‘Insurgent’: Jai Courtney talks Eric’s journey, ‘Terminator’

March 19, 2015 | 1:00 p.m.

The release of “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” which opens Friday, will reunite fans not only with the film’s heroes Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), but also with their foes, including Four’s rival and vicious Dauntless leader Eric, played by Jai Courtney.

“Insurgent” is based on the second book in the series of Veronica Roth’s popular dystopian YA novels. It follows Tris Prior, a girl whose aptitude for multiple factions, called divergence, means she is considered a threat to the rigid society of a future Chicago that values the balance created by dividing its citizens into five factions based on dominant personality traits.

Jai Courtney plays Dauntless leader Eric in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

Jai Courtney plays Dauntless leader Eric in “The Divergent Series: Insurgent.” (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

Tris and her allies are on the run after the events in “Divergent,” in which she intervenes in an uprising organized by the leaders of two of the factions. Tasked with finding these refugees are leaders Max (Mekhi Phifer) and Eric.

Courtney’s ever-expanding action resume includes films such as “A Good Day to Die Hard” and “Jack Reacher,” as well as this year’s “Terminator: Genisys” and 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” He also had a role in 2014’s biopic “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie.

Courtney spoke with Hero Complex by phone to discuss “Insurgent” (note: some spoilers), Eric’s motivation for his villainy as well as his upcoming roles in “Terminator” and “Suicide Squad.”

Hero Complex: How was revisiting Eric for round 2?

Jai Courtney: It was great. It was a little funny for me. I came into the process kind of late because I was filming “Terminator[: Genisys]” at the time. We had to do them simultaneously, which was interesting to say the least, but I had a ball. It was wonderful this time to be able to kind of build upon what we established in the first film.

When I arrived at the set everyone had been underway for a couple of weeks [and] I almost felt like a new character. I hadn’t had that pre-production time to get comfortable again and be in the table read [to] rehash what we’ve done and rediscover those things. I had to show up the day I filmed it the first time, and that was actually a little daunting, but maybe there’s a little muscle memory in that sense [because] I think all of us that were reprising roles found extreme comfort in the ability to really play a little more the second time around.

[Director] Robert Schwentke was wonderful in advocating that, and he was great with allowing us to take what we established in “Divergent” as a foundation for our characters but also keep them a little more pliant. I think that’s probably most evident with characters like myself or Peter [and] Max. These guys who were somewhat functional the first time around had a little more of a voice this time, and I think the material has been written for what works for those characters and the actors playing them, so it’s really a privilege. It’s kind of a shame I won’t get to do it again.

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Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

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Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

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Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

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Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim), Four (Theo James) and Tris (Shailene Woodley) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

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Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Lionsgate)

HC: Eric does seem to have a bit more freedom to embrace the violence and his role as a villain in “Insurgent.”

JC: It’s almost like his time to shine. He’s clearly loyal to this corrupt administration, and I have my own beliefs about why that is. I think a lot of it is rooted in his determined desire to elevate himself personally in the status of that society. But all that bitterness and insecurity that comes from being this nemesis of Four – as someone who’s always been challenged by this smarter, harder, class rival – is still there and only fuels his determination to catch them and bring them in.

I think he doesn’t really care. It is a selfish trip for him in a way. He’s almost been sent out like one of Jeanine’s dogs to find the Divergents, but if he killed them instead of capture then it really wouldn’t matter [to him]. I think he’d find immense satisfaction in it.

HC: Can we talk about Eric’s death? How was it on set that day and were you satisfied with how it played out?

In addition to "Insurgent," Jai Courtney will play Kyle Reese in "Terminator: Genisys" which will be released later this year. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to “Insurgent,” Jai Courtney can be seen later this year as Kyle Reese in “Terminator: Genisys.” (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

JC: It was fine. It was fun. We talked a lot about that moment and how to do it properly, what was the right message to send, [and if] we [should] stay totally true to what was written in the book, which is slightly different. [In the book] Eric is brought before a court and [his fate] is decided [there]. We juggled with what [this scene] said about Four and his decision to do that in the moment.

I actually think it’s a great turn for [Four] because we’ve seen it before with him where he may have a plan in place but he doesn’t necessarily act in the moment and do what’s perhaps the most cavalier or kind of heroic [because] he’s a little smarter than that. I think this is the perfect moment for him to just say, “… it” and give Eric what he deserves. I wanted him to go down as brutally as he deserved to. My attachment to a character doesn’t hinder my desire to see good action or good drama on screen. I knew he deserved it. There was no debate for me in that sense. I think it played out well.

HC: How was it jumping directly from “Terminator” to “Insurgent”?

JC: They’re vastly different characters and it was a bit wacky doing that. I think what made it easy was the fact that Eric had been established before and I could go in knowing the world a little bit. Knowing who I was going to work with and having some comfort in the sense [of] that character being familiar. I think it would’ve been really intimidating if that was a completely different project that I’d never touched before so that was the only saving grace really. I probably would’ve avoided that at all cost [and] I’m not sure I would opt to take on such a schedule clash if I was presented with that again.

HC: How is it taking on these characters that come with expectations because audiences have preconceived images of them?

JC: To be honest … I don’t pay any attention, really, to how the role has been played before. I might watch [previous works] for a point of reference as far as the world or the style [and] genre of filmmaking, but I [have been] asked if I studied Michael Biehn’s performance [as Kyle Reese] in the first “Terminator” and I’d be crazy to go and do that. It’s not going to translate, and I wasn’t hired for the job to emulate someone else’s performance. It’s a standalone film and the character’s changed. The writing’s changed.

It’s not to say we abandoned all the setup. He’s still a soldier in John Connor’s army fighting the resistance, and he still has the task of saving Sarah Connor, but that’s virtually all that links the two. I just can’t see it being interesting as a performer nor it being interesting for the audience if I was trying to go in there and just steal things from someone who’d played that role already. I think there’s archetypal similarities you’ll get with doing a role like that, and you can pluck influence from other actors or other performances, but it certainly wasn’t a concern of mine to try and hit specific things.

If you’re talking about a biographical figure it’s different. We know certain things about certain people in history that define them. But I think there was enough in the writing and enough in the character brief that provided the actors in “Terminator” to kind of go with that, but then completely make it their own.

HC: What about Eric drew you to the role?

JC: I think it was just the opportunity to do something fun. I hadn’t gone back to sort of a real villainous thing since “Jack Reacher,” I think, at the time. I wanted to work with Neil [Burger] originally and we talked about this character. To be honest, on the page, it didn’t excite me that much. There was a discussion that was had there about where we could go with the character and that’s not about changing his journey. You’re adapting a novel [and] there are certain things you can’t invent that aren’t there, but I was concerned about [Eric] coming across [as] one-dimensional. I didn’t want to play this wash of a sinister bad guy. That stuff’s only interesting if you get to the root of where that lies. I was more interested in playing the subtleties of his envy of Four and the insecurity that had manifested there, and how that kind of breeds this guy who’ll stop at nothing in order to get one over the other.

Plus I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to the fact that [“Divergent”] was a film adaptation of a really successful novel series. That’s interesting to me, [and] it’s curious to note how those things do blow up and what brings audiences in. It’s not to say you choose films based on the chance of their popularity, but I don’t think we ever choose films based on the fact that we hope they won’t be popular, so some of that played in of course.

HC: Is there any particular faction you enjoyed visiting in “Insurgent”?

JC: Yeah, I had a lot of fun out at the Amity farm. That was partially [because] it’s a small scene, but it was great working with Octavia Spencer. What they built out there was really fascinating [and the set was] in this really kind of strange little pocket of America, on this farm called Serenbe, which was so crazily close to the world of Amity.

Then [there was] the chase sequence through the woods and stuff. That was a really cool action sequence to film and I had a lot of fun doing it. It was cool to see them step it up in that sense and utilize their resources to expand those set pieces and really go for it.

HC: What’s next for you?

I’m off to do “Suicide Squad,” so I’m jumping into the comic book world which will be a lot of fun. And I’m playing an Aussie, which will be a little different and refreshing for me. My slate’s kind of full enough not to worry for a second. I’m just looking forward to “Terminator” coming out this year and very excited about “Insurgent.”

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown | @LATHeroComplex

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