I'm not going to lie: Shailene Woodley is one of my favorite people to interview for two reasons--she's a smart, funny, charming human being that seems to have her head squarely on her shoulders and loves to talk about the films she's made. Also, she's a hugger. Seriously, if you ever get the chance to meet her, she'll probably hug you. The first time I realized this was backstage at last year's Roger Ebert Film Festival; I was there to say hello THE SPECTACULAR NOW director James Ponsoldt before the two of them went on stage for a post-screening Q&A. I'd met her once before when she was doing press for THE DESCENDANTS, but when I went up to re-introduce myself to her, she just decided it was okay to greet me with a hug instead of a handshake. P.S.: She was right.
Since that night, I've seen her a couple more times both informally (while she was in Chicago shooting her latest release DIVERGENT in which she plays the lead, Tris) and formally (the interview you're about the read), and every time, the arms open up and the friendly embrace happens. I'm only mentioning this to give you some idea of the kind of open-hearted person you get when you meet Woodley, a genuine persona that worked well in building her character in THE SPECTACULAR NOW and will likely force large tears out of our eyes with her June release, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.
When I interviewed her recently for the sci-fi, class-driven-society story DIVERGENT (based on the novel by Veronica Roth), she was joined by Theo James, who plays Tris' mentor Four, who is one of the first to really see her for who she is. Prior to this film, James was a virtual unknown in the states. He popping into Woody Allen's YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, and most memorably was seen in an early "Downton Abbey" episode as the tall, dark, exotic foreigner who ends up dying in Lady Mary's bed. He also had a healthy-sized role in UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING and has done a fair amount of television, including the short-lived CBS series "Golden Boy," which aired 13 episodes last year.
Woodley and James are as well paired in interviews as they are in the film (perhaps better, since they aren't really supposed to get along for most of the movie). The bounce off each other, and don't seem quite as well rehearsed as many actors can be for a film of this size and importance to its distributor. And with that, please enjoy my talk with Shailene Woodley and Theo James…
Shailene Woodley: Hey, how are you?
Capone: Good. It’s good to see you again.
SW: Good to see you too.
Capone: Yeah, I think it’s been about a year--since Ebertfest. Hi, Theo. How are you?
Theo James: How’s it going, Steve?
SW: Ebertfest was so fun.
TJ: Who are you with?
Capone: Ain’t it Cool News.
SW: [Singing] Ain’t it Cool News.
TJ: That’s a good website, actually. Are you from Austin?
Capone: We’re based in Austin, but I’m here. But I’m actually going down there tomorrow for South By Southwest.
SW: We’ll see you there, because we’ll be there as well.
Capone: Really? Is that a secret? I don’t remember seeing the movie on the line-up.
SW: No, the movie’s not there.
TJ: Oh, no, we’re not doing that. I think it’s something to do with one of the acts on the soundtrack. Or maybe not. Who the fuck knows? [laughs]
SW: We just wanted barbeque.
Capone: Well, of course. What’s interesting about the film, like all good science fiction, is that there are these social commentaries injected into the story, and there are a lot here, including messages about free expression, identity, class, and being labeled as something early in life. Which of the many that are dealt with in this story were the issues that you were most interested in addressing?
TJ: Like you said there are a lot of things that are relatable, but character-wise, I really related to this philosophical concept of openness to fear, and I love the Dauntless motto that no one is fearless. It’s about how you deal with fear and how you overcome it, which is a kind of interesting concept, because it’s true. It’s a very basic one in many ways, but it’s one that you don’t really think about. And I like the idea of this character, who is kind of a strong male character, but he is able to kind of wholly show his fears and say, “Yes, these are my fears. Of course I’m afraid; everyone has to be afraid. It’s just about how you get past it and how you deal with it.” And that is pertinent to everything we do.
SW: Specifically for me, I think DIVERGENT really represents a lot of things that are happening in today’s society, and I think finding those parallels and talking about those parallels are important. In DIVERGENT, there’s a genocide that begins, and there are genocides that are happening around the world right now. It also deals with somebody coming in and taking over land or space or peoples that they don’t have the right to, in the same way they came in and took over the Native Americans. In the same way when any country invades another country. I could go on; there are a lot of things that...
TJ: There's a military coup by Jeanine [played by Kate Winslet], and she has these like Gestapo parallels with the Aryan look. Also there’s the whole future environmental-depletion thing. Lake Michigan is dried up, resources were depleting.
Capone: The dilapidation of Chicago was particularly cool thing to see. Amidst all these high-stakes ideas is a very personal story about these two young people who are just trying to find themselves, and they have to figure out who they are, literally, before they can even really have a relationship. But I love that there’s a stand off-ish-ness about it, because they want to figure out who they are first.
SW: Which is so important, right? You can’t love anyone until you love yourself.
Capone: You never see that in a story about younger people. Usually it’s just like, "You’re handsome, you’re beautiful. Go!"
SW: [laughs] I think it was one of the biggest things that attracted both of us to the story initially was that their relationship is based on respect and trust and admiration of one another, and true pride in one another, verses the attraction, verses the co-dependency and the “I need you to need me” paradigm, which is just boring.
TJ: Yeah, I also think there’s a journey that they go on. They’re not really sure of each other in the beginning, and they have to learn trust. Even in the second book, there are things that infuriate the fuck out of them-- Sorry.
Capone: Go for it.
TJ: She’s a forever, self-sacrificing person, which infuriates him, although he respects her for it. It’s interesting.
Capone: Yeah. I’m a great admirer of Neil Burger, and I particularly like the smaller, intimate ones, and that seemed perfect for this. I know a lot of people were concerned that he hadn’t done anything on this scale, but really the scale is just the landscape for this relationship.
SW: It’s what you make it. The thing about working with Neil is he had a very precise idea of how he wanted everything to look, which for me, never having done a big film, it was nice having a director who visually knew what he wanted. So he could fill in the blanks when we were working with green screens, or we were working in environments that weren’t necessarily make sense when we were filming them. But we got to trust him because he knew exactly how it would be executed and how it would be edited together to make sense.
TJ: He also has impeccable taste, just generally, which helps, and as a result he was very open to collaboration with Shae and I. You could fall into certain traps, which we were concerned about doing this type of film. And he really fought against that in the best possible way in terms of never dumbing it down, making it hopefully as intelligent and intimate as possible. And there were scenes where we would work together and say, “This isn’t working for whatever reason. Let’s try and find something more interesting, or try to find the truth behind the message.”
Capone: They’re going to try to do one of these a year?
SW: I believe so.
Capone: So you start back up again, when?
SW: Later this year at some point.
TJ: They broke each book into seven movies. [laughs]
Capone: That’s the way they do it now I guess. Only three movies seems like under achieving almost. But seeing that crowd last night, and you were at Comic-Con last year, when you go into the second film, all of the expectations and all of the fandom demands and complaints, does that factor in at all? Or can you filter that out?
SW: I don’t think so at all. Both of us really, we’re the worst when it comes social media and keeping up with all that stuff. Neither of us ever really read articles.
TJ: You can’t. You really can’t, because it will mess with you. So as tempting as I’m sure it is, because it’s a human thing, you’ve got to cut it out.
SW: Yeah, you’ve got to hear your own voice.
Capone: It makes me think of theater actors who never read their reviews because they start changing their performance subconsciously.
TJ: Exactly. And also, for your own mental health.
SW: Your preservation of self.
Capone: You’ve got Kate Winslet and Ashely Judd in this, who are both first-class actors. When you have scenes with them, do you feel you’re game being upped as the day goes on? Kate Winslet is terrifying in this film, so quiet and cool.
SW: She’s strong, right? She is very intimidating--not as a human being, but as this character. She also is just such a freaking good actress, and she’s so on top of her shit. She comes prepared and she’s so professional and she loves to be on a movie set. So that in itself is a rarity among actors in a way. Somebody who truly loves the art of acting and who enjoys every single second of being on a set. And to couple her incredible talents with the fact that she’s been doing this forever, and we’ve seen a lot of her films.
TJ: Yeah, and she’s obviously done incredible work, and with 100 percent investment as well. I know that sound obvious.
SW: It doesn’t always happen.
TJ: Yeah, it doesn't always happen.
Capone: Was there a particular non-action scene, where you just really wanted to nail it and get the emotion right?
SW: Yeah, the scene where Tris’ mom passes away was really big for me, because Tris is in the middle of a war, and she's loosing the most important thing in her life in a sense. So I really wanted to bring justice to that moment for all the people who have lost a parent, or for all the people who have lost anyone in a war before. Right now, we’re in a war, and I can’t help thinking what that would feel like, coupled with the adrenaline of guns going off, and you fearing for your own life. That was a big one for me.
Capone: A lot of people cried last night in that scene.
TJ: It’s a great scene.
Capone: Well, that’s my time, guys. Thank you so much.
SW: Thank you. Good to see you again.
Capone: Good to see you. Maybe we’ll see you in Austin? Take care.