Five months ago, the first installment of Veronica Roth‘s best-selling “Divergent” trilogy finally hit the big screen. Not only did Neil Burger‘s film cross the $100 million mark at the box office, but it also introduced the general public to a group of up-and-coming young actors — such as Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Theo James, and Ansel Elgort — with bright futures.
Among those up and comers is Christian Madsen, a 24-year-old who calls veteran character actor Michael Madsen his father and Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen his aunt. “Divergent” fans know him for playing Al, the shy, gentle giant who has unreciprocated feelings for Woodley’s Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior. But with Felix Thompson’s coming-of-age drama “King Jack” and a leading role in Cal Robertson’s father-son drama “Prism,” you can expect to see different sides of him.
Madsen recently took the time to talk to Up and Comers. Check out my interview below.
Al has a quiet and insecure demeanor Although those are considered to be vulnerable and flawed characteristics, those are also the kind of emotional and misunderstood characters that appeal to many actors. What attracted you to playing the role?
I related with him a lot in terms of his shyness, sort of not fitting in. I was that in high school or middle school, you know. I moved around a lot when I was a kid in terms of moving around to new houses and stuff. A lot of the times I was the new kid in high school or middle school. I think with Al, he had that sort of air to him. I think he just wants to fit in and be accepted.
Both the screenplay (by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) and Veronica Roth’s novel are great resources to understand the characters. It’s little scenes — such as the one in the book where Al confesses to Tris that he refuses to see his parents out of shame — that give more depth to his character. In addition to the text, did you draw on any other sources or of past experiences in your life to create a back story for Al?
Yeah, I read certain books. I listened to some music I thought he would listen to at that time or books we would read, just certain things that would put me in that mind state to sort of connect with Al in that way.
Al may have the physical advantage of being bigger than his peers, but that doesn’t work out for him during training so he resorts to betraying Tris, which is something he later ends up regretting. How was it like to film the big scene where Al tried to apologize to Tris?
When I read the script, I knew that was going to be a challenging scene because of the emotion behind it. When you shoot a movie like that, there’s a lot of times when you are having a lot of fun because there’s a lot of action sequences. Everyone literally became so close — you know, friendships, stuff like that. When we shot that scene when I was in the dining hall with Tris, I had to really separate myself from everybody because I had to go to that headspace of Al being very, very alone, trying to be somewhat of a forgiving — It was really hard that day.
As an initiate into the Dauntless faction, Al literally gets himself into a life or death situation. If you make it into Dauntless, your life expectancy isn’t very high. But if you don’t, you get ostracized from society as factionless. As an actor, how did you capture a character who was placed in an overwhelming and heightened situation that is so far from your normal life?
Rehearsal, the script…You’re able to build yourself up to that point. Neil [Burger], the director was always very helpful with always having Al in the right place. Just be conscious of every scene and sort of where Al would be in that place is very helpful.
Along with being a coming-of-age story for a teenager discovering her identity in the world, the film also centers heavily on the issue of individuality versus conforming to society. Even after you graduate high school, those pressures are still around. Were you able to relate to that aspect of the story?
The thing that’s going to work for you the best in life is just to be yourself. Once you figure out who you are, that’s who you’re going to excel the best at. For Tris, even though I’m like a guy, I connect with Tris’ story a little bit in terms of her mental state. As soon as she finds out who she really is — which is divergent — she excels at that so for me its like…Maybe acting is what I want to do so I try to excel at that. I think for me, it’s just try to be yourself. Don’t be a follower.
You filmed with green screen, but you also had the benefit of filming in Chicago and with big production sets. How would you compare working on theatre versus an indie or big studio film? Do you have a preference now that you’ve had experience in all of those settings?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s too early to tell. I just like working. I like theater a lot, and I like working in movies. Either of those — I would be really blessed.
Prior to filming, you and your cast mates did about two weeks of stunt training with J.J. Perry and Garrett Warren. In past interviews, you’ve stated that this as a bonding experience for the cast. Do you guys still keep in touch?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the second movie but they all were texting me and stuff. I see a couple of them here and there, but not much. I just shot a movie in New York a couple of weeks ago, I saw Ansel [Elgort]. I talk to everybody here and there, but everybody’s been kind of busy recently.
Filming of “Divergent” took place last year, and it’s also been officially been five months since it was first released into theaters. Has the character of Al stayed with you?
Yeah, I know I think I sort of…You shed your character when you finish. When you have to do press or these sort of interviews, when we did Comic-Con…You get some sort of message on Twitter about Al, it’s like a remembrance of him. But yeah, I guess he’ll always sort of be there with me.
After “Divergent” you worked on Cal Robertson’s “Prism” where you play the leading role of a young man who tries to piece together his past after learning his estranged father has amnesia. Could you talk about that film and your role in it?
“Prism,” I shot right after “Divergent” in New York. It’s about this little boy who goes on a camping trip with his dad when he’s like six. His dad leaves the camping site with his gun at night. The kid’s confused. So, the kid grows up. I play the kid. He grows up, and he’s in high school. He’s dysfunctional. He’s getting into drugs. He’s just a bad kid or whatever you want to call him. He decides that he’s going to fuck off — excuse my language.
He goes to this bridge. You don’t know if he falls off or kills himself. He wakes up at the hospital, and he’s next to his dad. He hasn’t seen his dad in 15 years, right? The doctors are like, “What are you doing?” It’s like, “Oh, I think that’s my dad right there.” They put him to sleep, he wakes up, and his dad is gone. He comes over to the hospital bed, and he finds the paper work for his dad. The movie sort of takes place as this adventure story. He’s going to look for his dad, uncover the pieces. It’s a father-son tale…I shot that in New York, and I just did reshoots in that a couple months ago — I think sometime late August or early September. There’ll finally be something to see for it.
Did you prepare for playing the protagonist in a story in a different way as you do for a supporting character?
It’s a different role, different thing all together. Preparation was way different. With “Divergent,” I had a book to work off of, I had a character, I had so much. With “Prism,” you have the book, obviously you pull stuff from your own life like I did with “Divergent.” You do it in the same way, but totally different. Al was great. I didn’t have any problem with Al, but obviously you get to play with more scenes.
You also recently worked on Felix Thompson’s “King Jack” with Charlie Plummer. Could you talk about your role as Tom in the film?
I was doing some press for “Divergent.” I get a call, and they’re like, “Hey, Felix Thompson. This director wants to talk to you.” He said, “I have this script. I saw Divergent. I thought you looked great in it.” I was like, “I forgot that I was even in Divergent.” I was humbed by it. We talked for two and a half hours. Anyways, I filmed the movie and it’s incredible. It was such a change from anything I had done before.
It’s basically about this kid, Jack, who is having trouble at school. He’s becoming a man, and he’s going through life. The father’s out of the house, and the mother is not there mentally. He’s getting picked on at school, and he likes this girl…I play the older brother. Me and him have our own issues. He’s getting picked on by this boy. When he comes to visit me and ask me for help to get our cousin out because they took his cousin hostage. It’s sort of this fun story following this kid, but there’s a lot of family dynamics that people can relate to as well.
As an up-and-coming actor, you have a whole career ahead of you. What types of roles are you pursuing? Are you more interested in character actor roles or leading men?
[laughs] I don’t know, man. I have no idea.
“Divergent” will be available on DVD & Blu-Ray on August 5th. You can follow Christian Madsen on Twitter.