Shailene Woodley on female friendship and why she’s done with ‘meaningless sex’

There’s a billboard on Sunset Strip by the entrance to the Chateau Marmont. It features six names in block capitals: KIDMAN, WITHERSPOON, WOODLEY, KRAVITZ, DERN, STREEP. Then a date: June 9. Instead of the title of the show — Big Little Lies — letters from their names have been pulled out to spell NEW LIES. Smart. Inside the Chateau is the youngest name — 27-year-old Shailene Woodley. She’s more discreet than the billboard. I don’t even notice her at first. The maitre d’ hasn’t either. It’s the Chateau’s job to know every star in Hollywood. “Who did you say you’re looking for?” he asks. I repeat: Shailene Woodley. Despite having been on-screen for more than 20 years, Woodley has zero celebrity airs. She’s proof that you can avoid attracting attention. “I’m Shai,” she says once I realise that the women slumped over a MacBook on a couch at the back is Woodley. “This is me!”

She is dressed for business: black slacks, a white shirt, her brown hair swept aside — elegant and serious. She greets me with a hug, but doesn’t feign instant friendship. Woodley is realistic and fair. She laughs and cracks a smile so wide it creates a crease beneath her right eye. She’s generous, too, and offers to share her roasted potatoes. “What can I get you? Ketchup? Mayo?” she says, lining up the jars. “Please, whatever you need! Every form of potato is the best form of potato.” This girl has our number. Woodley hasn’t noticed the billboard outside. I tell her I was lucky enough to view the first episode of the second series. “Oh, I haven’t seen it yet,” she says. It’s very good. “Is it?” she asks, relieved. Well worth the wait.

In the first series of Big Little Lies, Woodley’s character, Jane, has relocated to the seaside town of Monterey, in northern California, with her son. She enrols him in school and befriends the other doting mothers played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz. The rivalry and friendships between the five women, and their complicated lives, make up the central storyline of the show, alongside a murder plot — but we don’t know who has been murdered until the final episode. Spoiler alert: it’s Perry — played by Alexander Skarsgard — an abusive husband and the man who raped Jane years earlier. Based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 bestselling novel, the seven-part series was produced by Kidman and Witherspoon and became the most talked-about and loved television series of 2017, winning 14 awards, including a best actress Golden Globe for Kidman.

The second series, which starts here on June 10, has been extended beyond Moriarty’s novel, with Meryl Streep the blockbuster addition to the cast, playing Perry’s mother, in town to get to the bottom of his death. “Meryl’s bananas,” Woodley says. “She’s game over. When I first read her character, I thought, ‘How in the hell is somebody going to embody this?’ Meryl’s a fairy godmother. She waves her wand and turns everything into gold.”

Of all Woodley’s projects, this is her most feverish. “Everyone is enthralled by it,” she says. It’s now 18 months since the Time’s Up movement began, for which Witherspoon was a leading advocate. A female director was brought on board for this series: the Oscar-winning Brit Andrea Arnold. Did the movement affect conversation on set? “Our political, socio and ecological ideas are aligned with the characters, but we want them to speak for themselves,” Woodley says.

The camaraderie between the actresses has been the stuff of fan fantasy. Do they have a WhatsApp group? Who throws the best parties? Woodley doesn’t humour the intrigue, offering that they have dinners but “not often” and that, yes, there’s a “normal text group”. Much has been written about how close they are as a group. “We have the space to be safe with one another,” she says. “We’re all very good at being frustrated — not at each other, but with each other. That’s one thing that is often suppressed in social circles, particularly among women. It’s difficult for women to express frustration because we’re so empathetic about our friends’ feelings and we don’t want to take up too much space, so we end up suppressing our own frustration in order to create space for other conversations. That’s something that our group doesn’t shy away from. It always takes one person to start the conversation and then we all roll into it. And it’s beautiful.”

Woodley’s big break came when she played George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants in 2011. Three years later she had an international hit with the romantic drama The Fault in Our Stars and was cast in the dystopian sci-fi series Divergent, billed as “the next Hunger Games”. It was slaughtered by the critics and Woodley took a year off. Then the Big Little Lies script came across her desk.

“I couldn’t fully walk away from acting,” she says. “It’s in my blood. It’s my hobby. But if you’re a mother and your child’s driving you crazy, you need to go have f****** wine with your friends and take a minute away from them.” It was Laura Dern who encouraged her to read the script. “It’s provided a space for me to look at what I did through a different lens,” she says of the impact the show has had on her. “The empathy that Jane needed in order to accept these women despite their differences is something that I feel I now take with me in this world.”

Woodley grew up in Simi Valley, California, with psychologist parents. She sees acting as an extension of their profession — a study in human emotion. “I grew up knowing about familial connection, cooking together, camping. We’d be on the water every other weekend or in the woods.” At 15 she was diagnosed with scoliosis, curvature of the spine, which meant she had to wear a brace for two years. “I had to wear baggy clothes,” she says. So she sewed her own to find her style. “How could I make it funky? I wore jellies and strange 1980s dresses.” As she chatters, you understand what separates her from her peers. “That I don’t get caught up in the bullshit?” she says. She doesn’t like Hollywood’s hierarchy. “I love acting because it brings me joy. Without it, I’m a miserable, depressed human. I’m such a lucky bitch to even do this in the first place.”

Woodley’s iPhone is constantly blinking, but it’s a Motorola flip phone she pulls from her handbag. The iPhone only works on wi-fi. “I found myself in Ubers, on the metro, at restaurants, looking at old photos and old emails, not being productive. I hated it. Now, I’m far more present. I’ve lost a few friends, but I guess they weren’t real friends.” It seems extreme to lose friends over a flip phone, but Woodley says she’s hard to get hold of. “I’m not a great communicator. I disappear. I know that doesn’t work for a lot of people. You quickly find out.” A friend texted her yesterday to say: “I give up.” She had ignored his messages for a month. “It’s f****** hard to receive that text,” she says. “But I’m allergic to small talk. I don’t need to know you didn’t brush your teeth this morning. For thousands of years humans existed without constant communication. It overwhelms my emotional body. We have enough shit to deal with.”

In terms of having a place to call home, Woodley doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone or anything at the expense of her own exploration. “Two weeks in one place and I’m like, ‘Where am I going next?’ ” she laughs. “I want a family and roots, but there’s a way to do that while still being transient.”

Most recently, she has been linked with the rugby player Ben Volavola, who she met in Fiji last year. “Every significant love I’ve had has come in a spontaneous fashion,” she says. “I’m not a firm believer in any religion. I believe in life! I don’t hold onto an idea that it’s never gonna happen or I’m not gonna find another lover. It’s about surrendering to when and how.” She doesn’t have an agenda for relationships. “Kindness, support, laughter, levity,” she says. “I’m open to how that occurs and what it looks like, even if it takes years.” One thing she knows for sure: “I’m over meaningless sex. I’m too tired. Nothing about a casual hook-up or unemotional … rubbing is pleasurable for me. Been there, done that.”

Her commitment to a sustainable lifestyle is notorious. She was arrested in 2016 protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Her hippie reputation is so widely known, it was once the butt of one of Hannah Horvath’s jokes on Girls. She finds it ironic that ideas people used to mock her for are now mass marketed: “ ‘It’s crazy! She eats clay! She thinks charcoal is something we should ingest!’ Now people buy charcoal for $5 and they could make it at home for two cents. You gotta laugh.” But the strict rules she imposed upon herself started to make her feel stressed, so she has relaxed them. “I used to carry so much guilt for doing something the wrong way. ‘Have I been on too many planes this week? What’s my carbon footprint like?’ That was a big part of my early twenties. I wasn’t living a life that kept me sane.” Yet she’s perturbed when asked about activism. “First of all, I don’t like the word. I understand the need, but I have a distaste for labels. I don’t consider myself an activist. I am someone who wants to give future generations a life that’s better than the life we have. [But] I’m not gonna change the world on my own. F****** take a load off.” She’s starting to enjoy cosmopolitan luxury. Her love for fashion is evolving. Last month she was in Morocco at a Dior show, posing next to Jessica Alba and Lupita Nyong’o.

Woodley doesn’t think change comes from virtue signalling, but from speaking your truth, even if it means disagreements. “I don’t believe anything serves as a better catalyst than authenticity.” She got into trouble in 2014 for saying she wasn’t a feminist. Where does she stand now? “Look, the minute you associate yourself with that word you lose the respect of an entire demographic. That’s why we have so many wars. Human conditioning is so black-and-white. If I can be grey in any way, even if it’s self-sacrificial, it’s important. But right now I would absolutely say I’m a feminist.”

Woodley considers the past few years as transitional. She has created new standards for herself, choosing to feed her soul over her ego. She’s left plenty of room for grub, too. “Do you want more potatoes?” she says, as I get up to leave. Who could refuse one more potato from Shailene Woodley?