As we’ve seen with Twilight and The Hunger Games, popular film franchises based on YA novels tend to turn their stars into household names very, very quickly. The wonderfully talented Shailene Woodley was tapped to lead the next major YA franchise, Divergent, as Tris, and after an exhaustive search for the film’s impossibly handsome (and mysterious) male lead, Theo James landed the role of Four. James is best known for a much talked about one-episode turn on Downton Abbey as the Turkish diplomat Kemal Pemuk, and the actor is now poised to make waves as the male lead in a potentially huge franchise.
Earlier this year I was invited to the set of Divergent in Chicago along with a handful of other journalists, and in between takes we got the chance to speak with Woodley and James about the film. The charming duo discussed the pressure that comes with leading such a beloved property, changes from the book, developing Tris and Four’s relationship onscreen, which actors best fit the versions of the characters they saw in their heads, whether the second book informed their performances, and more. Hit the jump to read on.
SHAILENE WOODLEY: No, I think that if I thought about that I might go insane. It’s funny because it’s based on the book but the movie that we’re making is a lot different from the book in a lot of ways. So there seems to be a bridge or gap between the two. It’s hard to associate between the fanbase; everyone is stressing about that but I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m so far removed from that world.
THEO JAMES: It’s true, you have to be because you don’t want to be too influenced by what’s going on, you want to be concentrating on the material obviously because that’s where the story is coming from. You also have to do your own thing and your own message and your own interpretation.
I interviewed Veronica Roth recently and she said when she saw you, Theo, you perfectly fit her vision of Four. Who would you say when you saw them in character for the first time matched what you imagined?
JAMES: That’s a good question. I thought particularly with this the casting was really good, I know I’m supposed to say that. But I think these things can go one of two directions and I think A. they made a really smart choice with Shai because she’s strong but then there’s an emotionality to her which is really endearing; but not in a weak way, it’s in a complex way. Then when I saw Miles I thought he was perfect for it because he’s not just a straight bad guy, he has a complexity to him that you kind of like him a little bit as well. He’s not just this evil foil for making snarky remarks for Shai, he’s a more rounded character because he’s such a good actor and also because of good casting. Then Ray [Stevenson aka Marcus Eaton] was cool because he’s this big dude, he’s kind of dark, he’s like 6’5”.
WOODLEY: He intimidates you, you feel like he could actually slap you with his belt.
JAMES: Sexually intimidating, yeah (laughs). No I just thought he needed to be—to have that kind of hold over Four’s character—he needed to be someone with formidable strength or something to him. Those are the three that are popping in my head.
Can you talk about the fear landscapes? The first one is a dog. Is it going to be a real dog or a CG dog?
You said the movie is quite different from the book. How, specifically, do you think it’s different?
WOODLEY: It’s different in the sense that obviously the book is what? 400 pages? The script is 90 pages and there are some things in the book that logic-wise wouldn’t make sense in a theatrical way so we had to switch the way we are presenting it, because logically I just didn’t line up.
JAMES: I think also there’s some talk about age. I think the logic of it, the age is unspecified. I think for example Four, for him to have that experience as a leader and as someone of high skill that as he is, the jump for two years, that he joined two years ago and now he’s this fucking legend, I think it makes more sense that he’s been there a bit longer, only a few more years. But it means that he’s had more experience than these initiates who come in.
In the book Four doesn’t actually say Tris is beautiful, it’s a lot more subtle because he leans in and he’s trying to be more covert about it. In the scene we just saw, it’s presented a bit differently. Did that change bother you or do you like it better?
WOODLEY: It has to be different. I mean there’s some things about the book that I miss, I think their relationship in the book is slightly different. But obviously there’s only a certain amount of scenes that we can play in the movie and so we had to pick the most important ones. So the arc of Tris and Four I don’t think is as…
WOODLEY: Establish the certain small nuances. But it’s good guys don’t worry it’s good.
I’d like to know if that scene where Tris looks at Four’s back remains in the movie?
JAMES: Yes, that scene remains in. That’s an important scene for us as well because it’s like…
WOODLEY: The turning point.
JAMES: Yeah and the great thing about their relationship at the beginning is that they’re not suddenly in love. I mean obviously they kind of are as soon as they see each other but they have this fractious thing because he’s trying to retain some sort of authority and she’s discovering herself so they are kind of back and forth. Then in the second book it happens as well they’re always kind of together, their love is very forceful but at the same time there’s all the other things going which I think is much more interesting. But that key scene that is in the movie.
WOODLEY: One of the main aspects that attracted me to Divergent was their relationship. It’s not one of those teenage dramatic relationships where it’s love at first sight and she’s swooning over him and he’s there with her and then he withdraws and she has to chase him. There’s no drama I feel like it’s very real and very personal and realistic to how a lot of relationships are.
JAMES: There’s probably drama but I know what you mean.
WOODLEY: Of course there’s drama but it’s not, it’s very different than the Bella/Edward relationship. They’re completely on the opposite sides of the spectrum.
JAMES: Yeah I would say similarly for the character Four that I love, when he’s on the Ferris wheel and she says “are you afraid of heights?” and he’s like “yeah I’m fucking afraid of heights” but there’s a way to get around it and then he talks about it. He’s not so mixed up in his masculinity. He’s at home in his masculinity so that he can be vulnerable.
We learn more about the characters and the world in the second book. After reading Insurgent, did you take anything from the book to inform your performance in this film?
JAMES: After reading the second book? I think so yeah, it’s not just so much changes it just adds. I think the best way to become a character is by osmosis as opposed to thinking directly about stuff. The more material that you have and understand and have a going in, then the more complex your character and the understanding of your character will be. So yes it did inform me but it just gave me a more rich history so I knew exactly where he’s coming from, the darkness, the problems, that kind of thing.
Peruse the rest of our Divergent set visit coverage below:
- DIVERGENT Set Visit Report; 30 Things to Know about the Next Big YA Franchise
- Director Neil Burger Talks Making the Future Feel Cinematic Instead of Gritty, the Portrayal of Violence, Filming in Chicago, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT
- Producer Douglas Wick Talks Casting Four, Changes from the Book, HUNGER GAMES Comparisons, the Director Search, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT
- Zoe Kravitz Talks Bonding with Castmates, Fight Training, Consulting Jennifer Lawrence for Advice, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT