Though part of the strength of “Divergent” is that it’s much more than just a love story, the big-screen version of suburban-Chicago-raised Veronica Roth’s massive novel simply wouldn’t work with underwhelming leads. So 100 gold stars for the casting director who selected the exceptional Shailene Woodley and Theo James to play Tris and Four, the newbie and her trainer in Dauntless — one of five factions in a dystopian, futuristic Chicago where complex people are seen as a threat.
Woodley, who was snubbed for an Oscar for “The Descendants,” notes how filming in sequence helped the pair progress. “Our chemistry just kept building as it went on because we got to know each other as people,” the 22-year-old said at the Peninsula Hotel. “And we got to begin to trust one another on a personal level which lent to the characters.”
Adds James, the 29-year-old relatively unknown Brit who won’t stay that way for long, “That was really lucky.”
For Dauntless: something that they did that showed either bravery or cowardice
SW: I remember as a 12-year-old I saved somebody from the ocean. That was pretty cool. That was pretty brave.
TJ: I was a lifeguard, on similar themes, and I saved a little girl from drowning. She jumped in and her armbands came off —
SW: Her pants came off, so you were like, “Oh, I’m going to” —
TJ: Her armbands came off. I blew my whistle, jumped in, Hollywood-style… and just belly-flopped.
For Candor: Honesty or dishonesty
No, is there something that you did?
SW: Oh, I thought you were like —
“Which do you prefer?”
TJ: How dark do you want to get? We might get arrested.
For Abnegation: Selflessness or selfishness?
SW: Selfish: When I was like 5-years-old I stole a little red ball from a toy store, and my mom made me return it. That’s pretty selfish.
TJ: Mmm hmm. Yeah… What’s selfish? I…
SW: He ate the last cookie once I’m sure off the platter.
TJ: I went shopping to the supermarket once and I put everything in the trolley and I was like in a daydream. And I just found myself at the car with all the shopping but not in bags, and I hadn’t paid for it. I was like, “Oh, [bleep], I should go inside.”
SW: How old were you? It was like a few months ago.
TJ: Yeah, it was yesterday.
For Erudite: Intelligence or foolishness?
TJ: Foolishness happens daily.
SW: Yeah, you’re pretty foolish. Like in the best way possible. Me too, though. I feel like foolishness is goofy.
TJ: Yeah, there’s lots of foolishness happening.
For Amity: Peacefulness or conflict?
SW: Peacefulness… just being there for people.
TJ: Family I think is important. That would be peacefulness.
In “Divergent,” you climb the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Should that be offered to tourists?
TJ: [Laughs.] It should be offered to tourists. It was very fun.
SW: No, it should not. We’re in America.
TJ: [Laughs.] What does that mean?
SW: It means a lot of things. I don’t think that that should happen.
TJ: I do.
SW: There’s liability, and it would take forever. The line would be long.
TJ: We’re diverging in our opinions right now.
SW: Hmm, look at that.
Tris is underestimated, and that motivates her. What’s a time at any point in your life that you felt motivated by people thinking you couldn’t do something?
SW: I think it’s a normal thing to go through when you’re a teenager, right? You base your life on the opinion of others because you’re getting to know yourself. But I like to think that as adults we get motivated by our own—
TJ: Decisions. And also it’s good in a way. Everyone has to come up against challenges, and that’s what really helps you push through.
SW: It’s what fuels the fire.
Is there a time you remember when someone was saying they didn’t believe in you, and that pushed you forward?
(TJ stares at her)
TJ: I’m kidding. I was just being weird. I was just staring at you. [Laughs]
SW: Do you [have one]? I’m trying to think.
TJ: It’s a hard one without spilling my inner-most soul. There [have] been times definitely. I think that’s part of growing up in a way and learning from your mistakes and how you’re going to go forward from it, but in terms of specifics I keep it locked down, brother!
Is there a recurring nightmare that you ever had in your life where it seemed like something kept popping up in your mind?
SW: Yeah, T-Rexes.
SW: Yeah. “Jurassic Park” [bleep] — screwed me up as a child. That recurring nightmare is constantly of a giant T-Rex eyeball in my window as a kid.
That’s all that happened in the dream, the dinosaur looking at you?
SW: I slept on my parents’ floor for maybe three years because of “Jurassic Park.”
TJ: I don’t know if it’s a nightmare but I had a recurring dream for years that I could breathe underwater. It was kind of a cool dream.
SW: Well! That’s sexy. Try and do that.
TJ: I may die.
SW: Theo the merman.
So you don’t have nightmares, you just dream about things that would be awesome if you could do?
TJ: I don’t think I’ve ever had a recurring nightmare.
SW: He’s like a cup half-full sort of dude.
TJ: Have you had a recurring nightmare?
Falling off a roller coaster and losing my teeth.
TJ: Losing your teeth? Like what, being smacked out or what?
SW: Falling off a roller coaster is terrifying.
That would really suck, wouldn’t it?
SW: Yeah, you’d probably die.
I think so.
TJ: How would you lose your teeth?
You just put your hand in your mouth and they’re gone.
TJ: And they’re gone.
You’ve never had that? I feel like that’s a common one.
TJ: I never had that. I remember I was playing basketball once and I watched someone trip and he forgot to put his hands out and he hit his front teeth on the gym floor. It was like, “[Boom].”
SW: How do you forget to put your hands out?
That’s a good question.
SW: It’s instinct! [Laughs]
TJ: Tell me about it. That’s what we asked when he put his head up, like “[Ehh]”!
SW: He had a few too many that day…
On the subject of fears: Would you rather get eaten alive or be burned alive?
TJ: Burned alive.
SW: I would choose neither.
Would you rather freeze or drown?
Have knives thrown at you or sharks thrown at you?
SW: Sharks. At least it’s like the circle of life with the shark.
If there was a character whose nickname was 250 and was afraid of everything, who do you think should play him?
TJ: 250! [Laughs] I like the idea of that, just like a petrified guy. “Oh my God, 250’s coming!” He’s like some sniveling gimp.
SW: Miles Teller. [Laughs.] Or Paul Giamatti or Matthew McConaughey. It would definitely be between the three of them.
TJ: Matthew McConaughey, good one.
SW: Or John Travolta.
TJ: 250. I think we should put him in the book. He should be in the next movie, shouldn’t he? “Put him in the book.” “They’re written dude.”
Where they ate the night before the interview: Blackbird. Woodley had chicken; James had octopus.
James on conquering fear: “It’s not about being fearless. It’s about how you conquer your fear, so it’s admitting that you are fearful.”
A note Woodley makes about bananas after telling her joke (which pertains to bananas): “Bananas are sterile, fun fact. They cannot reproduce without human hands. There’s no seeds. Think about it.”