It’s been five years since The Descendants catapulted Shailene Woodley into the pop-culture universe. Sure, she had a devoted following on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and die-hard fans first remember her as a young Kaitlin Cooper (Marissa’s little sis) on The O.C., but it was the George Clooney-led drama that officially made her a household name. In the years since, she’s seen her film career explode with fan favorites like The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent franchise. Now, she’s ready to take on a lead role in the real-life story, Snowden, about the man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) responsible for blowing the whistle on the United States government’s cyber-surveillance programs.
Of course, Woodley’s on-screen success brings greater interest into her personal life, and the subject of privacy is one that she’s deeply passionate about. When is it OK to be in the public eye and use your platform to speak out on issues, but also have boundaries with the public with which you are engaged? And should those boundaries include telling fans on the street—the same ones that spend money to see your movie—that you’re not one to take a photo? Here, Woodley explains all that and more.
What’s your first memory of watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt? I know you didn’t watch a ton of television or movies growing up.
[Laughs] I have a really funny Joseph Gordon-Levitt story! About five and a half years ago, I watched Mysterious Skin [from 2004], not knowing anything about it. Afterward, I called my manager and said, “I loved the movie, loved the director, but there’s this guy you have to represent! He’s such a talented actor. I can’t believe no one knows about him!” I was so fired up. My manager says, “Who are you talking about?” and I said, “His name is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.” My manager was like, “OK, Shay, I know who Joseph Gordon-Levitt is, and he’s actually very famous.” [Laughs] I was like, “What else has he been in?!” and he said, “Dude, look him up on IMDb!” Of course, I looked him up and realized he was in everything. But that was my first Joseph Gordon-Levitt moment. It was honestly not knowing he was a [major] actor. It was before 500 Days of Summer and other big hits, but obviously other people knew who he was because of his TV show [3rd Rock From the Sun] and other movies he had been in. But that was my first experience of him, and I remember being blown away by his authenticity as an actor and being so present on screen to the point where [it’s] the first and only time I’ve ever called my manager and said, “You should represent this guy!”
Ha-ha, and I first remember him from Angels in the Outfield.
I had seen that movie as a kid, but I didn’t know that was the same person!
Knowing what I know about you and Joseph, it seems you guys are very similar. Agree?
We are both so curious about the world. With Joe, it was everything from the fact that he’s really involved and fascinated by technology, by democracy, and his company, HitRECORD, is something that I’m fascinated by. So we had a lot of discussions about everything from the state of our country, the state of our world, technology, etc.
How difficult is it to watch yourself on screen?
The first time I ever see a film [that I’m in], it’s hard to be objective because you’re constantly analyzing and you’re remembering where you were at that point in your own personal life, like, “Oh, I got in a fight with my boyfriend last night!” or whatever dialogue is going through your head as you remember these scenes. The second time is easier for me to watch it objectively. Watching a film back, it’s sort of like a report card or a way of analyzing and self-critiquing, not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way I feel I can call bullshit on moments that are authentic or not. So I actually like watching projects back because I feel like it helps me grow as an artist.
The film takes a look at privacy, which you know a thing or two about. What do you wish your fans better understood about the life you lead off-camera?
I wish people honestly knew that even if our external circumstances look different, a lot of that is a projected idea. So, on a human level, my experiences externally may look different than your experiences externally, but my internal experience is exactly the same as your internal experience, in a sense that we’re all just human beings just trying to do the best we can, trying to make it through our journey and be happy along the way. Every time someone pulls a camera out, it trips me out in my mind to think, “What is it about me that they find particularly special?” because I feel like there’s a certain facade that society has created between those that are famous and those that are quote unquote not. And that facade tells us, or wants us to think, that we’re different, that one is maybe superior over the other. I wish there was more of that rhetoric out there, which is there isn’t a need necessarily to take a photo, especially if there hasn’t been a memory created that garners the need to have a physical representation of that memory. I don’t take photos on the street. I only take photos if I’m doing some sort of political rally or on the front lines or if I’m working. The reason for that is it’s easy to lie and represent our experiences in a two dimensional way that says, “I met Shailene Woodley,” when in all reality, you didn’t meet me. You actually didn’t even ask if it was me. I could just be someone who looks like me and took a photo, and now all the sudden on Instagram your story that you’re telling the world is that “I met Shailene Woodley, we hung out, and now here’s a photo of us.” But something I wish people understood even more about privacy in general is that it’s not just actors or musicians or athletes who struggle with privacy—it’s that privacy is not a human right anymore. Privacy is a privilege, but it’s only a privilege if you’re aware that it’s a privilege.
How do fans respond when you say you’d rather have a moment or a memory with them instead of taking a photo?
Some people just cannot grasp the idea that I rejected their ask or request for a photo. Some people get offended by it. Some people fully understand it. Some people apologize. Some people laugh. It’s sort of independent to individual experiences. I’m like, “I’ll give you a hug, but I’m not going to take a photo with you.” And people ask why, and they don’t understand why. With social media, so much of our lives I feel like is a projection of who we want to be or who we wish we were. And I refuse to buy into that, especially for younger generations. The more we allow a certain projection, the more we’re feeding a generation to distance themselves from self-awareness and self-realization, which I think will create a lot of issues for them on a personal level later on in life.
In the film, you play Edward Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. What did you most admire about her?
I met Lindsay three months after we commenced production. I’m an actor doing this interview with you, but she’s a real woman, living in Russia, because she’s in love with her partner, knowing that her partner cannot go back to America with her. I chose a life of interviews, of scrutiny, of labels, and of everyone having an opinion about me because of the nature of my career. She didn’t choose this life of analyzation. It found her. And the way she has gracefully navigated it and been able to retain her self-awareness and her integrity amidst the chaos of the world wanting to know who she is…I really admire her ability to remain consciously herself because it found her in a fast and furious way. It wasn’t something she was expecting. But she knows who she is, she knows what she wants, and she hasn’t sacrificed a piece of herself in order to appease that of the public’s opinion. I think that takes a lot of strength and a lot of bravery, and I thank her for her sacrifice. If it weren’t for her, who knows if Ed would have done what he did because who knows if his life would have brought him to where he is. So in many ways, without Lindsay, I, as a 24-year-old woman, wouldn’t be as empowered as I am today. She’s amazing.
Do you guys stay in touch?
We do. We stay in touch a little bit. We’re very similar. In many ways, I feel like she’s like a long-lost close friend because she’s a wanderlust-er, she’s a nomad, she’s curious about the world and constantly asking questions, and she’s learning new things and trying out new experiences. I don’t know many women who are willing to jump off the cliff and trust that they have wings.