Catch Her If You Can

“I’ve learned a lot about a lot of things from her,” says Nat Wolff, speaking of Shailene Woodley, his costar, along with Ansel Elgort, in The Fault in Our Stars. “She convinced Ansel and me not to wear deodorant. She somehow has that magical girl thing where you don’t ever smell bad. She had special crystals that make her smell good. Ansel and I, after two days—it was disgusting. We smelled like wild animals. I soon went back to the deodorant that’s going to give me cancer.” Wolff pauses. “I feel like when people talk about her, it ends up being a lot about these fun eccentricities. But that’s not my favorite part of her.”

Woodley has grown a reputation as an über-cool hippie chick who collects drinking water from mountain springs, forages for wild foods, and makes her own toothpaste, face creams, and medicines. It’s a rare actress who assures you: “Cramp bark is the best thing for menstrual cramps. Take the raspberry plant and the cramp bark plant and make a tincture—you can get it at Whole Foods—and take a dropperful….”

“As free and loving and sweet as Shailene is,” Wolff says, “she has depth and edge. There’s a weight to her. She’s super, super soulful. It’s not a coincidence that she’s a great actress.”

From the get-go it’s easy to be sidetracked by her spiritual singularity. Woodley, 23, greets you with her ritual double hug—one to the right, another to the left, “heart to heart”—at her Culver City hangout Akasha, which has a ’70s-mod aesthetic and a farm-to-table menu.

She smiles a dimpled smile, her striking brown-rimmed blue-green eyes that turn up at the corners smiling too. Tall and taut, Woodley has regained the natural athletic build that she diminished to portray a cancer patient in Fault. Dressed in black leggings and a tight charcoal sweater, her thick auburn hair slicked straight back behind her ears, she’s both unaffected and intimidating. “Shailene’s genuinely comfortable in her own skin,” observes director James Ponsoldt, who cast Woodley in The Spectacular Now. “She loves her identity, her mind, her skin, her body. She knows who she is and values herself.”

That’s an extraordinary arsenal for surviving in Hollywood, where neuroticism runs rampant and the career mortality rate is high, and where Woodley is one of a triumvirate of young actresses recently catapulted into crazy fame and incredible fortune, each of them starring in film adaptations of best-selling young adult series. As naturally as Twilight’s Kristen Stewart projects Bella’s dark, conflicted inner life, and Jennifer Lawrence radiates the instinct and fierce physicality of Katniss in The Hunger Games, Woodley relays the intuition and intelligence that define Beatrice, the narrator of Veronica Roth’s dystopian Divergent novels.

When last we saw her alter ego, Tris, she was on the run from the power-mad Jeanine (Kate Winslet), riding an open train, her cheerleadery hair blowing in the wind, her hunky love interest (Theo James) standing behind her as the voice-over set up the sequel: “We have nothing. No home…. We’ve left everything behind…. Tomorrow we may have to fight again. But for now we’ll ride the train to the end of the line. And then? We’ll jump.”

In this month’s Insurgent, round two in what will ultimately be a four-picture commitment, “Tris is not only dealing with PTSD over the loss of her parents and best friend,” Woodley says, her voice deep and gravelly, “she’s trying to figure out who she is and process the natural hormonal, emotional growth of being a young lady.” And at the same time, “she has to engage in a new sort of war—mental warfare.”

Unlike the Hunger Games movies, which were shot back to back, the Divergent installments are filmed around their stars’ schedules. “I shot Fault in between the first two,” Woodley says. “I thought it would be easy to drop back into being Tris. But it wasn’t, because…I’ve naturally evolved since then. I had to relearn who I was in 2013 when I first—oh my God!” Her eyes widen. “Can you believe it’s 2015? Even physically, when I shot Divergent…I look so much younger—I still had my baby face!”

Elgort, who’s been along for the wild ride, having costarred in Woodley’s last three films (he plays Tris’ brother and was Woodley’s love interest in Fault), can account for what actually hasn’t changed. “Shai still only talks about how much she loves everything and how much she can’t wait to eat what she made for lunch,” he says with obvious affection. “She came over to our hotel and said, ‘You guys, I just love eggs!’ She said, ‘I’m so excited I have these great eggs that I made for lunch!’ It was such a funny moment. She’s a simple person. That’s a great thing, and that translates to the screen—how honest she is with her emotions. She’s simple and then quite complex.”

And awesomely canny, when you consider the original, alternate, alternative life she’s constructed for herself in the onrush of becoming an attraction in the Hollywood zoo.

Woodley is unlike a lot of stars, who are easily tracked outside their gated, gilded homes, tricking out their lives with conspicuous creature comforts and the stuff of success. You never know where she’s coming from or going to—and you won’t catch her in between. She lives among us, camouflaged in understatement, driving an old car and wearing secondhand clothes (except on the red carpet, where she’s been dressed by Stella McCartney, Zuhair Murad, Ralph Lauren, Preen…). As for stuff? Consuming is not her thing.

Unless it involves spicy tandoori chicken wings. “Eat with your hands!” Woodley encourages as they arrive. “There’s no embarrassment! Do you know that when you eat with your hands your body sends a chemical through your nervous system that tells your stomach to get ready to eat? A predigestive enzyme is set off by eating with your hands! Try these sauces, they’re insane.”

Like Tris, Woodley has pretty much left her worldly possessions behind, storing things at her mom’s or in the house that she gave to her maternal grandmother, Diane. Everything she needs for living is in her car. Between films, the actress vagabonds around L.A. without a place to call her own. She’s the beautiful girl in a Bob Dylan song. “I live a chosen homelessness,” Woodley says. “I never know where I’m going to sleep. Tonight? I’ll lay my head on a friend’s pillow.”

“The material world for Shai isn’t what life is about. It’s about experience and loving,” says a close friend, who met a relatively unknown Woodley about four years ago in acting class and asked not to be named, as he prefers flying under the radar with her. “She just walked up to me and said, ‘Um, will you be my friend? I just feel like you and I are meant to be friends.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, random girl I don’t know. Okay.’ It was a cosmic thing.” He laughs, remembering. (Two weeks later they took a 10-hour road trip to the Sundance Film Festival—the first and last time Woodley went as a civilian.)

“She bounces around from place to place because she just wants to spend time with the people she loves,” he continues. “There’s four of us core members. We’re a little tribe. She leaves things at our houses. We call them Shai deposits, little piles all over the place. Over here is a suitcase and some clothes, and then over here is a box from Café Gratitude and some other stuff. All these little deposits of things, it’s like, ‘Oh, Shai’s here!’ When she leaves, you would never know she was there. It’s all swept up and taken away.”

Woodley’s sagacious spirit seems equal parts nature and nurture—though with both parents, Lori and Lonnie, being psychologists, she just as easily could have ended up nuts. “I was born into a family of warriors, really strong people,” says Woodley, who, along with her younger brother, Tanner, grew up in Simi Valley. (Simi is the Chumash Indians’ name for the thread-like clouds in the sky over this Southern California town.) “It doesn’t mean that it was an easy childhood and we didn’t have our shit, because every family does behind closed doors. But even though my parents are divorced, they get along. I have a family who every day strives to do the right thing.”

It helped, too, that her grandmother was ever present. “One day I was having one of my teenage crises, when you think everything’s falling apart—your estrogen and progesterone are freaking out. And she said, ‘Shai, the most important thing in life is self-love. You’ve gotta take care of yourself. You’ve got to take care of yourself, and you gotta live from your deep heart.'” Woodley wraps her hands around a warm porcelain teapot on the table; her brow furrows. “For some reason, her saying the words deep heart just always stuck with me. And I was like, ‘Well, what is a deep heart? What does it actually mean?’ What I’ve come to determine in my life is that my deep heart is my—it’s my compassion, empathy, and intuition. Because your intuition never wants to be mean to somebody. You intuitively know that another human being on this planet is hurting just as badly as you may be. The way that they express themselves could be rude or seen as douchey or whatnot. But maybe they’re scared, or had no one there to support them.” She looks up, and her face brightens: “My grams is the most banging 69-year-old I’ve ever met in my life. She’s so fit. She’s so rad!”

You’d guess that Woodley’s ’70s sensibilities—environmentalism, homeopathy, recycling, equal rights—were part of her upbringing, but it was all her own initiative. “I was the first one in the family,” she says. “I mean, we didn’t drink soda or eat white bread, but we were still drinking the Capri Suns and all the corporate manifestations of high-fructose corn syrup!” More than just a throwback, Woodley’s a progressive thinker who defines the interesting theory of “rewilding” as a “way of adapting to our current environments. Like natural selection, the most fit survive. It’s living in conjunction with our modern inventions and industrialism while also aiding the body in progressive evolution. This whole concept of detoxing is so fascinating to me, detoxing to get things out of your system—like the radiation from the phones—instead of empowering your body and learning how to live with the radiation and live with the drywall chemicals and whatnot. So it’s adapting to modern industrialization in order to live a healthier life.”

Woodley was five the day she tagged along with her mom, who was taking a younger cousin, a child model, to a cattle call for a Supercuts commercial. While they waited there, a woman approached Lori Woodley. “She said, ‘Oh, your daughter is so cute. For $500 you could get her acting classes and head shots.’ My mom was like, ‘No, thanks.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, please, that sounds awesome!’

“My mom said, ‘If I do this for you, you’ve got to commit to it.’ For her it was like an exercise in being responsible. I’d been in gymnastics for, like, three months, soccer for four months…. I was like, ‘I’ll commit!’ I ended up loving it.”

By the time Woodley had worked her way through 50 commercials (while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in school), she was old enough—16—to win the role of a pregnant teen in the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. In 2011, with a year left on her six-year contract, she played George Clooney’s daughter in director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. But denied an early release from the show, Woodley shot the film and was forced to return for that last year. Not fun.

“Shailene was so clearly the breakout star of the show,” says Molly Ringwald, who played Woodley’s mother in The Secret Life. “She had a hard time with the creator. She was singled out and had to endure a difficult work environment. The way that she handled herself was incredibly dignified. I remember being extremely impressed with that.” Adds Ringwald, herself a former teen actress who at 18 made the cover of Time magazine, “It’s exciting and fun in certain ways, but at the end of the day it’s a business, and businesses are not known for having a lot of heart, you know? You have to be an extremely strong person to weather that and have a career that endures.”

From the moment Woodley jumped into the pool in The Descendants and broke down underwater, silently screaming in rage and pain, you knew she was a long-haul actress. Clearly the movie’s MVP, she was honored with an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination and became the go-to indie girl. “She reminds me of a young Sissy Spacek or Barbara Hershey, or a Debra Winger,” says Ponsoldt. “The hardest thing on earth is to seem like you’re not acting, right? She’s incredibly gifted and has incredible craft all to make it seem like there’s no artifice. Being is harder than acting.”

Whether she’s fronting movies huge (Divergent), large (The Fault in Our Stars), or small (White Bird in a Blizzard), Woodley appears void of vanity and tics and the usual tricks of the trade. She often eschews makeup, is okay with necessary nudity, and doesn’t need those glycerin drops, thank you very much. Not since Demi Moore in Ghost has an actress been able to turn on the real waterworks and induce an audience to empathetic tears. She can make a grown man cry. John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, recalls being on set when they shot the scene in which Woodley’s Hazel hears that her boyfriend, Gus, is dead. “For, like, 20 takes, Shailene had to just fall apart,” he says. “I kept wanting to go upstairs and check on her. It seemed like no human being should have to go to that place over and over again. I was freaked out by it. Shailene came downstairs and said, ‘You wanna go to lunch?’ I was like, ‘Fuck no, I want to be alone and weep!’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, that was fun.’ She’s weird, man. She’s weirdly talented.”

She’s also technically proficient (film actors who started in TV, where the hours are grueling, easily make adjustments and always hit their mark) and plays well with others. Laura Dern, who played her mother in Fault, remembers the two of them struggling through another of that movie’s harrowing scenes. “They kept the camera rolling between takes. It was quiet, and Shailene looked at me and said, ‘You okay?’ There are very few actors whom I’ve ever worked with who are constantly checking in during the work. She’s one, and it’s really generous.”

At the same time Woodley was offered the Divergent series, she was offered, and turned down, a chance to act with George Clooney again, in Tomorrowland. Clooney, known for not suffering fools, became a sensei of sorts to the young actress. “George said to me, ‘Whoever is number one on the call sheet, and whoever the director is, it’s their responsibility to set the tone for the crew. If they come in in a pissed-off, angry mood, it’s gonna trickle down, and everyone on the set is going to be miserable. But if they come in with a smile on their face, on time, ready to engage and take on the day, then you’re going to have a brilliant, beautiful film set.'”

When it comes to advice, Woodley gives as good as she gets. Gregg Araki, who directed her in White Bird, a psychological thriller, recalls a conversation they had before shooting the scene in which her character loses her virginity. “It’s very different being male and losing your virginity than being female,” Araki says. “And Shai was illuminating; she really enlightened me about what that experience is like. There’s pleasure, but there’s also discomfort, pain. And I think that’s part of why she’s so great, because there’s just that realness to it, that humanity, how it really is versus the Hollywood version: ‘Oh yeah, it’s wonderful, the clouds open and you hear angels singing!'”

By last count, she’s lost her virginity five times on screen. The triumvirate are at that age. Each has her own allure: Lawrence is plush; Stewart, brooding; Woodley, vulnerable. Unlike her peers, off screen, Woodley keeps a low romantic profile that’s in sync with the way she lives the rest of her life. As you’d expect from a heart-to-heart hugger, “I’m all-loving,” she says. “I fall in love with people based on who they are.

“I never want to love like this”—Woodley holds her arms outstretched, as if to envelop you—”I always want to love like this.” She thrusts her arms behind her back, pressing her chest forward. “Heart centered, like, ‘This is who I am! And I love you if you love me for who this person is. And if not, I’ll still love you, but I ain’t fallin’ in love with you!'”

Happily she carries on with what could seriously be the best personal ad ever—feel free to steal it: “When you’re truly in love, for me, it’s…you’re my lighthouse! You’re somebody who holds me high, keeps me safe, you’ve got my fuckin’ back…. You also love me whole, wild, and free. You let me do me, and I’m gonna let you do you! And I’ll be the home that you return to.”

Is she currently in love? Woodley smiles. “I’m currently not going to answer that question.”

If you were to shake a Magic 8 Ball, it would answer, “Signs point to yes.” The last two books she read were David Deida’s Dear Lover: A Woman’s Guide to Enjoying Love’s Deepest Bliss and The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire. “It’s about loving oneself and deep intimacy and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I found it very heart opening,” she says, adding, “I have a great relationship with myself; it doesn’t mean we get along every day.”

Soon the vagabond will be sweeping up her Shai deposits and packing them into a single suitcase, which she describes as “10 percent clothes and 90 percent shit—a little altar of candles, sage, talismans, cards from dear friends, even strangers, things that remind me of home.” Adding yet another cool director to her credits, Woodley’s off to costar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone’s untitled project based on the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. She’ll play Snowden’s professional pole-dancing girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.

The waiter arrives with the check, and the actress dives for it. “I’m buying you dinner,” she insists. A fight ensues. Clearly, this meal will be on ELLE. As much fun as the evening was, business is business. And we’re the ones who asked her out.

“Dude, that wasn’t even dinner, that was, like, a snack,” Woodley replies. And then comes some more progressive thinking. “It’s not even me—all money comes from the same place. It’s not my money; it’s not your money. We’re just cycling paper.”

The specious argument of a generous and prosperous 23-year-old; nice try. “Look,” she says, “I know it’s uncomfortable. It feels strange because it’s something outside of our paradigm. But we’re breaking through, man! We’re changing!”

Determined, Woodley launches into a story about being on an airplane, exhausted, sitting next to a stranger who struck up a conversation. “I was like, ‘I’ll give her 10 minutes, then I’m going to put my mask on and sleep.’ We end up talking the entire plane ride—she’s become a very close friend. She said a lot of beautiful things. Among them: ‘As human beings we’re always afraid to jump off the cliff because we forget we have wings.’ So every time I’m in a situation where I’m like, ‘I’m uncomfortable! I don’t know what to do!’ I’m like, ‘Jump!’ Isn’t that the best?”

Woodley smiles, firing up her dimples: “Trust me.” She waves the waiter back over. “It’s gonna be fine. We have wings.”