We are two days away from the opening of “Divergent,” the next YA franchise hopeful based on the series of best-selling books by Veronica Roth. Rising star Shailene Woodley plays Tris, a young woman in a dystopian Chicago who makes a life-altering choice and gets caught up in shadowy government operations and life-or-death situations. It’s not growing up anywhere!
Recently, Woodley sat down and answered some questions during the film’s Press Day in Los Angeles. She talks about the film, her character, how exactly Jennifer Lawrence got involved in getting her to say yes to the project, and more.
There was a report online that Jennifer Lawrence reached out and convinced you to take “Divergent.” Is that true?
I’ve yet to meet Jen, which is so funny because I’ve been talking about her so much. But yeah. I sent her an e-mail because I was just curious. She’d gone from doing indie films to doing “Hunger Games” which is a giant film, obviously. I wondered if it had changed her life in positive ways, if she was happy with her decision, just sort of what that looked like, because I had zero reference to what a studio film would look like. Yeah, so she said, “Don’t do anything stupid, don’t do drugs, don’t make a sex tape and don’t go to Whole Foods the day the movie opens. Other than that, you’ll be fine!” She said there can be hard things that come with this decision but the amount of positivity that come with it will transcend all the other situations.
How are you like your character, Tris, and how are you different?
A lot of who Tris is resonated with me, because I felt like when I was her age, I was sort of going through… I was raised by two psychologists, so as a young child, compassion and empathy were two things that were ingrained into my system, which is such a lovely gift because I feel like those are two lessons that don’t occur until later in life. But as a teenager my struggle was how do I balance being empathetic and being compassionate towards my peers and also living my life for myself, and not basing my decisions on those around me. How do I receive happiness based on my own experience rather than from other people? So Tris sort of goes through that as well. She was raised in a faction where she had to be selfless, and yet she joins this other faction which is really sort of all about being selfish, and she has to find a balance between that. I feel like I went through something similar so I relate to her, as well as just being a very strong, empowered woman. I feel very strong and I live my life with a lot of integrity based on what I want from my life and who I am, and I think Tris is similar. As far as being different… Tris has really long hair! And it’s blonde. And I don’t anymore, so…. Sorry, awful joke. I don’t know, I feel like we’re actually very similar, I don’t think there’s a lot of differences between us.
You worked with two seasoned actresses on this film: Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet. What was that experience like for you and what did you learn from them?
It was amazing! What I loved about them was they’re both so empowered. They’re women. They’re strong and they live their life with integrity, and also one thing I found so profound, with both of them but especially with Kate because we talked about it so much, was that she loves the art of acting. She loves being on a movie set. She shows up early, she knows her lines, she shows up with questions to ask, to enhance the movie, to bring more awareness to certain situations. She’s never in her trailer. Whether it’s hanging out with the actors or with the craft services dude or the transportation guys, she’s just a citizen of the set. As obvious as that seems, I feel like a lot of actors – two hours after you get there, they’re already complaining about being there. You’re like, “Then why don’t you go do something else?” We’re really lucky to have this life and do what we do. Kate fully knows that. And so she brings this sense of enthusiasm and excitement to a film set. Which is so special and should be so obvious but it’s generally not the case.
Not everyone can tell Tris is ‘divergent’ at first. What don’t people know about you, in real life?
I feel like I’m kind of an obvious person. I like to keep some things in my life sacred. Keep the sacred sacred, but other than that part of my life, I’m a very open person. So I feel like who you see right now is who I am, always.
We heard that you actually climbed that ferris wheel. Are you a fearless person, and were there any injuries on set?
We definitely did get some black and blue bruises, some scars all over our bodies still, but if you walk away from doing a big action movie without some scars, you’re doing something wrong. The ferris wheel was super fun! We got to climb the Navy Pier ferris wheel! I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before. And we got to do it during the full moon last year, and it was also a super moon – I don’t know if anyone’s into astrology but that was super exciting for me. So we got to watch the moon sort of cascade across the sky as we were climbing up and down this ferris wheel – Oh it was gorgeous! I am afraid of heights but that kind of adrenaline kind of keeps you going. And also we were hooked up to cables so we could have literally fallen off the side of it and been fine.
On fitting into Hollywood, do you feel you fit in the way you want to and do you feel you’re making the contributions you want to be making? If the Ferris Wheel in the film didn’t scare you, was there anything that did?
Just to clarify, I never said Hollywood was the life I wanted to live. Acting is the life I want to live, it’s very different. And it’s not even that. I started acting when I was five, so I’ve been doing it for seventeen years – which is crazy! It’s always been something that was really fun for me. A passion project, in a way, and it still is, even though it’s a career now because it takes up all my time, really. It’s something that’s fun for me, and the day that fun disappears, if that ever happens, then I’m not going to do it anymore. In a way I feel like, as entertaining as movies are when you’re a part of them, they’re this art form. That’s what it feels like to me. I’m not a painter, but I can express myself in a way that’s visual that allows me to be artistic and create.
And yes, the fight scenes! Especially the end scene with Theo. That guy, he boxes, he’s strong and he’s not afraid to be strong. So if I forgot to duck at the right time, if I moved left when I should have moved right, he would have decked me and I would have been out cold. So that was a terrifying fight scene where my palms were sweaty and my adrenaline was spiked the whole time. We were moving so quickly and I learned the sequence that morning, and we filmed it a few hours later. He’s pretty intense. He makes it look amazing but I was like “Oh wow, we’re acting but this is sort of real right now.”
What was it like working with Miles again after “The Spectacular Now” and how was it different this time, since he’s kind of your nemesis?
It was so fun! He’s just so, so great. We sort of have an amazing sibling relationship. When you go to do a new movie, you’re surrounded by 300 new people, in a new city and you sort of get thrown into it. With a movie like this, because it was a studio film, there’s more than 300 people involved. So to have somebody that I knew already, to sort of be that rock, and also I’ve got his back, he’s got my back, so that felt good. I knew there was somebody there that supported me and I supported him. And it was fun to have these scenes where we go against each other; specifically the fight scene was fun. I remember actually feeling hurt when he was saying things that were rude during the scene! I was like, “Dude, I’m your sister, you can’t say stuff like that to me!” And afterwards I went to him and was like, “I hope we’re okay!” and he was like, “Shai, we’re just acting!”
The zipline scene scared the crap out of me. How much of that was shot on location, how much in studio, CG, and how did you get your reaction?
My stunt double actually went through five blocks of actual Chicago streets on the zipline, going I don’t even know how fast – really, really fast. And she was maybe 50 stories up in the air. And I did two blocks of Chicago streets. It was really fun but that was also sort of a scary, sweaty palm moment. That was all the wide shots. The rest of it was all done with green screens, with giant fans blowing in our faces, and a guy on a blowhorn going, “Now there’s a building to your right! Look!” It was like, oh my gosh, I get to be a kid and use my imagination again! It’s so wacky, working with a green screen is so different than working with another human.
I was wondering how much of a force Veronica was. Was she on set for you, did she give you any insight into your character?
She was on set a little bit. Not too often. She didn’t really give me advice on Tris, it was more, I would ask her like “Where did you get your inspiration from and how did you come up with this story?” As much as she was the creator of this book series, this was Neil Burger’s film. So I felt like if I had questions about my character, those questions belonged to him, not Veronica necessarily. Just because he was in charge of this ship. But she was insightful. She was 21 when she wrote this book, which is incredible. Can you imagine? She’s 25 now, I believe, she’s married and she has 3 books out. What a badass! So cool. [SPOILER ALERT FOR THE THIRD BOOK, "ALLEGIANT"] And she kills the lead in the final book! It’s a bold move! I think it says a lot about her. I think she has a bit of Tris in her.
Now that you’ve completed a film of this magnitude, what did you learn about yourself throughout the making of this movie?
Filming “Divergent” was really interesting because a) it was the first movie I’d done where I was in every single scene. Literally, there was one moment where I was so sick and Neil looked at me and said, “Are you okay? Do you need to go home?” and I was like “Do I have a choice?” And he says, “Well if you go home, everything stops!” So that was very difficult. But I learned what was important to me during that process. because when you only have six or seven hours at home between work days, working for five and a half months straight, you learn what you cherish and you learn who’s important in your life. When you only have one phone call a day, who are you going to call? I feel like that’s something that “Divergent” taught me. When you only have a set amount of time, how to use it wisely.
“Divergent” comes out on Friday, March 21st.