Back in 1999, Shailene Woodley and her mother, Lori, could be found in a tiny dressing room trailer on the set of “Replacing Dad,” the television movie in which Ms. Woodley had her first speaking role. If the pair were hoping to pass themselves off as anything but novices, they failed miserably, especially when it came to availing themselves of the lunch provided by the production.
“We’d brought these little rice cakes with us,” said Ms. Woodley, who remembers that after being told that a production assistant would come fetch them when she was needed on camera, she and her mom stayed put. They didn’t know they could leave the trailer, even to eat. “We just sat there for six and a half hours with no water, no anything. We were starving.”
Fifteen years later, Ms. Woodley knows her way around a Hollywood set. At 22, she has built a fan base that is an aggregate of people who may not have the same tastes in entertainment, but all claim her as their own. The followers of her ABC Family series, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” may be unaware of her success in indie films like “The Spectacular Now” (2013) or her award-winning turn in “The Descendants” (2011). The science fiction crowd knows Ms. Woodley as Tris Prior, the punch-throwing, train-hopping protagonist of the dystopian, postapocalyptic blockbuster “Divergent,” which opened in March.
As for those who’ve read John Green’s best-selling, young adult novel about two terminally cancer-stricken teenagers who fall in love, “The Fault in Our Stars,” it appears that they are excited about Ms. Woodley’s starring in the big-screen adaptation, opening June 6. Since the trailer was posted on YouTube in January, it has not only been viewed almost 16.5 million times, but it has also generated a subcategory of videos of fans reacting to the doomed courtship of Hazel and Gus (Ansel Elgort). If the ocean of tears that has already been spilled during the clip is any indication, then movie theaters might do well to sell packets of tissues at the concession stand.
Ms. Woodley herself was so moved by Mr. Green’s heartbreaking love story, that when she heard that the rights to the book had been optioned, she arranged a meeting with the Fox 2000 studio executives Elizabeth Gabler and Erin Siminoff. “I told them, ‘You guys, this movie has to be made,’ ” Ms. Woodley said, adding that she had offered to work in the catering department if the lead role of Hazel Lancaster wasn’t available.
When Josh Boone was hired as the director, he heard of her unbridled passion for the project but wasn’t interested in meeting with her.
“I was immediately turned off by that,” recalled Mr. Boone, who said that he had felt she was too old for the part and didn’t resemble the Hazel that he had imagined while reading the novel. Mr. Boone underwent an exhaustive casting process, which only meant that he’d not yet come into contact with the husky-voiced, big-eyed force of nature that is Ms. Woodley. Mr. Boone eventually flew to Chicago, where Ms. Woodley was filming “Divergent,” but according to his recollection, Ms. Woodley only compounded his reservations at their pre-audition dinner.
“She talked a lot about health food and what we should and shouldn’t eat,” Mr. Boone said. “I really liked her, but I still didn’t think she was Hazel.”
Two minutes into Ms. Woodley’s audition the next morning, Mr. Boone recalled, everything was moot. “We all cried,” Mr. Boone said. “Why did I make this so hard on myself? Why didn’t I just cast her in the beginning? She broke our hearts. Shai wasn’t Shai anymore. She was someone completely different.”
After landing the role, Ms. Woodley prepared by spending time with young cancer patients, taking two-hour daily walks to drop the action-star weight she had gained for “Divergent” and bonding with Laura Dern, who plays her mother, over dinners and yoga sessions. She also traded in her thick, long mane for a short, feathered hairdo. It was, as she explained on her official Tumblr page, to “help morph my physical body into that of the incredible Hazel Grace Lancaster — and i couldn’t be more amped.”
In March, sitting on a dusty blue couch on the rooftop of Pure, a Las Vegas nightclub that was deserted but sure to come alive once the sun set, Ms. Woodley, in town to be crowned Female Star of Tomorrow at CinemaCon, a convention for movie theater owners, described her hair-cutting experience as liberating.
“I’ve always wanted to shave my head,” Ms. Woodley said, explaining that she was inspired by a crew member for “The Descendants,” who had chopped off her own locks, wrapped her chest in a bandeau and passed herself off as a man to avoid being harassed while traveling through Thailand. “I thought that was really sort of a neat thing — to find her power, to get in touch with her masculinity.”
On this afternoon, she enthusiastically greeted a reporter with bear hugs (“Both sides!” she requested cheerily), used “dude” as a genderless term of affection, and spoke of cooking organic, not genetically modified meals for herself and bringing them to the set. She’s most at home in jeans or overalls but knows that wearing expensive clothes — this day, she was dressed in impeccably tailored tan Dolce & Gabbana slacks, a matching vest and white Christian Louboutin loafers — is part of the gig.
“Everyone says to me, ‘What does it feel like to be part of the Hollywood life now?’ she said. “And I want to say, ‘It’s fabricated.’ None of it’s real. We all go to these events. We put on makeup and clothes that aren’t ours. We give them back at the end of the night, and then we go home and burp the same garlic burps as everyone else. You still have to do your laundry, and your dishes are everywhere. It’s just life.”
Mr. Boone admitted that he initially wrote off Ms. Woodley’s warm, anti-glitz attitude as some sort of off-camera pose. Then he changed his mind.
“I think the first time you meet her, you think: ‘She can’t be real. This is an act,’ ” Mr. Boone said. “But what I came to realize was, No, she actually is this person. She does really care about all these things. I’d just forgotten how idealistic you can be at 22.”
Ms. Woodley grew up in Simi Valley, a community of tract houses on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She was only 5 when a talent agent friend of the drama teacher at her aftercare center called Ms. Woodley’s mother and said, “I’m interested in repping Shai.” She has, essentially, been working ever since.
Though she’d been starring as an unwed pregnant teenager on “Secret Life” for three years, it was her film debut as a rebellious teenager in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” that widened her recognition quotient. A. O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, praised her for “giving one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory.” Since then, in movies big and small, she’s shown a flair for playing young women who throw off quiet waves of complexity and sadness. Ms. Woodley traces her easy connection to darker emotions to her serious-minded upbringing.
“My mother was a school counselor, and my father was a high school principal,” Ms. Woodley said. “I grew up with not, ‘Go say you’re sorry.’ It was, ‘How does that make you feel?’ or ‘If you were in his shoes, how do you think that would make him feel?’ It was all very cerebral, and there was a lot of analyzing, a lot of breaking down situations from a place of compassion and empathy. I think that made me who I am today.”
Later this month, Ms. Woodley is scheduled to report for duty on “Insurgent,” the second in a series of four “Divergent” films that will keep her busy for the next three years. “Last year I was only in L.A. for 15 days total,” said Ms. Woodley, who gave up her Santa Monica rental cottage (to her grandmother) and, during two months of rare downtime, slept on friends’ couches. When asked about that decision, she sounded less like the self-conscious hippie starlet, as she’s often portrayed in the news media, than someone who wants a life more ordinary than the one her current job permits.
“When I got home,” she said, “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to go home and cook in my apartment by myself.’ I crave solitude, but I also crave social interaction.”
Lately she’s had a lot of coaching about how to survive being an it girl. Referring to her “Divergent” co-star Kate Winslet, who had her own dizzying experience with sudden fame after “Titanic,” Ms. Woodley said: “Kate said something really beautiful to me. She said: ‘Shai, your life is going to change for a minute. Then it’ll go back to normal. But no matter what happens to you externally, internally you know exactly who you are.’ ”
The filmmaker Gregg Araki, who cast her as an alienated teenage girl whose mother vanishes in “White Bird in a Blizzard” (to be released later this year), expressed similar faith in Ms. Woodley. “The thing about these young Hollywood kids is that you can sort of tell what ones are going to go off the rails from the ones who are going to be O.K., even if they go a bit crazy after the fame machine sucks them in,” he said. “Shai’s a free spirit, and the places she likes to go to are off the beaten path. If things get too crazy, she’ll go hike in the Himalayas with her friends or something.”