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Q&A: 'Divergent' co-star Ansel Elgort and author Veronica Roth

When asked if there's a silver lining to the dystopian Chicago of "Divergent," Ansel Elgort and Veronica Roth got scientific.

"Does it snow there?" asks Elgort, who plays Caleb, brother of Tris (Shailene Woodley).

"Yes," says Roth, the suburban-Chicago-raised author of the massively popular book series, during a chat at the Peninsula Hotel. "The series just didn't overlap with winter."

"But there's no lake!" says Elgort, 20, who also will be seen alongside Woodley in this summer's big-screen take on John Green's novel "The Fault in Our Stars." "The land/water differences will make the temperatures not as low."

Another benefit of the locally made film -- opening Friday and chronicling Tris' initiation into Dauntless, the most risk-taking of the five factions in this futuristic society -- is a vision of the city that's actually meant to be Chicago. Not Gotham, and not just a stomping ground for Decepticons.

Veronica, you wrote "Divergent" during winter break of your senior year of college. Were your friends going on a tropical trip that you had to turn down to write, or did you section off that time and say, "I'm going to write a huge novel right now"?

Veronica Roth: I would love to tell you that I had all these social occasions that I turned down, but actually Northwestern, where I went, gets out of school a little earlier than other schools. So I was just home alone. None of my friends were back yet. [Laughs] I love to write. I do it almost every day. I just was sitting on winter break doing what I love best, really.

Ansel, have you ever tried to write a book?

Ansel Elgort: I think I tried to write one in second grade, and it was really bad.

VR: But you write music, right?

AE: Yeah, I write music. Writing's obviously an art, but it's a little more intellectual. I paint and I produce music from my computer, so we're both computer people.

Do you remember what your book was about or what it was called?

AE: It was called "The Mafia." I saw "The Godfather," and all those movies are so good. I wanted Robert De Niro to be the dude ... it was about a kid who gave packages back and forth.

VR: That's pretty cool, man.

AE: Maybe I'll write a screenplay or something at one point. But I don't think I'll be able to write a book.

A second-grade version of “The Godfather”!

VR: It’s better than my second-grade book, which was like “Lord of the Rings” over again. [Laughs]

AE: Clearly you were on a better path ‘cause look at you now, and I haven’t written anything since, “The Mafia.”

Veronica, did you have any input on suggesting or vetoing a change as the script came together?

VR: Not really. I was working really hard on the third book at the time, when all of this was happening `cause it's, like, a year process, and so is writing a book. Really, my focus is on writing books. I love experiencing the whole process of making the movie, and I love movies, but I'm not into making them. But I did consult with the screenwriter and with [director] Neil Burger on some things, especially world-building clarification and stuff like that. I was as involved as I wanted to be and as everyone else wanted me to be.

The story touches on its characters' fears. I'll give you some scary situations, and you tell me which you prefer. Would you rather be eaten alive or burned alive?

VR: Oh my God, that's the worst scenario ever! Which one would I die faster? Burned, yeah.

AE: Definitely burned.

VR: You'd die faster, which is better.

Drown or freeze?

VR: Oh, drown.

AE: Which one's supposed to be worse?

VR: With drowning you can like make it happen faster.

AE: I hear with freezing you just sort of drift off eventually. I don't know. That's terrible!

Would you rather have knives thrown at you or sharks?

VR: Sharks thrown at you? That would be interesting!

AE: That would be fun actually.

VR: You could dodge `em. Also I want to see the person throwing the sharks. Like, what is that person like?

AE: Maybe Theo [James] can throw some sharks. He's a big, burly Dauntless guy.

Which faction do you think takes the most courage?

VR: To join? Ooh.

AE: For me maybe Amity. Because you have to be outside the wall.

VR: And who knows what's out there?

AE: Ahhh!!

VR: The mystery! For me it would be Candor because the initiation process is that they make you reveal all of your dark secrets. ...  Not that I have so many skeletons in my closet, but you just don't want to tell people certain things. Especially huge groups of people.

What would the world be like if everyone was Candor and said what they felt all the time?

AE: It would be terrible.

VR: Really, you think so?

AE: It would be awful, yeah! Think about the characters who are from Candor. Peter is an asshole, Cristina ‘s really annoying until she gets to Dauntless and Four tells her to shut her mouth.

VR: [Laughs]

AE: Imagine if everyone’s a smartass and said everything that came to their mind and they thought that that was them being good or that they were allowed to do that. That would be so annoying.

VR: They have this motto—which of course I came up with—“they” have it. I made this motto which is, “Truth makes us inextricable,” and I really like that. That kind of honest that’s like, “Anything that comes to mind, you say,” it is maybe not the best. But I think if people were more honest with each other that would probably be a good thing. So maybe we diverge on that point.

AE: Maybe you have a little Candor in your—wait, Beatrice’s divergence doesn’t have Candor in it, does it?

VR: No, no. ‘Cause she’s really good at lying.

It is fun to imagine everyone in society standing in front of each other yelling “I hate you!” “No, you suck!” all the time.

VR: [Laughs] “Why are you walking so slow in front of me?!” That would make me feel better. Slow-walking people, man …

Ansel, you also have "The Fault in Our Stars" coming up. What do you think Caleb would think of that book if he read it?

AE: I think he would probably be like, "Ha ha, that's so funny. Back then they didn't have medicine that makes you cure cancer in two seconds." Right?

We don't see him laugh a lot normally.

AE: No. Maybe he wouldn't be, "Ha ha." He's just be like, "Oh, that's so terrible. Back then they didn't have the medication we have nowadays."

VR: And it would affirm him in his quest for knowledge and innovation.

AE: He'd be like, "This is amazing! We've come so far since then." ... Now we have cures for a lot of diseases that were just consumption. How far in the future is "Divergent"?

VR: I never came up with a [set date].

AE: It could be a thousand years in the future, who knows? I'm sure medicine's going to be much more far along.
 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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