Theo James stars in the new mini-series Sanditon, based on Jane Austen's unfinished novel.
Theo James stars in the new mini-series Sanditon, based on Jane Austen's unfinished novel. Simon Ridgway

Not just another brooding leading man

AFTER a brief but heart-stopping appearance on Downton Abbey, Theo James finally gets to work on another period drama. The British actor stars opposite Kris Marshall and Rose Williams in Sanditon, the BBC's lavish adaptation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel.

"My second ever job on was Downton. It's something I wanted to come back to for a while, really. I do love period drama when it's done right," he tells The Guide.

Theo James played Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk in the first season of Downton Abbey.
Theo James played Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk in the first season of Downton Abbey. Supplied

"Jane Austen's work is amazing and pre-eminent, but there are lots of British adaptations of it. I love the way she writes but it felt like we were doing it in a way which could be a little different. Inevitably there's this concern it won't be handled right. But at the time (I signed on) Andrew (Davies, the writer) had already done the whole narrative arc... so I knew the main beats of the story."

The eight-part drama follows Charlotte Heywood (Williams), a spirited and impulsive woman who moves from her rural home to Sanditon, a fishing village attempting to reinvent itself as a seaside resort.

Theo James, Rose Williams, Crystal Clarke, Anne Reid and Kris Marshall star in the mini-series Sanditon.
Theo James, Rose Williams, Crystal Clarke, Anne Reid and Kris Marshall star in the mini-series Sanditon. Supplied

"The period is a very specific time in the evolution of Britain," James says. "It's the beginning of the British Empire, but it's also a hedonistic period in Britain where they were smoking opium and there were brothels - all the dirtier, darker stuff."

James plays Sidney, the charismatic but complicated brother of Sanditon's visionary entrepreneur Tom Parker (Marshall) but he was conscious of not playing just another brooding love interest.

"He's quite judgemental and quite quick tempered, but it was important that was grounded in real reasoning. There are certain period drama tropes - the brooding grumpy leading man - and I wanted to make sure he felt real," he says.

Rose Williams and Theo James in a scene from Sanditon.
Rose Williams and Theo James in a scene from Sanditon. Simon Ridgway

"For me it was about grounding him in his history and story. The director and I had this idea - partly based on what was there (in Austen's writing) and our own idea - that he's a man who made his fortune from nothing. Being in Antigua and Americas, he was indirectly profiting from the slave trade and now he's come back from that and hates himself as a result."

Aside from some voice-over work, Sanditon is James' first TV role in six years - during which he rose to international fame in the Divergent and Underworld film franchises.

Theo James and Shailene Woodley in a scene from the movie Insurgent.
Theo James and Shailene Woodley in a scene from the movie Insurgent. Andrew Cooper

"Sidney evolves heavily over the course of eight episodes, which is why I was interested in doing TV. You get to tell a story over a longer period of time and I felt like I had the luxury to do that," he says.

"For the first two episodes I wanted to hold him back as much as possible and make him fairly unlikable. He's the type of character you really only touch on in the first episode, but very quickly he's central to the story."

Sanditon premieres on BBC First tomorrow at 7.30pm Qld, 8.30pm NSW.