One thing to understand immediately about Shailene Woodley is that she’s an all-in or not-at-all kind of woman. If she’s not completely bowled over with passion, then she’s likely not engaging — but, when she does feel deeply about something, she’s going for it, and the awards fodder — and activism-driven arrests — will follow.
So, yes, she’s come to bear with a bit of a reputation for being a hippie of Hollywood. Woodley doesn’t mind this — it’s genuine to who she is — and that reputation of being totally herself is the one that most accurately captures her.
The actress has starred in teen projects like ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”;’ the big budget YA “Divergent” trilogy, and “The Fault in Our Stars.” But she’s now at a new level of stardom thanks to HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for her role in season one. The second season of the show premieres June 9, after what was only supposed to be a single season run drew such an intense following that executive producers — who include two of the stars, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon — decided to expand the story.
Woodley, who is 27 and seems to live much of her life entirely removed from Hollywood, describes acting as “a high that I don’t get from anything else.” She grew up in the Valley of Los Angeles, the daughter of two psychologists, and began acting at age five. “I was very fortunate that [my parents] were kind and open enough to let me try and it was just something that stuck, but it was never something that I anticipated [being a career],” she says. “It was always something that was a hobby — and I still kind of feel that way.”
She was 18 years old when she starred in the 2011 Alexander Payne drama “The Descendants” alongside George Clooney, which would go on to earn her a Golden Globe nomination, and propel her career as one from an ABC Family actor to a major, serious, bona fide actor’s actor.
“For 13 years, I had been acting: I did commercials and then movies and TV shows, and my career was a very slow progress. Nothing happened overnight for me,” she says. “Had that happened to me before 18 years old, when people all of a sudden told me how I should be dressing, how I should be speaking, how I should look, I probably would’ve said, ‘F–k y’all, I’m out.’”
She views her experience of “breaking out,” if you will, as a kind of shepherding by older, wiser female costars along the way, women she says helped her steel herself against the superficial demands of the industry.
“If you look at Hollywood — and I’m no saint in this regard — but every single time somebody gets a little bit more famous, they get a little bit thinner, and they get a little bit blonder, and they get a little bit more defined in their face,” Woodley says. “There’s sort of this sense of machinery that can happen to people in the limelight, and I was very fortunate also at a young age to work with so many incredible, strong women who were already a little rebellious in their own ways against the machinery that can be this industry.”
Those women were the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, Molly Ringwald, Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet; now, her Hollywood mentees are those she stars with on the show: Kidman, Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz. The group has formed a bond that carries outside of the set — and often onto Instagram, much to the delight of the show’s fans.
“I think it’s really easy, especially right now, to get along with someone because we feel like we need to in order to heal so many cultural and civic divides and societal divides, but inside we don’t feel deeply safe or deeply comforted by certain people, although we are connecting with them as allies or as ‘friends’ on the surface,” Woodley says of the connection between the five actors. “And these women — all of us truly, deeply and authentically — hold space for one another to be in whatever situation we’re all in as individuals, and to be held by the nest that we’ve created in our friendship.”
“Shailene brings her heart and fierce intelligence to everything she does,” Dern writes. “She knows nothing but honesty and empathy. She’s an absolute pure gift to everything and everyone she touches.”
Woodley is a deep feeler, and operates on a gut-trusting, instincts-driven approach for her career as well as her friendships.
“Sometimes years go by and I won’t read anything that inspires me creatively, or gives me butterflies, or elicits an instinctual response that creates a lightning storm inside my stomach — and I won’t work,” she says.
Three years ago, she took an extra-long break, traveling solo in India and spending time in London, seeking a reset. “It wasn’t so much about wanting to see the world as it was a calculated step to take a moment and be in my young 20s,” she explains.
“I hadn’t really had that much time to just understand the transition I was going through at the time, which was from like your early 20s to your mid-20s — I think there are a lot of shifts that happen, and I needed to sort of sit with that and experience that outside of this industry.”
It was on one of her breaks from acting that “Big Little Lies” came her way, while she was in London with her significant other at the time.
“My agents were like, ‘We’ve respected that you haven’t wanted to read anything, but we really think that you’ll relate to this and identify with this,’” she says.
On the show she plays Jane, a single mother to son Ziggy and the youngest of the “Monterey five.”
“Shailene did extensive background research to understand Jane,” Witherspoon writes in an e-mail. “Her portrayal of a woman who is both a survivor of sexual assault and a single mother raising her child alone in a new community is one of the most truthful performances I’ve ever seen. There is a scene in episode two of this season where Jane explains her assault to Ziggy that moves me to tears every time I see it.
“The statistics of women being raped and then having to fight the judicial system because nobody believes them or having to fight their community or their husbands or their friends because of the amount of doubt…the amount of fear that’s elicited from an experience like that is tragic and also incredibly relevant, and I know too many stories in my personal life to not want to take a role like that,” she says.
“Big Little Lies,” which depicted both domestic violence and sexual assault survival in its first season, was made before Harvey Weinstein, before #MeToo, and the level of resonance it had with audiences was therefore unexpected by the cast. It’s partly what drove the loud cries for a second season, of which there were no original plans, Woodley believes.
“I remember Reese going, ‘There’s no season two, what are you talking about?’ And then Nicole would be like, ‘We’re not making a season two.’ And then more and more people continued to say it and we got more feedback, not just from the world of Hollywood but from people in the streets saying, ‘I finally stood up against this domestic violence that I’ve had in my household for the last 10 years because the show gave me the strength to do it.’ Or, ‘I finally saw it help for the trauma that I’ve experienced because of sexual violence or sexual misconduct.’”
She again hit pause following “Big Little Lies,” but has a handful of new projects on the horizon, including an entirely improvised, untitled Drake Doremus project she shot this past fall with Sebastian Stan and Jamie Dornan.
Her acting choices have earned her a reputation for being a talented and utterly professional one to watch, but it’s her candid, unabashed activism, as displayed both on social media and in the public — see: getting arrested for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline — that have connected her to a growing fan base of young people.
“I think it’s very easy for all of us to be comfortable in our bubbles and to be comfortable in the lives of privilege that a lot of us live, to be comfortable in our own space, in our own opinions, in our own forms of what we think is right or wrong, black and white, justice and non-justice — but ultimately until every single person on this planet feels like they are treated like a proper human being, I’m not going to stop because more than anything, I’m just somebody who deeply feels,” Woodley says. “I’m an emotional creature and I can’t go to sleep at night knowing that there’s a lot of work to do.
“For me, ultimately, it all boils down to love, and call me a hippie for saying that, but it’s true.”