Breaking the Rules

From the second Shailene Woodley arrives at our shoot, all scrappy topknot and borrowed sweats, it is apparent she’s not your average Hollywood starlet. She looks like an off-duty yoga teacher, with her gallon of spring water (she collected it from the mountain herself, no big deal) and her packed lunch (brown rice soaked in tea, sure) in her hand and her Toms on her toes. There is a hug for every member of the team, and not one of those limp ones that’s followed by a scrub down with antiseptic hand wash – it’s a full-body, pull-you-in-and-wind-you bear hug.

She has legs up to her armpits. Not literally, of course, but noticeably long all the same. She wears no make-up on her face and no product in her hair. She sits on the ground when we eat lunch, preferring that to the seat we all offer her – the boys, I might add, particularly swiftly. If she is the name on everybody’s lips, she doesn’t seem to know it. Or rather, it’s more likely, she simply doesn’t care.

Shailene’s last six months have been the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Actress on a not particularly-huge US TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, gets sent a script to read. She falls in love with the script. So does George Clooney. The film is The Descendants, and she lands the role of Clooney’s daughter, filming in Hawaii for four months. The film is universally lauded, does the awards circuit, and suddenly, Shailene Woodley from Simi Valley, California, is the new name to drop. But fame and fortune are not what she seeks.

‘I don’t pay attention to all of that stuff,’ she says two days after our shoot, at a cafe in Silver Lake, L.A. ‘I never have. I know nothing about the industry, nothing about the “business” and I intend to always be that way. There are more options coming in for me (since The Descendants), but that really doesn’t affect me, because I will never do a movie I’m not passionate about. I’d rather be in a two-minute scene in a phenomenal Meryl Streep movie than the lead of an action-hero film.’

It is a brave stance, and one that would probably make most agents weep into their commission pot, but Shailene is not easily swayed. The life she leads is not that of a Lohan or a Kardashian, and it’s unlikely she could even tell you who they were. In her spare time, she is not hanging out in clubs or exchanging numbers with paps, she is, in fact, foraging for food in San Diego. Yes. Foraging for food. It is an unlikely pursuit for a girl of 20, but if there is one thing to expect with Shailene, it is the unexpected. Her outdoor adventures are the reason for the scratches that cover both her hands, and creep up her neck, and the reason she takes a packed lunch with her everywhere.

But while it may sound like she might not love the veneer that coats the world she lives in, what she does love is making movies, especially the one that got her global fame. ‘The Descendants was so real and so raw,’ she says, pulling her grey marl cardigan over her hands. The emotional roller coaster that you go on, when you’re laughing in one scene and crying in the next. It felt very special. And spending all that time with George (Clooney) and Alexander (Payne, the film’s director), I acquired big brothers almost. A lot of people say, “It’s a lot and how did you handle it?” but it didn’t feel like a lot. The only thing it felt like was being extremely busy and traveling. Being in Hawaii with everybody felt natural and like I had been doing it my whole life.’

Shailene has, in fact, been acting for a lot of her life. Remember Kaitlin Cooper mark one on The O.C.? The pony-obsessed mini Mischa (before she went to boarding school, got big and entirely different)? That was Shailene. There were bit parts in TV shows, and bigger roles in TV movies, and then she was cast as Amy Juergens in ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, who, five seasons on, she still plays. ‘My character was pregnant in the first season,’ she says, ‘so it deals with the trials and tribulations of having a child at a young age. And the cross relationships between kids at high school and parents and divorce. It deals with a lot of really important themes.’

Her dream, she says, is to do more films. ‘Movies are where my heart is at,’ she admits, not noticing the double takes waitresses and customers alike afford her. ‘I love dark roles – roles that appear scary. Not in a horror film way, but like Black Swan or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Films that take the audience on an emotional journey. And I would love to play Patti Smith in a film one day – I’m re-reading her autobiography, I’m obsessed with it.’

Shailene’s foraging and studying for her course in herbalism (‘my real job’) were put on the back burner briefly during the start of the year’s award season, when The Descendants was nominated across the board, including a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress for Shailene herself. ‘It was fun!’ she says of the swathe of parties that punctuated her February. ‘The one thing that did get annoying was the constant use of make-up and fancy dresses (she, in fact, apologises for turning up to the interview with make-up on). It’s turned from this world of cinema, to, “You’re not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not best-dressed enough…” But I didn’t do The Descendants to wear a designer’s dress and a lot of make-up and get points from the fashion police.’

Her sartorial choices did come under scrutiny, particularly the white Valentino Couture dress she picked for the Oscars. ‘A lot of people didn’t like it,’ she shrugs, with a smile. ‘They were like, “She’s 20, she’s covering herself up, why is she doing that?” But to me it felt classy and elegant and that’s what I think of when I think of the Oscars. It felt simple and elegant and it still represented who I am. Most of my clothes come through friends – this cardigan is two years old and these jeans are my friend’s boyfriend’s.’

She is doing things differently, Shailene Woodley, but that’s OK with her. She’s happiest out of the spotlight, making the movies that she loves rather than the ones that might break box office records. As for the future? A pause. A laugh. ‘I’m excited to become a badass archer,’ she says. ‘I want to be able to shoot a small pen dot on the wall, 20 feet away. I want to be like Katniss.’ Well, at least Shailene will know how to survive in the wild…