For someone being hailed as “the new Jennifer Lawrence,” Shailene Woodley comes as something of a surprise.
Admittedly the two young actresses’ career trajectories were similar in that they both made independent films and then moved on to so-called Young Adult franchises – Lawrence to the Hunger Games and Woodley to Divergent. But they have little else in common.
While the effervescent Lawrence is always quick to crack a joke, Woodley is a serious, introspective young lady who cares deeply for the environment and talks about finding ways to be “centred”.
Lawrence has just spent £5 million on a mansion on a guard-gated street above Beverly Hills, 23-year-old Woodley has no permanent home and lives out of her suitcase, staying in hotels on location or, when she is in Los Angeles, on friends’ couches. “I have a vagabond lifestyle,” she says.
She claims money does not interest her, she has no extravagances and her life has changed little since becoming the most-hyped young star since Lawrence.
“I haven’t splurged on anything and I live a very simple lifestyle because that’s the life that satisfies my soul,” she says. In the past she’s said that if she wasn’t an actress she’d “do something with food. Finding seeds, planting seeds, watching them grow, harvesting the fruits, cooking the fruits, eating them, seeing how my body reacts…” She’s also a vocal advocate of a detox method that involves eating small amounts of clay, a substance she describes as “one of the best things you can put in your body”.
We are talking in a Beverly Hills hotel and while Shai, as she is known to friends and family, is friendly enough and answers most questions willingly if briefly, she is reluctant to divulge much of her personal life, saying: “I feel very well rounded, and in touch with who I am, and what I want out of life, and how I choose to live my life.”
For someone who is the idol of millions of teenagers through her movies The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent and its sequel Insurgent, Woodley is surprisingly down-to-earth with very strong, outspoken opinions.
“I have always felt it’s important to say what you mean and then mean what you say,” she says. “If you are going to talk something, walk it. And that being said, don’t say anything without compassion. My mom once told me ‘truth without compassion is cruelty.’ You can’t say something that’s one hundred percent truthful, knowing that it’s going to hurt someone and do serious damage. And so for me, it’s always a matter of integrity. And if I believe something, and if somebody asks me a question, I have to answer with the truth; it’s all we have. Say what you mean, mean what you say.”
Unlike Jennifer Lawrence and many other young stars Woodley has no qualms about appearing nude on screen, and in the independent film White Bird in a Blizzard, which had its premiere at the Sundance film festival, she displays the type of nudity that can make audiences uncomfortable, playing a 17-year-old engaging in on-screen sex and seducing a middle-aged cop played by Thomas Jane.
“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. Nudity’s not difficult because when I am changing clothes that happens, so I feel like it’s pretty normal.”
In Insurgent, based on the second of the trilogy of young adult novels by Veronica Roth about a teenager living in a futuristic society, Woodley’s Tris, who has been exposed as a Divergent – someone who doesn’t fit into one of five societal classifications or “factions” – iis on the run with Four (played by the British actor Theo James), from Jeanine, the power-hungry leader of the Erudite faction (Kate Winslet in a rare role as a villainess).
When Titanic was released, Winslet found herself at the centre of the same fan fervour Woodley is receiving now; she gave the younger actress the benefit of her experience.
Woodley recalls: “When we were filming Divergent Kate said, ‘When this comes out there will be a month of craziness, a month of everyone watching every little thing you do, but the great news is that one month later, they won’t care anymore. And then when the next one comes out, it will happen again, and then go away.’ So, she’s definitely infused some of her wisdom upon me.”
“With most movie relationships, it’s easy to get carried away in the romance and not see the messiness of life”
The serious-minded Woodley sees Tris and Four’s relationship as having an important message about love for young audiences. “Their relationship is so special, and I think it’s so important to have a relationship like this for young people to see,” she says. “Because so often you see movies in which a man and a woman fall in love because they are lustfully infatuated with one another and it’s easy to get carried away in the romance and not see the messiness of life.
“No relationship is perfect, regardless of whether it’s a lover or your mother or your brother, and one thing that I really admire about Tris and Four is they are partners before they are lovers. So at the end of the day, they respect one another, and they have each others’ backs, and they are lighthouses, they hold each other high and they let each other shine their light 360 degrees, but they never limit where their light can shine. And I think that’s the ultimate way of describing a partnership. And so to be able to have that as a platform for young adults, I think is really special.”
And what about Shailene’s own romantic life? When she was 18 she reportedly moved to New York to be with a lover but the relationship did not work out. In any case, it’s not something she will talk about except in a roundabout and convoluted way.
“Partnership should not take away from your life, it should add to your life, right? When I was 18 I became my own best friend and I went on a quest to get to know me and figure out who I was, and what I wanted and in that I found a lot of happiness and I found a lot of ways to be centered, because by knowing myself so fully, I wasn’t thinking about myself when I was looking at you and I was able to really experience you.
“I think often when you are young, you are so in your head about yourself and worrying about the judgments of others that you are not actually able to be present with anyone else because you are so stuck in your own mind.”
Despite the appearance of overnight success Woodley, who was born and brought up in the Simi Valley area of Los Angeles, began working at age five in commercials, appearing in more than 40 television spots before landing her first lead role in the television series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Then, after an exhaustive search Alexander Payne cast her as George Clooney’s daughter in the Oscar-winning The Descendants.
Clooney said of her: “Shailene can do whatever she wants. If she wants to be a movie star, she has it. If she wants to change the world, she will. Her talent and kindness go hand in hand.”
Woodley is contracted to two more films in the Divergent series – the third, Allegiant, is being split into two – but is currently filming Oliver Stone’s Snowden, in which she plays Edward Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills. “I can’t say too much about it but I will say that it is based on the true relationship that Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills actually had throughout their lives together.”
The only thing that has changed in her life from when she was unknown is, she says, “I am busier but other than that my life hasn’t really changed at all. My lifestyle is the same and my friends are the same. But I feel really lucky and excited to be on this ride.”