March 26, 2014 12:00 PM

Watch your back, Katniss, Tris Prior’s gunning for you. After selling 5 million copies, Divergent is ready to take a flying leap into movie theaters on March 21, eager to lure Hunger Games fans into its postapocalyptic world of feuding factions, brutal tests of survival and tattooed teen romance.

As the heroine of the tale, Beatrice Prior goes from living a ho-hum life in the stiflingly selfless Abnegation faction to joining – as the newly rechristened Tris – the death-defying ranks of the Dauntless (all the while concealing the fact that she’s dangerously “divergent” from her peers). “I was really excited to bring to life a girl who is very normal, who happens to be put in large situations and has to rise to the occasion,” says Shailene Woodley, 22, who nabbed the Divergent lead after spending five years on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager and then getting critical raves as George Clooney‘s daughter in 2011’s The Descendants. “Tris is not a superhero. She is not an action star. She is somebody who has a brave heart, and I was forced to feel it out and define it.”

Tris may not be an action star, but Veronica Roth – the author who created her – wanted to test her ability to conquer everything from the emotional perils of being a teenager to living life in a time of all-out warfare. “I wrote Divergent when I was only 21 years old,” says Roth, who landed her book deal when she was still an undergrad at Northwestern. “I was not exactly the pinnacle of restraint, so when I wrote the book I was more like, ‘Action! This will be fun! Bang, bang!'”

That explains the onslaught of scenes in which Tris has knives hurled at her head, zip-lines off a skyscraper, gets dangled off a bridge by bullies and dodges a hailstorm of bullets. Through it all, Woodley did her own stunts. “I love adrenaline and working hard,” she says. “It was intense, but it was also very fun.” Still, there were a few scenes – like the one where she’s dangling off of a Ferris wheel and the one where she had to fling herself off a roof – that required extra reserves of courage. “Yes, Shailene was afraid of heights, but you wouldn’t have known it,” says the movie’s stunt coordinator Garrett Warren. “She went out there and showed an awful lot of bravery facing those fears.” The movie’s director Neil Burger couldn’t agree more. “Shailene is so real and so true and honest in her portrayal,” he says. “You feel like you know her, but then she has this whole badass action side to her too.”

Despite her affinity for the role, Woodley – who likes the low-key, low-budget life of working on indie movies – was extremely wary about becoming Tris. “At first I was like, ‘I actually don’t think that I want to do this,'” says Woodley. “You look at Jennifer Lawrence or Kristen Stewart and how much their lives have changed. If Divergent follows in the path of their movies, there are things that come with that – a different life.” So Woodley talked it over with her mom and her friends, who pointed out that “I really loved who Tris was, and I loved the story, and so then a lot of things became more clear.” Woodley’s Divergent costar Zoe Kravitz, who plays Tris’s best friend in Dauntless and also happens to be a real-life pal of Jennifer Lawrence‘s, thinks Woodley definitely made the right decision. “Both Shai and Jen know exactly who they are,” says Kravitz. “They’re the perfect people to be put in this type of situation because they handle it with such beauty and grace.”

Of course, a good chunk of the movie’s appeal will also be resting on the sculpted shoulders of the young British actor Theo James, 29, who plays Tris’s brooding mentor and eventual love interest, Four. James – who got the chance to audition for Four at the tail end of an exhaustive casting search – cites the instant chemistry that he and Woodley “stumbled upon quite easily” as a big factor in his landing the biggest role of his career. “When I auditioned, I had to do that scene where I pull Tris down from the net when she first jumps into Dauntless and meets Four. I think when other actors auditioned, she had been handled delicately, but I just grabbed her, which Shai loved.” So did the director. “I saw it the first time they got in a room together,” says Burger. “There’s such friction and tension – a tough feeling between them that plays out as electricity.”

Once filmmakers locked in the perfect Four, it was time for another casting coup: introducing Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, the power-mad Erudite leader who’s out to kill Tris. “When they said they were going to approach Kate, I was like, ‘Pshh, good luck,'” says Roth. “And then when she was cast, it was just incredible.” Now, as the hordes of Divergent fans – who’ve been posting their Dauntless tattoos on Pinterest and launching scores of Tris-and-Four Tumblr pages – prepare to see their beloved characters come to life on the big screen, Roth can’t believe how big her book concept has become. Says Roth: “When you’re sitting in your rubber ducky jammies in your parents’ house, writing this story, who could imagine all this would happen?”

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