Shailene Woodley: The Next Jennifer Lawrence?

Most young stars learn to quickly cultivate an aura of untouchability, but that is not how Shailene Woodley likes to operate. It’s January on the Sundance red carpet for White Bird in a Blizzard. The 22-year-old actress approaches a microphone-toting reporter with uncommon familiarity, slipping her hands under his semi-raised arms and giving him a robust squeeze. At first I think she must know the journalist, perhaps one of her red-carpet favorites. Then I realize she’s hugging every single person before they interview her. They are all strangers.

Right before the White Bird premiere, Sundance festival director John Cooper stops by backstage to congratulate Woodley. He goes in for the handshake, but she outmaneuvers him with a low body hug. He seems genuinely startled.

Later, after I receive my first of many Woodley hugs, I ask her about this habit. After all, most stars on the red carpet interact with reporters the way they endure a customs official with body language that says, “I will answer your questions carefully and pretend to like you, but this is about as much fun for me as picking gum off the bottom of my Louboutins.” By contrast, Woodley sees the press gantlet as an opportunity to transcend surface-level chitchat. She explains: “We’ve got a set amount of time in our lives, you know. You might as well make every conversation count. So that’s like the hug. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m real. You’re real. Let’s connect.’ ”

It’s that unique accessibility — both onscreen and off — coupled with raw acting talent that has made Woodley one of the most hyped starlets since Jennifer Lawrence prepared to launch The Hunger Games franchise two years ago. Like Lawrence, Woodley may soon boast a YA blockbuster franchise of her own with Divergent, which Lionsgate opens March 21. Early tracking is solid, indicating an opening weekend as high as $65 million. This summer’s The Fault in Our Stars, another big book adaptation in which she stars, already is attracting fervent fan interest and appears poised for counterprogramming hit status.

In an industry that has failed to groom reliable movie stars the way it did a generation ago, Woodley’s big moment comes targeted with very high hopes. With the exception of Lawrence and Channing Tatum, most of Hollywood’s bankable stars — Robert Downey Jr., Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, Leonardo DiCaprio — are all in or approaching middle age, and two of the most promising young actors with the highest earning potential of the past decade, Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf, torpedoed their own careers.

But as big as the opportunity is for Woodley, it also sets her up for a perilous fall and/or backlash if Divergent fails to deliver. Then she’s not Jennifer Lawrence; she’s Lily Collins.

In fall 2012, Lionsgate was looking for someone with the same qualities as Lawrence and its Twilight heroine, Kristen Stewart, to carry the $85 million Divergent. The movie is based on Veronica Roth’s wildly popular trilogy that is set in a dystopic future where society has been carved into five factions. Woodley, who will be paid $250,000 to $500,000 for the first installment, according to sources, was the studio’s first and only choice thanks mostly to her breakout performance in Alexander Payne’s 2011 drama, The Descendants. At that time, she was particularly in demand after her name had surfaced as EL James’ first choice to star in Fifty Shades of Grey. She also was being hotly pursued for Amazing Spider-Man 2, and she had a fan base due to a five-season stint on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Erik Feig, Lionsgate motion picture group co-president, says the Divergent male lead, which eventually went to Theo James, was the much harder call.

Woodley’s Secret Life experience was decidedly mixed. Although it established her in the business, the show’s melodramatic style made her a running punch line on the E! clip show The Soup, and the contract that kept her tethered to it made her leery of committing to a multipart movie franchise.

“Having come off a TV show, I was kind of in the place where I was like, ‘I’m never signing a contract for more than one movie,’ because once you do sign a contract, legally, you’re liable,” she says. “[Even] if you don’t find something creatively stimulating anymore, you’ve still got to do it legally.”

Feig enlisted Lawrence — an admitted Secret Life geek — to reach out to Woodley and sell her on the merits of a YA franchise. In a series of emails, says Woodley, Lawrence “said: ‘You must do it. You will not regret it for a second. Yes, there are some hard things, but there are so many beautiful things that will come from an opportunity like this.’ ”

“I don’t know what happened,” recalls Feig, “but I do know that after that interaction, Shailene said: ‘OK, now I’ll make Divergent. Let’s talk.’ ”

Still, handing the keys of a big-budget franchise to an unproven star is a nerve-racking proposition. “Anybody in this business who says they’re not nervous [about their lead casting choice] is taking some medication that I should find out about,” says Rob Friedman, co-chair of Lionsgate’s motion picture group. “But once we met her and saw her presence and the way she carried herself and knowledge for the material and her passion for the character, we were sold.”

Despite the appearance of overnight success, Woodley worked for 17 years to reach this moment. The native Angeleno, who has a younger brother, Tanner, began working at age 5 in commercials, appearing in more than 40 TV spots, including ads for Leapfrog, Hertz and a Honda minivan. Her parents — a middle-school counselor mother and a former elementary-school principal father who now is a family therapist — happily drove her to auditions but insisted that her education stay on track. Woodley was a 4.0 student who took AP classes at Simi Valley High School but interestingly avoided the drama club because “acting was such a big part of my life outside of high school, and I wanted to really dedicate high school to other things that I was passionate about.” Instead, the “choir nerd” sang alto for four years, even as she starred on Secret Life.

Along the way, she had her share of disappointments, like losing out to Dakota Fanning for the drama I Am Sam at age 9. Recalls Woodley: “My dad pulled me aside, and he said: ‘Shai, what are you doing? You have so much anger, and you’re feeling so let down by the fact that you didn’t book [this]. I want you to close your eyes right now and picture this Dakota girl, and I want you to send her so much love and so much light because one day you’re going to book something that you really want, and you’re not going to want all of the girls around you that you competed against to feel anger against you. You’re going to want them to support you on your journey. And so it’s your turn right now to support Dakota on her journey.’ And so I did that.”

As her father predicted, years later Woodley seized a role she chased for months with Descendants. After reading for the casting director, Woodley was on the “don’t call back” list (“I wanted the role too intensely,” she surmises). But she managed to get a second read and wowed Payne. “She is that truly unique actress who can make even bad dialogue sound good,” says Payne. Her ultimate performance opened eyes in the industry, earning an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination.

“She wept underwater — take after take,” marvels Payne. “That was something to see.”

The day after the White Bird in a Blizzard premiere, Woodley is curled up on a couch at the Stella Artois lounge in Park City. With her long wavy cheerleader hair shorn for her role as a cancer-stricken teen in Fault in Our Stars (out June 6) she has tucked what remains under a black knit cap. Her style purposely is understated and utilitarian. “Kitson? Yeah, that’ll never happen. I exclusively buy used clothes,” she says, referring to the Robertson Boulevard boutique favored by attention-starved “stars.” “I’m going to be a citizen of this planet, and I’m going to do my responsibility and live in stride with nature instead of constantly fighting against her.”

Woodley’s mandate to live in harmony with the Earth extends beyond her wardrobe. She totes around a glass Mason jar for drinking water because she doesn’t want to expose herself or the planet to the estrogen-like chemicals used in plastics. She has no current home (“I’m doing the vagabond lifestyle for a bit,” she says), but when in Los Angeles, she lugs 5-gallon carboys up in the mountains to capture her own drinking water. She and her two best friends — a long-haired brunette and a young man who looks like he just stumbled out of a Phish concert, her constant Sundance companions whom she declines to identify — forage for strange fruits in whatever city they visit.

Which is not to say she hasn’t made a few good friends in the business. When Laura Dern was shooting the upcoming tearjerker Fault in Our Stars opposite Woodley, the pair quickly bonded over their shared experience as former child actors with fierce hands-on mothers. Dern recalls one of their many dinners near the Pittsburgh shoot and delivers a spot-on Woodley impression.

“Shailene’s like, ‘Hey, wow!’ Big open smile,” says Dern. ” ‘God, great, I looked at your menu. It’s so awesome. Hey, what kind of oil do you guys cook in? Oh, you do? Hmm, you never use beef fat from sustainable farms where it’s grass-fed? Oh wow, you guys are open to that? Cool. Can we have a tour of your kitchen?’ ”

The next thing Dern remembers is touring a meat locker in the restaurant’s basement, discussing how to cut the cattle in the most honorable way and how to use every part of the animal. “People might think they’re saving the planet, taking half steps,” says Dern. “Shailene is taking it to such a different level.”

Dern says the two actresses have become so close that she considers Woodley a member of her family. “There are times when I have called my house when out of town and found out that Shailene’s over here making dinner with my children,” she says.

For all her down-to-earthness, Woodley doesn’t object to glamming up for the red carpet (“I realized this garment is going to be used over and over and over again,” she says. “If I was to show up wearing my five-toe shoes, my Melodia organic leggings and some hippie top, no one is going to take me seriously, and I probably would not be doing this interview right now for The Hollywood Reporter. When I go on a red carpet, I’m Shailene, but I’m also Shailene representing a movie. I’m there for my boss, for my employer, so part of that comes with wearing the uniform”). Although she has her limits. She won’t wear fur or diamonds. For her Sundance premiere, she wore minimal makeup and a simple black silk shirt, black slacks (she later changed into jeans for the afterparty) and a Navajo pendant. As for the pendant’s significance, she explains: “It’s my way of just recognizing spirit — as hippie as that may sound — in an industry where sometimes materialism is the main focus, it’s kind of my way of grounding and remembering what’s important to me.” I ask if she adheres to a particular religion. “My religion is the Earth, man,” she answers. “I believe in trees.”

Gone now are the squeaky-clean trappings of being an ABC Family star. Her role in White Bird in a Blizzard, a 1980s-set indie film about a teenager whose life becomes unmoored when her mother disappears, called for the type of nudity that can make audiences uncomfortable — which harks back to the early career choices of Kate Winslet, who famously peed on herself in a full-frontal shot in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke. In White Bird, Woodley portrays a 17-year-old who seduces a 40-something cop played by Thomas Jane. The scenes are disturbing because of the age difference and the power dynamic. In the film, she also engages in onscreen sex with a more age-appropriate Shiloh Fernandez, 29. She’s willing to throw herself into these difficult scenes, she says, for the sake of authenticity.

“When somebody’s doing a sex scene and they’re wearing a bra and underwear, that’s not how it happens in real life,” she says. “If I’m going to say yes to a movie where this is necessary, then I’m going to bring truth to that situation.”

It’s the type of risk-taking that distinguishes Woodley from Lawrence. White Bird producer Alix Madigan, who also worked with Lawrence as the producer of Winter’s Bone, notes the commonalities and the differences between the actresses.

“Their career trajectories are similar in the sense of doing independent films and then going on to the YA franchise,” says Madigan. “I think Shailene certainly has the talent and the charisma and the inherent likability to follow in Jennifer’s footsteps. But honestly, I can’t see Jennifer doing a role like White Bird.”

But is the film too avant-garde, perhaps offering a glimpse into Woodley’s future choices? There’s no distributor on board yet, but sources say Magnolia, the company that will release Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac in the U.S., is negotiating to pick up White Bird. Although poised to be the next Lawrence, could Woodley instead be the next LaBeouf? In the span of a few short years, the actor morphed from leading one of the highest-earning franchises of all time with Transformers to announcing that he was done making studio fare and instead would put his efforts into films like Nymphomaniac. Woodley, too, has made some head-scratching moves, like turning down the chance to again star opposite her Descendants co-star George Clooney in what seems a likely hit in Disney’s sci-fi pic Tomorrowland.

Although Woodley’s tastes might run indie, the actress, who is locked in for three Divergent sequels, won’t likely abandon the studio system and begin sporting a paper bag over her head like LaBeouf. The most popular descriptor used for her is “grounded” (followed closely by “old soul” and “authentic”). In fact, Divergent director Neil Burger bristled at the idea that Woodley somehow deviates from what is expected of an actress on the cusp of superstardom.

“It’s funny because Divergent asks those questions, ‘What if you’re a little different in a society where everybody’s the same?’ ” he says. “Shailene is like that too, but not because she’s flaky. She’s as solid as a person can be, and she’s incredibly present as an actor.”

Fault in Our Stars producer Wyck Godfrey, who also produced all of the Twilight movies, echoed that sentiment, insisting that Woodley’s edgy leanings should be celebrated, not second-guessed, in a business obsessed with box-office grosses. “She’s always going to be drawn to characters that feel real and interesting to her, and she’s not going to be driven by, ‘Oh, this could be a huge franchise,’ ” he says. “Regardless, she’s going to be the first Shailene more so than the next anyone else.”

Back at Sundance– her fourth annual trek via car with her two friends — Woodley eschews the skiing, snowboarding and late-night partying that one might expect from a 22-year-old. She hits the White Bird afterparty at Rock & Reilly’s, where she dances suggestively with her two besties and mugs for lots of selfies. Otherwise, she’s lying low in Park City. “Sundance is reserved for cozy times,” she says. “It’s more about snuggling up in front of the fireplace and having a nice glass of wine with your buddies and then seeing a movie.” I begin to get the impression that she might be romantically involved with her two friends, whom she says she met six years ago. Then again, maybe they simply share a passion for fruit-foraging and Wasatch Mountain road trips. “That’s hilarious,” she says when asked about the pair. “No, those are my best friends.” She won’t elaborate on her love life. The best she offers is a vague assessment of romance or friendship (I’m not sure which). “I fall in love with human beings based on who they are, not based on what they do or what sex they are,” she says.

Miles Teller, who starred opposite Woodley in the coming-of-age teen drama The Spectacular Now and Divergent and who has been romantically linked to the actress in the past, further confuses the matter. “I would say we have like a sibling relationship but with moments of sexual tension,” he jokes.

Whatever Woodley does next, she vows not to rush into it. “I made five movies in the past year and two months and finished a TV show during that time,” she explains. “The second your boss or somebody whom you really respect comes to you and says, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do next,’ there instantly becomes this new pressure of, ‘Wow, am I creating art for myself or am I suddenly creating art for other people?’ ”

With nothing lined up beyond the Divergent sequel Insurgent, which likely shoots in the summer, Woodley says she is content to spend her days reading books (Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Anais Nin’s Henry and June were recent favorites) and traveling. She just trekked to Costa Rica by herself before embarking on the Divergent tour.

For now, she’s letting her mind wander and enjoying the freedom that comes with being a sought-after young star. There’s no telling what her future holds — maybe even something outside of acting.

“I might open a restaurant, and it’s going to be like restaurant in the morning, dance club at night,” says the self-described omnivore. “Who knows?”