‘Divergent’ isn’t just YA territory


There aren’t a lot of adults in “Divergent,” the newest book-to-screen entry in the dystopian future teenage angst genre that was popularized in the novels and films of “The Hunger Games.” Though there are a few grown-ups hanging around the periphery of the story, most of the focus is on protagonists and antagonists in their teens and 20s. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is the young girl who must mature practically overnight; Four (Theo James) is the conflicted possible love interest.

“Divergent,” which opens on Friday, is part one of the trilogy based on the books by Veronica Roth. It tells of a post-apocalypse future where, at the age of 16, people must choose to join one of five factions or tribes, within which are the morals, philosophies, skill sets, and world views each member would find most comfortable. For instance, those in Dauntless are bold, members of Erudite are knowledgeable, and anyone who joins Amity would opt for harmony over hostility.

Just as in “The Hunger Games,” there are heartless, power-hungry, politically minded adults running the show. But not all adults here are presented as villains. There is, for instance, Tori, a longtime member of Dauntless who has become a sort of medical technician and tattoo artist. Against her better judgment, Tori is an adviser for the confused young Tris, who she discovers is Divergent, a condition that is frowned upon by society and could lead to Tris becoming an outcast.

Played by action star Maggie Q (“Live Free or Die Hard,” “Mission: Impossible III,” the TV series “Nikita”), Tori is a minor character in the first book, but there’s enough mystery around her to hint that her importance and presence will grow (she does indeed have much more to do in the sequel novels, “Insurgent” and “Allegiant”).

“This is really just the introduction to the character,” said Q (nee Margaret Denise Quigley) during a recent publicity stop in Boston. “We move into another phase [of her] in the second film.

Maggie Q and Shailene Woodley in “Divergent.”

Maggie Q and Shailene Woodley in “Divergent.”

“Tori really, truly is an unwilling mentor. There are a lot of movies with that dynamic, where you see this mentor sort of really wanting to reach out, and really wanting to make a difference in this young person’s life. But Tori’s like, ‘Unh-unh, I don’t want anything to do with what you are, what you represent, and how dangerous that can be for me. Because I’ve lived that.’ In the second one we really get into what happened with Tori, and why Divergents are such a red light for her. I think she suffered a lot with this and didn’t want to see Tris go through the same thing.”

But unlike movies in which she’s had major roles, or her TV series in which she and the writers had the luxury of being able to develop her character over the length of the show, in “Divergent,” Q had to establish the complexities of Tori in just three brief scenes.

“When you look at a script, it’s hard to quantify. Because when you get there, it’s really about what that moment means to you,” she said. “What I loved about [director] Neil Burger is that he cared about every moment, whether the role was big or not. There’s that moment where you either become memorable or you don’t.”

Mekhi Phifer (“House of Lies”), who plays the Dauntless leader Max, agreed with his costar.

“You just try to find your moments,” he said. “My approach is going in and doing what I’m tasked to do. But I think it’s about the way you project, the way you look, the way you deliver a line. Even if your part is smaller, you can still be pivotal.”

Sometimes you can be more than the director ever envisioned.

Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q at a promotional event for the film.

Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q at a promotional event for the film.

Q smiled as she recalled her first meeting with Burger during location scouting, when he wasn’t at all convinced that she was right for the part. That might have had something to do with her reputation as an action star. She’d immersed herself in fighting roles, under the tutelage of Jackie Chan, for almost seven years in Hong Kong before her stock rose when J.J. Abrams chose her to be in “Mission: Impossible III.” And she’s still shaking off the rumor that she injured Bruce Willis during a fight scene with him in “Live Free or Die Hard.”

When asked about it, she rolled her eyes and groaned, then said of the 2007 incident, “OK, yes, he was kicked in the head, and yes, he got a cut above his eye. But it was my stunt double. He tells everyone that I did it.”

Getting back to Burger, Q recalled meeting with him early in the casting process and then hearing nothing, only to be summoned again once Woodley was cast in the lead.

“It was really going to be about our chemistry,” Q explained. “As her mentor, it had to work. So . . . we read together, and she and I just had something. And then Neil was convinced. That was it.”

With the first film about to open, and the second film, “Insurgent” — to be directed by Robert Schwentke — already set for release next March, is Q concerned? Does she care what the hordes of young adult readers who made the books bestsellers are going to think of her performance? Or whether she did justice to Tori?

“No, it’s really just another job,” she said bluntly. “You get the script, and you make it your own.

“If I was curing cancer, I would worry whether the outcome was what I wanted it to be. But since I’m not, as actors the only thing that we’re responsible for is showing up and giving everything that we can.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.


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