“When I was seven,” says Shailene Woodley, “I said, ‘The day I’m on the cover of a magazine I’m going to quit,’ because I never wanted this industry to get in the way of my life.” At that point, she was already a two-year ‘veteran’ of show business, and repelled by the idea of fame and its pervasiveness.
Yet here she is, two decades later, on the cover of this magazine for the second time and with countless others, from Vanity Fair to New York Magazine, in her back catalogue. She’s paused filming on the second season of Big Little Lies to hit the promotion trail for the brilliantly grueling Adrift, a survival story based on Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp’s 1983 experience of being caught in a hurricane and stranded at sea for 41 days, co-starring Brit actor Sam Claflin. Woodley, 26, says she was “stripped to her core” by filming, which involved journeying into open sea every day, jumping into the water to pee when the boat’s toilet broke, and forgoing dinner every day for a month to illustrate Oldham’s slow starvation.
So very much still in the industry, then. Is she not a woman of her word? Or did Hollywood turn her head? Neither, she promises, explaining with a dramatic yet sincere, “I have the best job in the world. I could cry talking about it. And it’s fleeting, I remind myself of that every day. What I do can be taken away at any moment.”
The acting, it appears, comes easily. Co-stars heap unusually genuine praise on Woodley, with the likes of George Clooney – whom she starred with in The Descendants, her sit-up-and-take-notice role – and Kate Winslet (the Divergent franchise) singling her out as one of the best actresses of her generation. Everything that comes with it though? That’s been a struggle.
“The idea of magazines, press lines, red carpets and fashion, all of that was so overwhelming that I stayed away from it all,” says the actress over herbal tea at a relaxed LA cafe, clad in a leather jacket and jeans. “I can’t half-ass anything, so when it came to me having to look a certain way or speak a certain way for this image I was meant to create, it turned me off. When I wasn’t filming I would work on a farm somewhere because that’s what I could hold onto that felt real.”
While Woodley has always seemed confident, borne perhaps of having two therapists as parents, she certainly seems more sanguine now, as though she’s found a way to rationalize the very different influences in her life. Last month she wore Ralph Lauren to attend the Met Gala with Ansel Elgort. What made her attend such an extravagant event, despite her less-is-more sensibilities? “I had an opportunity to witness something I may never see again,” she says simply. “But there’s always polarization. In high school I would shop at thrift stores to put together weird outfits. When I did The Descendants, I had studios saying, ‘You need to dress more cosmopolitan’, which is such a funny word to use for an 18 year old. I let go of so much of my desire to be creative in that space because I didn’t want to be a mannequin for someone to dress up and throw on a red carpet. We often see a pattern with young women in this industry: they lose a bit of weight after they become successful, their hair changes or their skin becomes clear. There’s a lot that goes into the behind the scenes that, if that’s not your thing, can itch at your soul.”
For a long time, none of that was Woodley’s thing. “I was only interested in making sure my physical footprint was aligned with my mental opinions and viewpoints,” she says. “Now I’m in a different place. The idea of fashion is exciting again because I can now curate a look that’s authentically myself. I suppose it really just comes down to control.”
Right now, the actress is filming a second series of Big Little Lies. While she’s equally as proud of the TV phenomenon as her co-stars – Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz, as well as executive producers Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman – the show represents something even more crucial for Woodley; until the script came along, she was considering quitting acting after all. “There was a point in my life, right before Big Little Lies, where I had hit a wall with acting. I felt it was time to do something different. I called my agents and said, ‘Please don’t send me any more scripts; I need to explore other avenues.’ They respected me and didn’t send me anything for almost a year until Big Little Lies. I didn’t know what it was or who was involved, I just said, ‘Thanks, I’m still not interested.’” The agents persisted, revealing the impressive names attached. “I read it, fell in love with it, and Laura Dern, who I had worked with on The Fault in Our Stars, called me and that was really the push.”
What had caused Woodley to step away? The timings hint at the Divergent series – the young adult novels transferred to the screen amid Hollywood’s thirst for teen torture – being the culprit. The actress insists that she “wouldn’t change the films for the world”, but admits that “the last one was a bit of a hard experience for everyone, and that was really what made me think I need to have some human experiences outside of this industry and fall in love with acting again, and Big Little Lies did that for me.”
One of the strongest take-homes from the show and the awards season that followed was the idea of female solidarity. Five strong female leads in one show is certainly an unusual feast and the off-screen relationship between the actresses looked equally rewarding. “I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with a group of women before where competition didn’t get in the way of sisterhood,” says Woodley. “Every single person was championing the other members. Like at the Met Ball – everybody had invites, but only a couple of people could go because some people had to continue filming, so Nicole and Zoë went and the rest of us stayed back and filmed.”
While acting is back on the agenda, Woodley hasn’t given up on the idea of an alternative path that presented itself in the wake of 2016’s presidential election: politics. “I don’t think I’ll be running in 2020, but it’s never something I would rule out,” she says. The actress was a Bernie Sanders supporter, in part for his line on issues such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, where Woodley was arrested during a protest against the development alongside the Standing Rock tribe.
Immediately after the incident she wrote an open letter, urging us all not to stand silently by. But in the longer term, Woodley felt conflicted. “After Standing Rock I had this moment where so many people wanted me to do something and I had to take a step back,” she explains. “Why do we even have events like Standing Rock happen? It’s because there are systematic flaws, and being the emotional creature that I am, I can’t help but think if you want to change legislation then we have to change minds and hearts. We have to become people who are willing to look at our own s**t before we point the finger at someone else and we have to hold one another accountable.”
So how does she feel about having become something of a Hollywood poster child for activism? “Activism is important,” she reasons, “but I think oftentimes it services as a band aid rather than figuring out how to change the root of the issue. I honestly think everything could be solved if empathy was taught to young people. A lot of people think it’s a very idealistic way of looking at the world, but I don’t know anything else that will work, so until someone tells me another solution I’m just going to continue to say empathy and compassion is where it’s at.”
When it comes to Time’s Up and a healing momentum in Hollywood, Woodley says she can’t take any of the credit, despite attending the 2018 Golden Globes with Calina Lawrence, a campaigner for causes including native treaty and water rights. She was overseas with her boyfriend, Fijan rugby player Ben Volavola, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the first meeting she had about the new organization was on the eve of the awards. A week later, she posted a missive on Instagram, admitting that it had taken her days to process the enormity of the evening. “There was a sense of vulnerability and truth that broke through whatever autopilot we’ve all been in for a while,” she explains. “I think it’s because it’s the first time that everybody took the time to recognize that we’re all very much the same. The homes we live in look different, the amounts in our bank accounts may be different, but the feeling of loneliness, suffering and separation is universal.”
Woodley herself hasn’t called anywhere ‘home’ in years, seeing a base as a waste of resource when so much of her time is spent on location. Between jobs, she couch surfs with friends. Now, though, she’s hankering to put down roots with Volavola, whom she met while in Fiji filming Adrift. “Thank God for my friends because they are so tolerant of me, but I do want a home now,” she says. “I lived a very minimalistic life for many years – toothbrush, deodorant, two pairs of jeans, a pair of leggings for yoga, sweater and jacket, really bare essentials. I was a very serious woman for so long, I didn’t allow myself the frivolous nature of being a human being and having human experiences.”
Now she’s having as many of them as she can fit in, most of them with Volavola, who is arriving in LA from Paris tonight. “I love getting older; it’s the most exciting thing. Every year I love myself a little more and dig life a little more,” smiles Woodley. “Sometimes you’re in highs and sometimes lows, but life is really, really good right now.”