Meet Theo James :: Television’s New ’Golden Boy’
The cop drama is a staple of American television going back to "NYPD Blues," "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney and Lacey," right back to "Dragnet," which first premiered 50 years ago. A day in the life of New York’s Finest, or L.A.’s or Chicago’s (or any city), is a source of endless drama from criminals, endangered citizens, even the bureaucracy of the police force.
CBS already boasts shows like "CSI," "Blue Bloods," "NCIS," "Criminal Minds" and "Hawaii Five-O." Their new show, "Golden Boy", is another police story, but with a twist. We see Walter Clark (played by the hunky Theo James) as a rookie on the job, but flashes forward to the day when he’s police commissioner. The series tracks his journey up the ladder.
You’ll most likely recognize the 28-year old British actor from one episode in the first season of "Downton Abbey." He played the ill-fated Kemal Pamuk (the Turkish diplomat who died in bed with Lady Mary). He’s also been on the British series "Bedlam" and films from "You WIll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" (where he played the gym trainer that seduces Anthony Hopkins’ wife) to "Underworld: Awakening."
A new experience
Arriving on an American television set was altogether a new experience for James.
"It is very different actually," James said. "In Britain you kind of do the job. Whereas when you do an American TV show, there’s a sense of being one with the crew and the sort of leadership element and all those kind of things which was a learning curve from me because it’s very different culturally in Britain. You just do it and leave."
Of American television, there is one series - "The Sopranos" - and one actor -- James Gandolfini - whom James admires. "My probably favorite TV show of all time is "The Sopranos." I thought James Gandolfini in that part is the seminal TV [character]. As a piece of acting it was amazing."
And while he acknowledges that "Golden Boy" hasn’t the freedom that an HBO show has, he sees similarities in the way that series developed a love/hate relationship with Tony Soprano over the years and his character -- Walter William Clark Jr.
"I liked that ’Golden Boy’ is about the journey of a single, ruthless person. You see his development and how he blossoms."
On the job training
One American cop show tradition is the ride-along, where actors will join active police officers on duty to experience the job. James got to experience the streets in preparation for his series.
"I hung out with a guy called Wendell for a long time. He’s a first grade ex-cold case detective. He’s this big tough motherfucker and he’s a very smart guy. Basically I put on a suit and he said, ’Ride along with me and don’t say [anything.]’ Basically I tried not say anything so that it could be assumed that I was a detective also, which was kind of a fantasy for me."
Witnessing detective work firsthand validated much of what James imagined police work to be. "Sometimes when you’re watching shows, TV shows or films, you think, ’Is this a bit of poetic license? Does this ever happen?’ but you realize in the way they speak and in what they do, they do it."
A dark place
The story follows James’ character’s journey from cop to becoming the youngest Police Commissioner in New York City history over an eight year span; and the audience for "Golden Boy" has the advantage of knowing he’s going to make it. James explained his character’s ambition.
"I think he comes from a very dark place. He’s basically from a crime family and he has a choice whether he should join them and he chose the other direction. And he’s smart. There’s some abuse that went on and I think that fuels him. He wants to disassociate himself. He wants to disconnect himself in every way with that part of his life. We thought that about the accent as well. He didn’t want it to be too strong because even in the way he speaks, he’s dissociating with that part of his broken childhood."
Ambition is something to which an actor can relate. At least being in the position James is in, being an immigrant from abroad, paralleled Clark’s state at the beginning of "Golden Boy." They both had something to prove.
"When I turned up for the table read, I was the young dude no one really knew. These actors (also up for the role) were more experienced than I. Inevitably, there was a bit of ’Who is this guy? Where the fuck did he come from? He’s playing a New York cop?’ I’m friendly with them now, but during the read I felt that and it made me nervous at first. But then I thought, ’fuck it, I can use this to my advantage and I have to step up to the plate, otherwise I’m done.’"
A different direction
In another life, James might have ended up a cop. "After my undergrad in university, I thought about going to the police force, but my life took me in a different direction. Yeah, it’s a fantasy really. What’s interesting is how much power homicide detectives have and how much respect [they command]. They’re kind of rock stars, especially in New York. There’s not many of them, so, as a result, there’s not many people who hold that kind of respect and hold that power."
Speaking to the press, James used his original British voice. You wouldn’t know it to see "Golden Boy" though. He’s not only all American, but hardcore New York.
"In a way, I think the key with doing a really good accent is you do a lot of prep. So I did a lot of prep by hanging out as much as possible in New York, in the city. And that’s what I did. I had a dialect coach, but my approach was to get in the van in the morning and speak with only with an American accent -- a very specific accent. I would speak with his accent pretty much all week and then on weekends, when I’m having a few beers or tequilas, I would go back to being this English guy."
Loves New York
Living in New York, where "Golden Boy" films, has been a bit more natural than perhaps talking like a New Yorker is. "I think I have more synergy with New York than L.A. instinctually because it’s a bit more like London. It’s easier to connect with the East Coast vibe for a British person, although I love things about California. You know, six months in New York, I absolutely loved it and I kind of fell in love with the city and everything to do with it."
And New York has largely overtaken James’ daily life. He related an amusing story of encountering some Brits during one of his New York days. "I was walking along the street just before we left the city and there were these two British guys talking out on the street having a coffee. I remember thinking in my head, ’Damn British guys.’ Then, thought, ’Wait, I’m English."
But back to basics, which is his appearance on "Downton Abbey" where playing a dashing Turkish diplomat on the series third episode made him an instant heartthrob. Now that the PBS series is a phenomenon, James reflects on his brief tenure with it. "To be honest, I haven’t seen the third season. I saw parts of the second but I mean, it’s a great show. As I said, I knew that it was going to be great because it had that sense of quality. It is funny how much [people remember] - I mean Jesus, 20 minutes I reckon, 20 minutes of screen time. I think it’s obviously having sex and then dying is pretty salacious."
"Golden Boy" broadcasts on Tuesdays on CBS.