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Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, Miles Teller and more discuss the thrills of 'Divergent'

Maggie Q and Shailen Woodley
Maggie Q and Shailen Woodley
Summit Entertainment

“Divergent” (directed by Neil Burger and based on the best-selling book series by Veronica Roth) is an action-adventure film set in a world (specifically, a dystopian Chicago) where people are divided into distinct factions based on human virtues. Tris Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) is warned she is Divergent and will never fit into any one group. When she discovers a conspiracy by a faction leader (played by Kate Winslet) to destroy all Divergents, Tris must learn to trust in the mysterious Four (played by Theo James), and together they must find out what makes being Divergent so dangerous before it's too late.

Ben Lloyd-Huges, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Amy Newbold, Christian Madsen, Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, Ben Lamb and Miles Teller at the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference for "Divergent" in San Diego
Ben Lloyd-Huges, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Amy Newbold, Christian Madsen, Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, Ben Lamb and Miles Teller at the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference for "Divergent" in San Diego
Carla Hay

Regardless of how people feel about the movie, “Divergent” (which is also an IMAX film) stays very faithful to Roth’s book of the same name. Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty co-wrote the “Divergent” screenplay. In July 2013, public got a sneak preview of clips from “Divergent” at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Several stars from “Divergent” held a press conference at Comic-Con. Here is what Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Ben Lamb, Ansel Elgort, Christian Madsen and Amy Newbold said at the press conference.

Can each of you talk about what it was like to work with Neil Burger?

Lloyd-Hughes: Neil Burger, I loved his film "Limitless." I went to see it in the cinema and then I watched it again once I knew I had this job.

I was so excited to work with him because I thought he was so right for the story and for what he could bring to it with his artistic vision which we saw in him. He had such a strong, unique vision for some of the shots and the way he told the story.

That was great, and then his vibe on set was totally chill. I think he has Hawaiian roots or background and he had such a laid back aura throughout. He never changed. He never lost his sense of calm, and I really appreciated what he did. Good luck matching that, guys!

Madsen: I think Neil’s a very stylized director. He’s very professional. We were in good hands because we saw his last films, so they speak for themselves, like “Limitless.” It’s just beautiful to look at. To explain Neil in a sentence or whatever, if you’re having a conversation with Neil and a car accident happens next to you, he’s not going to leave icon tracks.

He’s so focused. There would be times when we’d be on set and we didn’t know what to do, and Neil was always there to guide us. We were in good hands. To have ["Divergent" producers] Doug [Wick] and Lucy [Fisher] and everybody, it was just a pretty magical experience.

Teller: To add a little to what Chris was saying, there are only a certain amount of directors who can handle an $8 million film, whatever the final numbers are, I forget. It said $8 million on Solange. Before you do a movie like this, you know, he hadn’t had that kind of experience.

He showed that he can build that world in “Limitless.” “Limitless” looked a lot bigger than what the budget was on it. Neil’s got a great eye. We had really great cameramen. I think people are going to be pretty excited about the world that he created once they see it.

Phifer: I concur. I think Neil is wonderful. He’s definitely a visionary and a man who knows what he wants, but still allows you to bring your input to the table to create something magical. I like to call him the man of a thousand takes.

The editor has got no problems. Neil’s a great guy. Kudos to Lucy and Doug. They were the backbone of the production. We all had a great time and learned a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing the final product.

Elgort: As an actor, you want a director who makes you feel comfortable in a place that you can really create and try a lot of different things. Neil always made me feel like I could create and try a scene in many different ways, and I felt like he was always on my side as a director.

Maggie Q: To Neil’s credit, there’s a lot of us here, and not even all of us are here, you have a lot of different actors at different levels and different ages, and different this and different that, and that’s hard. There are moments where I actually feel bad for somebody who has to deal with all of us, because we all have our own ideas about what we want to do and we feel strongly about certain things. He was very kind and diplomatic in that process, and that can be very frustrating.

I’m sure he wanted to punch us all in the face at some point, when we were trying to develop what we were doing and going back and forth and back and forth. That is the process, and it can sometimes be painful. But for somebody to handle all that coming at him the way that he did made me really like him and respect him a lot in that sense for sure.

Lamb: Sometimes when you have a director who does have such a strong visual idea, often they won’t necessarily be so interested in the acting side. But I think what’s quite unusual about Neil is that every single note that he gives will ameliorate your performance. It just gets better and better with every note that he gives.

For Miles and anyone else in the cast, have you had a chance to talk to any of your colleagues who have also been part of a literary franchise about what their experience was like and how it affected their personal life?

Teller: I have a lot of friends so I have a lot of people to talk to. I have a buddy or two from the “Twilight” franchise, and they said your life does change. Shailene [Woodley] is realizing that for the first time. She just got done filming a day or two ago. It’s big for all of us, but for Shailene to be the face of this franchise and come down to Comic Con and see the big poster and see all the people here and how big this thing could get.

We obviously have no idea, but if it does go like some of these other franchises have gone, you are trading in a lot of your personal life. There are going to be people taking pictures of you and it does change. At the same time, you want your work to be seen. It’s a trade-off, but I think we’re all happy to be a part of “Divergent.” It’s something that we’ll look back on with a lot of good memories.

What were some of your concerns approaching this material and keeping the fans happy?

Lloyd-Hughes: We have respect for their appreciation of the book and we loved the project. We all had unique characters that were loved for their own different reasons. I know when I read the book, it said that Will was blonde, and I’m not blonde, so that was something I had to get through.

And hopefully, the fans, because certain franchises had an amazing fan base, can watch the film and be happy with what’s been done. Everyone was cast here for how well they worked the character. That was an amazing thing that the producers and the director did which was to cast the right actor, the best actor, for the role, rather than just some cool actors who would be good to have in the film. Hopefully, the character portrayal will come out right.

Miles, you and Shailene played boyfriend and girlfriend in “The Spectacular Now.” In terms of what you guys did in that movie and your relationship there, what of it did you bring to this film?

Teller: Well really, this movie is just a continuation of our last movie. It’s just like you’re in love one minute and then the next minute you’re out of love. We’re falling in and out of love. No.

Shailene is a great actress and I think that for your love interest there are only a certain amount of actresses maybe that I’ve had a chance to work with, and I’m lucky that it’s been Shailene for two of these movies. She’s one of the most talented actresses around and it’s easy. She’s just very pretty and very comfortable with Teller. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about it. No, but she’s great and I’m in love with her.

For Mekhi, many people know you from “ER” which you were on for several years. What made you decide to go into this genre of fantasy films?

Phifer: I wish it was as simple as me deciding, but they decided for me. It’s a great genre to be a part of and to have a film of this magnitude in this genre. I have a 14-year-old son who has never been excited about anything I’ve ever done in the past except bringing home a check so he can go to Disneyland.

But he’s really a fan of the book “Divergent,” and I feel really excited about that. One of the many things that motivated me to be excited about it was that he was actually going to be excited about something that I did. So, he’s part of that motivation.

Did you have a chance to work at all when “Divergent” author Veronica Roth was there on set? How much did she help inform each of you in some capacity about things because she has in her head how these stories will go?

Madsen: I think it helped a lot having Veronica on set with us. We were able to stay as true to the book as we could. For any situation, to have the person that created the material to take that journey with you, it helps a lot. But also, she was open to us finding our own way in some of the characters. It was really helpful.

Lloyd-Hughes: It was amazing that she was invited to be a part of it and not left out, but she was also, in my mind, very respectful of the fact that this was a film being made and she wasn’t going to start giving notes or leaving things in our trailers about how she’d like to give us some notes that will … Miles, if you want to take over right here and provide the back story.

Teller: Veronica came on set one day. We all met her for the first time, and then Ben Lloyd-Hughes goes back to his trailer at the end of the day and found a card in there and it says, “Dearest Ben, It was such a pleasure meeting you. You’re such a lovely young man. I would love to get a drink and talk further about your character. Love, Veronica.”

And there was her phone number. Well, the phone number was my buddy’s phone. And Ben thought his character was coming back to life and I felt really bad because … Veronica’s note suggested he was going to have a spin-off … and then I felt bad because…

Kravitz: He was waiting for her.

Teller: I felt bad.

Kravitz: I didn’t feel bad at all.

Teller: Anyway, Veronica was really great to have on set. I mean, it is. If you’re going to put something on screen like “Divergent,” it’s great that the author was on set, because a lot of times, once a book is being made into a movie, that author is not really on set. Now it’s our story. But I think we were very lucky to have her. I know I picked her brain as much as I could.

Can you give us specific examples of any insights she gave you?

Teller: No, I can’t.

Lloyd-Hughes: You did ask her one question. Remember? You did ask her one question which was, who did she regret killing off?

Teller: Right. And she said your character. And now was when I felt like a balloon in a comic because I’ve got you thinking you’re coming back to life.

Lloyd-Hughes: I want it know that Zoe Kravitz was the one with a conscience who finally revealed that it was a prank.

Teller: She was the snitch.

Lloyd-Hughes: Credit has to be assigned.

Ansel, when you realized that you were going to be partnered with Shailene Woodley for not just in one movie but in two [“Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars”] , what was the first thing that went through your mind?

Elgort: I was really excited because “The Fault in Our Stars” is a really good story. It’s one of my favorite books that I ever read. And I loved working with Shai on “Divergent,” and I was excited to be able to do more projects with her. It was a shame that I was only able to do one thing. It was like she was and probably is at this point the best actress I’ve ever worked with. So I know we’re both very excited about doing “The Fault.”

“Divergent” is a story that doesn’t have vampires or werewolves or zombies. What makes it important to tell this story?

Newbold: Something that’s really awesome about “Divergent” is that it is about young people and gives importance to the decisions that they make. Sometimes teenagers or young adults tend to maybe get brushed to the side a little bit, not given the power that they actually do hold, or not acknowledged for the power that they hold.

I like that about the story. I think it’s important because maybe we’re not so far away from the world of “Divergent” which tends to compartmentalize people a little bit or make them one dimensional in our minds and they’re just not. It’s a beautiful thing that Veronica has created, to start an outlet to talk about those things.

Can you talk about something that happened in your life or maybe an experience that changed your lives and made you go in a different direction or take a new path?

Lloyd-Hughes: For me, personally, I remember the decision that I made as a young person to become an actor. It was something that when I read the story and when I read the script, I realized that in a way I had made a life-changing decision about my future, about what I wanted to be, and about not going to place at a university.

I did not go to university. I went a different way, a completely different path. That’s something that all young people do in some shape or form, whether it’s a small decision or big decision, and that’s why the story can be so powerful to so many people because we’ve all had those moments at some point.

Newbold: I think it’s cool too because a lot of us, for me at least, I was on a completely different path before I entered this film and got this part. Being in a cast of people who are younger and relatively new, it was cool to be alongside them and having similar experiences. I was a nursing student and I was working at my church.

My story is not dissimilar to some of the other people at this table. It was just a complete shift, a change in our lives because of this opportunity. That’s been cool.

Maggie, can you talk about how different this character is compared to other roles you’ve played that are cool and sexy?

Maggie Q: Sexy? I don’t do any action in this film. It’s really funny because Ansel, was it me and you? We were on the carpet and somebody said, “So Maggie, we know you do action in this, but Ansel, did you ever get to do anything?” And he’s like, “I do,” and I was like, “I don’t do anything.” It was like the complete opposite.

This was a nice kind of departure. I’m sure there will be action in the future, in the second one, whatever. It was funny because I didn’t want to get involved in something that was action heavy after 10 months out of the year doing action all the time. It’s not because I don’t love it, but just because it’s a box. I’m climbing out of it, but it’s a little deep. When I actually read the script, I was shocked and happy that it was just straight drama, and no action, none of that, and having to do with what the character sort of encompassed.

There was a strength and a toughness to her, but it’s something very internal. She’s very much a product of her circumstance, so that’s where that survivor thing comes and you see it. I hope we gear up for a second one. It’s really funny because I was training to do this film for the look of it, because I wanted Tori to look muscle-y.

It’s so vain and weird for me to train to look a certain way, because I only train for a result to be good at something. I’ve never trained just to look a certain way. It’s really odd. But yeah, it’s been a nice departure for me and I’m actually thrilled at the opportunity.

Teller: I only train to look good? That’s terrific.

Maggie Q: What happened?

As an actor, how is it to be a part of Veronica Roth’s creative world as opposed to standing out? How do you approach that?

Teller: This is interesting because it is rare, for me anyway. It’s weird to be in such a big group. You look down here and it’s a lot of guys that are all about the same age and all your characters have their storyline. But at the same time, for a lot of this stuff, we’re part of this initiation. We’re part of an ensemble training program. So that was cool.

It reminded me of high school theater when you’re all the same age and you’re playing dads and moms and this and that, but you do have that kind of ensemble feel. Usually for movies, if you’re that guy at that age, you’re probably the only one. For this, it was all of us there and we trained together and sweat together. It was all fun.

Lamb: I think it was said that the characters are so well defined that in fact you’re not thinking about how you’re going to stand out. You’re thinking about how you’re going to play the character to the best of your ability, and you can only do that with really good writing, which I think this is.

For all of you, if “Divergent” is a really big hit, are we going to see more?

Elgort: I’m psyched! Yeah. Also, because we met all these awesome people, like I only got to work with Kate Winslet for two days, yet I really enjoyed both those days. I know if there’s a sequel, then we’ll do more work together. [SPOILER ALERT] I’m sad that my mom and my dad die in this, because I really liked working with Tony [Goldwyn] and Ashley [Judd], so that’s too bad. I don’t get to work with them anymore, but I’m looking forward to working with Kate again.

Teller: Not everybody on this panel lives, so that’s a loaded question. But I’m excited!

For more info: "Divergent" website