“When I found out they were making this movie, I begged my agents to get me a meeting with Oliver,” says Shailene Woodley, pouring out a herbal tea in a buzzy SoHo bar in New York. Oliver is thrice-Oscar-winning writer/director Oliver Stone, who is about to release Snowden, in which Woodley stars, unfolding the story behind CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s decision to leak thousands of classified National Security Agency documents.
Working with Stone is a big deal for the star of the Divergent series and The Descendants; she is breaking out of teen roles to play Lindsay Mills, the girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden. Not that those roles are to be sniffed at; they earned Woodley, who has been acting since she was four, critical acclaim and a loyal fan base – a gauntlet of teens waving iPhones in the rain had to be navigated before she could sit down today. At just 24, she is considered a big box-office draw – but apparently that meant little to Stone. “I just wasn’t on his radar,” shrugs Woodley. “I don’t think he’d seen anything I’d done.”
So what does a tenacious young actress do in such a scenario? Write him a letter. And it worked. “I just wanted to sit down with him and say, as a young woman entering adulthood, thank you for making a movie that will change my life, and my peers’ lives,” she says. “And thank you for doing it so soon. Really, there is no one else who could except Oliver Stone. It’d be easier 10 years from now.”
Arguably, she’s right. Someone with a lesser directorial power to wield might not have got the studio backing, since Stone’s movie humanizes Snowden’s predicament in a way no coverage has to date, fostering real empathy for America’s most-wanted man. Exiled in Russia and deeply secretive about his location, Snowden nonetheless met with Stone and has a cameo in the movie. Woodley met his girlfriend Lindsay for dinner in Washington before filming.
“I think about Lindsay every day, and we wrapped this movie over a year ago. She’s a real person, living through this story now. She’s been in love with someone for over a decade, accepting he’s part of the NSA and not able to tell her things. Then he says he’s going on a business trip for a few days, and she finds out that the love of her life is plastered all over TV,” says Woodley incredulously, reliving the account as if it were indeed hers. “She had to deal with the fallout. The fine balance between being so proud of him – and these are my words, not hers…” (Woodley is so passionate, the clarification is welcome) “…but also feeling so much confusion and hurt. He’s not allowed back in the States; she now has to choose whether to live in her country, or live in Russia with him. Her life has changed dramatically because of a decision he made for the country. Her boyfriend is a wanted man, and now newscasters are knocking on her door every day. Lindsay was a yoga and pole-dance instructor, and the press tore her apart saying: ‘Edward Snowden’s girlfriend is a stripper’. She was a fitness coach,” clarifies Woodley, flatly. “At least when you’re an actor, you expect that kind of reporting, but she never signed up for it.”
Woodley is genuinely impassioned, her views strong and well-argued. She speaks in rhetorical triplets, emphasizing points she thinks are worth you remembering. She has kept a band-aid over her computer camera since reading about Snowden in the news, but had been concerned about surveillance long before (one of her favorite books is George Orwell’s 1984), questioning her mother about the security cameras on the street as a young girl. She has an ardent sense of social justice, on everything from sex education (“As a young woman you don’t learn how to pleasure yourself, you don’t learn what an orgasm should be, you don’t learn that you should have feelings of satisfaction. I’ve always had a dream of making a book called ‘There’s No Right Way to Masturbate’. If masturbation were taught in school, I wonder how many fewer people would get herpes aged 16, or pregnant at 14?”) to Photoshopping (“I had crazy, horrific acne when I filmed Divergent. But you would never know because they touch you up. Yes, it’s a movie, it’s their product and I am playing a character, but, as a human being, why wouldn’t you just let my zits show?”).
We speak for 45 minutes on the upcoming presidential election (Woodley is a diehard Bernie Sanders supporter), as well as social media: “It’s narcissism. People are being told every day how amazing they are, how beautiful they are, how powerful they are. They start believing it, and become detached from reality”. On Hollywood, she says, “The environment is incredibly unhealthy – women get a little skinnier, a little blonder, their lips get fuller, and it’s not a stereotype, it’s real, and it’s because there’s a mold they’re told they have to fit in order to stay relevant.”
Boy, is she interesting to talk to. “I have a hard time having political conversations in Hollywood,” she admits. “Most people there are so privileged, they don’t see the 99% of America, because they don’t have to. It’s hard for people like that to see another perspective.”
This outlook could easily be attributed to her progressive parents; Woodley’s dad is a psychologist and her mom is a counselor. They had a revolving-door policy at home, meaning a teenage runaway, say, or a family fleeing domestic violence, was always welcome, even going on vacation with them. “I came home to things that weren’t great,” says Woodley. “My family is super messed up in many ways, but they are also my everything.” Her hand rests for a second over her heart, as she says, “They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them. That’s a lot more than most people can say about their families. I’m grateful for the s**t that happened.”
Interestingly, Woodley finds it difficult getting into anger mode when acting. “Don’t get me wrong, I am so angry at the corrupt systems in this world, but yelling or screaming? The last time I got in a big fight was with my boyfriend when I was 17. I would say obscene things and lash out. I was in a toxic relationship. I remember thinking, ‘I never want to be that person.’”
In fact, she is a remarkably balanced individual, a product of that remarkable upbringing. If she ever fought with her brother, they were made to hug it out for hours on the front lawn in front of the neighbors. “The whole time you’re just seething, you’re disliking this person with so much energy, but if you let go you have to stay there for an extra hour. That was the kind of reverse, manipulative psychology my parents were into!” She laughs. “And there were times in school, when someone said something really mean, it would hurt my feelings, and my parents weren’t on my side. They would be like, ‘I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way, but what do you think that person was feeling?’ Oh, I hated it. Now, of course I understand, it enabled me to recognize that no-one’s evil, they’re probably hurting and can’t express themselves, get no love at home, so it’s repeated. It gave me a broader outlook; just put yourself in another person’s shoes.”
Woodley is positively champing at the bit for roles that will show her mettle; she’s done with being the grounded girl-next-door, her dream character being Helena Bonham Carter’s in Fight Club. Despite claiming to get plenty of sleep, she appears to be living life at a million miles an hour. When she’s not working, she’ll email her friends to offer a hand on whatever project they’re working on. And while she denies being competitive, she seems to want to be the best she can be – as an actor, and as a person. There’s a hunger about her, an insatiable energy, a slightly all-American spirit. She wants to succeed, but she also wants a fair fight. She loves rejection because it gives her a chance to be better (she still takes acting classes), and she dislikes being ‘handed’ parts. “I often see movies where the actor is great, but I feel like someone else would have done a better job. So I love auditioning because you know you were chosen out of hundreds of people, and you are exactly what they need,” she says. “The first time I did a movie with a straight offer, I was nervous the entire time. The director never made me feel that way, but he didn’t have the perspective of seeing hundreds of women try to play the role, just me.”
How would she summarize her mindset? “I just want to constantly grow, constantly learn, be a little bit different every day.” There’s no doubt she will; Woodley’s a dynamo. We just need to keep up.