‘Divergent’: Jai Courtney and Miles Teller on being the bad guys

March 15, 2014 | 12:00 p.m.
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Ben Lloyd Hughes, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ben Lloyd Hughes in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, author Veronica Roth and director Neil Burger on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, left, and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

“Divergent” fans have less than a week to wait to see Veronica Roth’s dystopian adventure story unfold on the big screen.

The film, directed by Neil Burger and based on Roth’s bestselling young adult book, is set in a future society where people are tested and strictly divided into factions based on their personalities. The tale follows young heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she joins Dauntless, the faction based on bravery, and faces off against some intimidating, tattoo-clad tough guys, not least of which are Jai Courtney’s Eric and Miles Teller’s Peter.

Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Jai Courtney in “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

Courtney’s character is a Dauntless leader who oversees training of the new initiates, but his brutal and cruel methods put him at odds with his young trainees. Teller’s Peter is an initiate who is a bully to his peers and a formidable foe in the fighting ring.

Courtney has made a name for himself in the world of action, starring in “Jack Reacher,” “A Good Day to Die Hard” and “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” The Australian actor is set to play Kyle Reese in the reboot “Terminator: Genesis” — the character originally played by Michael Biehn in James Cameron’s 1984 blockbuster “The Terminator.”

PHOTOS: ‘Divergent’ character posters

Teller is better known for his comedic work, recently appearing in frat comedies “That Awkward Moment” and “21 and Over.” He turned critics’ heads with his performance opposite Woodley in 2013′s “The Spectacular Now,” based on Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name. Teller is expected to portray Reed Richards, the stretchy Mister Fantastic, in Fox’s upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot.

Hero Complex sat down with Courtney and Teller  to talk about playing characters that fans love to hate.

Hero Complex: What drew you to the roles of Peter and Eric? They’re not exactly the most likable characters.

Miles Teller: For me, it was something different. Like I had just come off of “The Spectacular Now” and “That Awkward Moment,” and I really wasn’t looking for something comedic. I wanted something different, and this was an action movie, which I hadn’t been a part of. My character is known as one of the better fighters and a really competitive guy, and that was something I was into. And yeah, he’s just kind of an ass or a lot of it. And for me, it was nice to play against type. It was really refreshing to be on a movie where I didn’t have to be cracking jokes. I could just kind of come into scenes and do my thing. Peter doesn’t really care too much, he doesn’t want to really make friends and do all that. So you’ve got Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Zoe [Kratiz] (who plays Christina) and all these people, they’re all hunched up and saying, “Well, what are we gonna do?” Peter’s just chilling. Peter don’t care about all that stuff.

Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

Jai Courtney: For me, the real kind of thing that persuaded me were the people that were already involved. I didn’t know about the novels or their success, and when I started looking into it, I was intrigued. I’d admired Neil’s work prior, and then I’m a big fan of Shailene’s, and then with Kate Winslet there, things start to become more attractive. I read the script and saw an opportunity to do something with the character that I thought, on the page in the novels, was somewhat less multidimensional. And that was a big concern for me. I remember having early discussions with Neil where it was like, “Look, if you’re looking for the kind of mustache-twisting villain in the corner, kind of one-note thing, it doesn’t really interest me.” But there was a challenge there. I’m never really sure if I really achieved that or not. It’s a bit of a balance. It’s bit of a struggle between wanting to make someone like that kind of likable, because your instincts kind of tell you to find compassion for their interests. But yeah, it was something fun for an actor in a world that I hadn’t really explored before.

HC: Miles, do you think this role in any way prepared you for “Fantastic Four”? Are you wanting to do more action movies like this one?

Miles Teller in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Miles Teller in “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

MT: I think the general consensus from people that are seeing this movie is like, “Geez, Miles is in great shape. His biceps really are looking strong.” You know, for me, as a man, I like kind of tougher, grittier roles, and I like the kind of stuff like [Ryan] Gosling has done with “Drive,” and some of that stuff. So for me, action movies are tough, because it’s hard to find one that has a really nice narrative; a lot of the times, it’s just kind of blow ‘em up, and that’s not my thing. But if I can find something where the action is justified and in a nice dramatic setting, then I’d love to do that. I told my agent, “Find me a movie where I freaking ride a motorcycle and shoot somebody in the face.” That’s cool, as a kid watching movies, you imagine you’re in a shootout or whatever it is. And you never get that in real life, hopefully, so to be able to be in that kind of world, like when we had fake explosions and gunshots on set, I was like, this is kick-ass, this is cool.

JC: See, I’m trying to stop shooting guns. But I just keep winding up shooting guns.

MT: Me and Jai are going to do a buddy comedy together after this.

JC: We definitely are.

HC: Jai, between “Divergent” and “Terminator,” what’s it like to play characters that have already been imagined? Characters that people have strong opinions about before you even start acting?

JC: It’s amusing, because you know there’s always going to be a response. Anything with a built-in fan base opens itself up to criticism when they do stuff like this, when they make a film adaptation. And I think with the Internet today, there’s the opportunity for these kind of faceless critics out there to say whatever it is the hell they want about anything. But things move along regardless. I don’t find myself buying into the pressure. I saw some funny stuff. I mean, the look of my character in the movie is quite significantly different from how he’s described on the page in the book, and I remember when some images were released, seeing the response to that. But it’s just kind of like, well, we’re adapting it. You’ve got to get on with it. You’ve got to take creative license at some point, and some things are bound to change, hopefully for the best. But look, you hope that you’re not letting the fans down and that people like it. And I think we’re lucky in the sense that it’s a film we’re genuinely proud of. I think Neil’s done a really great job, and I think it’s true to Veronica’s novel, and yeah, that’s not always the case. But I think we got lucky.

Mekhi Phifer and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Mekhi Phifer and Jai Courtney in “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

MT: Yeah, and just to expound on that, I think that the pressure for me, it’s all on myself. What I’m trying to do is to play that character. I’m trying to tell that story. Play your part well — that’s all that you’re supposed to do. So yeah, if you’re trying to be selfish, and you want to get some of your own stuff in there, or if you want to show something that maybe isn’t true to that arc or that storyline, then yeah, I think the fans are going to rip you up for it. But at the end of the day, I really magnified and scrupulously went [after]  who Peter was, and I tried to really get in that head space and create that person. So the pressure’s all on myself. I know that if I phoned it in, fans should be upset, because that is somebody that they have invested a lot of time in.

HC: Miles, you worked with Shailene Woodley on “The Spectacular Now,” and now “Divergent.” She mentioned that you too have become close and enjoy working together.

MT: I think Shailene and I, what we share in common is that we both love being on set. We really do, and we realize how grateful we are to be in this, but also that’s just where our true passion is, in storytelling and also in being in the moment. A lot of actors kind of come in with such a preconceived idea of what they’re going to do, and I’ve worked with some actors that yeah, it’s not super-collaborative. It’s a job, and that’s it for them. But for Shailene and I, we really indulge and share in the experience of filmmaking.

"The Spectacular Now" costars Shailene Woodley, left, and Miles Teller are photographed in 2013. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“The Spectacular Now” costars Shailene Woodley, left, and Miles Teller are photographed in 2013. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

HC: And what was it like working with Neil Burger?

JC: Neil’s great, Neil’s wonderful. He’s very talented, and I think really executed his vision for this film. I think that’s where a lot of his strength lies — in kind of visual storytelling. I’d work with him again.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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