It’s the end of something. Seriously.
When we get to the park, I say, “Sun or no sun?” and she says, “Sun, absolutely.” So we drag a table out of the shade and sit at it. It’s hardly even a park, really. Just a brave little hill of grass next to Manhattan’s West Side Highway, bathed in the sounds of downshifting garbage trucks. On the far side, we can see the boutiqued-up railroad track known as the High Line. Of course she picked sun. Sun is an essential element of her soul. She is part sunlight, part rainbow, part child actor, part TED talk, part ICM agent. This is the Shailene Woodley who told a reporter she enjoys sunbathing naked to “give my vagina a little vitamin D.” People went nuts about that; it topped the lists of crazy shit that Shailene Woodley said that seemed to proliferate as 2014 went on.
She collapses into her chair. She is jet-lagged; she arrived last night from Paris. She’s been in Europe for three weeks, mostly doing Airbnb. She finished filming Insurgent, the second installment of the Divergent series, a month ago, and took off. She says it’s part of the way she maintains a healthy relationship with Hollywood.
“That’s the thing about me in this industry,” she says. “I do my thing and then I’m like, ’Peace! See you later! I’m going to Europe, where I’m gonna do my own thing!’ You know? So I don’t really interact.”
Because I don’t know if you know about it, but Shailene Woodley is a free spirit. She is 23 years old and a multi-millionaire, and she will tell you straight away that she doesn’t have a TV. She doesn’t have a TV because she doesn’t have a house, an apartment, or any permanent-type living arrangement. She has a ten-year-old Prius with 165,000 miles on it. She has a few bos of clothes labeled “summer” and “winter” that she packs in a suitcase. There’s also a plastic tub that holds her Vitamix for smoothies and a Crock-Pot for her mushroom tea—and she ships that plastic tub wherever she goes.
“I have a cell phone now, but I didn’t have one for nine months,” she says.
It’s not really a blasting sun, anyway. It’s a syrupy mid-autumn sun that makes you nostalgic for the very moment you’re in, even before it passes. Right now Shailene is only thirty-seven minutes post-sexy-GQ-photo-shoot, and her face still bears the remnants of high-test makeup. She cocks her head to collect some of that sun, and it lights up her eyes; they acquire a kind of aquatic yellowy green depth. There’s a quality to her that’s like one of those hologram baseball cards from cereal bos; look at her one way and she appears normal, almost plain, and then she cocks her head and she doesn’t really look normal anymore. So what about it: Doesn’t it feel like something’s ending? Don’t you feel different from a year ago?
“Absolutely,” Shailene says. “I hope I’m different than I was a year ago. I hope I’m different every day!”
But come on, Shailene, that’s not what we’re talking about! No one’s asking you whether most of your cells have performed mitosis in the past twelve months. People first became aware of Shailene Woodley when she blew everyone away as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants (the film about family and feelings and feeling those feelings under the lush golden sunsets of Hawaii). But this year Shailene Woodley became a movie star. The movies The Fault in Our Stars (the love story about teens with terminal cancer) and Divergent (the new Hunger Games franchise, only with Shailene Woodley) were both hugely successful in a mainstream way and were both sold on the value of having Shailene Woodley in the starring role. People started saying, a lot, that Shailene Woodley is on the Jennifer Lawrence track. (When she was asked about this on late-night television, she said, “As women, we are constantly told that we need to compare ourselves to a girl in school, to our co-workers, to the images in a magazine. How is the world going to advance if we’re always comparing ourselves to others? I admire Jennifer Lawrence, but she’s everyone’s favorite person to compare me to. Is it because we both have short hair and a vagina?” That part got cut before the show aired. But that’s who Shailene Woodley is, long may she fucking remain so.)
And in those movies that changed her from an actress to a movie star, she played a girl who’s in high school. Shailene is now 23. That is part of what’s ending: She says she got all misty watching The Fault in Our Stars because she knew she would never play another “young adult,” with or without terminal cancer and a rollie bag of oxygen. She may never lose her virginity before the tear-soaked eyes of America again. But wait.
“How many times have you lost your virginity, anyway?” I ask her.
She counts on her hands. “Three, four. Four. No, wait. Five!”
“Five. The Secret Life of the American Teenager [the blockbuster ABC Family show she starred in for five years], Fault, Divergent, White Bird in a Blizzard [arty film, 2014, by auteur Gregg Araki], The Spectacular Now [2013 teenager movie].”
“I guess people like to watch you lose your innocence?”
“Ha ha! Apparently!”
And wait, weren’t two of those times with guys in this very magazine? Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort? Who was the superior person to lose your virginity to?
“Um,” she says, “both different.”
But who smells better?
“That’s actually a hilarious question, because on Divergent, Ansel used to wear this really awful-smelling deodorant. I joked, ’If you book Fault in Our Stars, just don’t wear deodorant.’ He goes, ’Yeah, okay. Fine.’ Then he booked it! So I wear this deodorant that I make myself, and I gave him some of that. But he just chose not to wear it—he just wore nothing the whole time. So I guess Ansel smells more pheromone-y and Miles smells more—is delicious an appropriate word to say for a man?”
If you’ve seen any of these movies, there’s something strange and hard to place about Shailene Woodley’s presence. She isn’t at all like Jennifer Lawrence, who is kinetic and rhinestone-like. Shailene Woodley is almost heartbreakingly human. She’s like the polar opposite of the Angelina Jolie type. It reduces Shailene’s magical powers to say she’s a girl next door. But Shailene Woodley seems to be able to lug some part of your soul out onto the screen, so that when she experiences something, achieves some success, or feels the weight of her own embarrassing humanity (she’s really good at that), it feels like it’s you that’s all happening to. Watching her star in a movie, it’s like your daughter or your sister or the physician’s assistant at your doctor’s office somehow won the lottery and got to star in a movie. We find it kind of flattering to us that she gets to be famous.
We sit quietly for a moment. Another pod of European tourists collapses on the lawn, releasing refugee-level numbers of boutique shopping bags. Shailene does admit, after a while, that the effect of all the press surrounding the release of those movies threatened to change her. To make her feel self-conscious.
“Yeah, the weirdest adjustment was to sort of absorb the labeling the press loves to do,” she says. “Oh, she’s this person or She’s that person.”
You’re the person, I say, who takes mugwort and makes her own deodorant!
“Yes!” she says. “I’m the hippie who hugs everyone when they meet me!”
And then I hit on what I was worried about for her. Don’t let people like me ruin you! Don’t let us cynical people make fun of you for waking up in the morning and shouting at the top of your lungs each day, “Good morning! Good morning!”—which is actually a habit of hers. Don’t let us make you dress up like Angelina Jolie all the time!
Instead of that, I say this: “Don’t ever stop being the lady who brushes her teeth with clay.”
Then she looks at me kind of like I’m an idiot. “Oh yeah, of course. I would never give anyone else the power to change my personal virtues.”