Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Earlier this month The Tech had the opportunity to interview Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q, who play characters Max and Tori in Divergent. The following questions from the college roundtable were asked by writers from Boston-area college newspapers, including The Tech. Divergent opens today.
Question: So both of you guys have played a multitude of roles — most notably Nikita, ER, Dawn of the Dead. What specific experience or past roles really helped you guys with this film?
Mekhi Phifer: Well I would think, you know, when you talk about a career and a body of work, I think they all help you to the next stage. Each film you learn something new. You deal with a whole different multitude of people on each project. That’s one thing that I really love about the film and television industry is that you get to meet so many people, so many diverse people that you would normally never come across in life.
To be able to learn from each project helps you take it to the next level, I mean you never really want to do a repeat performance of the same character so you always try to find creative ways of making this particular character different from this particular character. I think just us working, being blessed to be able to work and delve into different people, helps us sort of find nuances.
Maggie Q: Yeah build your base, right?
MQ: It’s really interesting. I played a mentor on my show but I was the mentor that was willing and able and eager and my student was not so — you know was a little resistant to it. In this, it’s the opposite. I’m the unwilling mentor and she [Tris] is after me trying to get information and I’m like “I just do tattoos, get out. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t know how to deal with you. I don’t want to be in your world because I know that world and it’s not okay.”
So that was interesting to sort of be the mentor that’s running from your student. It’s interesting, you know, because there is really a lot to build on, I think Mekhi and I both, in taking this first one [movie]. I think we both feel like we looked at the roles as something like a base to build from, into the next and the next. That’s what made it interesting for me.
MP: Yeah, likewise.
Q: Do you guys know what’s ahead for your characters? Or are you taking it one script at a time?
MP: One script at a time!
MQ: We are because you never know what the adaptation is going to be. So you really have to not get so married to the book because depending on how the film works out, some things they may pump up and others they may play down depending on, you know, if we suck they’re [not] gonna give us dialogue.
Q: So would you say that you’re pleased with the adaptation? Comparing it to the book?
MQ: I would say yes.
MP: I think it’s a fun ride.
MQ: They rocked it.
Q: Was it difficult sort of balancing between staying faithful to the book for the fans and also having that creative say?
MP: I think there’s a certain amount of artistic license that you’re given when you do adaptations. Obviously we can’t quote the book word for word. We have to sort of tweak it a little bit. But I think people will be pleasantly surprised and pleased by the book-to-film adaptation, what our creative forces put together.
MQ: I think a good indication too was that Veronica [the author of the Divergent series] was really happy. She was on set a lot, and she was really supportive of the process. The original, the script, that I got when I was reading with Shai [Shailene Woodley] it was funny because it was dialogue really taken from the book, and you know when you’re reading a novel people don’t necessarily speak that way — in novel language.
It is different. That’s why adaptations are so important because you are taking situations, scenarios and characters that in a novel are fine, but in everyday speak it’s sort of not the way it goes. When we were reading, Shai and I were laughing because it was so bad. I mean in the book it was perfect because she [Tori] needed to explain kind of where that came from.
Q: This cast was made up of a lot of up-and-coming stars, specifically Shailene Woodley. She is on fire right now. How would you describe working with her?
MP: It was great to work with everybody. I don’t think that anybody brought egos to the table or anything like that. I think everybody was really excited. Really wanted to make the best picture possible. I think Shailene is wonderful, she’s handling it all in stride. Like you said, she’s on fire. I mean she’s doing a lot right now and it’s well-deserved.
MQ: Yes, well-deserved. Good people. What I love about them casting her in this is that a lot of times when they do this franchise stuff, they’re looking for the next star. There’s different things that they look at. Some of them are shallow, some of them can be deeper decisions, but in this particular case this character was young and complex.
And those are two things that don’t go together generally, you know, looking at a teen star. But she is that; she is a very old soul. I had to keep reminding myself that she was twenty or whatever.
She’s very wise for her age and I think that really shows on screen. I don’t think that is really something that you can fake. I think that wisdom is sort of deep and is rooted in something. I’m just really happy for people who are making it that are good people and have the talent and the chops to deserve this.
MP: I caught myself a couple of times like — back to how youthful the cast was — you know, saying “Hey guys let’s go out for drinks... wait a minute, can everybody drink here?”
Q: Both of your characters were Dauntless.... Do you have any inclinations in real life to what faction you would identify with?
MQ: We’ve decided that we’re happy being with our faction.
MP: Yeah, we like Dauntless. You know, as you say in the film they’re the more carefree, edgy, fun, no inhibitions kind of folks. You see them catching the train and climbing up stuff — running and jumping and stop, dropping and rolling and all kinds of stuff. And they shoot guns. That looked like definitely more fun. If I had to choose a faction, that would be the faction I would go with.
MQ: Yeah, I mean it’s reckless and when do we ever get to celebrate that part of our personality? We don’t in this world... That recklessness has a place in that society and they’re all nuts, but it works.
Q: What if you were to create a new faction, would you have an idea of what that would be?
MP: I’ve never thought of that. You know, I might be Divergent. Yeah, I think I’d be Divergent. I think I would like to have characteristics of a lot of the different factions.
MQ: Yeah that would be fun. I mean isn’t that the goal really? Think about the metaphor for life, we all want to be all things, don’t we?
MP: Right. You want to be brave, you want to be smart, you want to be selfless when it comes to certain things. So, I think I would want to be a cross of all of that.
Q: Going back to your characters, what did you find most challenging about playing them? Was there anything that you really couldn’t relate to? Or found hard to portray on screen?
MP: No. Well with our characters in particular, we are establishing who we are. So we’re still finding that ourselves. Especially in this first one, you’re starting to kind of get into who these characters are. I’m looking forward to seeing what two [the second movie] brings to the table.
And then I can fully access it and that’s the thing about doing this, Maggie and I both talked about earlier. This is our first time doing a film that involves sequels and all this other stuff. So it’s interesting to see the character arc and where it’s going to go.
MQ: Yeah I’ve never looked at a script and kind of wanted to do it based on the future growth of it. You do that in television. You look at the character and where the opportunity is for growth in that person and can we bring a different not only dynamic but an arc to this person that will matter and that people will care about. So that was weird, getting scripts and going, “well you know, there’s this, this, and this” and it hasn’t happened yet. But you’re factoring that in now, during this decision.
MP: Well that is one thing that I do like about television. They have a thing that they call a Show Bible. So they’ll outline what the next couple of seasons are going to be. They’ll tell you, “in this season you’re gonna go from here to there” and then you can sort of move accordingly and know where you’re going to end up.
With this, this was very unique because we didn’t have that. At least for my character — we’re still growing. So we don’t know what to expect next.