When your first movie role is starring as George Clooney’s enchantingly bratty yet emotionally raw daughter in “The Descendants,” picking a follow-up is no small task.
“Luckily for me, I’ve been acting for a long time, and I’ve always done it just for fun,” says 21-year-old actress Shailene Woodley. “So if I’m not fueled by a project, then I’m not going to do it.”
That explains the two-year gap between her breakout role and her latest part as color-outside-the-lines teen Aimee Finicky in the whimsical indie drama “The Spectacular Now,” which opens this Friday after a warm reception at Sundance.
Though the striking starlet’s Golden Globe-nominated role in “The Descendants” grabbed her critical recognition, it was her turn as pregnant teen Amy Juergens in the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” that propelled Woodley into the spotlight. The show wrapped up its fifth and final season earlier this year, and Woodley is glad to put it behind her.
‘Secret Life’ was a big blessing at the time, but toward the end, I just sort of disagreed with some of the things that we were preaching,” she explains. “So it felt like a really healthy end to something that had been a really beautiful thing for a long time.”
Woodley had her sights set on “Spectacular” for several years. She first read the script — penned by “500 Days of Summer” writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — four years ago, but wasn’t initially cast. Turnover eventually led to James Ponsoldt (who is also the director of the highly anticipated Hillary Clinton biopic “Rodham”) taking the reins and things finally falling into place.
When Ponsoldt and Woodley initially met to sound another out, they ended up talking for hours.
“Sitting down and meeting in this context wasn’t about proving she was a phenomenal actor — I already knew that,” says Ponsoldt. “It was really getting a sense of who she is, what the quality of her imagination is. [And] I learned a bit about her life, her background, her lifestyle.”
Woodley calls that lifestyle “rewilding” — and it finds her seeking out natural springs to jug her own water and cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner before shooting to avoid the catering “full of genetically engineered corn syrup and soy oil and vegetable oil and really awful processed meat.”
“It’s this concept of reconnecting to the ecosystem around us, and how we’ve sort of drifted so far into domestication that we don’t recognize where food comes from, where our clothing is sourced [and where] the materialistic goods we think we need to function every day are sourced from,” she says. “We’re never going to go back to hunter and gatherer times, but we can adapt to our current lifestyle.”
While passionate about her alternative way of living, Woodley knows it can be a turn-off to others.
“I’ve learned in my aging that I can’t talk about it anywhere and everywhere,” she says. “You can’t expect people to change overnight just because you’re interested in something.”
So call her a hippie. She doesn’t mind.
“I think what that word stands for is really beautiful,” she says. “But I don’t go around being like, ‘Yeah, I’m a hippie!’ ”
Woodley, who was born in hill-filled Simi Valley, Calif., shares a love for eco-consciousness with her mother, a middle school counselor. Together, they run a nonprofit, All It Takes, that focuses on sustainability and youth leadership.
Later this year, she teams up with filmmaker Gregg Araki for “White Bird in a Blizzard,” and she’s set for the adaptation of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” But it’s the “Hunger Games”-invoking young-adult franchise kick-off “Divergent” next year that will likely make her the star that tabloids salivate over.
Ponsoldt says it’s these choices that will make her the kind of star most actors can only dream of being.
“I think she gets that doing a movie like ‘Divergent’ will allow her to get two or three ‘Spectacular Now’s,” he says.
Maybe Woodley will even pop up in Ponsoldt’s “Rodham,” which depicts Hillary’s life in her mid-20s.
“There’s a chance that there’s a role for Shailene in any movie that I make,” Ponsoldt says, chuckling.