‘Insurgent’: Naomi Watts on Evelyn and the universal themes in ‘Divergent’

March 18, 2015 | 8:00 a.m.

When “The Divergent Series: Insurgent” hits theaters on Friday, fans will not only be reunited with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), but they will also be properly introduced to several new characters who are making their big-screen debuts. Not least among these is resistance leader Evelyn Johnson, played by Naomi Watts.

Based on Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA novels, “Insurgent” is set in a future version of Chicago in which citizens are divided into five factions based on personality traits. Young heroine Tris Prior, whose aptitude for multiple factions threatens to upset the societal order, finds herself on the run, along with love interest Four and other allies.

Along the way, they meet Evelyn, the leader of the Factionless and Four’s estranged mother, who faked her death in order to escape the abuse she faced at the hands of her husband Marcus Eaton (Ray Stevenson).

Naomi Watts as the Factionless leader Evelyn in "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

Naomi Watts as the Factionless leader Evelyn in “The Divergent Series: Insurgent.” (Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

Watts’ recent film credits include a role in the Oscars best picture winner “Birdman” as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award-nominated performance in “St. Vincent.” Watts spoke over the phone with Hero Complex to discuss Evelyn and the world of “Insurgent.”

Hero Complex: Evelyn is one of the new characters in “Insurgent.” Can you tell us a little bit about her?

Naomi Watts: [Evelyn] is someone who had to fake her own death and escape from her real life because her husband was abusive and she felt that it was life-threatening. [She] had to also abandon and leave her son, who is Four. So in this film, we see that she’s trying to resume a relationship with him, and of course Four is not immediately open to that. Although I’m sure he’s curious, he holds resentment and anger towards her for having left, and [is] also not sure if he can trust her.

There is something about her – which is why I as an actor wanted to take this role on, for all the complexities in her – and it is sort of clear that there is an ulterior motive going on, but we need to work out just what that is, and that will become even clearer in the next movie.

Naomi Watts as Evelyn on a poster for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." (Lionsgate)

Naomi Watts as Evelyn on a poster for “The Divergent Series: Insurgent.” (Lionsgate)

HC: How did you approach the position Evelyn was in as a woman who had to save herself, but couldn’t take her son with her to do so?

NW: It’s not something I could ever imagine. Nothing could get in the way of me and my children, but she was very young. [She was] obviously not making great decisions, but obviously in a life-or-death situation, she felt she had to.

The great thing about Evelyn is that she’s a survivor, and in this particular case, she was thrust into the Factionless, which is a world as we saw illustrated in the first movie that was constructed of the helpless, hopeless people that didn’t pass the tests of the factions they were trying out for. It was just a group of people that were wandering aimlessly with nothing. She became one of [them] and actually turned the corner herself and created a whole group that has become a force to be reckoned with themselves.

They are a great collective bunch full of different dynamics, which is obviously very different to all the other factions that are all driven by that one personality trait. So [Evelyn], just by their sheer numbers and the sheer diversity of that group, created an incredible group of people and she’s the leader of them.

HC: There is a scene in “Insurgent” in which Evelyn is talking to Tris about how Evelyn belongs nowhere while Tris belongs to every faction. Can you talk about this idea of belonging?

NW: I think despite the fact that they’re polar opposites, that feeling [of belonging] sort of manifests in a similar way and ends up having a similar effect — that, “I don’t belong anywhere. I’m my own person. I don’t fit in. I’m not the same as the other people.” Evelyn sees a kinship in them. I think they’re both fascinated with one another right away, for different reasons.

HC: How is it working on a film with so many complex and complicated female characters?

NW: It’s fantastic. I mean obviously this story came from the mind of Veronica, who is a very smart, intelligent and brilliant woman. The fact that she wrote this in the midst of doing her university degree is so impressive. She created a great number of characters for women, and as she has said before, it shouldn’t be such a unique thing. There are plenty of great female stories to tell and great female characters to explore and study.

It’s great that [this story] is being celebrated and shared with both women and men. I think it feels like a pretty universal theme at the center of it, which is that we are always struggling with our identity, particularly when we leave the home that has sort of established us as people in the world. Then we have to make our own choices and create our own independence. That’s something that’s scary to all of us and we can all relate to that. That struggle never really finishes. Even at my age I still am trying to work out who I am and what I can do and what I can leave behind and all of those things.

Then, of course, there is the whole theory of the faction system and that we cannot be controlled and we cannot be pigeonholed into one personality trait. That’s a horrible thought. We should be allowed to be many things, try out many different things, and not just be one color.

i d024 10238 r Insurgent: Naomi Watts on Evelyn and the universal themes in Divergent

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

i d051 21792 r Insurgent: Naomi Watts on Evelyn and the universal themes in Divergent

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)

i d015 06838 r crop Insurgent: Naomi Watts on Evelyn and the universal themes in Divergent

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

feature1 Insurgent: Naomi Watts on Evelyn and the universal themes in Divergent

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

HC: You have been pretty successful in finding diverse roles to play. How do you go about choosing which projects you take on?

NW: You know it’s not such a strategic thing. I read the script, and it either affects me or it doesn’t. I mean obviously other elements are involved, like the director [and other actors], plays a big part of it, and of course the logistics of where it’s shooting and how long, and all those things play a massive part of it now that I’m a mum.

But it’s usually a gut reaction: Can I see myself playing this part? The more things you throw into it that are impure, I think, that’s when you’re heading into dangerous territory. I just like to do what I want to do.

HC: Evelyn doesn’t really have a lot of combat scenes in “Insurgent.” Are you looking forward to more action scenes in the next film?

NW: I hope so. Although after I did “King Kong,” that was sort of the end to my ingénue days and I don’t really want to get beaten up anymore. I’m quite happy to be the person in the background and [to] watch it all play out before me.  I think there’s definitely going to be more fun for Evelyn to explore in her search for power, but I’m happy to use a stunt double.

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown | @LATHeroComplex

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