Theo James had a winding path to ‘Sanditon’ on ‘Masterpiece’

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Actor Theo James made a big mistake in college. He majored in philosophy, accumulating a whopping student debt in the process. After graduation he had no idea what he was going to do.

“It was a degree that was fairly interesting but fairly useless after university,” he says.

“I was debating what to do with my life — as lots of people do and still do every day. I had a few options. I had a dream of becoming a musician. And thank God I didn’t do that because I would’ve failed miserably,” he says.

“At the time I had a girlfriend who was thinking of auditioning for the old Vic — which is kind of an old-school drama school which does a lot of classical stuff — and it kind of went from there,” he shrugs.

What “went from there” was an acting career, though James never really decided to become an actor. We know him from the “Divergent” series trilogy, two “Underworld” films and his brief (but memorable) role as Lady Mary’s Turkish lover who inconveniently drops dead in her boudoir in “Downton Abbey.”

He did spend two years studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, massaging the student debt even more.

“I ran out of money many, many times and have had some strange jobs to help my income,” he says. “One of the strangest jobs I’ve ever had was I worked for the National Health Service, where you had to go and pick up the furniture of people who were on death’s door. And I had to pick up the (medical) equipment and take it back. It was quite a sad job because often these people were bereaved only a couple days after, and I’m there to pick up this equipment,” he says.

“I did laboring for quite a few summers, which I was really terrible at because I was instantly complaining and would get really tired. I worked in bars. I was not good at any of those jobs.”

He was sharing a flat with three friends, none of whom where actors. “We scraped money together and hustled and tried to survive. I had five or six years of student debt so the first chance I had to make money on screen — I like theater but as a newbie it doesn’t pay — so I started doing bits of film to help pay off this debt and it kind of went from there.”

James thought he was in luck when he snagged his very first part in a movie with none other than Bryan Cranston. “I was in about two scenes and it was really fascinating because I was extremely nervous,” he recalls.

“It was the first time I’d been on a film set — it was in Prague or something. They call ‘action’ and on sets, and they have a buzzer. And I had this walking shot with a Steadicam where I was giving information to Bryan Cranston. It never made it to the movie.

“We were walking and I was waiting for someone to say ‘action.’ But they never said ‘action,’ it was this industrial buzzer, and I kept forgetting my lines.”

His big chance was cut from the movie, but James kept on plugging, managing a stint as the brand rep in print ads and commercials for Hugo Boss.

He is starring in “Masterpiece”’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s final but unfinished novel, “Sanditon.” Austen died before she could complete the novel about a seaside resort and the collection of characters that collide there. The miniseries has been adapted by Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Little Dorrit”) and features James as the charming but unpredictable Sidney Parker. “I play a very closed, complicated, judgmental, short-tempered male lead,” he says. “I see myself in him every day,” he laughs.

The youngest of five, James, 35, grudgingly admits he may have been slightly spoiled as a child. “Having a big family, everyone’s grabbing for what they can get, but I was probably spoiled. I had it the easiest.”

He landed in trouble often as a kid and was suspended from school. At 18 he and his two brothers found themselves in a scrape in East Africa, but he won’t say what it was. A few years later, while traveling in India, he was stricken with a water-borne virus and spent two weeks in the hospital. It marked a turning point for him, he says.

“I didn’t have anyone around to help. I’d been fairly blessed with very supportive parents and stuff, coupled with the fact that understanding hyper-poverty was illuminating for me.”

Marrying Irish actress Ruth Kearney a year and a half ago also changed him, he says. “It made me a better person. Diving into another chapter in your life — a period of adulthood which distinguishes yourself from the selfishness of the life you’ve led before, and accepting that youth and hedonism may be in the past."

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