could. “Cameron is a fucking psychopath, but to play that part, I had to be him a bit. I can’t be chatting about the parking restrictions in Islington and then suddenly be telling someone to go fuck themselves as Cameron two minutes later.” He describes the character as a fun person to be. “He imbibes everything around him, whether that’s food or sex, women, everything. Culturally Americans are constantly weighted on the ball of their front foot, and the English like to just sit on our heels and observe a little bit more.”
“You’re always chasing what’s around the corner. Now I just want to be part of things where I enjoy the process”
A friend recently asked James whether he thinks Cameron and his on-screen wife, Daphne (played by Meghann Fahy), have a future. Both cheat on the other, but when they are together they genuinely seem to delight in each other’s company. “I think the reality of a couple like that—and they do exist, obviously—is that they find a way,” he says. “Do we judge them if they find happiness within their relationship? Are we too beholden to social and psychosexual norms that we’ve grown up with? Should they be applauded in some way? Your initial reaction is to think: ‘Oh, this is completely fucked. They’re going to be fucked and their children, too.’ But perhaps the point of the story is to say it doesn’t matter how people construct themselves within a relationship as long as they’re happy.”
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The Gentlemen sounds like it’s shaping up to be similarly enjoyable. It expands on the world of Ritchie’s all-star action comedy of 2019 (with Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Strong, and Hugh Grant) with all-new characters. James plays Eddie, the second son of an English aristocrat who inherits his father’s estate only to find a massive drug empire is operating there. “It’s the underworld meets British upper-class hyper wealth,” James explains. “It’s comedic, violent, and chaotic. It’s that very vintage Guy Ritchie à la Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”
As we’re talking another thought occurs to me: A certain iconic role in a long-running British spy franchise has just come vacant. “They’d never give it to me,” he shoots back. “Can you imagine? I think James Bond needs reinvention and I’m not sure it would be a reinvention with me. Already, by the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure, there were elements that were becoming a bit dated. It needs to become something completely different, and I don’t really know what that is but I don’t think it’s me.”
I’m not so sure. If the producers were inclined to stop trying to reconcile James Bond with progressive values and dare to have an unlikable 007, closer to the repugnant character in the books, they could do a lot worse than to cast James. “I’d definitely want to watch that Bond. I think that’s exactly where it needs to go,” he laughs.
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While we’re playing fantasy casting, he says there is “zero truth” that he has been lined up to play the British singer George Michael in a forthcoming biopic. But again, I can totally see it. For one, James sung in a band before his acting career took off. He is of Greek heritage, like George Michael. And he too changed his name to mollify Anglo-centric audiences.
Early in James’ career, an agent told him Taptiklis sounded “a bit Greek.” “I didn’t know what to say at the time,” he says. “I’m kind of Greek but then I’m very British at the same time.” So he chose James, his middle name. “I kind of regret it,” he says. “At the time I quite enjoyed it because there was a delineation between the real world and the non-real world. But now, having a daughter as well, I kind of miss that connection. But people were nervous about heritage. They wanted to make it as smooth and Anglicized as possible. Whereas now people are encouraged to embrace every part of their ethnicity.”
He has tried to claim more control of this history, forming his own production company, with the recent docuseries Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? among his credits. But when he finishes The Gentlemen, he wants to spend time with his family. There are decisions to be made: He and Ruth haven’t settled on whether to school their daughter in England or California. “The lifestyle would be great in California,” he says. “But I do worry about gun control in America when you have kids in schools. But then the Tory party in Britain also concerns me. I also like the idea of perhaps being in Ireland for a bit because it’s a great country and it has excellent schooling, too. So we’ll see.”
Grooming by NADIA ALTINBAS at The Wall Group using TOM FORD BEAUTY and ORIBE.
Prop styling by JOSH STOVELL at Saint Luke Artists.
Produced by NENE GRANVILLE at Industry Menu.
THEO JAMES wears a FENDI shirt and a vintage hat.
Feature image: GIORGIO ARMANI suit, $3,395, shirt, $795, and shoes, $995. JAEGER-LECOULTRE watch, $9,050.
This story originally appeared in the Men’s Spring 2023 issue of C Magazine.
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