Born and raised in Northern Ireland, James studied at the Central School of Drama before starting his career on stage.
James’ first feature film was Hear My Song with Adrian Dunbar, before working extensively with director Michael Winterbottom on Go Now, Jude and Welcome To Sarajevo. He gained international recognition in the film Waking Ned Devine, playing lovable pig farmer, Pig Finn.
His first major British television roles included Ballykissangel and Playing The Field, but it was the BAFTA Award-winning Cold Feet that brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Based around the lives of three thirty-something couples, this critically-acclaimed drama won James both a British Comedy Award and a UK National Television Award.
In 2002, he took the lead role of activist Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass’ acclaimed film Bloody Sunday. It won a Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. James’s standout performance also earned him a BAFTA nomination, in addition to the Best Actor award at the British Independent Film Awards and the Stockholm Film Festival.
His range of TV roles has included the title role of Tommy Murphy in Murphy’s Law, which was specially written for James by writer Colin Bateman. In 2003, BBC Drama produced a modern re-working of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with James playing the main lead Nick in The Miller’s Tale, broadcast on BBC America. In early 2004, he played the lead in two acclaimed television films - Passer By, directed by David Morrissey and written by Tony Marchant, and Wall of Silence based on the true story of the death of Jamie Robe.
That same year he starred in Danny Boyle’s movie Millions and appeared in Woody Allen’s Match Point in 2005. In 2007, James starred in the critically-acclaimed BBC series Jekyll which gained him a Golden Globe nomination and a Rose D’Or nomination for Best Actor.
In 2008, he played Pontius Pilate in Frank Deasey’s BBC mini-series The Passion and starred in Midnight Man for ITV1. In 2009, James starred with Liam Neeson in BBC Films’ Five Minutes of Heaven and the BAFTA Award-winning series Occupation for BBC1. He co-starred with Martin Sheen as an Irish writer who joins a bereaved father undertaking a pilgrimage in Emilio Estevez’s The Way. Other film credits include Matching Jack and Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus, alongside Gerard Butler.
In 2011, James appeared in two seasons of Monroe for ITV and appears in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, in which he plays Bofur. His starred in Danny Boyle’s new television drama Babylon for Channel 4, which will return later this year as a six-part series.
James is currently the Chancellor of the University of Ulster.