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Trailer: Divergent

Beatrice Prior, a teenager with a special mind, finds her life threatened when an authoritarian leader seeks to exterminate her kind in her effort to seize control of their divided society.

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Shailene Woodley is ensconced in a Los Angeles hotel suite when I walk in and hold out a hand to politely shake hers, and the star of Hollywood's new dystopian film franchise throws her arms around me in a bear hug and then cheerfully leads us on to her balcony. That's away from the watchful eyes of studio publicists, so we can enjoy "getting the sun on our faces".

Those are her words and it doesn't take long to discover the 22-year-old star of the action adventure film Divergent is a bit of a hippie child - in the nicest way - and lives up to the gushing praise of her co-stars. Ashley Judd, who plays her mother in the drama based on Veronica Roth's best-selling novel, describes Woodley as "easy to love and an incredibly special young person". Former Nikita star Maggie Q puts another spin on her earlier in the day as she warns: "Don't let Shay see you with a plastic bottle of water, because during the shoot she got all of us aware of what we were eating and drinking and made us much healthier."

Dystopian future: Shailene Woodley and Theo James in <em>Divergent</em>.

Dystopian future: Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Divergent.

In fact, as soon as we sit down Woodley begins chugging water out of a large, recycled glass bottle that says ''God's blessing'' on the side. She explains that after studying indigenous cultures four years earlier, she had discovered a website that listed the locations of wells in California and would often hike to them to carry out her own 20-litre non-plastic containers of drinking water. "I was really inspired by those cultures and wanted to live a life that respected nature and was in tune with nature," she says.

But busy promoting her new film, she has had to make some other concessions. "I got rid of my phone eight months ago because not having one taught me how to be present and to appreciate every moment," she says. "But Lionsgate [the studio releasing Divergent] were like, 'we need to be able to get hold of you because you are travelling the world for this film' so I had to get one for right now."

Woodley grew up in Simi Valley, outside Los Angeles, and was introduced to acting aged four by the agent of her cousin, who was a model. Her parents were psychologists and ''taught me gratitude and compassion at a very young age'', she says when asked how she remains grounded when the future of a Hollywood franchise rests on her shoulders. She is wearing no shoes, pink polka-dot socks, black leggings and a simple blue shirt rolled up above the elbows ("it's my personal shirt, I have no idea who made it," she shrugs).

Kate Winslet in <em>Divergent</em>.

On film: Kate Winslet stars in Divergent.

The petite brunette has been in the public eye since starting - in 2008 - her five-season stint as a high-schooler in the TV series The Secret Life of an American Teenager and earning her Golden Globe nomination as George Clooney's daughter in 2011 filmThe Descendants. But she still seems uncomfortable talking about her career in business terms.

"I never used to call it a 'career' and obviously I guess it is a career now, because it takes up all my time. But I do it because it's fun," she says. "If there ever comes a day where it's not fun any more and I'm too stressed out all the time, then I will quit and do something else. But right now I love it, because I love to feel affected and I love to bring about a sense of affecting others too."

In Divergent, Woodley plays Tris, a young woman living in a dystopian world of the future where people are divided into five distinct factions that are based on human virtues. Once they are categorised, they cannot co-mingle - ostensibly to ensure peace. After Tris is tested, she is warned she is a ''divergent'' and will never fit into one group. She goes on to join a soldier faction and is forced to trust one of their leaders (played by Theo James) to help her, when she discovers plans by a rival faction leader (Kate Winslet) to not only kill all divergents but to destroy society and start a war.

"There were many reasons I wanted to do this," Woodley says. "Partly because it's entertaining and when you're reading the book, you are taken on a journey you can relate to. But the other thing I found very appealing about it was the fact you have this strong female in the lead who wasn't inherently badass by birth but had to work at developing her story."

Divergent is being hailed as the new Hunger Games, which isn't surprising given its similarities with the other young-adult novel turned film franchise, also set in a dystopian world with a female protagonist.

Naturally, Woodley is being compared to its star, Jennifer Lawrence. The actors have never met, but Woodley confides that when she initially balked at signing on for a franchise, she was put in touch with Lawrence by email.

"I knew, like me, she came from indie films, so I asked her, 'How did Hunger Games change your life? Are you happy with your decision?' and she was like, 'Do it'. She said, 'Yes there are hard things, but as long as you love the character and the storyline, it's so worth it; you won't regret it one day'."

Woodley quotes her Descendants co-star Clooney at least three times during our interview, in terms of lessons she learned watching him work. However, she also had another role model on the Divergent set in co-star Kate Winslet, who dealt with similar pressures on Titanic.

Winslet says: "I don't know if I necessarily gave her tips or advice, but I certainly did have a couple of conversations with her where we talked about how important it is when you work on a film that has an exhausting long shoot, to still cherish every day.''

Woodley took a two-year break from acting after The Descendants but made up for that with five films in the past two years: Spectacular Now; Divergent; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (in which her three scenes as Mary Jane wound up on the cutting room floor but she says, "I'm relieved because I can't imagine doing press for that film and this one at the same time"); and the coming dramas White Bird in a Blizzard (that returned her to the indie world and much buzz at the recent Sundance Film Festival) and The Fault in Our Stars, another film adaptation of a popular young-adult novel for which she cut off her hair to play a cancer patient.

"Now I'm back to being in a position where I'm waiting to be stimulated by another script again, and I don't care how long I have to wait," she says. "People are like, 'ride the wave, get it while you can'. But I think that waves crash on shore eventually and I don't want to crash. So I would rather take the paddle board out and cruise around the ocean for a bit."

Divergent is released in cinemas on April 10.

Going for gold

Series as successful as Twilight and The Hunger Games are few and far between, but film studios keep trying.

For every Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there is another young-adult franchise that did not survive the transition to the big screen, but with the lure of big box-office returns if the studio successfully taps into the young-adult demographic, they will continue to take the gamble. The buzz is good on Divergent, which matches The Hunger Games with its $US80-million ($88-million) budget. If if it lives up to box-office expectations, it will continue with at least two more films based on the remaining books by Veronica Roth, Insurgent and Allegiant.

The hits

The Hunger Games: The first two Suzanne Collins books were adapted into two films, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that have grossed $US832 million worldwide. The third book will be split into two films due late this year and in late 2015.

The Harry Potter films: The eight films based on J.K. Rowling's seven best-selling novels (the final book was also split into two films) star Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint and grossed more than $US2.3 billion worldwide.

The Twilight series: The four Stephenie Meyers vampire books were turned into five films (the last book was split in two), starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and grossed a staggering $US3.7 billion worldwide.


The misses

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: The 2013 film adaptation of the first of five books written by Cassandra Clare cost $US60 million to make and took in only $US31 million at the US box office but, bolstered by healthy international ticket sales, the franchise will try again. Lily Collins will return for an adaptation of the second book, Mortal Instruments: City of Ash, later this year with a smaller budget.

Beautiful Creatures: The four books by Kami Garcia were touted as the next Twilight franchise but the 2013 film, with a $US60 million budget, barely broke even with worldwide grosses and the franchise was abandoned, ruining a big break for its star, Australian actress Alice Englert, daughter of Jane Campion).

Ender's Game: Based on the six novels written by Orson Scott Card, the first film cost $US110 million and had high expectations, with Harrison Ford returning for his first science-fiction fantasy film since Star Wars. But not even Han Solo could save the film from barely breaking even with worldwide grosses, forcing sequels to be shelved.


Next big thing

The Maze Runner: If you like Divergent, look out for this one later this year, based on a trilogy of books written by James Dashner about a community of boys (starring newcomer Dylan O'Brien) trapped in a large maze full of strange creatures and needing to figure out how to navigate through both to escape.