UTG Interview: Maggie Q And Mekhi Phifer Talk ‘Divergent’


Today is the day readers of young adult fantasy fiction have been anxiously awaiting since the release of Catching Fire in November 2013. Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James, opens nationwide today after a seemingly never-ending press blitz with the hopes of becoming the next great teen franchise. Whether or not it lives up to the hype is a discussion for another time, but right now we have an exclusive look at the process of creating a tentpole teen fantasy as told by two of the film’s biggest stars.

Earlier this month, Divergent cast members Maggie Q and Mekhi Phifer stopped in Boston to discuss their roles in the highly-anticipated adaptation. UTG was invited to attend the event, and we have collected highlights from our conversation with the pair below.

This conversation is a bit longer than some of our recent interviews, but I promise it’s worth the time required to read it. Divergent is sure to be everywhere in the media for the next several days, but no news story is going to offer the type of insight and hilarity provided by Maggie and Mekhi in this interview. Clear a little personal time in your schedule and dive in. When you’re finished, click here and buy tickets to see Divergent this weekend at the theater nearest you.

Question: Like some viewers that are going to watch the film, I had no knowledge about the book itself. When did you both become aware of it?

Mekhi Phifer: I never heard of the book until it came across my desk before shooting. My son, who is 14, knew about the book before I did. This is the first project in my career that he has been excited for.

Q: How much pressure did you feel to translate these characters onto the screen knowing the large fan base? Did you feel pressure from there that detracted you from making these characters your own?

Maggie Q: I didn’t, is that an answer? Mekhi and I were saying as actors all you can really do is allow as much truth from the book to the adaptation on the screen and do your job the best that you can. Outside of that, no one is going to be totally happy. That is our responsibility, though, to allow that truth. They seriously casted this film, they really were focused on getting the parts right.

Q: Just like Twilight, and The Hunger Games, there is this heaping amount of reliance on the actors to get a beloved story right, did you or do you feel that crushing amount of pressure and fame on your shoulders?

MP: I don’t know if you are ever fully prepared for that [pressure], there are so many variables to that. I remember right after we finished filming the movie we went to Comic-Con in San Diego and to see that fanfare there was something else. The film hadn’t even come out yet and all we had was a loosely put together trailer. The fanfare there was craziness. There were 8,000 people there, we signed autographs and walked the floor and did that whole thing. We will just take it all in stride I think, this is what we do and we will move accordingly.

MQ: But, we have not been in this position before, that’s for sure.

MP: Obviously, we have had illustrious careers (instigating laughter). This is my first time doing a film where there is a sequel and that stuff goes along with it. I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction.

MQ: I mean, we are used to doing adult films. Well, not exactly adult films! We do porn [kiddingly]. For me, it is weird for kids to be excited. That’s a trip, when 11-year-olds say, “I can’t wait.” Then I say, “How do you know me?!?” All of the movies I do are more adult.

Q: Do you ever feel blessed to be in a production with this rampant of a fan base?

MP: We’re here [in Boston] and we’re going to different cities. It definitely is a blessing to be in something of this magnitude, there is no question about that. People have worked their whole careers and never get the chance to do a film as big as this one. I know this is the biggest film of my career, budget-wise. Production value was crazy, hundreds of extras every day.

Q: You both had small roles in the films, did they (casting directors) tell you to stick around for a sequel and then you would get more screen time?

MP and MQ: They did say that!

MP: That is part of that sequel sort of thing, re-establishing some of the characters. We follow Shailene and Theo on this journey [in the first film] and you kind of sprinkle these characters in, to see who they are. I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the next one.

Q: Similar to other franchises like this one, this film could be one and done. Did you ever feel that pressure going into the project?

MP: Anytime you step into anything, just like the Twilight films, you never know if it will be only that one film. In Star Wars, they thought George Lucas was going to be laughed out of the business and that became one of the biggest franchises of all time. So, you never really know until you get to release.

MQ: I felt that too, they were talking to us saying stuff like, “Are you ready for this?” I would just say, “am I ready for what? It hasn’t been on my mind at all.”

Q: Apparently Theo James and Shailene Woodley had great chemistry on set; can you talk about that and what it was like as a whole cast coming together?

MP: I didn’t have a bunch of scenes with them but you can’t pull it off without good chemistry, they seemed very friendly with each other.

MQ: I don’t feel like they had more chemistry than everyone had with one another, the chemistry across the board was pretty good. I didn’t see anything particularly more exciting than the chemistry between everyone else.

Q: I know a lot of these franchises have a boot camp of sorts; did you have one of those before filming?

MP and MQ: Not for us.

MP: For everyone else, I believe there was. Fight choreography and everything.

MQ: This isn’t really an action film, to be very honest. I’ve done action films and this is definitely not one. I knew the stunt coordinators. There is some fighting, which is nice just to push the story forward, but it is not action oriented or anything. So, I don’t know if they exactly had a boot camp or anything. The second one there will be a lot more [to train for].

MP: They did have to do some fight choreography; I think Theo [James] told me that.

Q: Mekhi, it seemed like most of your scenes were alongside Jai Courtney (best known for A Good Day to Die Hard, and Jack Reacher), what was it like performing beside him? I know that he just booked the lead role as John Connor in Terminator: Genesis.

MP: He’s a great guy; he was a real cool cat. We hung out on the set a lot and just chatted it up. I really liked the guy.

MQ: He’s really talented too and unexpectedly so because he is such a laid back Australian nice guy. He really did a great American accent and has a cool look in the film.

Q: Why do you think this film is going to be so big and special; what is the message it gives to the viewers?

MQ: I actually think the strength of this film is not about powerful women. It’s not one of those strong women porn films [much laughter ensues]. It all comes back to porn, doesn’t it? [much more laughter]

I think the strength of the Tris character and really the strength that all of the characters have when they are extremely vulnerable is great. I felt that the film has real emotional beats, it really does. I was very moved by some of the stuff. The true strength even from my character is when they can step down a little bit and decide to actually have an experience with someone else and let them in emotionally. I don’t think anyone in the film is trying to flex how strong they are except for the men, you know, because it’s very male.

I love that it is a coming of age story for her [Tris], which is odd because it is so dark for this kind of film. We are the John Hughes generation for coming of age films. We live in the now, the young generation where everything is so heightened. It was really great storytelling, I just feel like I was watching this experience with all of these people and it culminates to something where I personally couldn’t wait to see what happens next.

Q: It was heard that the director, Neil Burger, was not shy on takes. How was your experience with him?

MP: Who told you that! You can have a lot of takes on TV as well. I mean TV is a little more under the gun where you don’t have as much leeway on things. A lot of times, the core cast of a TV show already knows their characters. When I was doing ER, I personally did not need a lot of takes because I knew who Dr. Pratt was. We’d have guest directors and sometimes I would just tell them to point the camera. But, on something like this with Neil [Burger], there were a lot of takes. Again, we called him the man of a thousand takes. But, that shows how passionate he was about getting the right stuff on screen and making a special project come to life. Hey, they are paying us to be there! As long as the check clears!

MQ: I like when I’m not sure about if our processes are similar or different [referring to directors in general]. Sometimes you can arrive on set and you feel that your processes are in tune and it still doesn’t turn out well. There are other times where your processes don’t match up and you come out saying, “Hey! That was a great education.”

Q: Mekhi, you mentioned your 14-year-old son being familiar with the series, how did he feel when you got cast?

MP: He was happy about it. He knew about the series kind of the same way that kids know about the, Harry Potter, books. It is the first movie in my career that he has ever been happy about besides from spending my money! He is excited though; he is coming to the premiere with me as well.

Q: Do you get any action figures out of your characters in the film?

MQ: We should! Let’s call Lionsgate!

MP: At least a LEGO figure, come on!

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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