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Woodley leaps from indie to big-budget films

By Karen Martin

This article was published March 21, 2014 at 2:13 a.m.

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Shailene Woodley says that to prepare for her role in Divergent — her first big Hollywood-style production after a string of lower-key movies — she sought the advice of Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence.

LOS ANGELES - So there’s a film opening today with this teenage heroine in a troubled futuristic society who takes on the challenge of making her damaged world a better place. Haven’t we heard this before?

There’s no way to avoid comparisons between newly released Divergent and The Hunger Games. Both films are based on a series of young adult novels. Both focus on tough young female characters who are empowered to make a difference. The Hunger Games, which premiered in 2012 and was followed by a 2013 sequel in what’s likely to be a trilogy, has a head start on Divergent, which hopes to duplicate The Hunger Games’ success. And both films star actresses with indie-film credentials.

This last fact isn’t lost on Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris in Divergent. Before taking on a big-budget would-be franchise concerning a character battling to survive in unstable (and unfair) chaos, the star of The Descendants and The Spectacular Now consulted with Jennifer Lawrence, whose background in films such as Winter’s Bone preceded her box-office smashing success in The Hunger Games.

“I emailed Jennifer Lawrence before taking this role because I had zero reference for doing a studio film,” Woodley says. “She said, ‘You’ll be fine. Just don’t do anything stupid - no drugs, no sex tapes, and don’t go to Whole Foods the day the film opens.’”

Divergent, based on a novel by Veronica Roth, concerns Tris’ effort to find her way in a post-war social structure (in what’s left of Chicago) that has willingly divided itself into orderly factions, based on individual virtues, in an effort to control the vagaries of human nature. The intent is that each faction cooperates with the others in order to survive and thrive in peace. Tris, who is raised in the put-others-first Abnegation faction, chooses to join Dauntless, a fearless and highly physical faction that protects the city and serves as its military force. But she really doesn’t fit in with the others. Tris is aware she’s made up of more than one attribute, which means she’s different. And dangerous. A Divergent.

Bringing this complex scenario to life is the job of director Neil Burger, who says the input of author Roth made his job easier. “A movie is a different beast than a book, with different dramatic needs,” he says. “The movie is compressed and has a crazy pace because of that. So many questions come up during filming, so it’s so helpful to have the source right there, to keep the characters on the right path.”

Burger says he wanted Divergent to be different from what he calls grim, gray, and bleak futuristic films. “We tipped it in the beginning toward a society worth joining before you see the cracks. I know it’s a young adult book, but I was making an adult movie. The themes still apply. Am I different? Do I hide it? Do I try to fit in? All the issues in the story apply to everybody - how do we all get along in society, and how does a society ever live in peace with itself?”

The 25-year-old author, who wrote Divergent while on winter break in her senior year at Northwestern University and sold the movie rights before she graduated from college, was OK with seeing her novel transformed. “I was practiced at letting the book go,” Roth says. “Books and movies are different mediums. I trusted the filmmakers and am happy how it turned out.”

The film, which focuses on the intense and often sadistic training of Tris and other recruits to Dauntless, is hard and fast and violent. It slows down - just barely - to chronicle the changing relationship between Tris and a stoic Dauntless trainer known as Four, played by British actor Theo James.

Bruce Cockburn’s 1984 song, “When you’re lovers in a dangerous time, sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime,” suits the situation between Tris and Four. Although they haven’t quite made it to the lover stage, they’re moving toward the development of a relationship while living in a society that seems to be functioning but is completely inadequate.

“Tris is fascinated by Four but doesn’t understand his motivations,” says James, who achieved instant heartthrob status in a brief role as Lady Mary’s lover, Kemal Pamuk, during the first season of Downton Abbey. “He sees Tris as unique. It’s essentially two people who respect each other.”

“I love the Tris and Four dynamic because it’s so different [from] most young adult romances on screen,” Woodley says. “It’s not necessarily love at first sight.”

It’s clear that romance isn’t really high on Four’s mind; he has bigger fish to fry. “You need to buy that this world seems to be functioning, then there’s a downfall,” James says. So his character is focused on trying to whip new Dauntless members into shape to get ready for the Next Big Battle.

“I love this character, that you don’t know what he’s thinking,” says James, who’s far more charming and chatty than his coldly arrogant Divergent character. “He doesn’t have to speak too much. He has a dangerous stillness.”

That stillness doesn’t extend to smackdowns administered by Dauntless leaders to recruits in order to separate the weak from the strong. “The fight scenes between Tris and Four are so intense,” says Woodley, a delicate-looking adventuress whose idea of a fun weekend is to participate in an urban survival course. “Theo is a boxer and he’s strong, and is not afraid to be strong. We were moving quickly and we had to be on top of our toes; if I didn’t duck when I was supposed to I would have gotten hit in the face. It was like, ‘We’re acting but this is kind real right now.’”

Along with staging fights, Burger always had to keep in mind that Divergent is designed to be Act One of a trilogy. “Some of the things that we’re setting up in Divergent don’t get paid off until the next movie [now in pre-production],” he says, noting that it’s difficult to provide enough information for audiences to understand what’s happening without giving away what might be the resolution of a second or third film.

Then there are those oh so-picky book fans. “When making Divergent, you know there’s a fan base,” Burger says. “Obviously, you can’t fit every character and every subplot and element from the book into the movie, and it’s agonizing to make those choices. But I wouldn’t have done the film if I didn’t think that most, if not all, could fit into the movie to bring out the real spirit of the story. I am confident that readers of the book will be happy.”

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 03/21/2014

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