I had very specific and different reasons for wanting to interview both DIVERGENT author Veronica Roth and actor Ansel Elgort, who plays Caleb, twin brother of Shailene Woodley's Tris character in the film version of the novel. Caleb, like his sister, leaves the comforts of their parents' faction in a Chicago 100 years in the future to join another faction--his based on intelligence, hers on fight training.
Roth and I went to the college, Northwestern University, 20 years apart. She graduated from the school's creative writing program in 2010 at the age of 21, and wrote the first of what became a trilogy while she was a senior, and actually signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins before she graduated. Are you feeling my first question to her forming itself?
Elgort is a rising young actor whose first four films are: the CARRIE remake (he plays the Tommy Ross character that William Katt played in the original); DIVERGENT; the June release THE FAULT IN OUR STARS in which he and Woodley play young lovers; and Jason Reitman's next film, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, based on the Chad Kultgen novel. So really, he's living about as charmed a life as Roth is. For both, they came out of the game with high-profile projects and will likely continue to do so for at least two more movies, INSURGENT and ALLEGIANT.
They were lovely people to talk to, but my envy at Roth's dedication and good fortune could not be held back. And she went with it beautifully. Plus, she and her husband still live in Chicago and will one day probably be able to buy and sell my ass, so I had to be nice to her. Please enjoy my chat with Veronica Roth and Ansel Elgort
Capone: So Veronica, I went to Northwestern too, for journalism at Medill. This is a question that has been burning in my skull since I first heard about your books: How the hell did you find time when you were still a student to write the first book? I was so busy all four years. Did you have a lighter class load during your senior year, or are you a classic over-achiever?
Veronica Roth: [laughs] Right, well you were busier then I was. Medill is very intense. Really, it’s more intense than what I was doing. But I found time in very uncool ways--by staying home when other people were going out to have fun. And also, my senior year there, I took a lighter course load, because I had a bunch of AP credits from high school. So, I got kind of lucky that way.
Capone: Yeah, I tried to do that too my senior year. It didn't work out so well. It felt like I was still overloading my brain.
VR: I’m sure you were. I had some friends who were in Medill, but I barely ever saw them because they were always like, “Ugh.” [she pretends to pull her hair out]
Capone: The wonderful thing about these stories is that there are these very high-stakes ideas at play, like all good science fiction. They are very relevant to today’s society. There are ideas of free will and identity, leadership. Were these ideas swarming around your head even as a college student?
VR: Oh, I don’t know. Classically, dystopia works by taking something we’re already experiencing and exaggerating it until we become afraid of it, like Big Brother today. But for me, I was so young when I wrote this book--I’m still too young to know that much about the world, and I decided I can’t critique society. The only think I can critique is myself, and so the factions and that whole system are really a way of exploring my own assumptions about people and my tendency to categorize them and how that affects my ability to be compassionate. The process of writing a series, I think it made me a little bit of a better person--at least I hope it did. I was exploring all these issues because they’re very important to me. I don’t know, it’s very individual I guess is what I’m saying.
Capone: This is also a very intimate story about these two people who just need to figure out who they are before they can even have a relationship, let alone save society. There’s actually that moment--and it’s wonderfully done in the film--where they have to step back a little from what’s happening between them chemically, because they just really need to figure out what they’re going to do. Love yourself before you love someone else. Talk about that aspect of the stories.
VR: Well yeah, especially for Caleb and Tris. The central characters are Tris and Four, but I think Caleb and Tris have an extremely interesting arc, figuring out how you can still be family when you’ve made drastically different decisions with your life.
Ansel Elgort: Yeah, especially in this world. The motto is "Faction before Blood," so there’s a scene in Erudite where Beatrice comes to Caleb, the first time they’ve seen each other since they’ve gone their separate ways, and she says she thinks that Erudite is up to something, and Caleb is like, “Excuse me? Yeah, we are up to something. We’re going to try to take over the government, because we should be in charge of the government.” She’s like, “Your parents are in charge of the government.” And he’s like, “They shouldn’t be.” It’s faction over blood.
VR: It’s very intense.
AE: It is intense. And that’s why I was drawn so much to Caleb. There’s a lot of conflict there, especially between him and his sister in a dystopian world, in a different place. But in real life too, you go your separate ways and you’ve got these ideals, and it can tear a family apart and get in the way of relationships.
VR: I really like the idea of the personal is the political. And obviously that applies drastically in these situations, but I really like it, because through these relationships and the small moments between them, you get to know like exactly what’s wrong with the world around them, and it’s the best way of showing what’s flawed about the system, by showing what happens to Tris and Caleb, and what happens to a lot of the other characters too.
Capone: This has been a heck of a year for you, Ansel. How do you keep your head on straight with all of this? Everything you’re in is going to be seen.
AE: You have to keep a cool head. Everything’s moving pretty fast, and you just have to keep it on forward. I didn’t make my graduation from high school because I went off to shoot CARRIE. I was happy I got to finished high school, but I didn’t get to go to the cap-and-gown ceremony. But for good, and since CARRIE, it’s been pretty much non-stop, and I’m so fortunate. It’s awesome being a part of something like DIVERGENT too, and my next film THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, because these films have such built in fan bases, because of the stories that writers like Veronica have written, and these readers have connected so much to them, and now seeing that they’re going to be brought to life. They say, “I knew back when it was a book.” And people are proud of that. Also, they’re just excited to see it being brought to life.
Capone: I saw lots of girls at the premiere last night with physical books in their hands, which was nice to see. What was your response to seeing Chicago so dilapidated, the lake dried out? What is that like to see what you put down there in college brought to life?
VR: It’s extremely surreal. I didn’t really feel like I was watching my book become a movie for a long time. It took me until they showed this great shot of the Sears Tower, and then they went into the Choosing Ceremony, and for me the Choosing Ceremony is a big part of the story, because it’s when Tris self actualizes. She chooses to become the person that she want’s to become. It’s a big moment for her, and it’s the start of her journey. So I actually started crying because I was like, “Oh my god, it’s real and happening, and this is my book.” Also Tris is amazing; everything just hit me at once. I calmed down eventually, and then just watched the movie. But yeah, it was amazing.
Capone: You guys went to Comic-Con last year, and then seeing the crowd last night, when you begin moving forward with the next two parts, is it different now? Can you filter out the fan reactions and expectations?
VR: I think it’s kind of wait and see right now. Hopefully everyone likes it, and it does as well as they hope it will, and then we’ll see how it goes going forward. But I think it will be different to work on it.
AE: It seems like people are excited. Whether or not the film is the biggest film of the year or not, I’m sure it’s going to do pretty well, because it’s a good movie. It actually is just a very good movie. There are people excited about it, and if it isn’t a big global, big success, even those fans will be more excited, exuberant, and crazy when they see us. They’ll freaking yell and scream like they did last night, which was insane.
Capone: When does the next one get into gear for you?
AE: We don’t know. They're playing it by ear, but it’s supposed to be maybe May or June.
VR: One thing at a time.
Capone: Did they consult you at all while they were making the film, Veronica? How involved were you?
VR: No, they never did leave me out. I was not that interested in being like very involved because I like just don’t do movies. I write books, I love writing books, and anything that takes time away form that I’m like, okay maybe not. But I did make myself available and I talked to Neil Burger a lot about the world, because he needed to know what he could show around Tris, because it’s not always described in the book. He would ask me about certain changes, and the screenwriter Evan Daugherty, I talked to him a lot too. So, I was around, and they let me come on set, and they fed me Fruit Roll Ups, and it was a very good relationship. But I was working on the third book in the series, so I was mostly doing that.
Capone: Are you working on anything else right now?
VR: Well the collection of short stories written form Four’s perspective comes out in July; I’m finishing that right now.
Capone: Thank you both so much. It was great to meet you.