Luke James Would Love to Freak You Out

The singer-turned-actor talks about his star-making turn on the horror anthology series "THEM: The Scare"

April 25, 2024 10:16 am
Luke James, wearing Gucci. We spoke with the actor ahead of his appearance in Prime Video's "THEM: The Scare"
Look: Gucci, Watch: TAG Heuer Monaco Chronograph

If there’s one thing to understand about Luke James, it’s that he’s done a lot, across all facets of the entertainment industry. Since the jack of all trades got his start singing backup for Tyrese, he’s written songs for the likes of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and Chris Brown. He appeared in Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” music video. He’s earned three Grammy nominations of his own for his impressive R&B catalog, and when the time came to branch out into acting, his range made him a natural on Broadway. And yet, his latest project is unlike anything he’s done before.

“Top tier, the wildest ride I’ve been on,” he tells InsideHook with a laugh.

James delivers a breakout performance in THEM: The Scare, the second installment of Prime Video’s horror anthology series, which debuts today. As Edmund Gaines, an aspiring actor who works at a Chuck E. Cheese-style pizza place, he faces one too many rejections and slowly begins to lose his grip on reality in an extremely disturbing way.

Set primarily in 1991, in the wake of the horrifying and all-too-familiar police beating of Rodney King, THEM: The Scare follows LAPD Detective Dawn Reeve (Deborah Ayorinde) as she tries to catch the serial killer behind a series of particularly gruesome murders. There’s not much else that can be said about James’s character Edmund without revealing major spoilers — there’s a big twist revealed through flashbacks about halfway through the season — but let’s just say he’s a very scary guy.

Luke James, the singer turned actor, wearing an outfit from Le PERE, Willy Chavarria and Emporio Armani
Sweater: Le PÈRE, Pants: Willy Chavarria, Sneakers: Emporio Armani

James says he was already a fan of the first season of THEM when he was approached about the role, and he jumped at the opportunity to push himself out of his comfort zone as a performer. “Some things are just a job, but this was another opportunity to stretch as an artist,” he says. “And when I read the scenes to it, I was moved by this character and I found it to be a challenge, and usually I’m game for things that feel so outside of me. I just wanted to be a part of this.”

What’s most impressive about his performance as Edmund is the way he’s able to make us feel empathy for a character who, in lesser hands, might’ve risked coming off as a one-dimensional villain. James makes us understand why this awkward, lonely guy who wants to be a star has suddenly snapped and turned violent.

“Rather than just initially going, ‘Oh, I’m doing a horror movie. I’m doing a scary character,’ I took it as: this is a man who is in search of answers to know why he even exists and who he is, and at the same time, he’s a struggling, aspiring actor, and I know what that is like, the rejection,” James explains. “Even outside of that, in my own personal life, just rejection in life, to not feel wanted, to not feel like you have anyone to call your own, or someone that will look after you and love on you when you need it. Someone just to call. You’re watching a man who’s by himself, who only has his own thoughts, who only has his imagination and the dream of being a movie star, but even also a person not knowing where they’re from and their background.”

The actor Luke James from "THEM: The Scare" wearing Versace

Edmund, we learn early on in the series, grew up in the foster system and is desperate to both learn more about his own origins and fill the void created by coming of age without a family.

“In search of that, he found purpose in this art form where he didn’t have to be himself,” James says. “He could be the billionaire that he watches on TV. He could be Eddie Murphy. He could be any one of those great actors and pivotal people of that time, especially in the ’80s and early ’90s, because those people got a lot of love. For Edmund, he just wanted to be loved. And we all can resonate with that. We all want to be loved.”

“Everything else was just following the script. It is going to do what it does as long as I lead with: he wants to be loved. It is never his intention to hurt anyone. It was just love. It was just about love and being seen.”

And while that’s a feeling we all can relate to, James found it was something that connected him to Edmund in particular. “I’m an only child and a bit of a loner. A bit of a loner,” he says, repeating that last bit as if he’s catching himself in a lie before going on to correct it: “I’m fully a loner and can be a bit awkward.”

In fact, it’s that drive to be seen and appreciated that motivated James to pursue a career in the performing arts from an early age. “As the only child, I always took to the things that made people laugh, that entertained people, that grabbed their attention,” he says. “I wanted the attention. I wanted those eyes. I never saw myself just as one thing. But as you get older, something develops more than the other, and music really moves me and taught me so much. That’s how I got here. But I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I’ve always gone to theaters and watched it and dreamt of myself being up there. It’s always been, and I’ve just had to wait for the moment, the right time.”

James says he sees music and acting as two sides of the same coin; they both scratch a similar creative itch for him, and he has no immediate plans of fully abandoning one to pursue the other.

“It is music that taught me how to love,” he says. “It’s taught me everything. It’s taught me how to communicate. It’s taught me how to pray, how to meditate, how to cry, all those things that I would need in order to express. Then once the opportunity came for me to try my hand in acting, it’s the same muscle: telling the truth. Tell the truth. It comes from your core, and it’s just as melodic. It’s just telling the truth. It’s pretty much that. But I do get great fulfillment in different ways from both. But I couldn’t see myself not doing both, to be fair.”

The star of Prime Video's "THEM: The Scare"
Ralph Lauren Purple Label Shantung Jacket, Jewelry: Bulgari, Watch: Bulgari Aluminum

Telling the truth — or, perhaps more specifically, learning to confront and accept some hard truths — is also a recurring theme on THEM: The Scare, especially for its protagonist Dawn Reeve, who uncovers some family secrets throughout the course of her investigation. Beyond that, her character often finds herself caught between two worlds as a Black woman working in a department that’s navigating a very public scandal related to racist police brutality.

“It was such a wild time, the early ’90s, with everything that was going on,” James says. “I think it’s really important to show that it centers around the detective Dawn Reeve, who is the only Black detective, only female detective in her unit. Dealing with that, being a police officer in such a chaotic time where you want to be the trustworthy person — you are trustworthy, you are about justice, but you are aligned with something, a conglomerate that isn’t so much. I think that’s so interesting, because for the viewer, you’re trying to understand who is the monster, and the monster comes in different formats and in different ways and at different times. I think that’s really what’s cool about the overall story of THEM: The Scare. It keeps you guessing. But I think it’s interesting to watch a sister navigate that world at the same time at home, dealing with judgments and also her own personal life and not losing herself within her work and forgetting who she is and what matters the most.”

To preserve the emotional distance between Dawn and Edmund onscreen, creator and showrunner Little Marvin didn’t allow James to meet Ayorinde until it was time for them to appear on-camera together. “Little Marvin had it that way that we never even ran across each other,” James says. “So it was two different worlds when filming, which was really cool, because for me, it allowed me to lock into my own world.”

The actor Luke James wearing Maison Margiela x Pendleton and Dries van Noten
Vest: Maison Margiela x Pendleton, Trousers: Dries van Noten

There is one costar he did get to interact with, however: the legendary Pam Grier, who plays Dawn’s mother. Meeting her and getting to work with her was “awesome,” James says — a real full-circle moment that allowed him to step back and take stock of how far he’s come in his own career.

“The times when I was around her, and when we did my scenes together, I mean, it’s Pam Grier,” he says with a laugh. “It was absolutely amazing. It’s just like, you’re pinching yourself. You’re like, ‘Am I really doing a thing that I’ve always thought I could do? And, damn, am I doing it with Pam Grier? Someone that has been part of my life in watching films and growing up, watching all of the different films and Foxy Brown and so on?’ And then also, just to even sit back and think, wow, you’re working with this legend, this person who was a pioneer, who paved the way for you to even exist in this art form, in this business. It was awesome. She’s a historian. She’s got so many stories, and I was just a sponge. It is a beautiful opportunity to be able to work with a legend, an icon, and I’m grateful that I can say that I’ve worked with her.”

Grier is, of course, no stranger to genre cinema, and James hopes that THEM: The Scare will inspire a new generation of writers and performers to continue to elevate horror, a genre he now finds himself passionate about after playing Edmund Gaines.

The actor Luke James lounging in an NB44 jacket and Isabel Marant sweater during a photoshoot
Jacket: NB44, Sweater: Isabel Marant, Denim: JW Anderson

“I’m hoping that someone sees this and it inspires them, one, to be a creator, to try their hand in whatever genre moves them the most, especially if it’s horror. Horror — it’s such a genre that I’m eager to see all the different minds that are spawned from this creation,” he says. “I’m interested to see what the future may hold. That, out of everything, truly, that’s what I really look forward to. I look forward to turning on the TV and seeing something different, something nostalgic, but different and new and nuanced…. But then also, just the concept of what Little Marvin is doing with the anthology. I think when we get to the deep level of families coming together and telling the truth, telling their truth and being honest with each other and just not shadowing over things, I think — I hope — that people gather a bit more empathy for strangers because everyone’s going through something and everyone needs somebody. I’m hoping that you love a little bit deeper, a little bit more, a little bit more open with how we love. If we can get those, I’m grateful. Job done.”

He pauses. “And also, okay, let me say this. If someone’s scared shitless, perfect, right?”

After some good-natured, only slightly mischievous laughter, he continues: “If you asked them and they said, ‘I could not sleep after that. I needed to watch something, a cartoon or something.’ Perfect. ‘I had to sleep with the lights on.’ Perfect. Great. That’s exciting, because that’s what this is. This is a horror, and this is an homage to the ’80s and ’90s horror films. And those things, as much as they scared us, I think of fun times, joyful times watching those movies with my cousins and being afraid, and how, ironically, this brought us together. So, I’m eager for that. I’m eager for those stories of like, ‘Man, we were sitting up there in our seat watching it together. Oh my God, you spilled the popcorn,’ or whatever. It’s just job well done, because that’s the ultimate point, bringing humor into the world through horror.”

The star of "THEM: The Scare" from Prime Video during a photoshoot
Jacket: HUGO, Tank & Pants: Todd Snyder, Sneakers: Canali

Beyond this season of THEM: The Scare, James will also be returning to Lena Waithe’s critically acclaimed The Chi. Part two of that show’s sixth season will premiere on Showtime on May 10. But despite everything he’s done and everything he’s yet to do, there’s one big project that rightfully has the majority of James’s attention right now.

“I just had a child, a little boy,” he says. “For me, just watching him grow up and become a human being, it’s so interesting. That’s the highlight for me. I just can’t wait to go home and see his face. That’s really what’s up for me. I mean, if anything else comes around, that’s good. But as of right now, I’m just looking at my son.”

Luke James wearing Dolce & Gabbana before an interview with InsideHook
Suit: Dolce & Gabbana, Shirt: Dries van Noten
The actor Luke James wearing Emporio Armani before an interview with InsideHook
Emporio Armani


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