Like a young Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley has always seemed wise beyond her years. The 22-year-old started early, commercial modeling at the age of 4 before moving on to television roles, most prominently as titular teen Amy Juergens in The Secret Life Of The American Teenager. Her performance as George Clooney’s rebellious daughter in The Descendants caught the world’s attention. In what could have translated as shrill teen angst became tender and real in Woodley’s deft portrayal, and the actress has shown range in the big YA adaptation of Divergent, and smaller, character-driven roles in The Spectacular Now and The Fault In Our Stars. What continues to shine through is an inner strength, as Woodley never lets her teen girls fall into caricature or victimization. Credit the material, but Woodley makes each character relatable—the atypical girl next door with layers of depth beneath natural beauty.
With White Bird In A Blizzard, Woodley teams with preeminent teens-in-angst director Gregg Araki for a film that introduces us, unflinchingly, to Kat Connor, a teen exploring her sexuality and identity in the wake of familial tragedy.
This has been quite a year for you. How are you handling international stardom?
I don’t know. My life hasn’t changed at all. Let’s put it that way.
Are you comfortable with the crazy commercial success and fandom of Divergent and the YA audience?
Yeah, I’m totally comfortable with it. When you do a movie you hope that it’s successful. I tend to keep to myself, so I don’t really experience much of that.
Has acting always been your greatest passion?
I have many passions. I would say I’m equally passionate about acting and food. [Laughs.]
Are you an amateur chef, or you just enjoy eating?
Both. I enjoy the entire process of food. I enjoy planting the seed, watching it grow, cooking it, digesting it, and seeing how my body feels with it. I also love going to restaurants and eating other people’s creations.
What kind of kid were you growing up? Personally, I felt like I was seeing the real you in The Spectacular Now.
Uh yeah, definitely not me. [Laughs.] I was a pretty typical teenager. I did go through an angsty period, but it was pretty short—only like a year. I was never the crazy girl, but I was never the quiet one who just stayed home. I’m sort of a mix of all the characters I’ve played.
While you’ve tackled mature subject matter, do you feel as if White Bird In A Blizzard is your introduction to the world as a mature actor?
It is the oldest character I’ve played, when she goes to college. But I’ve never really thought about it in those terms. For me, it just felt like a great opportunity to play a character that really resonated with me. I haven’t read the book and still haven’t, because I was very keen on making Gregg’s film and not the book.
Apart from the mystery of the story, Blizzard is essentially about a young woman exploring her sexuality and wanting to grow up too quickly. Did you relate to that aspect?
Yeah. I think when I was a teenager I definitely wanted to be older than I was, but I feel like every teenager goes through that phase of being sick of high school and just wanting to get out into the world.
Did you finish high school, or did acting take over?
I definitely finished high school. I got my diploma, walked with my class, and went to prom.
Do you keep in touch with your high school friends, or has that changed?
I didn’t really have many friends in high school, to be honest. I had a lot of friends, but only a very few close friends. Those very close friends are still with me today.
Did you have any qualms about the nudity in Blizzard? You must have had a lot of trust in Araki.
Yeah, lots of trust in Gregg. But I didn’t have any qualms with the nude scenes. I feel like nudity is obviously a very real part of all of our lives, and I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for the film. I didn’t find it exploitative. I didn’t find it unnecessary. I found it added to the story in a very grounded, raw, straightforward way. Sexuality is so taboo in America. When it’s visually brought to the screen it’s shocking for a lot of people. You look at French films, and sex, nudity, and all that exists in almost every French film. It’s no big deal and not hidden in the public society.
Our culture is flipped. We’re obviously okay with violence, but sex is still taboo. Is that revolting to you?
I’m not going to say too much on it, but I do think that it’s incredibly disturbing that young kids are better educated on guns than they are on their own sexuality and their own bodies.
Did you worry about alienating any of your younger fan base with this film?
No, because I don’t do movies for other people. I know that sounds really selfish. [Laughs.]
What’s Araki like in person? Had you seen Mysterious Skin or The Doom Generation before taking on the role?
Yeah, of course. I’m obsessed with Mysterious Skin and all of his films. But seeing Mysterious Skin was so profound for me. Gregg is such a rad, grounded, amazing guy. As a director he’s so wonderful because he knows what he wants when he does his movies. He has a very strong point of view for his films. He takes his time casting and getting the right cinematographer, set decorator, and production designer. When you get to set, all of the elements are there. You feel wanted and comfortable, so you’re able to explore and play without intimidation. He’s there to help you along.
Did you audition, or did he seek you out for the role?
We sat down together and he gave me the script. I read it and was like, “Oh my God.” It moved me so much. It was so poetic and so beautifully written. I thought Kat was such an interesting character, and the story just organically unfolded. Gregg and I had met a few years before this movie came about, just in a casual setting. I was like, “I would love to work with you one day.”
Did you parents play a role in deciding your projects?
Earlier on, it wasn’t like there was a decision to be made. I was doing commercials and TV shows, so it wasn’t like, “Should I or shouldn’t I do this? This is an amazing opportunity.” All the opportunities were big opportunities. But my parents did help.
Blizzard is one of Araki’s best soundtracks. Are you into Cocteau Twins and The Jesus And Mary Chain, or do you dig more modern stuff?
I listen to everything from Little Richard to Cocteau Twins to Bon Iver and Depeche Mode. I love all types of music.
Are you an active concertgoer?
I love going to concerts, but I haven’t been to one in a while. I’m going to one this weekend. He’s a musician called Nahko And Medicine For The People.
You and Thomas Jane share some explicit scenes. Was it awkward?
The thing with scenes like that is that you just have to commit. It’s all on the paper. You learn your lines, you show up and there’s not really any preparation that’s done. For me, it was easy. I just had to listen to what Thomas Jane was saying. The one thing that I love the most about that scene is that you watch this character walking into this dark hole and you’re like, “No! Don’t do that! You’re so young.” But it’s intriguing at the same time. You don’t want to find it interesting, but you can’t stop watching. When you’re a teenager, you’re so open to experimentation, having fun and exploring things that as an adult you’re not as curious or as free about. I thought it was a really neat opportunity to showcase that side of adolescence.
You and Eva Green, as your mother, have some intense shouting matches. Did you get to spend any time with her, experimenting with the relationship, before shooting?
Not really. Eva came in and shot all of her stuff in a week and a half. It was a very quick process. It was so wonderful to work with her, to watch this beautiful woman, transformed. She really committed to that character. To watch an actor commit to such a strong character choice is so interesting for me to learn from.
Araki probably shoots pretty fast, based on his guerrilla background?
He does shoot really fast. Based on budget and so many different things, independent films in general shot really quickly. We shot it, I think, in 19 days.
Where do you feel most comfortable, on small, indie sets or big-budget productions?
I feel comfortable on both. They’re just completely different experiences. I learn so much from both. On big budget movies I get to learn about the technicality of the film. I get to learn about really neat lenses, different cameras, cranes, and green screens. On small, independent films I get to learn a lot about character, passion, and making things happen even when you don’t necessarily have the budget to purchase unnecessary tools, so you have to be creative and experiment with something else.
HitFix just included your performance in The Fault In Our Stars in their Academy Awards predictions. How do you feel about that?
The funny thing with award season stuff is nothing is guaranteed. I’m grateful to hear those words, and certainly think it’s so considerate, generous, and kind of people to say. At the end of the day, nothing’s guaranteed in life. I live my life and am just appreciative of what people say.
Do you feel a healthy competition with Jennifer Lawrence?
I was just curious. What’s a perfect Saturday for you?
Gimme the ocean and I will be a happy camper.