Theo James Bares All About His Very Naked ‘Time Traveler’s Wife’ Performance

·10 min read
Macall Polay/HBO
Macall Polay/HBO

Theo James has an infectious, self-deprecating sense of humor, the kind that is welcome and perhaps even required when a sizable percentage of an interview is spent talking about himself being naked and oiled up so that his biceps and buttocks glisten and sparkle on camera.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, which premiered Sunday on HBO, James is extremely naked.

He is extremely naked while running down the street. He is extremely naked on train tracks as a subway barrels toward him. He is as exposed as the day he was born while falling onto a car. He is in his birthday suit while fighting a stranger in an alley. His bottom is on display when he crash-lands in a clearing in the woods. His derriere is in full view when he appears in a fountain in a park. The perfect tushy is there for all to see when he’s, much more normally, getting out of bed.

The British actor, who previously appeared in the Divergent films, recently made Jane Austen fans blush with his similarly unclothed appearance in Sanditon, and played the infamous and scandalizing Pamuk in the first season of Downton Abbey, does the exact thing an actor should do when he knows that everyone is about to be talking about how very naked he is in the thing we just watched.

He flashes a sheepish smile—you know the one, where the jawline and dimples create a topography that could be photographed by satellite. He glances bashfully at the floor and heaves a playful sigh. But then, he talks about it! As he should, but as many actors don’t. Theo James knows he’s naked a lot in The Time Traveler’s Wife, and he knows he should talk about it.

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Because it’s not just the nudity, after all. It’s, at times, violent nudity. The premise of The Time Traveler’s Wife finds his character, Henry, suddenly appearing in public completely naked, and having to get very good at “running, stealing, and fighting” in order to survive. It is nude scenes, and it is stunt work.

“Running through streets in bare feet at 2 a.m. in the Bronx, or getting thrown onto the roof of a car,” he tells The Daily Beast, recounting shooting the series over Zoom. He grins and his eyes morph into almost a wink. “You have to be careful of your nuts.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife is, at this point, an indelible piece of pop-culture iconography. The 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger combined science fiction and romance into a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to spontaneously disappear and then apparate in another place and time, and the wife whose life he pops in and out of. Blending the two genres, it essentially bottled two bolts of lightning and became a monster hit in the publishing world. A film version came out in 2009 starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. Now, it’s a splashy HBO series created by Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat.

“I read the book years ago,” James says. He estimates he was around 19 and at university. His friend even got a signed copy of it. “He was like, ‘I’ve read this great book, and I’m going to option it and make it a movie.’ I joke that this guy was Steven Moffat, but it wasn’t. It was my friend Gav.”

James grew up on a goose farm northwest of London. He was the youngest of five kids, and loved music while he was growing up. (Google “Theo James” and “Shere Khan” for YouTube videos of him singing with his band.) He studied philosophy at the University of Nottingham before agreeing to audition for drama school to support his aspiring-actress girlfriend. (She didn’t get in.)

A run as Stanley in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire was a turning point. A role in the 2010 film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was a breakout moment. Twenty minutes of screen time as the doomed Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk in Downton Abbey made him a sensation. “I was in it for fleeting milliseconds,” he laughs when the series is, as it always is when he does interviews, brought up. His Time Traveler’s Wife co-star Rose Leslie, who played housemaid Gwen in the first season, is the one who “was properly in it,” he protests.

Stints in the Divergent series and a Jane Austen adaptation—plus his recent casting in the next season of The White Lotus—have familiarized him with what it means to star in a project that already has a built-in, passionate (read: opinionated) fanbase. That’s been the case, too, with The Time Traveler’s Wife. But what’s been unexpected is how the material has risen above those kinds of concerns and paranoia and—especially when it comes to ideas about aging and love, and, well, life—become surprisingly profound.

Though, like he does about the fact we’ve all now seen his naked bum, he has a sense of humor about that, too. “I need to stop,” he says at one point, while talking about his acting process. “I sound so pretentious right now.”

Theo James is 37. While there are many (maybe a dozen?) Theo Jameses in The Time Traveler’s Wife—or, rather, James as his time-jumping character Henry—the two key ages he plays are a troubled, arrogant “kid” in his late twenties and an older, wiser, introspective man in his early forties.

It’s kismet that he’s almost exactly in the middle of those two periods of life.

“I don’t know if I could have done this when I was 30,” he says. “I remember the young one. I remember me being that age. I still am that age in so many ways. I still make impulsive decisions, make stupid decisions, but hopefully a little bit wiser. I’m married. I have a child. But then looking forward to when you’re in your forties, I can also understand that you’re a bit more settled. You’ve got a little bit less to prove. Hopefully, you’ve got less chips on your shoulder.”

That younger version of James, both the social one and the one trying to build a career in the entertainment industry, was constantly trying to prove himself. He was naive and cocky enough to think he understood the world. He didn’t. He still doesn’t, but is old enough now to know that. “I think you grow a bit and realize it’s OK not to know everything,” he says. “That’s one thing about youth,” he continues, before stopping himself and laughing. “I’m talking like I’m a fucking old man.”

If there’s one thing that starring in The Time Traveler’s Wife instilled in him, it’s to be present. It’s to stop worrying about the past and stop being anxious about the future. To stop stressing about what you didn’t do, a mistake you made, or how you got screwed over. To stop having anxiety about what might come next, what people may think of you, or how you should plan for things.

“As Henry says in the show, life is very, very short, and we should appreciate every minute we’ve got because it ends fairly quickly.” He pauses for a bit and raises his own eyebrow at what he just said before bursting out laughing. “That sounds so depressing. But I actually meant it!”

There’s a phrase he loves that, he stresses, he’s paraphrasing, mostly because he can’t remember who actually said it so he can’t give me clues to track down the source: Every love story is a tragedy because someone dies. We all die.

“There’s something poignant and sad, but also celebratory about that. Like, it doesn’t last forever, so be wary of that.” The pause-raised-eyebrow-laughter sequence returns. “I’m being so depressing. At least I sound deep.”

This is all to say that there are important things, especially things about himself, that James learned while shooting The Time Traveler’s Wife. Another: He should never grow out his hair.

The younger version of Henry in the series, the one who’s in his late twenties, has the kind of long, shoulder-length hair that, when pulled off, is scientifically proven to spark an instant crush in any person who sees it. Henry definitely pulls it off. (You’ll understand why Claire, Leslie’s character, wastes little time before inviting herself to his apartment.) James, it turns out, does not.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>Rose Leslie and Theo James in <em>The Time Traveler’s Wife.</em></p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> Macall Polay/HBO </div>

Rose Leslie and Theo James in The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Macall Polay/HBO

It’s a wig.

“I have terrible bushy hair,” he explains. He was cast in the show right before Christmas and spent the holiday season growing out his own hair to be like Henry’s. He grew out a beard, too. “I looked like a tramp, genuinely. I had this thick, bushy, repulsive-looking hair and a kind of a beard, which then I trimmed into a strange mustache.”

He proudly arrived for the first day of shooting and bragged about his long hair that he, a committed actor, grew for the role. “They were like, ‘We’re not going to use that. Let’s cut it off right away. You look terrible.’”

Did he at least like how he looked in the wig?

“I mean, it’s hard to look at yourself. It’s hard to not think you look like a twat. I thought I looked like a mix between a horse and someone from the ’70s. But, no, I didn’t mind it.”

The conversation, of course, moves from the hair to the body, as it inevitably would. Specifically, the naked body.

First, there’s discussion about the laws of time travel as they appear in the series, which James admits he’s still wrapping his head around. One thing he understood and wanted to make sure was telegraphed was how carnal it is for Henry. How physical and upsetting: “I really wanted the time travel to be as kind of painful as possible.”

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When Henry time-jumps, he’s covered in sweat. He’s starving. He’s exhausted. He’s, as has been well-established by this point, very naked. “On one hand, you can use it for comedy, and it’s like, ‘Oh, Jesus he’s naked in the middle of Chicago!’ Or it can be, ‘Holy shit. He’s naked in the middle of a highway.’ Or, ‘He’s naked and he falls into a barrel of wrestlers who want to use him for meat.’ I wanted to make it kind of as visceral as possible.”

He squints suspiciously into his Zoom camera. “That was a lot of bullshit I was saying there, but some of it works…”

The fact of the matter is that the nudity was always going to be a part of the project, so it was never something he “massively wrestled” with. It was in the character description. It was a part of the conversations during auditions. It was in the DNA of the story.

“It was daunting in the beginning, because you know, you won’t walk onto a set with 150 people who you don’t know and you’re like, OK, I’m gonna be naked and covered in oil,” he says. “But by the end of it, you just had to kind of own it because, you know, it happens a lot.”

And we can all be grateful for that.

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