'The Time Traveler's Wife' Stars Dissect HBO Drama's 'Perseverance in Love' Theme

Theo James and Rose Leslie talk to Metacritic about their time-travel love story.
by Amy Amatangelo — 

Rose Leslie and Theo James in 'The Time Traveler's Wife'


Theo James knows he sounds a little corny when describing his new series The Time Traveler's Wife.

"One of the messages is love conquers all," James tells Metacritic. "Love can transcend time."

Based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Audrey Niffenegger and following the 2009 film adaptation, the six-episode season follows Henry DeTamble (James) a man who, as the title suggests, can time travel. Henry never knows when he will leap forwards or backwards but he always arrives at his destination sans clothing, funds, or resources. The one constant in his life is Clare (Rose Leslie), who Henry first meets when she is just 6 years old. 

The HBO drama, which is executive produced and written by Steven Moffat, jumps back and forth between the years to tell Henry and Clare's love story. The nonlinear storytelling serves as almost a metaphor for Henry and Clare's unconventional romance. 

"It kind of lent itself to the chaotic-ness that I'm sure Henry and Clare genuinely felt with all the time jumping," Leslie tells Metacritic. "Steven was brilliant at being able to weave time travel into every single scene and so it was very manic in that sense and hopefully that reflected itself in the course of the show."

Here, James and Leslie talk to Metacritic about creating consistency in their characters through all the time jumps, their relationship to the source material, and what they think the show says about love and romance.

There is a lot of time jumping not just in the series but within the episodes. You both obviously have hair and make up to age your characters up and down. But how did you keep track of all the different age versions of your respective characters?

Theo James: With Henry, we decided the most realistic and easiest thing to do would be to have one age for one day. That was helpful for me because it would mean that morning I would wake up and I would know from the moment I woke up that I was a 28 year old, for example. If I'm coming in the van in the morning, I would try to be the 28-year-old version of myself — the younger, dumber version of myself. When I would be playing a much older Henry, I would try as much as possible to wake up in that frame of mind. What I found is being too specific is dangerous because then it turns into doing something for the sake of doing it. As pretentious as it sounds, it needs to come from your head. So, rather than being very specific about how you move your right leg,  it's more about how you feel that morning. So, then those kind of changes bleed into the character over the course of the day. They're the same person, but they have to be different enough that you feel like they've been through different things in their life.

Rose Leslie:  I wanted to determine, physically speaking, how she interacted with others and the tone of her voice, as well feeling confident that what I was doing was enough to hopefully persuade viewers that, "OK there's an essence of who Clare is but there's also a kind of an immature element to her in the way she stands." I certainly found when playing a 16-year-old version of her, having that extra hair kind of clipped onto my scalp dropped all the way down to my hips. It was a wonderful tool and prop to play with the teenage element of her body language and stance. 

There are younger actors who play younger versions of your characters: Caitlin Shorey and Everleigh McDonell play younger versions of Clare, and Brian Altemus and Jason David play younger versions of Henry. Theo, what was it like to act in the scenes where Henry is talking to a younger Henry?

T.J.: I really enjoyed it because there's an older brother/father dynamic that naturally happens that creates an interesting dynamic because they're the same person. In real life it happened a little bit organically: The young version starts looking at the older version in a different light. It made it as real as it could be. Coupled with the casting, Jason's eyes are very similar to mine. [Brian] and I had some conversations about how he could have some overlap with me. For me there was a poignancy to it — the idea is that this young Henry doesn't know who this older Henry is which helped me as an actor tap into some of the empathy for the character.

Rose, I know you weren't on camera with the younger Clares, but did you have a chance to interact with them at all?

R.L.: It's more getting to know them off set. Interactions happened sometimes in the make-up chair, and I got to know them informally. Their version of who Clare is at the age of 8 is not to be tampered with. They 100-percent have ownership on who Clare is for them. So, it was getting to know them off set and becoming enamored of who they are as little people.

Obviously there's a fantastical element to the series, but at the end of the day it's really a love story. What do you think the show has to say about romance and relationships?

R.L.: I feel that it's very hopeful about love. I feel there's a positive message of love coming through. We witness this couple go through something extraordinary and trying to stay committed to one another despite the fact that Henry is constantly bouncing out of time and not knowing about whether he's going to be in danger and come back harmed. I feel the message of the show is perseverance in love if you know you are destined to be with this person who is obviously a supporting partner and who loves you in return. There's an element of Clare being a hopeless romantic, but also I'm incredibly impressed by the strength and wherewithal that she has in staying true to her belief in the fact that they are meant for one another. That message is incredibly powerful.

T.J.: Something that the book and Steven play with is the idea that even past Henry's death, he will visit her in different ages because of his time travel. That's a great conceit for the show. But it's also about the power of memory and the power of love and how that transcends death and time.

Speaking of the book, Theo, I know you said you had read the book many years ago when you were a student. Rose, have you ever read it?

R.L.: Prior to auditioning for the role of Clare, I'd actually never read it. I don't quite know how it passed me by because I know a lot of my friends loved it at university. It was a conscious choice not to watch the film, and I haven't watched it as of yet purely on the fact not wishing to overwhelm my head with versions of Clare that weren't necessarily formed by me. I absorbed the text when I came across it, and Steven's writing is so rich and so colorful, there was such depth to his writing that was enough for me to draw from to feel I was doing this character justice.

What was the most challenging part of the role for you?

R.L.: Portraying someone who is 73. I find that particularly difficult. I remember at drama school we always found it unfair when you had to play someone who is older. [We thought], "Yeah we are never going to have to portray somebody that age ever!" I very much wanted to do justice to people who are that age particularly as my parents are coming up to it themselves. I found it really difficult to navigate without laying it on too thick. I saw a little bit of what I did in ADR, and I just wanted to shut my eyes and die. I'm just leaving that be. Who the hell knows whether I pulled it off or not! I found it tricky.

T.J. Playing the double Henrys [opposite each other]. In Episode 4, it was one of the earliest things that we shot. It's tricky because they're close-ish in age. [One is] 28, the other Henry is 41. But they have to feel different. The younger one has to have a chip on his shoulder; the older one has to be laconic and easy going. And, as great an opportunity as it was, it was tricky to fine tune. You had to be really on your game every day. 

The six episodes obviously have room to tell more of the story than perhaps the movie did. But have you given any thought to if there could be a second season?

R.L.: I certainly wish for us to be given the opportunity to complete the book and to stay with these characters on their journey. There's so much more to be said for them, but in terms of knowing whether we are going to go again, I have no idea! I wish I did. 

The Time Traveler's Wife airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m. beginning May 15. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max.

Get to know Theo James:
James has been a staple of the smaller screen for years, perhaps best known for his roles in Bedlam (Metascore: 56), Golden Boy (63), Sanditon (69), and Castlevania (71). But he has also appeared on the big screen, including most memorably in the Divergent franchise. 

Get to know Rose Leslie:
Leslie is also a small-screen staple, with notable roles on everything from Downton Abbey (Metascore: 81), to Game of Thrones (86), The Good Fight (80), Vigil (83), and Luther (75).