As the star of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an award-winning show that’s watched by millions and broadcast in over 15 countries, you’d think Shailene Woodley’s own teenage years were as atypical as they come. You’d be wrong. Acting almost accidentally from an early age, somehow she’s never seen her talent as anything more than an elaborate hobby. And so, like any normal American teenager, she graduated from high school, went to prom and attended pep rallies. She even took AP Calculus, but only placed a “2? on the test, “which is not a good score.” On the flip side, this is a girl who preaches about the dangers of GMOs, thinks of trees as her friends, and spent a winter hiatus from Secret Life working at American Apparel, just for fun. Her not-so-secret teen life now a distant memory (she turned 20 in November), Woodley’s receiving rave reviews for her role in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants where she holds her own alongside George Clooney. The actress spent four months living in Hawaii to make the movie and fell in love with the islands and all those trees. Back on the mainland, she took time out to catch up with good friend and Descendants co-star Judy Greer and dispense beyond-her-years wisdom about eating right, naked people, and the stupid things young people do.
JUDY GREER —So you’re in Soho in New York City right now, but you lived in New York for a bit before, right?
SHAILENE WOODLEY—Yes. I lived in the Lower East Side for a while. I loved it.
JG—And you worked at American Apparel?
SW—I did. It was while the show was on hiatus. It was pretty great.
JG—And did you get recognized? Were people like, “What the hell? Why are you working here when you’re on television?”
SW—Just a little bit, yeah. Some people recognized me and were kind of shocked or confused.
JG—Is that the only non-acting job you’ve ever had?
SW—I worked at a paint store in Simi Valley when I was 15 for two years. It was like a Color Me Mine and I was a party host. I would go around and cut cakes for kids and make them do karaoke to Hannah Montana songs. I was really good at it, as you can imagine. It was really fun for me.
JG—I think you would still be good at that.
SW—I would do it again in a heartbeat. I just had to stop because too many people were asking me if I was the pregnant teenager on TV.
JG—I love that you’ve had real jobs even though you started acting when you were a kid.
SW—I think it’s important to expand your horizons. I love working because I meet new friends and I get to know the city as a local.
JG—So you’re 20 years old and you’re in an Oscar-nominated movie, and everyone’s talking about you and your performance in it. I look at all these amazing actresses that start out young and they just spiral and you have never seemed like someone who would ever do that. What is your plan as a young actress to stay out of jail or rehab?
SW—I’m really lucky with my mom – she’s amazing. I think I’m too hyper to do a ton of drugs and to party a lot because I get bored easily, so even if I were to go through that phase it would be very short-lived because I’d be over it.
JG—What are the things you see younger actors doing that you think are stupid?
SW—I think the stupidest thing that people my age do is judge other people. And another thing I find interesting about our culture and about my generation is we’ve kind of lost respect for our elders, but if you look at indigenous cultures the elders are the ones everyone learns from. And I know a lot of my friends, I even find myself doing it sometimes, are impatient with people who are in the senior citizen age range.
JG—I get impatient with people who are a few years older than me. I totally get that.
SW—I think we should get that respect back because there’s a lot to learn from all of the people who have already lived life. Every time I speak to my grandma, I learn something, and I think it’s just a matter of being patient with the process.
JG—You’re so wise for your age.
SW—That’s because you’re my friend and you’ve taught me everything I know!
JG—When I first met you on set I was like, “Oh, she’s so pretty; she’s so nice,” but after getting to know you, it’s just really incredible how together you are. You inspire me and I’m old enough to be your mother. It would’ve been a teenage pregnancy, though.
SW—There’s nothing wrong with teenage pregnancy. Have you ever seen the show The Secret Life of the American Teenager?
JG—Sure have. And I sure do love it! Did you go to a regular high school or were you tutored on set?
SW—I went to a normal high school. I never wanted to do a TV series growing up because I wanted to stay in school. I loved the social aspect of it and I really love to learn – I’m definitely that nerdy girl. And then my junior year of high school I booked Secret Life and my principal was super gracious and allowed me to stay in school. So I was working on the show, doing homework in my trailer in between takes and then a teacher from my public high school would come to my house once a week and walk me through what I had missed, so I finished school that way. And the really cool thing was I got to go to prom and I got to walk with my class. It was really good.
JG—Do you have plans to go to college?
SW—I used to want to go to college, but then I started travelling and seeing so many different cultures and so many different things that interest me instead of calculus. So I don’t want to go to normal university. I would love to go to NYU. It would be fun to take a few courses there, live in New York and work in a coffee shop. I would love to attend school for Herbology and survival skills – that’s what I’m really interested in right now.
JG—I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What is it?
SW—It’s the study of plants and their medicinal purposes, and also their nutritional purposes. I’m fermenting sauerkraut right now; that’s really fun.
JG—Do you love to cook?
SW—I do love to cook. But I made an awful dinner last night. It was so bland; there was no flavor at all. That’s OK, though. It’s the simple things in life we have to start appreciating, right?
JG—I totally agree. I’m always fascinated by you because you’re so far ahead of where I would expect you to be. Tell me about the places you’ve travelled to that you’ve loved.
SW—I went backpacking through Europe twice with two different people. And we stayed in hostels and slept on trains and it was magnificent and amazing. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. We went to Spain and France and Italy. I’ve spent a lot of time on the islands of Hawaii and in Mexico. I’m very fortunate to have been to a lot of different places in two decades of life.
JG—Other than Hawaii, which I’ll ask you about in a minute, what other place stands out in your mind as special to you?
SW—I absolutely love Italy. I love the fact I went to a nude beach and got to be naked there – it’s so refreshing to be around people who don’t attach a stigma to sexuality. Also, the food is amazing. The first time I got to Italy I had a lasagna and the olive oil was so fresh I could taste it through the pasta layers, the tomatoes and the meat and the cheeses.
JG—I know you care a lot about GMOs [genetically modified organisms].
SW—Normally I don’t eat anything that has any GMOs in it. And the reason being is I don’t agree with the companies’ practices. They don’t have any integrity, and they’re putting thousands of farmers out of business. But I also don’t like that the foods have been created in a lab and you can’t find them in nature. It’s just a giant mess and I don’t agree with it. I feel if I’m going to preach about it I need to practice it. When I travel, sometimes it’s tricky. I’m in New York and there are maybe two or three restaurants in the whole city that are 100 per cent GMO free. Sometimes I have to be grateful and appreciate the food that is in front of me and not hold such high standards on what I’m eating. But I think something needs to be done about the prices of organic foods because it is so expensive.
JG—I hate that it costs so much to buy organic. And it’s not always easily accessible to people.
SW—It’s ridiculous. I think we should all start having Liberty Gardens again like they did in the 1920s. That would be so fun and you would make so many friends. How fun would it be to garden with friends? There are a lot of foods that are really easy to grow too.
JG—I cannot kill tomatoes, somehow. It’s magic. I have these three tomato plants, and even when I travel too much and don’t even water them, they still grow. It’s dreamy. How did you learn about all this stuff?
SW—I just really love trees a lot. And a lot of people laugh when I say that, but it’s so true. I love them so much. I have so many friends because they’re all around me always.
JG—And you drive a Prius, that’s awesome.
SW—I was very lucky with my Prius. My aunt sold it to me. When I was 15 I’d saved enough money through babysitting to buy a really shitty Honda Civic, so my aunt sold me her Prius for the same amount instead. She’s an ’04 and she’s amazing.
JG—Am I right in thinking that Hawaii is your favorite place in the world?
SW—Yeah, it’s definitely my favorite place in the world.
JG—Had you been before the movie?
SW—I had never been to Hawaii before the movie. I fell in love with it. You know why I like Hawaii so much? It’s because I went there right after I saw Avatar, and I felt like an avatar when I was on those islands. I felt like I could cliff-jump and snorkel and skydive and hike and run, and I was invincible – I felt like an avatar. And considering that’s all I want to be when I grow up, it felt like my home.
JG—Do you want to end up there or live there part-time?
SW—I do want to live there. I have this image in my head of me being in the kitchen cooking, and saying, “Honey, go get me an avocado.” And a little naked baby, with long curly hair, runs outside and grabs an avocado and runs back in and gives it to me and I make lunch. I just have this fantasy of having little naked babies in Hawaii.
JG—You still live at home, right? You told me you have a box that you collect things in for your first house away from home.
SW—When I lived in New York for a few months after I just turned 18, I moved into an unfurnished apartment so we had to furnish the entire thing. When I moved back to LA most of the stuff I’d bought I donated to my friend but some stuff I brought with me. So I started a box then and it’s just continuously grown. When I see things on sale – like if a food processor’s on sale – I’ll buy it and throw it in the box, because I know one day I’ll need my own food processor.
JG—Do you consider yourself to be a saver of things or a thrower-outer of things?
SW—My issue is I really love minimalism – I like not having a lot – but I have built up a plethora of stuff in my room. I want to get rid of it but I hate throwing things away too because all I can picture is them going to the landfill.
JG—Did you always want to be an actor?
SW—I started when I was five, and at that age you really don’t know. Your mom asks you if you want to act and you say, “Yeah, let’s try it!” and it’s like trying out for gymnastics, you don’t really care, but it just stuck. I had such a normal childhood. I would go to auditions and my friends would go to their hobbies and then we’d all reconvene afterwards and hang out. None of my friends knew I was an actor until Secret Life came out because I never talked about it; it was just something I loved to do and I was really passionate about, and it’s still that way. I love the butterflies I get when I read a good script. I love being on stage and turning red in the face because you’re so committed to a particular character. It’s my art.
JG—What inspires you when you’re feeling really creative?
SW—It’s going to sound so weird. In a non-perverted, non-weird way I’m obsessed with photographs of naked people. I think there’s something powerful about being a human and being strong in a state of vulnerability where you have no clothes on. Every single time I see a photograph or a painting or a sculpture or an artistic film that involves nudity, I think it’s beautiful and I like to apply that to my art. That probably sounds weird, but I do get a lot inspiration from that.
JG—So you would probably love to play a character that was vulnerable in that way?
SW—I don’t necessarily know if I would love to be naked on screen because I don’t think a lot of people would see it as art, unless it was under the right circumstances. I love to play vulnerable roles but I also love to play strong roles. I like playing broken people. I think it’s because I’m so happy in normal, everyday life that playing a broken person is really fun, and I get to take out everything I don’t take out in real life on screen.
JG—I’d like to say that working with you was fucking awesome but getting to know you is triple that.
SW—I feel the same way about you. I was not nervous to work with George Clooney or Robert Forster or Beau Bridges, but I was so nervous to work with you because I thought you were so cool and comedy totally scares me. I don’t think I’m a good comedic actress so knowing I was going to work with someone who was, was totally nerve-racking. And then I got to know you and you’re really one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
JG—Thank you for saying that. You are so awesome and you’re going to go straight to the moon, lady. I hope the readers of this magazine get to see this awesome side of you – that you’re not just a pretty face and a talented actress, but that you have an awesome brain and the kindest, sweetest, shiniest most glowing heart that I’ve met in forever.