Embargoed for Feb. 15. ... In “Divergent,” teenagers are forced to choose one of five conflicting factions to join based on their personalities. Actor Mekhi Phifer, who plays Max, leader of Dauntless, the bravest group in the film’s dystopian society, said he’s glad he didn’t have to pick his future in adolescence.
In “Divergent,” teenagers are forced to choose one of five conflicting factions to join based on their personalities. Actor Mekhi Phifer, who plays Max, leader of Dauntless, the bravest group in the film’s dystopian society, said he’s glad he didn’t have to pick his future in adolescence.
“When I was 16, I didn’t know what was going on or what I wanted to do. That would have been a tough decision. To put that much pressure on a 16-year-old when they haven’t even gone out into the world yet is crazy. That would have been a tough one, but I probably would have chosen Dauntless,” said Phifer, 39.
Phifer’s life-altering decision would come a few years later, when the 19-year-old Harlem resident attended a casting call for Spike Lee’s “Clockers.” Lee took a chance on an unknown newcomer, casting him as a young Brooklyn drug dealer. Phifer beat out nearly 1,000 other aspiring actors for the lead role.
“That was the best decision I ever made. I wouldn’t be here in Boston, right now, talking to you,” Phifer said during a publicity stop at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to promote “Divergent.”
Opening March, 21, “Divergent” is the first installment adapted from Veronica Roth’s smash-hit young adult trilogy. Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) stars as Tris, the young heroine who is a Divergent, meaning she fits into more than one faction, making her a threat to society’s peace. Theo James (last seen on TV as a corpse in Lady Mary’s bed on “Downton Abbey”) stars opposite her.
Like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” hype surrounds the “Divergent” franchise. A sequel, “Insurgent,” begins shooting later this spring, and Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) is writing the screenplay. Robert Schwentke (“R.I.P.D.”) is replacing Neil Burger (“Limitless”) behind the camera.
After nearly two decades since he first shot to fame in “Clockers” and later in “8 Mile” and five seasons on “ER,” Phifer said he’s prepared for the fan-frenzy “Divergent” will likely stir.
“I am not nervous about it or anything. This is what I do. I look forward to having fun with the comic-cons and all that kind of fun stuff. I know what to expect, for the most part,” Phifer said.
Phifer said his biggest challenge with Max was developing a character who doesn’t have a lot of screen time.
“I knew he was the leader. I knew what the faction was. I wanted to play him no-nonsense, very strict and straightforward in what he wants and expects out of his mates,” Phifer said, adding that his part becomes bigger in the next movie. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they write for the second one, because I don’t even fully know who Max is yet. I have an idea. I have an ideology, but I don’t know what his background is yet. In this first installment, they are establishing characters, focusing on Shailene (Woodley) and Theo (James), our leads.”
“Divergent’s” cast also features Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q and Kate Winslet. Identity, and how that is figured out, is a big theme in the film.
“This is an extreme way of finding yourself,” Phifer said. “The thing I like about the story is it speaks to a younger audience, but it’s also kind of adult-themed, from political to socio-economic stuff. There’s a lot of things you can get out of it theme-wise. But, I guess in some way it does put in their mind: ‘Where are you trying to go in society? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be?’ I’m going through that with my son, who’s 14, my oldest. I’m constantly asking him ‘What the hell do you want to do?’ He doesn’t have a clue yet. I can only imagine if he was 16 and had to make those choices. I’d be nervous for him.”
In addition to “Divergent,” Phifer also has a recurring role on Showtime’s “House of Lies,” which reunites him with (“my guy”) Don Cheadle. He also just wrapped a TV movie, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” with Ving Rames and Whoopi Goldberg. Two years ago, he took a shot on Broadway in the dark family comedy “Stick Fly” from Boston playwright Lydia R. Diamond.
“I loved performing every night for hundreds of people,” Phifer said, pausing before adding: “You know, acting has taken me all over the world and introduced me to so many different people, artists, musicians, celebrities,” including, his “8 Mile” co-star, Eminem.
“That’s my boy. He threw my name in a song and forever immortalized me,” Phifer said about the song “Lose Yourself” from the “8 Mile” soundtrack.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @danabarbuto.