'Divergent' introduces a new teen heroine in Shailene Woodley

Zoe Kravitz as Christina and Shailene Woodley stars

Zoe Kravitz as Christina and Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice 'Tris' Prior in "Divergent," directed by Neil Burger. In theaters March 21, 2014. (Credit: Summit Entertainment / Jaap Buitendijk)

The fashion accessory du jour for young actresses in Hollywood is the multipicture, action-movie franchise: Jennifer Lawrence has one ("Hunger Games"). Lily Collins has one ("Mortal Instruments"). Kristen Stewart had one ("Twilight"). Diamonds used to be a girl's best friend. Now, that friend is the lead character in a sci-fi/fantasy series, preferably set in a dystopian future.

 

SHE WON'T BE TYPECAST

What does the future portend for Shailene Woodley? "Divergent," the first in her three-thriller series opens Friday, and the anticipation (fueled by enormous online hype) is fierce. The young actress already has made something of a name for herself, albeit in such low- velocity, mayhem-free projects as "The Descendants," "The Spectacular Now" and TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." If "Divergent" is a success, which it seems poised to be -- isn't there a danger she could wind up pigeonholed as Beatrice "Tris" Prior, the film's problematically complex hero?

"No way, man," the 22-year-old California native said from Los Angeles. "I'm so sort of disconnected to that world I don't pay any attention to that. I'm in a hotel room now and doing a job, and afterward I'm going to go out and live my life with my friends."

Which is about the healthiest thing an L.A. actress has said since ... maybe ever. But couldn't the security of a mega-money action franchise also help her make any other movies she might conceivably want to make?

"I guess, that's what people say," Woodley agreed. "I didn't think of it that way, but if 'Divergent' does well, it could make films that would have been harder to make easier. But that's not what I focused on. I fell in love with the story and the character, and that's what I'm into."

Veronica Roth's novels ("Divergent," "Insurgent," "Allegiant") as well as the movie are set in a Chicago of the future. The society is divided into five factions, whose members dedicate themselves to a particular virtue. They are Dauntless (bravery), Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (peacefulness) and Candor (honesty). Beatrice has been born into an Abnegation family, but when she undergoes the testing required of all young Chicagoans, she shows an aptitude for three separate groups -- Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite. Which is very rare. And very dangerous.

 

ASHLEY JUDD IS THE MOM

Beatrice changes her name to Tris when she decides to join Dauntless, and the level of violence she experiences during her initiation is not what one would have found in, say, an Ashley Judd thriller of the '90s. But it's easy enough to imagine Judd -- who plays Tris' mother -- with her own girl-driven action franchise, had they been as popular then as now.

"I like to think so," Judd said. "It's very flattering, but I like to think so." She said that while preparations for "Divergent" were very "cloak and dagger," what she finally found was material that was "remarkable sci-fi with this journey of discovery at the center of it."

What Roth lays out in her novels, intentionally or not, Judd said, parallels what psychologist Abraham Maslow asserted in his 1943 "A Theory of Human Motivation": Everything we do serves an essential human need, ranging from the very basic (food, water) to the lofty (creativity). Which is how the actress views the behavior in "Divergent."

Like Judd, Tony Goldwyn, who plays her husband, finds the whole trend toward action-women movies encouraging.

"I think it means a lot, and it speaks to the world we're living in in a lot of ways, including what's happening on the TV show I'm a part of," Goldwyn said, referring to "Scandal," in which he plays President Fitzgerald Grant. "Men have screwed up the world, but extraordinary female characters are taking control of things. Maybe I'm partial because I have daughters, but this is good news for me."

He said the physical action in "Divergent" is part of the evolution, too: Tris is willing to go into combat with a boy, for instance, and lose badly, but it's not made more or less troubling because she's a girl. "I do believe we're coming out of the dark ages of strong women being considered unusual," Goldwyn said.

The trend toward female-powered action films was certainly not lost on director Neil Burger, who since signing on to "Divergent" has had to contend with comparisons to "The Hunger Games."

"But it's really good," he said, "that we may finally have some equality in movie leads. It's interesting because the natural evolution of the feminist movement has led to the empowerment of women in movies, but people have tried to have female action heroes, like Lara Croft, and they never quite took off. Now, I think something's clicked."

For Woodley, though, the story of "Divergent" is more personal, and -- perhaps in keeping with her character -- more about being an individual.

"I think the title alone says a lot," she said. "'Divergent' -- divergent from society, divergent from the mainstream, from mediocrity. I think that's a beautiful and unique place to be. It takes a lot of courage to do something different."

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Ladies who launch franchises

There seems to be a close-to-unquenchable appetite for young heroines among young moviegoers -- and new ones come along all the time. Still, Beatrice "Tris" Prior, the multifaceted misfit of "Divergent" played by Shailene Woodley, will have some stiff competition for demographic loyalties. Say what you will about the secondary status of the female in contemporary film (but big grosses say a lot): The following are first in the hearts of their fan base.

HERMIONE GRANGER The franchise may be called "Harry Potter," but many of us always thought of them as Hermione movies. The most successful film series ever ($2.4 billion) owes much of its resonance to the character portrayed by Emma Watson, who was always smarter than the wizard boys.

BELLA SWAN The first thing a heroine needs is a good name. Also, a benevolent vampire. As played by Kristen Stewart, B.S. was not the most powerful character in the "Twilight" saga ($1.363 billion worldwide), but she's certainly the centerpiece of Melissa Roseneberg's adaptations of the Stephenie Meyer novels.

CLARY FRAY The principal Shadowhunter dedicated to hunting down demons in this adaptation of the Cassandra Clare "Mortal Instruments" series didn't have the best initial outing (budgeted at around $60 million, it made half of that back domestically). "We are signed up for three," star Lily Collins told Newsday. "But when you take into account that is now publishing the sixth book, it could go longer."

KATNISS EVERDEEN "Hunger Games" is one of the top 20 franchises ever ($832 million total gross) and the third installment hasn't even arrived yet. Katniss also gives Jennifer Lawrence the ideal setup: the freedom to do whatever other roles she wants (as long as it's not a teenage member of a dystopian society with a lethal talent for archery).

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