Maggie Q & Mekhi Phifer :: Being ’Divergent’ in Hollywood
In a future world where people are separated into distinct factions based on their personalities, a young girl Tris (Shailene Woodley, "The Descendents," "The Spectacular Now") upon turning sixteen, must decide whether to leave her faction when a personality test is supposed to tell her which of the five factions to choose. The ties among faction members are to be stronger than that between family members. Tris’ results shows that she can be part of any three factions, making her a divergent, which is not the safest thing to be since "divergents" are said to pose a threat to the ruling elite. In choosing to leave her parents for the Dauntless faction -- the Adrenaline-junkies that supply security to a Dystopian Chicago of the next century. Tris also finds an ally in her instructor Four (British hunk Theo James, "Underworld: Awakening") and new friend Christina (Zoë Kravitz, "X-Men: First Class," "After Earth").
Adapted from the first of three YA novels by Veronica Roth, the film boasts of a young female lead being placed in a tough spot, then aided by a dreamy young man who also serves as the love interest. After the success of the "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" movies, Hollywood studios are keen to find their next big YA hit. Stakes are high after similar startups like "Beautiful Creatures" and "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" failed to make a splash at the box office.
Early reviews are mixed. The Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden opines, "Even with star Shailene Woodley delivering the requisite toughness and magnetism, the clunky result is almost unrelentingly grim." Todd Gilchrist of The Playlist agrees that the strength of the movie lies in its casting, "Woodley makes for more than uncertain enough of a hero to add detail and meaning to the implosion of this world. Not unlike ’The Hunger Games’ actress Jennifer Lawrence, there’s little artifice to her performance, and the mundane honesty of her reactions create a believability that the world would otherwise lack."
Playing Tris’ adversary as she trains to join the Dauntless faction is Aussie hottie Jai Courtney. Also in a key roles are Miles Teller, Woodley’s co-star from "The Spectacular Now;" Ansel Elgort as her twin brother; Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd as her parents, and Kate Winslet as a devious leader of a faction that sets out to take over the leadership of the city.
And key members of the Dauntless faction are played by a well cast Maggie Q ("Nikita," "Mission Impossible III") who plays Tori, and becomes Tris’ reluctant mentor; and Mekhi Phifer ("House of Lies," "ER") who plays Max, a Dauntless commander.
EDGE talks with Maggie Q and Mekhi Phifer about their roles and overcoming adversities in Hollywood on a press tour.
EDGE: With this first movie in the trilogy focusing on introducing the key players, we are still learning more about your characters. What do you bring to your roles?
Mekhi Phifer: We are still in the process of bringing it. When you are doing a sequel-based sort of film, we do not even know where our characters are necessarily going yet. (The second film in the trilogy "Insurgent" is slated for release in March, 2015 and the third "Allegiant" in March, 2016) We are sort of flying by the seat of our pants, using all of our expertise and our experience to make our characters unique and memorable.
Maggie Q: Tori is a very interesting, mysterious kind of character. For me, when we were making the film, Mekhi and I were talking about toeing the line with the director and actually allowing his vision and your vision to happily dovetail into something that you are both happy with. There is a thing of where she is unwilling to act as mentor to Tris (Woodley); but I do not want to seem too cold and too aloof (which she may seem). There has to be something about that coldness that is rooted in something deeper, which we find out later. Tori is not tough by choice. She is tough by circumstance. It is the things in life that harden her. That is a lot deeper than just being a bitch. That is a whole different deal. You really have to find those nuances.
EDGE: How does the theme of being hunted down for being different resonate with you?
Maggie Q: The concept of being all things and not being celebrated, something that the powers that be or the government wants to repress because of the control, is a sort of sad state of affairs. So ’Divergent’ is sort of a weird fantasy -- a warning of that. (There are) Lots of things you can get from it depending on what you want to get out of it. In some form, this film is a nice parallel celebrating being all things, and not being put in a box. I think for both Mekhi and I there have been times in our lives and careers when that box is very real.
Mekhi Phifer: I agree wholeheartedly. When you look at films that sort of deal with the themes of society and government, they can be anything from ’The Hunger Games’ to ’Terminator,’ where we sort of show the future -- what it could possibly be -- and it really makes you think. We all like the technological advances, but when do they go too far? Take, for example, the government surveying us. On one hand, it makes us feel safe because of insurgence and terrorists and things like that; on the other hand, our privacy is being tapped into. So it sort of gives you the dichotomy of thought when you walk away from it and really can analyze what surrounds you. It can affect you.
Maggie Q: This film is like a magnified microcosm of what is actually happening, the measure of control that they have is overt in the film, but they have that control now. They are just not talking about it.
EDGE: Do you feel that you are being put in a specific box in Hollywood?
Maggie Q: I do not want to make it exclusive to being an actress, because we all deal with it in different walks of life. I am sure you in your career, friends and everyone in this room at some point has dealt with that box. And I think that Hollywood is Hollywood that is for sure, but I think at any point, being a minority in this business, the box is bigger for you, or there are more boxes to put you in. It is always trying to fight to get out of that box and sort of create and do things that are different than what people expect of you because of what they perceive you to be. That is always a challenge, for any actor, to forget being a minority. When you are minority, it is magnified in that way.
Mekhi Phifer: In a certain respect, perception is reality. When people perceive you in a certain way, that is their reality; and if you are a power that makes the decisions, you may have a project and say, ’I did not see an Asian woman or Black man doing that. In my mind, I saw a white guy or an Indian,’ you can try to break out of being pigeonholed and become universal.
EDGE: Do you feel that you are constantly pushing the boundaries for yourself?
Mekhi Phifer: I started my career out in Spike Lee’s movie ’Clockers’ playing a drug dealer, but a very complex sort of drug dealer. I have since done an array of roles from playing a doctor, to CIA, FBI, all sorts of things. When you let the talent be at the forefront, it is harder for people to pigeonhole you because you can do these diverse things, living life and knowing a lot of people. As an actor, we draw from all the people we meet and all the experiences that we encounter. For ourselves, we are always pushing the envelope and we are not shying away from anything.
EDGE: Is it a constant fight for you in Hollywood?
Maggie Q: Absolutely, I think we all are to be honest. It is sort of unfair, even if I were a white girl with blue eyes and blond hair, there is a lot of those in Hollywood, then you have that obstacle if you were that person. So we all have our own mountains to climb, but it is a cool thing to climb that mountain in Hollywood. Mekhi has a very diverse career, so he is a very good example of what it means to not be put in a box. He has really made cool and interesting choices and so that is the kind of career you really admire and want. We have been on this tour and people were saying Mekhi, ’we love you in this, this and this,’ and all the things they are saying to him is different, which is really cool and something I love. The important thing is that we have the opportunities to make better decisions about where our careers are going and whether they are diversified. I think I have been very blessed to be in this position because I am a fighter at heart. I am up for the fight of changing perceptions about my community, and for actresses in the field.
EDGE: Do you see that the role of Asian women in Hollywood has changed over time?
Maggie Q: Well, it is an interesting question because it has changed, but I think for Asian Americans, it changes a lot slower. Unfortunately, we are not a culture of people who are very outspoken in the way that we fight for things, in the way we conduct ourselves. The fight is (sort of) more quiet. Whereas I have seen different minorities in the business go, ’Hey we deserve that role,’ and are very outspoken about it. Asians do not do that. Asians are like, ’what are they going to offer me?’ But it is not about what are they going to offer me, it is about what are you going to take. That is really how the attitude has to change.
EDGE: How has your experience in Hollywood been?
Maggie Q: It has changed since I have been doing it for the last ten years, but it only really has taken a turn say in the last three or four years. The perceptions are coming down a little, where you can walk into a room and say, exactly like what Mekhi said, ’I realize this script is for the Kate Hudsons of the world, but if you change your perception a tiny bit, you can see that it opens up.’ When I got my show ("Nikita" ran for four seasons from 2010 to 2013 on the CW network), i was the first Asian American to ever star on a broadcast drama ever. That was bananas to me because there are so many quality Asians out there but they just never gave them the lead. So it’s changing, and now that we have proven ourselves in that space, we have got to keep going with it, keep knocking on people’s doors, and say this has to be different. That is the only way it is going to change.
EDGE: What would you say to aspiring young minority actors who are working to get their break?
Maggie Q: You have to have a confidence and fight in you, no matter who you are. If there is a box waiting for you, you need to know that that challenge is going to be tougher than challenges that perhaps other people are facing, but the truth is everybody has their own challenges. So go into a room and change minds, change perceptions, but do it with your talent. Don’t do it with an argument that you deserve something just because you have not had the opportunity. Earn it based on what you have to offer.
"Divergent" opens on March 21.