Based on uber-successful young adult novels written by Veronica Roth, the Hollywood adaption of Divergent is following in the footsteps of The Hunger Games where teens are turned into warriors in a post-apocalyptic world. In the world of Divergent, everyone fits into one of five factions to create balance in the world: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, or Erudite. At the age of 16, teens have a choice: they can either stay in the faction they were born into or choose another. The main character, Tris (Shailene Woodley), learns that she does not fit into any of these factions because she is “divergent.” This basically means she’s a free thinker, and therefore, a target of the people who try to maintain order and balance.
Maggie Q plays Tori, the “tester” who tells Tris that she is divergent, a crucial turning point in the story. Mekhi Phifer stars in the movie as Dauntless leader Max. Maggie Q and Mekhi Phifer have been in the business for a good amount of time. Maggie Q, the Hawaiian-born, part Polish-Irish and part Vietnamese actor has starred in numerous movies and was cast in the starring role of Nikita from 2010-2013. Mekhi has also done his fair share of movies and TV including ER, Clockers and 8 Mile.
I sat down with the two of them to have a candid talk about the challenges that actors of color have in Hollywood, and the changing landscape for minorities in television and film.
It seems that black actors are having more of a presence in TV and film. Asian actors are getting there, but they have a long way to go. They’re always typecast.
Maggie Q: We know what it’s like. We know how that box exists. It’s very real. (Turns to Mekhi) I’m sure you were offered every drug dealer and every pimp role.
Mehki Phifer: Oh yeah, of course. You’ve got to say no. You’ve got to turn it down!
MQ: The only power you have is to walk away. You can sit around all day long and whine about what you’re not getting, but it’s not about what you’re not getting; it’s about what you’re not taking. For me, as an Asian American, I’m looking for roles that are non ethnic-specific. If you come to me and you’re like, “Can you play this flower girl on this boat?,” the finger goes up really fast. The blood boils really quickly. Sure, I or any Asian girl could play that role. If you’re doing a story on history or whatever, that’s totally valid. When you get roles that are stereotypical and do not push our cause or further our image in media and in entertainment, it’s your responsibility to turn those things down. I’m not saying that from the position of, “I’ve earned enough so that I can say no.” I’ve said no to things when I had no money.
MQ: It wasn’t about that. It was about the big picture. Where do I want to go with this? Do I want to make that amount of money for the next six months, and then what? It goes away, and I’d have no further career beyond that. Or, do I want to make smart decisions that are going to change the face of my community?
Maggie—how was it like when you were cast in the lead for Nikita?
MQ: I was negotiating my deal on Nikita. A copy of The Hollywood Reporter came to my house one day. There was a photo of me, and it said that there was this landmark casting about to happen. I was like, “Ooh…what landmark casting?” I started reading this article, and it said that if I took the deal — which I was still negotiating — that I would be the first Asian American lead on broadcast television. I wanted to throw up. There are so many quality Asian American actors out there, but they’re not giving us the lead roles!
What was important to me was not that it was an Asian lead. What was important to me was that it was a lead that was not written for an Asian. Nikita has always been played by white girls. Always. Warner Bros. took a leap of faith and said, We don’t want a French girl, or a white girl, or this or that. We want the right person who has the heart of this character. You have it.
Were they casting specific ethnicities for the roles of Tori and Max?
MQ: (Our roles in Divergent) are not ethnic-specific. It’s not like Tori pushes the dim sum cart around the Dauntless vault. (laughs) But let me tell you…you get those scripts. They come all the time.
MP: Max definitely wasn’t just written for a black man. You want to be good at what you do, and hopefully that helps break down stereotypes.
It seems that colorblind casting is slowly becoming a thing in Hollywood. We have recently seen it with the casting of Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four.
MQ: We do live in the United States. If we can’t be diverse here—I don’t understand how that’s even possible. It’s also a global market now, too, which is why it’s changing. Some of it is that attitudes are changing. You’ve got to put (actors) in positions where people in other parts of the world can relate to what you’re throwing on screen.
I’ve seen a lot of progress because of the global market, number one. Two, you have to get out there in a way where people actually know you as an individual. It’s about people knowing and liking you as a person first, seeing your work and appreciating it for what it is.
MP: I’ve turned down money because I was either going to be making lateral movement or going down as far as the way I was being perceived by the public and fans.
MQ: You’ve got to be patient, have faith in the process, and also know that you have something to offer that’s real. Then, it’s really all about what actually matters.
MP: If integrity matters to you and you want to be an actor, when you get those jobs, save your money so that you’re not a slave to the system.
Was there a particular moment in your career when you encountered racial typecasting?
MQ: When we get scripts, there’s always a cover letter on it that says, “As per our conversation, here’s the script, here’s the director, here’s who’s in it.” My agent—who I’ve been with for ten years and who I love—had a bunch of scripts sent over to me. To be fair, he was in Paris and hadn’t seen them. I got this script—and I’m not going to tell you what movie it is that said, “In anticipation of our conversation, please find the script…written by ‘blah blah’ and starring ‘blah blah’.” I shit you not, it said, “Please take a look at the role of ‘The Chink’.” You can’t make it up. That’s the name of the character. It’s framed in my office, because I want to always be reminded of what’s out there.
Divergent is currently playing in theaters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Main image: Divergent actors Maggie Q (foreground) and Mekhi Phifer on March 5, 2014. Photo by Weber Shih.