Since coming to international attention as George Clooney’s worldly teenage daughter in 2011’s The Descendants, Shailene Woodley has forged an admirably autonomous path. Largely eschewing celebrity, the 23-year-old instead took roles in acclaimed indies like The Spectacular Now and Gregg Araki’s upcoming White Bird in a Blizzard. Even now, with her first blockbuster lead role in Divergent (based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling dystopian YA novel series), the native Californian maintains a healthy outlook on her career and how it fits in with her life’s fierce passion: the study of herbalism.
What sparked your interest in herbalism?
Around 15, I remember looking out at high school, seeing the wind through the pine trees. It was so beautiful. Then I looked down and saw all the trash the kids had left lying around at lunch. That juxtaposition of nature and swirling tornadoes of trash was so sad to me. So I’ve been studying herbalism for the past five years, learning about the food industry in America.
It’s so fucked! We’re poisoning the environment even by dying because of all the stuff in our bodies. There are GM foods, but is veganism healthy? Is paleo healthy? So I started studying indigenous cultures because I felt like they probably had it right. I realised that they existed within their ecosystem, knowing which plants to use for food, for medicine. So that’s where herbalism came in. We’re never going back to hunter-gatherer times – half my life is spent in cities and hotel rooms with recycled air –
Let’s crack a window open…
Yeah, totally! (opens window) But what I realised is that we might as well adapt to this environment. And then you live your life like that. It’s like a fun game.
But you think it’s an important one?
I don’t refer to myself as an environmentalist, preaching that we have to save the earth – ‘Stop global warming! Stop farming trees!’ These are all great but we’ve sort of forgotten the fact that we are nature and if we don’t start with human beings then it’s going nowhere.
So can you recommend an underrated herb that more people should know?
Totally! I don’t go anywhere without chaga mushroom. It grows only on birch trees. The Russians used it throughout their wars as an immunity builder. There are amazing chaga tinctures so you just take a dropper-full every day, or make a tea out of it. Check it out.
Divergent is your first big blockbuster franchise. Why this one?
I read the book and fell in love with Tris as a character. She’s a badass! But then I was like, ‘Dude, there’s no way I can do this!’ The big franchise idea was the scary part for me.
What changed your mind?
I talked to my mum. She said, ‘Shai, do you love the character?’ Yeah. ‘Do you like the story?’ Yeah. ‘So you’re saying no because of the budget? You’d never say no to an indie film because it had a $20,000 budget.’
Did you feel you had a voice in this project? Big movies can easily become impersonal.
It was definitely something that I hadn’t experienced before. I remember one day I had to say some cheesy action film thing like, ‘You’re mine now!’ And I said, ‘That’s crazy, Tris would never say that.’ And (co-star) Zoë Kravitz came up to me and said, ‘Shai, you’re making an action film now. Sometimes it’s fun to do things that don’t make sense in real life.’ So then it sort of clicked, and I was like, ‘You’re right, Zoë, this isn’t an indie film, it’s a big blockbuster.’
There’s an insane media frenzy around the actors in Twilight and The Hunger Games. Are you ready for that sort of attention?
It’s too abstract. I live such a low-key life – right now I’m living out of a suitcase, I got rid of everything. I love just going to the farmers’ market and chilling. If the movie does well then potentially things that happened to Kristen or Jen could happen to me. The magazine world doesn’t bother me, it’s more this fan-obsession thing that scares the shit out of me. The anonymity and lack of consequence in cyberspace, it’s terrifying. Right now it’s just this weird sort of frenzy – Veronica just wrote the third (Divergent) book and there are death threats going round from kids in America saying ‘I’m going to kill you’. It’s terrifying.
Have you experienced that yourself? Online? On Twitter?
I don’t read it. I started Twitter to stay in touch with my friends, but the whole Googling yourself – I made that mistake once and I’ll never do that again. Seeing a picture (of myself) and then what people said about it – those feelings suck!
In some basic way, it’s not about you.
Not at all. And you give your power to someone else who doesn’t deserve it. No thank you.