Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of dark blockbusters about dystopian societies marked by rampant wealth disparity and class distinctions. As the gap between the rich and poor intensifies in America, we as a people crave stories that mirror our present circumstances and present both desolation and hope. What’s even more interesting is how franchises like The Hunger Games started off as young adult novels, indicative of our youth’s obsession with narratives involving authoritarian governments, power, and rampant political corruption. Who can blame them either? Millennials are growing up in an era of NSA surveillance and nationwide resentment towards Congress; a generation controlled by big money and special interest groups.
This March, the highly anticipated follow up to 2014’s Divergent, based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth of the same name, makes its way into theaters around the U.S. Insurgent follows a rebel alliance attempting to dismantle a dystopian society separated by various class factions, featuring an ensemble cast comprised of Shailene Woodley, Naomi Watts, and Kate Winslet.
Joining the franchise is Australian newcomer Keiynan Lonsdale, who previously starred in Dance Academy. Lonsdale is an exceptional young actor with a heavy background in dance that has allowed him to launch a very promising career in Hollywood. With Insurgent ready to be a smash hit at the box office and present a unique spin on the recent sci-fi oligarchy genre, we called up Lonsdale to discuss how to choreograph emotionally captivating dance performances, what it’s like being on a Hollywood set, and why our public fascination is so enamored with dystopia and authoritarianism.
I’ve been watching some of the music video covers you put together on YouTube. How did you get so good at dancing?
I’ve been dancing since I was, like, two years old. That was the first thing I ever did.
And then you kept up with it, which is always good.
Yeah, my high school was a dance high school so we did three hours of academics and we did three hours of dance training or sometimes acting scenes. I was doing all of that when I was thirteen.
So in many respects, you were already fully trained when you had your first role on Dance Academy. It also helped that you were in a dance school.
Yeah, that was kind of a cool transition for me to go from the dancing to the acting. It felt like I kept myself really comfortable with my dance abilities, so I could really focus on my acting.
When you first started off, did you notice any similarities between acting and dancing?
The main thing I would say is that with dancing you’re still telling a story. I never really connected with dancing or choreography that exists with no reason, which is sometimes still amazing, but I think what really connects with people is when there’s a story behind it, where we actually understand the reasons why they’re moving. So I think it’s the same thing with acting; you’re telling a story while you’re dancing and acting at the same time.
How would a director or choreographer go about creating a piece like that?
A lot of the time, it comes from the music, which is the cool thing because everything kind of intersects in terms of acting, dancing, music… it’s all just one big thing. Most of the time, I think it begins with the music. Everyone hears the song in a different way, just like they hear your story a different way so the choreographer will then hear that song and then interpret what they feel and make up a story themselves of that and use then movement to rely through dance. Often times, they’ll have something specifically in mind but other instances they’ll just let the dancers run with it.
You’re from Australia originally and were shooting a number of projects over there before Insurgent. How does filmmaking differ in the US than from Australia?
I guess the main thing is the fact that it’s on such a bigger scale. I’ve never done film before. I did when I was like thirteen, but I was basically an extra so it was different. Comparing Australian TV and an American blockbuster film though, the scale of everything was just so huge, but I would say it still consists of the same core structure. I didn’t feel like there was any more pressure doing the film than I did when I was doing Dance Academy. I still felt like the scheduling was kind of the same and everyone’s energy was just as high. You don’t know what to expect coming from the outside; you don’t know with a Hollywood set if there’s insanity and pressure. It wasn’t like that at all. It was pretty relaxed.
How would you describe a Hollywood set in terms of all the different props and scenery pieces that are on it?
There is so much detail that goes into all the sets. With Insurgent, we got to go to so many different factions so we got to create so many different societies within the one film. The detail they put into creating that world was just so methodical so when you walk onto one of those sets, you automatically feel like you’re a part of another world.
I was blown away with the first one from a production aspect, just in terms of detail.
I would say even more do with the second one.
With movies like Insurgent, The Giver, and Hunger Games, Hollywood has been making all these films about futuristic, dystopian societies and authoritarian governments with notable class distinctions. Why do you think, we as a public, are so fixated on these themes?
I guess everyone has something to relate to. Where I come from, I grew up in government housing and my family still lives there. It’s very far from the city and you just feel like you’re separate from the heart of the city. Where I went to high school, which was a performing arts school in the city, was sort of different. When you’re learning about all these new worlds, people love seeing the differences of what humans can be like when they’re treated under different circumstances. We always wonder, “what if we had one eyebrow or one eye.” So then it becomes, “What if we were all forced to fight each other to death?” Or, “What if we were forced to do one job for the rest of our life that completely defined us?” Those are the things that are fascinating so I think that’s why the public responds so much. It’s interesting looking at life in a different way.
But do you think there’s an element of truth with the circumstances franchises like Divergent are portraying?
I think it all comes from truth. I think with Divergent the main theme in the story is that people who are divergents are seen as flawed; they’re seen as threats and it’s seen as impure to be more than one thing and not be classified as a stereotype. In the movie, there are five factions and you have to be one of those things. I think in our world today, I feel like we’re totally free but there are also countries sort of like that based on race, sexuality, age. You know what I mean? Things are always different. I think that’s definitely inspiring to create a different story around it of something more extreme.
Something I think is interesting is that all of these movies have come out very close to one another. With what’s going on in the news nowadays, people don’t have trust in their political systems and are looking at the 1% with more distain than ever. Movies like Divergent almost emulate this.
Yeah, and it comes down to trust. We’re in a society where we have to place our lives in the hands of governments and world leaders, and that’s the premise of these films; they show you that we don’t actually know what’s going on. These films come down to the very bottom of what really ‘is’. We don’t know whether or not we should really trust what we hear all the time so these films are about finding out the secrets of the governments. That’s what I think really relates to us.
And it definitely explores a darker relationship with power. It’s also interesting how Divergent, like Hunger Games, started out as a young adult novel. It’s almost as if teenagers are catching on to more sophisticated worldly metaphors dealing with power, corruption, and political institutions.
Totally, yeah. These things are relevant and so that’s what I think have captivated people. Also, the films are stark and mature and I think that’s what captures the eyes of people at an older age.
What direction do you think our world is currently headed in?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. It’s tough because you hear about all these terrible things happening and you go, “What is the world coming to?” But then in another sense, we all want to make positive changes as well and help people. I look at the world as in right now, I’m happy. I can walk down the street and be happy. I’m not being put through torture or other horrible things. But then, there are countries where that’s still happening. I don’t know where the world is going to go, whether it’s going to be more positive or more restrictive. It needs to be a world where people are free to do what they love to do without fear; a world that isn’t all about power.