Years before Mekhi Phifer played the stern-faced “Dauntless” enforcement officer Max in this weekend’s The Divergent Series: Insurgent, he displayed a dauntless attitude that got him his first acting job.
The year was 1994, the movie was Spike Lee’s Clockers and over 1000 people showed up for an open casting call.
“I went with my cousin,” he says, “not knowing anything about the audition or open casting call process. Spike Lee auditioned me about seven or eight different times. I had to read with Harvey Keitel and Isaiah Washington and do improvisations. I had never done that type of stuff before so to have gotten that was a whirlwind; I just thought that was the norm. That’s how you cast movies—a thousand people come in.”
He won the lead role and parlayed that success into a string of memorable characters in movies like 8 Mile and TV shows like ER, where he played Dr. Greg Pratt for six seasons and the Dr. Who spin-off, the sci-fi series Torchwood: Miracle Day.
“I am a big fan of sci-fi,” he says. “and that was part of the allure [to signing on for the Divergent series], but the other part was that it was good. I’m not looking for one particular genre or one particular type of film I usually just gravitate towards what’s good.”
He plays Max, leader of Dauntless, the warrior bloc of a Big Brother style government that has divided the post-apocalyptic Chicago into five factions. In the new film his job is to hunt down and capture fugitives Tris (Shailene Woodley) and boyfriend Four (Theo James) because she is she is divergent, a person who cannot be pigeonholed into just one designation.
“He’s not a villain at all in any way shape or form,” he says. “He’s tasked with protecting the society and I really feel that he believes in expunging the divergents and the rebel factions. He’s not doing it in a malicious way. He’s not getting pleasure from other people’s pain. He looks at it as a necessary evil.”
Phifer hasn’t read the Veronica Roth books that make up the source material for the films—“For me it seemed like more fun to do the series and then read the books and compare.”—so he’s not sure what’s going to happen with his character, but he hopes Max comes back for next year’s instalment Allegiant – Part 1.
“I don’t know what’s happening next so I’m on the journey with the audience,” he says. “I would love to see some of who he is come full circle.”