LOS ANGELES — On the surface, “Insurgent,” with its dystopian setting and teenage heroine, might just seem like another by-the-numbers young adult tale. Look a little closer and it’s clear that this second installment isn’t merely capitalizing on a popular genre, but, with its half dozen female leads and supporting characters, actually represents a subtle subversion of what audiences have been taught action films should be.
When women lead up action-driven films and franchises, it’s usually one exceptional gal against the world. Here, they’re all over the place, serving as leaders, radicals and rebels, each wildly diverse, complicated, charismatic and flawed in their own unique way.
“Insurgent,” out Friday, picks up shortly after the events of the first film, and finds Tris (Shailene Woodley) exposed as a state-wanted “divergent,” or someone who doesn’t fit into the five designated factions, and on the run from Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the controlling, ruthless leader whose goal is to extradite Tris’ kind from the society.
Still shaken from the violent deaths of her parents and friend in the first film and on a path to self-actualization, Tris encounters a number of adults hoping to mold her in their image, including franchise newcomers Johanna (Octavia Spencer), the stoic Amity leader with the mysterious scar on her face, and Evelyn (Naomi Watts), a factionless revolutionary with cryptic motives who also happens to be the estranged mother of Tris’ boyfriend Four (Theo James).
Credit for populating the world with strong female characters goes to author Veronica Roth, who saw “Insurgent” as a chance to really flesh out the environment around Tris.
“It was very intentional for me that most of the leaders in Tris’ world would be women, and not necessarily the good guys all the time,” said Roth on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s equally important to have female villains. When people notice that there’s not a lot of representation in a particular area they try to make those characters holy symbols that are pure and good. That does a disservice to women,” she said.
Producer Lucy Fisher was particularly delighted by the sheer number of significant moments between the female characters, noting that the film easily passes the Bechdel Test (meaning there must be at least one scene where two female characters with names discuss something other than a man).
“She has a scene with each woman saying, ‘I’m not going to be who you want me to be’,” said Fisher, who, along with husband and co-producer Douglas Wick is often driven to female-centric projects.
“We like female empowerment,” she said, adding that they did try to get a woman in the director’s chair, before ultimately deciding on German filmmaker Robert Schwentke.
Despite Johanna’s limited on-screen time in this film, Spencer said it was a no-brainer to join the project. Not only was she a fan of the book, but she and Roth had met and bonded at a book event years earlier.
“I kind of stalked her,” said Spencer with a laugh.
“We talked about (Spencer) and the question of race came up because she’s not written as African-American but to us it seemed like a great idea,” added Fisher. Unexpected casting informed most of their decisions surrounding the characters in the franchise.
Fisher and her team liked the idea of Watts, too, because she didn’t exactly fit the mold of a “tough,” which makes her even more mysterious on the screen.
For Watts, the only real hesitation came when she realized she’d be playing the mother to an actor only 16 years her junior.
“I thought, ‘Oh what the heck. She was young,’” said Watts.
Ultimately, though, the story belongs to Tris, who’s at a sort of crossroads in figuring out who she wants to be amid harsh directives from the leadership, her family, and the various fractionalized micro societies.
“I think ‘Insurgent’ is my favorite in terms of her character. It’s kind of like the crucible for Tris,” said Roth.
“Tris wasn’t born a superhero,” said Woodley. “She’s someone who, throughout her circumstances and experiences, had to gain certain skills in order to grow. We all have the opportunity to either turn away from our fears or face them head on and draw upon our courage and our bravery.”
And yet, even though she strongly believes that audiences thirst for diversity in who is leading their films, Woodley also said that ultimately, it’s almost irrelevant.
“The cool thing about this movie is it wasn’t meant to be a feminist film. It wasn’t meant to be like, ‘Ooh, look at this strong female heroine,’” said Woodley. “It’s just a really intriguing storyline.”