From back brace to ‘Divergent’ alpha

Shailene Woodley picks something off the floor of the sunny patio; it’s a stray Armani designer tag, apparently ripped off of a stranger’s blouse.

“When at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills,” she says wryly.

Woodley is the new face of a potential billion-dollar franchise, but it’s hard to tell. Today, the actress made her own lunch, sips from a glass jug of coffee she brought from home and is living “out of my suitcase,” she says, in a temporary apartment rented by the studio.

She’s one of the newly anointed in a class of stars breaking the mold of what, exactly, a star needs to be. The female film icons of today are no longer Barbies, or damsels in distress or sweethearts-in-training. They are like Woodley: funny, game, tough – and pragmatic about fame.

Currently hailed as the next Jennifer Lawrence, Woodley heads the latest dystopian sci-fi blockbuster-to-be, Divergent (in theaters Friday), based on the popular YA book series by Veronica Roth. Divergent is tracking strong, with box office experts estimating the movie will earn between $55 million and $70 million this weekend.

“People are like, how does it feel to be doing all of this craziness?” says Woodley, pouring a gooey vitamin C packet into a glass of water. She shrugs, sips. Life is not so different — yet. “My current reality is waking up in the morning, maybe with one hour less sleep than I’m used to, but that’s not really that big of a difference. Making a bomb-ass coffee drink. And then having conversations with people all day.”

Woodley, like Lawrence, was nurtured in the indie world, springing to fame as George Clooney’s rebellious daughter in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and wowing critics in the low-budget love story The Spectacular Now (all while earning her keep on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Born in L.A. to a middle-school counselor mom and a former high school counselor father, she’s been in the biz since she was five, when she began booking commercials.

Now 22, she’s in franchise territory. Divergent takes place in a futuristic Chicago ravaged by war, where the surviving population has been divided into five factions, as determined by strongest personality traits: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite.

Woodley plays Tris Prior, an Abnegation-born teen who must pick her future faction based on the results of a state-driven hallucinatory test.

Where Harry Potter had a sorting hat and Katniss’ fate was selected by the hand of Effie Trinket, Tris meets hers on Choosing Day, after her exam comes back inconclusive, meaning she is divergent, a dangerous mutant in this military-like environment that’s held under the thumb of power-hungry Erudite Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

Tris is pulled to the fearless, tattooed Dauntless, a choice that forever rips her from her family.

“Tris goes from being a really ordinary person to being something much more powerful, and Shailene has that ‘girl next door’ quality,” says director Neil Burger (Limitless). “There’s an unassuming quality about her which I thought was perfect for Tris.”

In Hollywood, where franchises this size have typically been anchored by men – and targeted to a male demographic age 18-24 – putting powerful females first has become a billion-dollar business.

“I think the young adult audience, particularly females, are going to be pretty ravenous about the movie, ” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Rentrak.

“The paradigm has shifted,” he adds, noting the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. “In this brave new world we live in, where younger females can exercise their clout, their influence, their taste, and they can exercise that with dollars? That’s something the studios are taking notice of.”

The initiation process to join Dauntless, viewed as the protectors of all the factions, means Tris must learn how to fight her fellow initiates, jump aboard racing trains, and most importantly, face her darkest fears. This, all while slowly being pulled toward her chiseled, tough Dauntless mentor, Four (Theo James).

“I fell off the train once which was really scary,” says Woodley, who did most of her own stunts. “But the hardest thing for me was fighting Theo in the end, because he’s (so) tough and he’s a boxer in real life. He’s really strong. I feel like if I didn’t duck at the right time or if I accidentally went left instead of right, I definitely would have gotten knocked out cold.”

For Woodley, being physically strong – all the time, not just for her work — has become paramount.

“I wore a brace for two years in high school for my spine. And so during those two years I wasn’t strong, because I had to wear it 18 hours a day and I didn’t have time to be physically active,” says Woodley.

“After that I remember feeling really weak, and that’s when I went to Hawaii to film The Descendants. I went on a hike and I remember the first two seconds I was out of breath. And I was like, I’m 18 years old and I can’t hike this mountain and this 50-year-old next to me is charging it! What is wrong with this picture?”

After 14-hour workdays on Divergent, Woodley cooked her own meals, making extra portions for lunch the next day. “I’m very particular about my lifestyle and food that I eat,” she says. “I eat everything, I just eat it in its purest form.”

“She actually just tried to give me (a quinoa wrap) earlier this morning,” says Burger during a press day, recalling the “kale mush” she’d try to temp him with on set. “‘She’s like, ‘Here’s you’re favorite, I have it!’ ”

Off-set, the upbeat Woodley lives a bohemian existence, hauling her own spring water from local sources, traveling overseas and staying in hostels. She doesn’t own a TV (or a home), scratches her head at her favorite guilty pleasure (old seasons of Top Chef, she supposes) and hugs everyone she meets.

Roth, who visited the set weekly, was the recipient of an immediate Woodley embrace, “which is funny since I have a pretty firm personal bubble, but she just doesn’t care,” says the author. “She just bursts it.”

Woodley continued her lifestyle shooting the upcoming drama The Fault in Our Stars in Pittsburgh, in which she ages down slightly to play cancer patient Hazel Lancaster (and for which she chopped off her long locks).

“I didn’t think she was (right for it),” admits director Josh Boone, who thought she was too old for the role. “I auditioned everybody in town. Shai was one of the last…But I knew within two minutes (of her audition). She is the most talented actress in her age range.”

But first, a bit of a break is in store for one of the brightest stars of 2014.

“I’m getting to know this new part of myself which is like, a woman, you know?” says Woodley. “So it’s nice that I happen to have time off to get to experience what that means in my personal life outside of this industry.”