At 22, Shailene Woodley has already made a name for herself playing conflicted high-school students in projects like “The Descendants” and the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” She takes the angsty teenager act one step further in “White Bird in a Blizzard,” a new drama from the director Gregg Araki, known for his strong auteurial vision and his contributions to New Queer Cinema. As 17-year-old Kat Connors, whose life goes off the tracks after her mother (a deliciously campy Eva Green) goes missing, Woodley is charged with doing most of the film’s heavy lifting, balancing the character’s emerging sexuality with the stresses of her parents’ loveless marriage, which may or may not have contributed to her mother’s disappearance.
It’s weighty stuff, to be sure, but also a fine tune-up for what promises to be a big year ahead. The Simi Valley, Calif., native will star in a pair of big-screen adaptations of popular young adult novels later this year – as Tris Prior in “Divergent,” and as Hazel Grace Lancaster in “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Her 2013 Sundance film, “The Spectacular Now,” was also adapted from a Y.A. novel.) Those films, which both come with prepackaged, rabid fan bases, would be enough to intimidate even the most seasoned actress. But at Sundance, Woodley was focusing squarely on the present.
This seems like a very important moment for you – doing an Araki film, which doesn’t always guarantee commercial success, when you have two huge films on the way. What made you want to take on this role?
I feel like doing a Gregg film is sort of a rite of passage. I keep saying that, but he doesn’t make very many films, so the opportunity isn’t that widely available. I got into acting for the art of it, and there’s not a lot of people that are really dedicated to their own artistic voice in cinema. In every single Araki film, no matter how different they all are, you can tell that it’s his voice. Ever since “Mysterious Skin,” I’ve wanted to work with him.
You’ve played high-school-aged characters in a few films – as Alex in “The Descendants,” as Aimee in “The Spectacular Now” and now as Kat in “White Bird in a Blizzard” – but you’ve yet to do a typical “teen movie.” Why is that?
I mean, for me, I’m all about truth in life. I think truth is the biggest, most important thing to focus on, whether it’s acting or in our own personal lives. When I go to a movie theater, I want to be affected, and the way that I’m affected is by truth. So for coming-of-age films, I wanted to â€” in every situation â€” accurately depict these people as authentic human beings, and not as some sort of made-up, materialized stereotype.
Is there a character you identify with more than the others?
I don’t know. I identify with all of them for very different reasons. I identify with Aimee’s experience in high school because my experience was somewhat similar, and I identify with Kat’s strength and her sensuality, because that’s very much who I am. They’re all just different extensions of myself, you know?
How was your own high school experience?
It was great. I was part of the choir, part of the pep rallies…
And you were already acting by then?
I started acting when I was 5. It was something that I always wanted to do, and something that my parents were so great and supportive about. I had three rules growing up. I had to stay the person they knew I was, have fun and do good in school. And as long as I did all of those, then I could continue to act.
Sounds like good advice to hold on to as your career progresses and it becomes harder to stay grounded.
I don’t know if I have to find ways to stay grounded. It’s more like, you’ve just got to do you, you know? I’ve been thinking about that, because people always say, “You’ve got to stay grounded.” What is it about it that really alters people? I know for me, it’s reading reviews, or reading articles, or hearing people talk about me or the movies I’ve done in a negative way. That’s what starts giving me a complex. But it’s none of my business what other people think of me, so why would I go out of my way to even worry about it? I think that’s the best way to not get wrapped up in the gross side of this industry.
This is your fourth Sundance, and your second year in a row being here with a film. How does this year measure up to the last?
This year’s been the best year of my life so far. I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
And what contributes to that, aside from having great projects?
Just, like, self-experience, self-love, self-appreciation. It’s the year of the horse, man. It’s time to play and have fun.