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"Divergent" (March 21) The first movie in the young adult book series stars Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller and more in what's being hailed as the next "Hunger Games." The story centers around a dystopian version of Chicago, where people are divided into sects based on their personalities, and not everyone is pleased about that.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Summit Entertain

Todd Leopold

CNN

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Shailene Woodley and Theo James weren't expecting a frenzied mass of "Divergent" fans to greet them at a premiere in early March.

Well, they'd better get used to it.

The two stars of the new film, set for release Friday, were the focus of a swarm of at least 200 fans, mostly female, who screeched and cheered for their heroes at a special Atlanta screening. Woodley wore Alexander McQueen; James, an affable Brit, signed autographs. Both answered questions. The fans ate it up.

And why not? "Divergent" is being touted as the new "Hunger Games." That's no surprise, given its action-oriented female heroine, youthful cast and post-apocalyptic setting. The film is based on the first book in a best-selling trilogy by Veronica Roth, a series that also earned comparisons to Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" works.

If "Divergent" does half as well as the "Hunger Games" films -- the most recent of which, "Catching Fire," topped the 2013 box office and made $865 million worldwide -- its backers will be very happy.

Which is why Woodley -- perhaps best known for performances in the film "The Descendants" and the TV series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" -- is receiving Jennifer Lawrence-type attention.

She's on the current cover of Marie Claire, has been the subject of press releases noting her choice of designer clothing, and is being mentioned in gossip-style headlines mentioning the age of her first kiss (15, incidentally) and her love of "Descendants" co-star George Clooney.

Woodley, 22, says she's a little surprised by the response.

"I don't know much about that world. None of us really engage in social media," she said at a CNN Center interview the day after the Atlanta screening. "So last night was sort of a shock. 'Oh, other people know about this movie, too.' "

James, 29, hasn't escaped the microscope. The actor is also the subject of publicists' e-mail blasts and has been romantically linked to Woodley in British tabloid headlines. Though Woodley told Teen Vogue that she hasn't had a boyfriend in five years, the two do have an easy rapport.

James said he welcomes the fans' passion.

"It's good to be involved in something that has a bunch of people invested in the material already," he said.

'You have to make bold decisions'

Ah, passion. It certainly doesn't hurt ticket sales -- and neither does the tittle-tattle.

"Divergent" has been a hot property ever since author Roth sold the rights to the trilogy before she even graduated college. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago in which the culture has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, who believe in altruism; Amity, the peaceful ones; Erudite, the intellectuals; Candor, the bluntly honest; and Dauntless, the fearless warrior class.

Beatrice "Tris" Prior -- the character played by Woodley -- is the daughter of two Abnegation parents. At 16, like everyone else, she takes an aptitude test to find the most appropriate faction for her personality. She finds out she's "Divergent," with equal aptitude for more than one faction. However, since such a classification is considered threatening to society, she's told to keep the information to herself. She ends up joining Dauntless, much to the disappointment of her parents -- "faction before blood," goes one of the culture's mottoes -- and undergoes a boot camp at which she meets Four (James), one of the camp leaders.

From there the plot concerns Tris' attempts to fit in -- or not -- Four's secrets (there's a connection with a political leader) and run-ins with the Erudite chief, Jeanine Matthews, played by a chilling Kate Winslet.

The book series, which also includes the sequels "Insurgent" and "Allegiant," has sold more than 10 million copies. More importantly, it's got that powerful fan base. There are several fan sites devoted to the series on the Internet, and Roth has more than 200,000 Twitter followers.

Such a following can both help and hurt a movie. Certainly there will be huge crowds awaiting "Divergent's" midnight showing, but if Tris and Four (and the ruins of Chicago, which are their own character in the movie) don't live up to their vision, the backlash could be fierce.

James, however, says that comes with the territory.

"You have to make your own decisions based on what you perceive the character to be," said James. "You have to make bold decisions, stick with them, and whatever will be, will be."

'Everyone is multi-dimensional'

The two had plenty of help getting into character. They had their own boot camp to get into physical shape, and did some of their own stunts -- though stuntpeople stood in for the big falls, and special effects helped with certain details, like a zip-line run off Chicago's John Hancock Center.

They did go up in the big Ferris wheel on the Navy Pier, which Woodley remembers as a special night.

"It was a full moon, so we got to watch the moon go across the sky and go up and down this crazy 75-foot ladder. It was just magic," she said. "It's one of those moments where you wonder how you got this life."

Indeed, Woodley continues enjoying "this life." She says she's had good mentors in actors such as Clooney, Laura Dern and Winslet, people who "show up early, show up prepared."

"They all have in common the fact that they love the art of acting, still. They love being on a movie set," she said.

As "Divergent's" release nears, the two -- along with youthful co-stars including Miles Teller, Jai Courtney and Ansel Elgort -- will see if they can hold on to their love of acting in the midst of a celebrity culture that would like to reduce them to gossip fodder as superficial as members of "Divergent's" single-minded factions. History offers mixed lessons: The shrewd and award-winning Lawrence and the "Harry Potter" kids have apparently succeeded. Other young actors burn out as quickly as they rise.

James -- a veteran of several British TV series, including an episode of "Downton Abbey" -- seems intent on making the most of the opportunity to widen his horizons. As pre-production begins on "Insurgent" and "Allegiant," he's already done two other films: A version of Martin Amis' novel "London Fields" and a film called "Franny" from indie director Andrew Renzi. He may be living by one of the lessons of the film.

"One of the key messages of the film is that no one can be categorized," he said. "Everyone is multidimensional."

And Woodley? She's taking it easy for now. But, like the quietly astute Tris, she understands that you don't present all that you are.

"I think it's important to have your own secrets, preserve your own personal space," she said. "You don't give all of yourself away."

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