Before Shailene Woodley landed her breakthrough role in “The Descendants,” she was like any other teenager with a day job at American Apparel. But unlike other kids her age, she was also appearing on the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” It wasn’t that she needed the money; she simply wanted to do something different. “I’d never done retail; I thought it would be fun,” Woodley says. “I got to meet new people and lead a totally different life.”
In case you haven’t guessed, Woodley isn’t like most 21-year-olds—or most actors.
“Growing up, I never wanted to be in magazines, I never wanted to do interviews, I never wanted to wear fancy clothes and go to carpets,” she says. “I wanted to be a schoolteacher and act on the side.” She’s passionate about the environment, studies herbalism, and harbors a secret desire to be a yoga teacher. And she has no interest in buying a home in the Hollywood Hills; when in town, she stays with her family in Simi Valley, where she grew up. But she wants to make Hawaii her permanent residence. “When I went there for ‘Descendants,’ it really set a tone for my entire life of how I wanted to live and who I wanted to be,” she says. “It grounded me. It reminds me to have a separate life outside this industry. I can forget that people watch what I do.”
It will be hard to forget the world is watching in the coming months. First up is “The Spectacular Now,” in which Woodley plays awkward teen Aimee Finicky, who falls for charming and aimless high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). Later this year she’ll be seen in “White Bird in a Blizzard,” as a young woman whose mother disappears. She just wrapped shooting “Divergent,” based on the first in a trilogy of books by Veronica Roth set in a futuristic dystopian society. And filming will soon begin on the adaptation of the novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” in which Woodley stars as a teenager with cancer.
Not bad for someone who became an actor “by accident” at the age of five. After she appeared in a local theater show, an agent reached out to Woodley’s mother, and she was soon booking commercials and guest spots on TV. “Secret Life” provided a steady job for five seasons but ended its run this year. The real turning point came when Woodley read the script for “The Descendants” and was drawn to the role of Alexandra King, who helps her father (George Clooney) track down the lover of her mother, who is in an irreversible coma. Woodley auditioned before Alexander Payne was attached to direct and admits she “blew” the first audition. But for the first time in her career, Woodley ardently pursued a role. “I emailed my agents once a week asking what was going on with the movie. I did that for nine months. Finally, they agreed to see me a second time, but I had to fly to New York for the audition.” She was advised by casting director John Jackson to come in as if she didn’t care and didn’t know who Alexander Payne was. Which turned out to not be a problem. “I had to Google him on my way to the audition,” Woodley says. “At that point, I had only seen ‘Sideways’ and I had been 14, so I didn’t get it.”
“The Descendants” went on to launch Woodley’s film career, but she didn’t take another movie role for two years. “I didn’t want to do a movie until I read a script that fueled something within me,” she says. “And ‘Spectacular Now’ was the first movie that really got me excited about being a character and jumping into a different world.” Much like her previous film, it was one she had to pursue. Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, the script had been written by “(500) Days of Summer” scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. It had gone through a series of directors and lead actors over the course of four years, to the point where the pair assumed it would never get made. “It took Shailene saying, ‘This is the thing I want to do more than anything else’ for it to really come together,” says Neustadter. Adds Weber, “Her interest is what was really the impetus that got us into production.”
Woodley rewards the writers, who are also producers on the film, with an honest, raw performance as a young woman willing to give anything to the man she adores—whether he’s worthy or not. Woodley says she related a bit to Aimee. “My personality is very different from her, but I understood her completely,” she says. “In high school I had a similar experience with a few different boys you could combine into Sutter Keely.” While she may have mixed feelings about Sutter, she has nothing but love for co-star Teller, who also appears in “Divergent” with her. “We have a joke that we have to do one movie a year together,” Woodley says. “I told him if he didn’t take the role in ‘Divergent,’ I would come over and behead him.” The two bonded quickly on set, as the shoot for the indie film was fast and furious. “A 10-minute scene would be shot in three or four takes, and there were no cutaways, so we couldn’t mess up,” she says. “And we shot on film, so it was too expensive to do too many takes. We really had to be on top of our games. It was one of those shoots where, until we saw it for the first time, neither Miles nor I knew what it would be. And I think we’re both over-the-moon proud of it.”
Not until recently did Woodley come to think of acting as a lifelong career, though. “I’ve done four movies in eight months,” she says. “I haven’t had a break in almost two years, and for the first time it feels like this isn’t just a hobby anymore. Because I don’t have time to do my other hobbies.” She soon goes to work on “The Fault in Our Stars,” another role she pursued—after reading the book—by emailing author John Green and auditioning for director Josh Boone. “I was more than happy to audition because the character is 16, and I’ll be 22 when we film, so I knew they might have concerns,” she says. “Fortunately, the stars aligned on this one.” She also had people in her corner: Neustadter and Weber adapted the screenplay and were thrilled to work with her again. “She’s our Diane Keaton,” Weber says. “And I hope it keeps going. It’s so exciting to put your words in the hands of someone that talented.”
After this round of movies, Woodley says, “I think I’m done with the young adult market for a while. It’s kind of a lot.” But she isn’t worried about typecasting or lack of jobs. “I’m always going to wait for the right part; otherwise I won’t be right for the role and it’s going to be apparent to everyone,” she says. “Even if I don’t work for five years, I don’t want to do it unless there’s integrity and passion behind it.” And of course, she always has a job waiting for her at American Apparel.