Downton Abbey veterans Rose Leslie and Theo James say their new romantic drama, The Time Traveler’s Wife, is a reminder to live in the moment and appreciate the time we have with those we love. The heart-warming, tragic, yet often hilarious six-episode HBO series debuted Friday.
Adapted by former Doctor Who and Sherlock writer-producer Steven Moffat from Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel, it follows Henry, a man with no means of controlling his inconvenient ability to travel back and forth in time within his own lifespan and Clare, the passionate, patient woman who has loved him since she first met him as a 6-year-old girl.
Cinema Daily US recently took part in a virtual round-table interview with Leslie and James. Here is what they said.
Q: What enticed you to play Clare in the show?
RL: I always found it fascinating that she was one half of a time-traveling couple. That was a pretty good hook in, as it were. It was fascinating, but also knowing that Clare has gone through something extraordinary in her childhood and that something phenomenally exciting, but also very complicated has happened to her and how that then has shaped her as a character. Henry from a very early age becomes a very pivotal role in her life and we then see her develop into an artist and sculptor and how that then informs her work and how she knows that she is committed to this life of uncertainty, but yet she is very able to show an extraordinary amount of patience and I just thought those was remarkable qualities in a character and very fun to play.
Q: What do you think the show says about living in the moment and really savoring where you are?
TJ: It says a lot. It’s one of the themes of the show and the book. I think it’s Episode 5 where Henry says: “People worry about the past — what they could have done, what they didn’t do. They are worried about the future — what’s coming, what’s not coming, what they might be able to do, what they won’t have the opportunity to do. The only thing that matters, the only time is now.” I think that’s so true. It’s a good reminder for myself. I do exactly that. I worry about the future and I worry about the past. But living in the moment is the only time that really matters. Given the complicated world we live in now, there are a lot of things online. There are a lot of distractions. I think it’s a good message for everyone.
RL: I completely agree with Theo. I think it is a good message. Certainly, a difficult one to retain. But being as centered and aware of one’s present moments and what’s happening in the here and the now rather than allowing anxiety to rule and get freaked out by the future and as a result I think it is a powerful message and also one that we can, hopefully, all adopt into our lives.
Q: What was it like playing Henry at different ages, sometimes in the same scene?
TJ: It was tricky. One of the first scenes we’d shot was this big dinner sequence where there are two Henrys at different ages with all the other characters in the room at the same time. It was a dance in a way. There was an element of choreography, a bit of remembering exactly what you are doing. But I found it tricky because, normally, with a scene, you do what you wanted and then it evolves. You feel what’s right, but the problem was in filming you didn’t want to tramp yourself into certain corners. One day, I would play the older Henry and we would do the scene and perhaps older Henry would interact in a certain way, but it meant I didn’t want to prescribe what the younger Henry was saying on the other side of it the next day, if that makes sense. It was complicated, but it was also kind of a joy.
Q: What can you say about how Henry helped Clare develop as a human being since they met when she was so young?
RL: I think it’s a very good thing to bring up the pushback Clare has when she is in her 20s of recognizing that she almost didn’t have a choice in whom she would find attractive, or whom her perfect man would be, simply because, having met Henry at 6 years old, it has shaped her. She says it has shaped her libido. It’s shaped her attitude on men because she knows that when she is at school, nobody actually comes up to par with the way that Henry makes her feel in her 20s. She feels almost robbed of the decision of her own self in being able to determine who she finds attractive, but what a wonderful thing to know yourself so well that there is one man for you, one partner for you and that person is who you’ve decided wholeheartedly, with unwavering faith to spend your life with, despite the very clear trials and tribulations. There is a beautiful commitment coming from her. … She has accepted the fact that she is in this for the long haul and she loves him no matter what.
Q: There is a lot of humor in the show, despite its emotional underpinnings. What was it like striking that balance?
RL: I feel that we were incredibly fortunate with the script that we were working off, simply because the genius that Steven Moffat is, he kind of peppers the comedy in the dialogue anyway. Certainly, there were scenes where it was just 1:1, myself and Theo, just bouncing the lines off one another — that in itself, just knowing the words you had to speak as a character — that in itself lifted it and made it light-hearted and joyous, but there is always the undercurrent of tragedy for these two lovers and Steven also wove that into the dialogue. I leaned in heavily to the words, what I was saying, and tried my utmost to do them justice.
TJ: I second that, as well. One thing from the book that we were all keen to emanate throughout the series was that they are both funny. They are funny people. There is a lot of humor in there and Steven, obviously, is a master at that. The joyous thing about it is that it is deeply dramatic, but then it can be almost farcical in its comedy in a great way. … You need that levity. It makes it more powerful.
Q: What was it like working with the actors who played the younger versions of Henry and Clare?
TJ: It was great. Working with the young Henry was kind of a fascinating journey because what happened in a nice way is we ended up having almost like an older brother and little brother dynamic, which developed organically and that made those scenes feel very easy. And when it came to the two actresses who played the young Clares what was really interesting was they had — not hugely divergent, but very specific — different takes on Clare at different ages and that made it really interesting, because, of course, that’s true. A 6-year-old is very different from a 10-year-old. You evolve and change in terms of your confidence, your ability, everything about you.
Q: Henry is naked for a lot of the show because his clothes don’t go with him when he time travels. What was it like working with an intimacy coordinator on those scenes?
TJ: The intimacy coordinator thing was interesting because, normally, it’s usually when two people are together. … We had a bit of that, obviously, with Rose and I, but, in a way the job — when there are two people — there is more clarity, right? Because it is about two people having boundaries and feeling comfortable. But when it’s just you, running down the street in New York at night, with your bum out, the lines are a bit more blurred. It’s like cover up or don’t cover up, but his nudity is so woven into the DNA of both the book and the show, I wanted him to feel dangerous. I know that sounds silly because in some ways the nudity is a great comic foil in places, but also it’s dangerous. He doesn’t have a choice of when, for how long or where he goes to.
I really wanted to connect with that. When he goes, it has physical, detrimental effects on his body. It’s like having an epileptic fit. He is thrown through time and, on the other side of it, he is covered in sweat. He is depleted. He is hungry. He is naked. He has nothing on him — not a weapon, not a wallet, not a pair of underwear — and what that would feel like and how dangerous that would be because the one thing about the book that I loved is the simmering danger underneath the love story, that at any point, he might die or be violently injured.
Q: The TV landscape is filled with true-crime and dystopian stories that spotlight the worst in mankind. What is it like to put something out in the universe that is filled with love and hope at this point in time?
RL: I hope it is lovely escapism for people who feel the incredibly difficult world we are now living in with Ukraine. There is, hopefully, a little bit of escapism with something that is light and sometimes farcical. … This series is lit so beautifully. Certainly, when they are in the clearing as the young Clare and adult Henry, there is a beautiful light and a golden sheen and, hopefully, that helps some people transport themselves.
TJ: It’s a story about hope, really. Although there is tragedy in the DNA of the lovers, it’s really a story about how love is timeless and it transcends time and death. There is this idea that Henry — even after death — can visit Clare because of the nature of the time travel. A younger version of him can visit an older version of Clare once Henry has died. That’s, obviously, an analogy for memory and how love transcends death and I think that is a really hopeful message.
Q: What age would you love to revisit your real selves to offer some advice and guidance?
RL: I would probably go to my teenage years. I was kind of riddled with self-doubt and insecurity and just thinking that this was going to be the way. I think I’d go back then and stroke her hair and say, “It’s all going to be OK.”
TJ: I’d like to go back to university. You know when you’re young and dumb and you think it’s a chore to be learning every day. Now that I am a bit older, I’d love to do another degree at some point, when I can. I probably never will. But I’d love to just go back to that guy and go: “Enjoy this time. Don’t think of it as a chore. That’s all you have to do every day is just read and accrue knowledge. You’ll never have that ever again, so just enjoy it.”
Here’s the trailer of the series.