Shailene Woodley: Actress on the verge

Shailene Woodley is not only Hollywood’s next big thing, but she is a serial hugger.

The 21-year-old star of the celebrated coming-of-age film “The Spectacular Now,” which opens this week, hugged a journalist at the start of an interview, and then offered another hug at the end of the interview. Julia Roberts never hugged an interviewer.

There seems to be no other explanation except that the young actress is a very nice person. Apparently, she hugs everyone she meets, not just incredibly handsome print journalists.

Although a younger generation knows her from a five-season star turn on the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and a two-season run on TV’s “The O.C.,” an older generation was introduced to her as George Clooney’s daughter in the 2011 film “The Descendants.”

Everyone will be familiar with Woodley after “The Spectacular Now” and “Divergent,” a 2014 movie that is expected to launch a new film franchise similar to “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” She also will play Mary Jane Watson in “The Amazing Spider-Man 3,” and will star in the film adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Fault in Our Stars.”

In “The Spectacular Now,” which has been generating serious buzz since its debut on the film festival circuit, Woodley plays a shy high school senior who falls for a popular but troubled classmate (Miles Teller). This is not a silly or glamorized portrait of high school life as seen in many teen comedies. In fact, Woodley wore no makeup throughout the film, and is proud of her first movie sex scene, which is played neither for laughs or audience titillation.

The first time I interviewed Sharon Stone was a few days before the opening of “Basic Instinct.” Even though this town is notorious for not guaranteeing anything, she believed that she was on the brink of a major career breakthrough. Do you have that same feeling of being on the precipice of something big?

I feel like if “Divergent” does real well, things will definitely change. Just using Jen Lawrence (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence) as an example, things changed for her (after “The Hunger Games”). “Divergent” doesn’t open until March, so I don’t expect any changes until then.

OK, we know that movie will be big, but how do you view this smaller film “The Spectacular Now?”

I think it’s a word-of-mouth movie that will be around for 20, 30 or 50 years. This is the movie that people will remember I was in 10 years from now. When I’m 50 years old, people will remember I was in “The Spectacular Now,” just like I remember Josh Brolin was in “The Goonies.”

Why do you think this film is so memorable?

It’s so real, and so relatable. Movies like this aren’t being made. There just aren’t movies about teenagers out there that don’t have vampires or werewolves in them. And if they don’t have vampires and werewolves in them, then they have teenagers with heavy makeup who look like they’re 25 and live in upper Manhattan.

Most actresses your age want to look their best in every role because this town is obsessed with beauty. How did you know it was the right call to go without makeup in this movie?

I know me. I’m wearing makeup right now, and I’m wearing clothes I’d never normally wear out of respect for the situation. But it’s not me. Aimee (her character) is more like me than the person you see on the red carpet. But there’s something else. This town runs on fear. People don’t talk about that. People are so afraid that if they look a certain way, or talk a certain way, they’re never going to work again. That’s so sad. This is about creating art, and if you’re afraid to do something like not wear makeup, what does that say about our culture?

So, it wasn’t like you were told not to wear makeup?

No. It just made sense to me. I look at someone like Kate Winslet. She is an awesome woman, and she’s not obsessed with her looks. She is a full woman who owns her body, her mind and her heart.

You mentioned Jennifer Lawrence as an example of someone who balances small films with blockbusters. Most actresses do not make that decision. Why did you make it?

It was a giant decision. I’ve been acting since I was 5, so it’s not overnight for me. It was 15 years before someone offered me a blockbuster. I struggled with the offer of “Divergent,” and I even told my agents that I wasn’t going to do it. I never wanted this. I love the life I lead. I never wanted to give up my anonymity. I don’t want to have to worry about going to a farmer’s market and worry about paparazzi. I don’t want this in my life.

If you really feel that way, why would you agree to star in a potential blockbuster like “Divergent?”

I talked to a lot of people I respect, like George Clooney and Alexander Payne (director of “The Descendants”), and they all said to do it. Not one person hesitated. But no one said to do it because it would make me famous. They all said to do it because it would allow me to do small, personal movies.

What about the loss of anonymity?

It’s frightening. It’s a big deal. But I kept thinking that all the reasons against doing it had to do with what other people might think of my decision. I didn’t want to give that power to strangers. And the truth is that I love the character in “Divergent,” and my mother reminded me that I have never turned down a role based on the size of the budget. It’s still a little terrifying to be in a movie like that, but life is short.

After many of years of TV work, “The Descendents” really put you on a lot of people’s radar. Did you realize it was a springboard while you were making it?

I have never thought of acting as a springboard. After “The Descendents,” I didn’t read a script I liked for three years, and so I didn’t work for the next three years until “The Spectacular Now” came along. I’ve done five movies since then, but only because I loved every one of those scripts. If I don’t read another great script for the next five years, I won’t work for the next five years.

Is that something you learned from George?

Nope. That’s the way I’ve been my whole life. If I’m not passionate about a script, why the hell would I want to be in that movie? You’re either right for a role or you’re not right for a role. After maybe 10,000 auditions in my life, that’s what I’ve learned.

You really believe that you’ve done 10,000 auditions?

There’s no way to count, but I did over 60 commercials before I was 11. And those are just the ones I booked.

Although you have said that you don’t care what other people think, you are human. How did you learn how to handle all those rejections?

I don’t know, but those rejections shaped me as the person I am today. I learned early on that you don’t get everything in life. There was something of a challenge in those rejections. I used the rejections to get better.

How did you learn that?

My parents taught me at a very young age that it wasn’t me. I just wasn’t right for the role. It wasn’t personal. I remember I really wanted the role in “I Am Sam” and Dakota Fanning got it. My father said to send her love and compassion because she was going to do this role better than I could have done it. He said one day, I might get a role that Dakota wants because I was the right person for that part.

Is your scoliosis too personal to talk about?

Not at all.

You had the disease when you were in high school. How did that impact your life and career?

I had to wear a brace for two years and I embraced the brace (laughs). I accepted it, and I lived with it. I found cute things to wear with baggy T-shirts. And it didn’t affect the acting at all. I would take the brace off during filming and then put it back on during the breaks.

How much of a normal high school life did you have since you worked straight through middle school and high school?

I booked “Secret Life” in the middle of my junior year, so a teacher would bring all my work to my house once a week. I sat with her for hours doing the work. I got to go to my prom, and I got to graduate with my class.

Who were you in high school?

I was the girl who was everywhere. I was very social. I had very good grades. I did a extracurricular activities. I went to pep rallies. I went to football games. To the super cool kids, I was probably seen as a weirdo, but I loved high school.

Tell me about your first sex scene.

It was so amazing. I was so lucky to do it in that environment. Miles is such a gentleman. There were only three people in the room besides us.

Were you apprehensive?

No. I love that scene. It was shot so beautifully. Most scenes like that are exaggerated or glamorized. Teen movies never get them right. We wanted this scene to be uncomfortable for the audience because it feels so intimate. And I think we achieved that.