When I met Shailene Woodley at the Big Little Lies season two premiere last week, she was barefoot and dancing, which is, of course, a classic Shailene Woodley scenario. The “Hollywood Hippie,” known for oil pulling and living in an RV, has made headlines for getting arrested at Standing Rock, for not calling and then calling herself a feminist, and for being a Bernie Bro. When I told her I was one too, she grabbed my shoulders and corrected me, “You’re a Bernie goddess,” as she hung out at the party following a screening of the new season’s first episode, in a fabulous Dior bodysuit and sheer dress.
Woodley has also starred in some of the biggest film franchises in the last 10 years, just helped lead a climate change town hall as a board member of Sanders’s Our Revolution, and is playing Jane, a rape survivor and young mother, again as Big Little Lies returns—a very serious résumé for such an ostensible weirdo. “I’m also very boring,” she tells me on the phone a few days later. “I think that’s why people kind of clamor onto sound bites, because I’m not at a lot of parties, and I’m not doing a lot of Hollywood-type things.” It does actually feel like Woodley might be an enigma to celebrity media because she’s in fact more like a normal person than a lot of her colleagues.
True to form, she was standing by a noisy washing machine when we spoke on the busy press tour for BLL, which begins with, among other changes, a dramatic hair transformation for both her character, Jane, and son Ziggy (Iain Armitage, with whom Woodley was dancing adorably at the party). Woodley described preparing for the intense role of Jane through research—and personal experience—as well as what she really thinks about being the “Hollywood Hippie,” activism, Susan Sarandon, and whether she and her costars talk politics on set:
We both just watched the premiere episode of season two for the first time. My biggest takeaway—I thought it was funny!
It was really funny. I was shocked by how funny it was.
Both you and Ziggy got new hair.
Whenever some major transition happens, not just a mediocre one but something life-defining and system-altering, I feel like we wear that transformation on our bodies. Jane had lived so many years in fear of Perry, and in fear of this man, haunting her psyche and reliving the trauma every single day, day in and day out, because she knew he was still alive and that he was still out there. When he died, I feel like she probably went through her closet and got rid of a lot of old clothes. And I felt like the hair was a way for Jane to almost reclaim who she was before Perry. A bang is a drastic change.
Did you do a lot of research for this role?
I read countless accounts of women and men who have endured sexual trauma and who live with that every single day. But to be honest, the real insight that I got was from my own personal experiences and those of my closest friends and family. The thing about domestic violence and sexual assault is that no one’s safe from it. If it’s not happening to you, it happens to somebody that you know very intimately, chances are.
Jane’s story feels particularly relevant to the political moment, in terms of the #MeToo movement and the threat to reproductive rights. Did you feel that even more coming into this new season?
If I’m trying to make a political statement by playing Jane, that’s not going to get anywhere. Nobody wants to be preached at. Nobody wants to feel like they’re wrong, right? That’s the problem with the world and modern-day democracy; nobody fucking listens to one another. So we have all of these very strong opinions that are black-and-white and there’s no room for gray. There’s no room for any kind of solution or common ground because, you know, one side very much believes they’re right. So to me, playing Jane wasn’t about being sociopolitical; it wasn’t about activism at all. It simply was about playing a woman who is fucking hurting, and is emotionally traumatized, and who is psychologically trying to move forward with this heavy load. And what does one do with that?
Do you think it’s easier for you to separate acting roles from political activism because you are actually quite politically active?
The word activism triggers me anyway, because at the end of the day we’re all just people trying to do the best we can. I don’t say things in order to be applauded or to have the label of an activist. But I really just think it’s important to take time to share how we feel, and also take time to listen to what other people are saying and to listen to how other people feel, because, again, that’s how solutions are created. But as far as acting, I don’t really ever take—I mean, I guess that’s not true. You know, when I did Snowden, I really felt like that story…I don’t take stories or scripts or films in order to send a message necessarily. It’s more so allowing air to breathe into the lungs of a story that’s been unheard on a mass level.
What got you politically engaged?
To be honest, I just kind of came out of the womb that way. I was raised by two psychologists, so for me it was never about, fuck the patriarchy, or be an anarchist, or start a revolution. It was always, you know, how do you think she feels, or how do you think he feels, or do you think that this person bullied you because they’re also being bullied at home? The conversation was always about human emotion, empathy, and compassion, which—my mom always says compassion is empathy in action. And I think it’s so true. So I don’t really see a difference between being on the board of Our Revolution or speaking at a political rally or sitting in a therapist’s office, because I feel like the way I intentionalize it is from the same place.
Is there someone who connected you to the Sanders campaign?
If you go through archives, I’ve been saying shit for years that nobody likes to run until it becomes hip and cool, or it’s some crazy, you know, button that Shailene Woodley has [pressed] again, and “Oh, my god, she’s a fucking crazy hippie from Hollywood.” But the person who helped lead me in a political way was Susan Sarandon. I had dinner with her in December 2015 when she was about to go to spend Christmas in Greece to document and hear the stories with a photographer friend of hers of the refugees there. She was going there to hear their stories and give them a platform to speak, to use their own voices to tell the world what was going on in their lives. And I was so fucking moved by the fact that she was spending her Christmas doing that. And she’s got kids, she’s got grandkids, you know, she’s, she’s a busy woman. I’ve always been incredibly inspired by her ability to stay true to herself as an artist and as someone who deeply cares about the evolution of the planet.
So I called her in January 2016; it was right before we began filming Big Little Lies and it had gotten pushed, the first season. I was like, I have two months free. Do you need any help with anything? And she said, well, we could really use you on the Bernie campaign. At this point I didn’t know anything about politics. She was like, time to pop your political hymen and get involved. So Bernie’s campaign sent me an email and they asked if I’d be willing to just make a one-minute Instagram video about the issues that mattered to me, whether I mentioned Bernie or not. And that felt very contrived to me. Instagram is like a soapbox for everybody to pat themselves on in the back for all the great work we’re doing. But a lot of it’s just talk. And it didn’t feel like that would make a difference at all.
I called them and I said, look, I’m not going to do the video, but I will come to a rally. They said, great, can you get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Michigan? So I did. And it was the first political rally I had I ever been to. I didn’t realize there’d be 10,000 people there. And that was the beginning of my entire journey.
What do you do as an Our Revolution board member?
I feel like I don’t contribute much to Our Revolution in so many ways, because I’m not a person that comes from politics. But what I do feel like I bring, and I think that’s probably the reason why they still have me on the board, is passion and energy and a relentless optimism that I think is really needed when it comes to politics. It’s important to remember why we’re involved in the first place and to not get caught up in the lower-tier noise and focus on the root of the root, which is the systemic issues that we’re attempting to educate people about. I see Our Revolution as a source for people to learn about the underdog. The candidates who CNN and MSNBC and Fox News aren’t talking about. The candidates who come from places that aren’t sexy. They come from jobs that aren’t necessarily political. Our vetting process is really deep and thorough. So if Our Revolution puts their stamp on something, it’s almost—I think of it as like the non-GMO stamp at the grocery store.
What do you really think about your crunchy reputation? Does it annoy you?
It makes me laugh. If I spent any of my life energy being annoyed by what people I don’t know say about me, that’s a miserable life. When it first started happening when I was younger, I was very much in my early 20s and I was like, fuck that, who cares. This is what I believe in. This is what I want to say. And I think that’s a rite of passage. But I wouldn’t change anything. I think it’s important for us to be ourselves. And I’m weird. And I’m also really boring. I think that’s why people kind of clamor onto sound bites because I’m not at a lot of parties and I’m not doing a lot of Hollywood-type things. I don’t care about the noise. I care about working with directors that I admire and I care about telling stories that hopefully will impact people’s hearts. And I care about being on a film set and eating at the craft food table with a gaffer, that’s really what brings me the most joy. So all of this extra is luxurious and beautiful and has given me great perspective on the wild ways in which our world can be so different based on finance or celebrity. But that’s kind of it. You know, it’s all extra. It doesn’t impact my art, which is storytelling.
Do you talk about politics with your BLL costars?
All the time, actually. I think every time we have dinner it always starts and ends with conversations about what’s bothering us in the world. But it doesn’t mean we always agree. In 2016, Zoë and I were in Bernie’s campaign and Reese was in Hillary’s campaign. And we’d be on set and we would talk about the issues. It never got heated, it never got angry, and it never got demonstrative, but it always stayed a proper debate. And I think that’s what democracy needs to be. We do actually come to middle ground. I feel like our biggest differences are around the people to get it done, not around the issues that we think matter, if that makes sense. We have such a multigenerational cast. Me and Zoë, I can’t think of one time when we haven’t been in alignment on our political beliefs, but we also come from a totally different generation than Reese and Nicole and Laura and Meryl.
I would totally watch a 2020 debate in which each of you stumped for your candidates.
That would be very funny. We should do that. Even just for us.