If you never had a chance to watch the recently concluded ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, then, like most things about adolescence that are woefully ignored or misunderstood, you probably don’t fully appreciate the true magnitude of what Shailene Woodley has already been through and wouldn’t understand it if she tried to explain it to you. During the show’s five-year run, which culminated in June with Woodley’s character, teen mom Amy Juergens, heading off to college, the arc of the show’s narrative found Amy, at various points, wrestling with a multitude of issues pertaining to sex, romantic confusion, unplanned pregnancy, and young motherhood, and later, as the series progressed, the very many inherent difficulties involved in being a sexually active teen mom surrounded by yet more sex, romantic confusion, and unplanned pregnancy—as well as, in season two, a pregnant mother (played by Molly Ringwald!). And to make matters worse: the sexual encounter that leads to the pregnancy and that sets off the whole chain of events for Amy? Happened at band camp.
Perhaps surprisingly—or maybe unsurprisingly—Secret Life achieved some of the highest ratings in the history of ABC Family, frequently trouncing its primary Millennial-focused competition, the CW’s also recently late, lamented Gossip Girl. But the show also functioned as a springboard for Woodley, who has been acting since the age of 5, to do other things, like make movies. Her first: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), in which she played Alexandra, the teenage daughter of George Clooney’s character, who reveals to her father that her mother, who is on life support after suffering a head injury in a boating accident, was cheating on him. Woodley’s complex and unerringly naturalistic performance netted her an Independent Spirit Award as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress. Since then, she has worked nonstop, wrapping up Secret Life and shooting a trio of other movies—including James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, which earned Woodley and co-star Miles Teller a special jury prize for acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and hits theaters this month.
Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now explores the budding relationship between hard-partying, devil-may-care, high school senior Sutter (Teller), an alcoholic-in-training who is perpetually absorbed in the moment (to his repeated detriment), and straight-laced, rigidly bookish Aimee (Woodley), who finds Sutter passed out drunk on a front lawn and quickly becomes enamored with the fact that he is everything she is not. Determinedly unglossy and awkward, but pitch perfect in its rawness, the movie offers a dark, occasionally funny, but intensely emotional window on both the innocence and the naïveté of young love—and all of the good and the bad that come with it. But while Woodley seems to have found her rhythm in playing girls grappling with the encroachments of adulthood, she’s not afraid to change up the beat. In addition to The Spectacular Now, she’s also completed work on Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, will star alongside Theo James, Kate Winslet, and Jai Courtney in Neil Burger’s forthcoming sci-fi film Divergent, based upon the hit series of dystopian young-adult books by Veronica Roth.
Actress Emma Stone, who was in New York, connected by phone one late spring night with the 21-year-old Woodley in Chicago, where she was shooting Divergent, to discuss her graduation from Secret Life, her quickly expanding oeuvre, and the challenges of growing up, acting out, and coming of age—both on-screen and off.
EMMA STONE: I wanted to start by asking you about something that I know you’re really interested in. Recently, you came over to the apartment in New York where I’ve been staying while shooting [The Amazing Spider-Man 2.] The building has a roof deck with a little garden, so we went up there, and I was surprised that you were able to identify the herbs that were growing there—I remember specifically that you identified the thyme. I know that you’re really passionate about herbalism and organic farming. How did you get into that?
SHAILENE WOODLEY: I was an environmentalist in high school—or, I guess, a self-proclaimed environmentalist—and I started reading about the food system in America and how it’s owned by all of these corporations. I was on a quest to find out what healthy really meant because people were saying that veganism was healthy or that the Paleo diet was healthy, but I really had no idea. So I started researching indigenous people and what their lifestyles were like because I was fascinated by the fact that they could still run in their eighties and still had amazing muscular and nervous systems, whereas in America now, by the time we get to our thirties, it’s really hard for us to lose weight and maintain a healthy body and composition. So I just started adapting my lifestyle to that of indigenous people, and what I realized is that we’re all indigenous creatures on this planet. The whole concept of re-wilding came about through some really good friends of mine, and it’s basically about adapting to your current situation. If you’re in the city, then you can’t go back to hunter-and-gatherer times, so you have to adapt to the lifestyle that’s out there. Herbalism is part of that, and knowing how to heal our bodies naturally and knowing about organic farming. It’s so important and essential to the Earth, to Gaia. We want to continue to live on this planet, and I think we need to break down the associations that we have that we’re different from nature—that we need to protect the Earth and save the Earth—when we are, in fact, part of the Earth. So it all starts with us. If we want to save the planet, then I think we need to start saving ourselves in order to do that. I believe that organic farming, among many other practices, can really start that shift.
STONE: It’s rare for someone to have such a passion for health at such a young age. How did that start for you?
WOODLEY: Well, I started noticing that I was dependent on all of these systems. I was dependent on going to the doctor to tell me what was wrong with me. I was dependent on going to a certain class to learn certain information. I was dependent on going to Vons or Whole Foods to get my groceries, and I didn’t know where anything was from. Honestly, everything changed when I went to Hawaii to film The Descendants. We were on these islands for four months. It was at the very beginning of my young adult life, and I think just being connected to nature in that way really reminded me of what life is about—at least for me. I believe that life is about the importance of reconnecting to our roots and living. I think that anything in excess can be toxic—just like not enough of some things can be toxic—so it’s just about finding the perfect balance of whatever works for you and helps you find lasting positivity and happiness. I’ve found that self-love and self-expression for me can just come in the form of trees and come in the form of connecting back to the soil.
STONE: You must have had access to a lot of that in Topanga when you were on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. You shot the show in one location for all five years, right?
WOODLEY: Yes, when I was doing Secret Life, I was able to live in the mountains, and I’m so grateful for it because, after working very long hours, you’d get to come home to frogs and deer and coyotes. It felt like we were very disconnected from the city of Los Angeles even though we were really only a few miles outside of it.
STONE: So how have you dealt with being in so many different cities lately where you’re not able to be in nature as often?
WOODLEY: Sometimes it’s a struggle. But as I was saying, it’s all about balance. Right now I’m filming in Chicago, and I’m in an apartment building 35 stories up in the air, and I’ve never lived in a city where I have to be careful about walking around my house naked because the business office next door will be able to see me at 7 a.m. [both laugh] But I still have my crock pot of chaga mushroom tea brewing all the time …
STONE: And you wear those Vibram FiveFinger shoes.
WOODLEY: Oh, yes!
STONE: They’re everywhere. I remember the first time I met you, we got to go to dinner, and you were wearing those shoes. I was like, I’m going to like this girl.
WOODLEY: I’m getting you a pair.
STONE: So what do you do before bed each night? What’s your ritual?
WOODLEY: It depends. If I’m having a me night, I might do 15 to 45 minutes of yoga. The thing that’s most grounding for me before bed, though, is when I wash my face. To wash my face and nourish my skin and cleanse myself of everything that happened through the day, and then to sit in bed with my journal or a book of poems or a novel and a cup of tea, is the perfect way for me to ensure a good night’s rest.
STONE: Do you dream?
WOODLEY: I dream so many dreams! I do.
STONE: Do you write them down?
WOODLEY: I do write them down. I’ve actually found some herbs that will induce lucid dreaming or will help with other types of dreaming.
STONE: What are they? Mushrooms?
WOODLEY: No, they’re not mushrooms! [both laugh] Although, I’ve heard something about that …
STONE: There are rumors about these mushrooms out in the world … [laughs] But what herb helps with lucid dreaming?
WOODLEY: There are a few. One that I love for dreaming is called mugwort. It’s actually what we’d call a weed. You can find it all over America. You can dry it and make it into a tea or you can burn it like sage. It’s what the Native Americans used to do to bring on helpful dreams to encourage visions for the coming days.
STONE: So what happens when you wake up, then? What do you do in the morning?
WOODLEY: The second I wake up, I scream very loudly [sings to the tune of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain], “Good morning! Good morning!” And then I scream out, “Exciting day! Exciting day!” I feel like it completely sets the mood for the whole day.
STONE: You do that every single morning?
WOODLEY: Every single morning. Unless I’m at someone’s house—then it might not be appropriate.
STONE: On those mornings, do you do it in sign language?
WOODLEY: I do it in sign language. People are like, “What is this girl doing these avatar dance moves for?”
STONE: We should talk about The Spectacular Now. What was it like to go to Sundance with that film?
WOODLEY: Well, I go to Sundance every year because of a friend who has a condo there, but this was the first time that I’ve gone with a movie. We filmed The Spectacular Now in the South with a bunch of people who hadn’t really worked on too many movies before, so it was a really different experience than working on a bigger film. It was cool to reunite with the cast and the director because everyone got so close while we were filming and we’re so proud of the movie. Presenting it to the film world was also exciting.
STONE: Did you relate to your character, Amy?
WOODLEY: I related to her in the sense that my first boyfriend in high school was way cooler than I ever could’ve been. It’s funny because now he’s one of my closest friends. But back then, he was the cool dude and I was the nerdy calculus girl. I think that, when we were 15, I helped him sort of look outside of the box and start thinking in a way that didn’t involve just going to parties and smoking ganja, doing the whole ditch-school thing, and he helped me not take life so seriously at such a young age and to have fun and experience new things. So doing The Spectacular Now was like replaying my childhood in a sense. Obviously, the storyline is different, but just going back to that time of not really knowing who you are and what you want but falling in love with somebody—or experiencing what you think is love at that young age and finding yourself through that. Apart from a couple of scenes, I don’t wear much makeup in the film. Watching it back, there were some scenes where I was like, “Oh, god. I wish I’d put some makeup on. I look awful!” But once I let go of my insecurities, I could see how it added a lot to the film. The fact that we weren’t wearing makeup made it seem much more real and relatable because we’re playing awkward high school students, not beauty queens.
STONE: Speaking of which, I know that you and a friend have committed to going without makeup part-time on red carpets. Why is that important to you?
WOODLEY: It’s important because I saw somebody—what I thought was me—in a magazine once, and I had big red lips that definitely did not belong on my face. I had boobs about three times the size they are in real life. My stomach was completely flat. My skin was also flawless. But the reality is that I do not have those lips and my skin is not flawless and I do have a little bit of a stomach. It was not a proper representation of who I am. I realized that, growing up and looking at magazines, I was comparing myself to images like that—and most of it isn’t real. So (a) I don’t really wear makeup that much anyway, so part of it is just a selfish, lazy thing, and (b) I want to be me. I do think it’s fun sometimes to dress up for the Oscars or for certain events—I get to be like a five-year-old again, wearing my Cinderella dress. But for some events where it’s a more casual vibe, I just want to be me.
STONE: You and your co-star in The Spectacular Now, Miles Teller, were awarded a special jury prize for acting at Sundance. How do you feel about things like awards and reviews and the reactions to your work?
WOODLEY: With awards, I think, on one hand, it’s so deeply flattering and extremely humbling and you don’t really know what to say. But I don’t act for anyone else—I do it for myself. So when people recognize you for your work, it feels very awkward and intimidating. I remember after The Descendants, I won an Independent Spirit Award—which was amazing. But then it also led me to this moment of feeling a pressure that I’d never felt before. All of a sudden, people were saying, “I can’t wait to see what you do next!” and “You’re nominated for a Golden Globe!” I was like, “Shit, now I’ve got to be good because you’re going to be watching me?” So there was a period after doing press for The Descendants where I was like, “I don’t want to act anymore because there’s too much pressure.” But one of my best friends and my mom both reminded me, “Shai, you’ve never acted for anyone else. You’ve just got to ignore all the other stuff and do it for yourself”—and the second I was reminded of that, I realized that I just need to do what I do and what I love.
STONE: How did you wind up on Secret Life of the American Teenager?
WOODLEY: Well, I’d been acting since I was 5, but I’d never wanted to do a series because I always wanted to be able to go to public school. Secret Life came about when I was 15, at this weird time when I was thinking that I would eventually apply to college and maybe go to NYU to study interior design. I’d always wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t see it as being my number-one career. I’d always thought of acting as a side job. But then I read the script for Secret Life and was really drawn to the idea. This is before MTV had the teenage pregnancy shows and after Juno  came out. Aside from Juno, teenage pregnancy wasn’t really talked about that much in that way, and I thought that there were a lot of quote-unquote controversial issues that were dealt with on the show in a very real manner. Obviously, as the show progressed, things changed a bit. But the very first script led me to believe that it was going to be a show about truthful, really hard things that happen in high school that would be dealt with in a very authentic way. It was a show that I was extremely passionate about in the beginning, and it’s not that I lost passion for it, but I just didn’t connect to the storyline toward the end. Sometimes, morally, I questioned what I would have to say on the show. It got to the point where I felt like there was kind of a conflict in terms of what I was preaching to the world and what I actually believed as a human, which was rough. It’s interesting because now having done something like Divergent—if a project like that does well and there are sequels, then it could possibly take up the next several years of your life. And with big movies, you’re responsible for making them, but also selling them—and part of that is doing publicity. What I found with Secret Life was that it was hard to talk about some of the issues because I didn’t believe in them, and on a personal level, I was not in agreement with the things that we were preaching. But I think that with anything you do in life that requires a commitment, you have to make sure you’re fully passionate about it and go in with full integrity—and even at the end, if you’re not as passionate about it, you still recognize the commitment that you made and you stick to it.
STONE: If you could talk to Shailene at 15, what would you tell her right now?
WOODLEY: I would tell myself that there’s no need to be insecure. I was extremely insecure when I was 15. I was afraid I was too skinny—not because of any eating habits, but because my entire family is like a bunch of lanky string beans. I also didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I projected a lot of confidence and I’m sure if you asked my friends from high school, everybody would say that I was a very confident person. But on the inside, I was very mean to myself. I think back on a lot of problems just as far as the way I would express my anger or my angst toward my family … I think the root of it all was insecurity. So I would definitely say to myself at that age, “You’re worthy. You’re beautiful.” Beauty comes from self-love … But I’m going to ask you right back: What would you tell yourself at 15?
STONE: Wow. You’ve turned the tables … I came out to L.A. from Phoenix with my mom when I was 15, so at that time, I had a burst of just what you’re talking about—I projected this self-confidence. For me, that was a really confident year. I look back on that year and trying to re-create the headspace that I had then. For whatever reason, it was when I kind of realized what I wanted to do with my life. So I guess I would ask my 15-year-old self to come up more often—to keep poking her head up as often as she possibly can.
WOODLEY: It’s amazing what our inner children, our previous selves, can teach us about our present-day lives.
STONE: So who are the main characters in your life now—the people you interact with most frequently?
WOODLEY: I would say that the main one is my mom. She’s really everything to me. I struggled with her when I was younger. When I was 15, 16, 17, we did not have a good relationship. I was constantly fighting for my freedom. When I was a freshman, I was hanging out with seniors, so I wanted to go out with them to parties and things and experience life. And for my mom, it was like, “Okay, you can go, but I’m going to call the parents first,” or “I’m going to drop you off.” So I felt like I had an amazing amount of freedom, but it was micromanaged freedom—that’s how I used to phrase it. We fought a lot. I think I was a very hard teenager to live with. But the day I turned 18, something magical happened, because suddenly I had all of the freedom that I wanted and I stopped trying to battle her and prove to her that I was an independent person. At that point, we started bonding in a way that we never had before. I started to realize how lucky I was to have a mom who made me read The Secret when I was 15 and who taught me about manifesting positivity in my life and about compassion and integrity and being a kind human being.
STONE: We’re both pretty lucky to have great moms. There was a period in your life when you uprooted and lived in New York. What was that time like?
WOODLEY: It was right before we filmed The Descendants. It was actually during the winter, over hiatus from Secret Life of the American Teenager. I packed up with my boyfriend at the time and we showed up with our suitcases and got an apartment. I got a job at a local clothing store. I had just turned 18, and we moved to New York a few days after my birthday. I would definitely say that it was a darker part of my life, when I was just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted. And then being in my first big relationship and having that end … I remember staying in a lot during that time. It was a lot of figuring life out and having my amazing adolescent revelations.
STONE: That was your first big relationship? Was it also your first big heartbreak?
WOODLEY: It was my first relationship out of high school—and I guess you could call it a heartbreak. It was such a young relationship, and now, the things that seemed so important and mature and adult about it sort of make me giggle because of how cute and innocent it was in ways that I didn’t realize at the time.
STONE: And that led right up to you doing The Descendants?
WOODLEY: Yeah, I basically went straight from New York to Hawaii.
STONE: How do you look back on the experience of making that movie now? Obviously, it turned out to be a transformative experience for you in a lot of ways.
WOODLEY: When I first booked The Descendants, everybody was very excited about it, but I didn’t really know who Alexander Payne was. I’d seen Sideways , but I was 14 at the time and didn’t really understand it. So I feel very fortunate that I got to know Alexander, the human being, before I got to know him as a director. I’d been acting for a long time, but that was my first feature film, so I didn’t have anything to compare him to at the time. It’s interesting, though, because when we were doing press for the film, someone asked George [Clooney] what it was like to work with Alexander, and George said that when you work with directors like the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Jason Reitman, or Alexander, you just get to do your job. He said, “When we were doing The Descendants, I got to show up every day and do my job. I got to be an actor.” I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but now I do. When you work with someone like Alexander, you don’t have to fight for the justification of who the character is or what the movie is about. You don’t have to worry about the script or fight for the humanity or the truth of the project because Alexander does all that for you. And then, as human beings, both George and Alexander have become like big brothers or wise friends. They’ve given me advice not only on the industry, but also on my personal life. Getting that movie was really one of those moments where the stars aligned.
STONE: What’s Alexander like as a director? Did he give you a lot of notes? For example, that scene where you’re on the couch telling George’s character that your mother was cheating on him—how did you make your way through that?
WOODLEY: The beauty of Alexander is that he gets to know you as a person before you film, so the best note that he ever gave me was, “You’re not being you. Be Shai.” I knew exactly what he meant—that I was acting as opposed to being authentic and listening in the moment. From what I remember of the casting, the notes he gave me were similar to the notes he gave me on set, which were, “Go slower and talk louder.” I have a tendency to talk extremely fast and quiet.
STONE: Why do you think that is?
WOODLEY: I think the fastness comes from the fact that I get very excited about things and I just want to spit them out. Every director I’ve worked with since then has given me similar notes … Maybe it has something to do with growing up in L.A.
STONE: It’s an L.A. issue. [both laugh] You now have three other movies in the works—White Bird in a Blizzard, The Fault in Our Stars, and Divergent—and they’re all very different from one another and are of different genres. How do you feel about being involved in all of these incredibly different projects?
WOODLEY: Well, you and I have talked before about having this fear of being the same person in every movie and this insecurity about playing the same role over and over again. So hearing you say that these films all sound so different makes me feel better about the fact that I won’t be the same person in every movie. I mean, I got to do Spectacular Now, which was super-indie. Then I got to do White Bird in a Blizzard, which is a crazy Gregg Araki movie where there was some minor nudity and some scenes that are very provocative. It’s darker than some of the other films that I’ve done. Then Divergent, which is based on a young-adult novel, is the first action movie I’ve done. Yesterday, I was tied to a post waving a stick with fire on the end of it in the air. [laughs] And then The Fault in Our Stars is the film I’m doing next, and I’m very excited about that one because it’s based on one of my favorite books [the 2012 novel by John Green].
STONE: How has your approach to acting changed throughout all of these experiences?
WOODLEY: I’ve been acting for a long time, and maybe it’s just going from job to job to job to job without a break, but now I find myself questioning who the character is more. On a bigger movie like Divergent, you really have to define that for yourself because it’s so easy to get caught up in all the action. Not only are you acting, but you’re climbing a building, and you have to turn a certain way at a certain time so a brick doesn’t fall on you. So I feel like I think about things beforehand now more than I have in the past, so I’ve had to sort of retrain my brain to approach acting in a different way. It isn’t better or worse. It’s just a new way of thinking.
STONE: Has it made you more aware of the kinds of roles that you might want to do in the future?
WOODLEY: I want to do a role that I’ve never done before. I’ve never been a funny girl, so I think I would like to do a quirky dark comedy.
STONE: Do you think people are ever going to stop asking you about George Clooney?
WOODLEY: Probably not, but that’s okay. I really like him.
STONE: It’s interesting, because, at least in my experience, when you’re involved in a project with a leading male actor in it that a lot of people are drawn to, it seems like every interview involves questions about that actor. I find that much more with the males that I’ve worked with than the females. Obviously, George is really good friend of yours, but you do seem to get asked about him a lot.
WOODLEY: In every single interview. I don’t mind talking about him, though, because he’s one of my favorite human beings on the planet. But it’s true that very few people have asked me what it’s like to work with Judy Greer or Ann-Margret or Molly Ringwald. It’s always the leading male.
STONE: Do you have actors or directors that you’d really like to work with?
WOODLEY: There are so many. People like Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Mark Ruffalo … Just with those three I feel like you can do no wrong.
STONE: What about directors?
WOODLEY: Well, I’d love to work with someone who you’re going to be working with pretty soon, Cameron Crowe. He’s unbelievable.
STONE: I can’t even put into words … He actually interviewed me for Interview. When I told him I was going to interview you, he sent me this flood of ideas for questions.
WOODLEY: What are some of Cameron’s questions?
STONE: Okay, I’m going to steal from him here … Who do you call on Christmas?
WOODLEY: I would say somebody from my family, but I’m with my whole family on Christmas, so I put my phone under my bed and don’t pick it up at all!
STONE: I like that answer. Here’s another one: What is the first song on the best mix that you’ve made?
WOODLEY: “Keep a Knockin’?” by Little Richard.
STONE: Do you have any worries about the loss of anonymity that comes with this job and the effects that might have on your life?
WOODLEY: I do think about it. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t. Based on what’s happened to Jennifer Lawrence and some of the other women who have become very successful in this industry, it does seem to come with the price of losing a bit of your anonymity. Working with someone like George and seeing what he deals with … Obviously, I would never be at that level, but one day while we were shooting The Descendants, we were in the middle of a field with no one around, and there was a bus that happened to drive by. One person on the bus was like, “Is that George Clooney?” and everyone on the bus was taking pictures and screaming. That man cannot go anywhere without that happening. But I do need a private life. I want to be able to travel and stay in hostels when I go to Europe and sleep on trains and live the kind of nomadic lifestyle that I love—and at the end of the day, you can always do that, and I don’t think it has anything to do with anonymity. You just have to be safe and street smart and aware of where you’re going and what you’re doing … Maybe they’ll leave all of the attention on Jennifer Lawrence because she knows how to handle it in such an eloquent way.
STONE: What motto do you live by?
WOODLEY: “Everything is sacred and nothing is sacred.” I say that to myself every day because it reminds me that life is beautiful and we should take it seriously, but then, on the other end of the spectrum, you can’t take everything so seriously that you’re ignoring the present moment. I think it’s about finding a happy medium between seriousness and play that will lead to great things in life.