LOS ANGELES TIMES – As the heroine of this weekend’s box office juggernaut, “Divergent,” actress Shailene Woodley threw knives, shot guns and fought in a ring. But of all the daring scenes she filmed, scaling the 150-foot Ferris wheel at Chicago’s Navy Pier in freezing temperatures was Woodley’s favorite.
“It was such a special night. It was the third full moon of the year, and it was a supermoon, and supermoons are very powerful,” she reminisced, in what the world is quickly learning to be trademark Shailene speak. “So to watch it go across the sky as we were climbing up and down this ladder for 12 hours, it was magical. It was so romantic.”
It may have been an almost-spiritual experience for Woodley, but the scene also marked a key moment for her character, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a young woman who is forced to prove her courage in order to blend in and keep a dangerous secret in a world that’s anything but romantic.
“Divergent,” opening Friday, is based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s bestselling young adult trilogy, which has sold 17 million copies with a story that posits a dystopian future in which people are strictly sorted into factions based on personality. A test reveals our heroine, Tris, is divergent, meaning she doesn’t fit neatly into any single category — a quality considered dangerous. Tris tries to hide her divergence and joins Dauntless, the faction that values bravery, where her courage and strength are put to the test.
The film also stars Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd and a sizable cast of up-and-coming young actors, and the hyper-promotion has included Woodley and co-star Theo James arriving by zip line on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” The film comes from Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate, the studio behind “The Hunger Games” franchise, and some critics have noted that Woodley is poised for the same It-girl status enjoyed by “Hunger Games” actress Jennifer Lawrence.
Like Lawrence, Woodley’s tendency to speak off the cuff might give a publicist headaches, but it has endeared her to the media. Woodley has gained renown for her matter-of-fact divulgences about her penchant for eating clay and raw garlic for health reasons, collecting her own water from mountain springs and exposing her lady parts to sunlight to soak up vitamin D. She’s not the typical image-controlled starlet to emerge from Hollywood, but then again, stardom is not what Woodley is reaching for. The 22-year-old insists she has more grounded ambitions.
“I just try to bring truth to people,” Woodley said between sips of camomile tea, curled up on a sofa at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills one recent morning. “My biggest thing in life is authenticity and being truthful, and I think that’s why I act, because I love to feel affected.”
She applies the live-in-the-moment philosophy on and off set. She greets new people with a warm, dimpled smile, a hug instead of a handshake and, “Hi, I’m Shai!” She apologizes for wearing makeup (“I don’t generally ever wear makeup or have my hair done for interviews, I’m sorry, never, unless it’s on camera”), professes a passion for hiking and for eating, frequently says “amazing” and is inspired by the likes of Agape International Spiritual Center founder Michael Bernard Beckwith, Medicine for the People musician Nahko Bear, and her mother.
“I definitely live by my own rules, that’s for sure,” she said. “I’m definitely not keen on just being told what to do and then doing it without thinking about it.”
In Tris, she said, she saw a character who embodied a message of empowerment.
“To diverge from the mainstream and from mediocrity takes a lot of guts, and it takes a lot of bravery,” Woodley said. “And to be in a movie that is all about that is so exciting to me, because I want to encourage everyone to take a step toward sovereignty.”
Woodley wasn’t an obvious choice for the role. In casting the film’s heroine, director Neil Burger sought someone who could portray Tris’ journey from ordinary girl to “kick-ass warrior,” he said. Though Woodley has been acting since she was 5, her credits, including the Sundance darling “The Spectacular Now” and Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning drama “The Descendants,” weren’t exactly big-budget action fare.
But Woodley’s combination of “vulnerability and rebelliousness” caught Burger’s eye.
“She has a bit of swagger, but she’s very true and honest,” he said. “She looks like somebody you went to school with, and somebody that’s still in your life. She doesn’t look like the other, like some ethereal movie star. She’s beautiful in her own way, but there’s a wonderful, relatable quality to her.”
Burger’s concerns about her ability to portray an action heroine were allayed after he learned about her interests outside of acting.
“She was heading off to some sort of survivalist camp the next day,” he said, adding that lessons included picking locks on handcuffs, jump-starting a car and surviving in the desert. “You’d think she was a vegetarian, but actually she does eat meat, but kind of only if she kills it herself. And I thought, ‘Who is this person?’”
To be true to Roth’s novel, which is set in a futuristic Chicago, “Divergent” was shot in the Windy City during winter and spring, forcing the cast to wear thin costumes in below-freezing weather outdoors or in abandoned warehouses.
“‘Divergent’ is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Woodley said. “I was in every single scene and worked every single day, so there was no time for breaks and no time for really anything but Tris for five and a half months straight, which was just emotionally tiring and intense. I love being physically active, but being physically active in costumes in 20-degree weather is very different than going on a hike in Los Angeles.”
The filmmakers said the actress became known on set for her game attitude, even when harnessed to a stunt rig and asked to climb the Ferris wheel with James.
“They were really up there,” Burger recalled, adding that Woodley said at the time, “It doesn’t scare me. I just don’t want to fall, so I’m not going to.”
Woodley is slated to reprise the role in “Insurgent” (2015) and “Allegiant” (2016), based on the second and third books in Roth’s trilogy. This June, she steps back into more indie territory for “The Fault in Our Stars,” based on John Green’s much-praised novel about two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love.
Though she’s looking forward to a break, Woodley said she also is excited to tackle more mature roles.
“I’ve played so many young adults, because that’s all I’ve known, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel like a woman,” she said. “I’ve made that transition in my personal life between living in that adolescent paradigm and really owning myself and feeling empowered and fearless and rooted and comfortable in my skin.” She said she’s eager to prove she can “bring authenticity to older characters.”
At what point will the industry let Woodley jump from teenage ingénue to a more fully adult character? Changing Hollywood’s perceptions requires careful planning and Herculean effort, especially for young actresses looking to transition from popcorn performances to award-worthy roles. But Woodley is in no rush to find the next script that gives her “butterflies,” she said.
“People always say, ‘You gotta ride the wave while you’re on it!’” she said. “But the wave ends. Why would I want to ride the wave? Eventually it’s going to crash on the shore. That’s not what I want. I want the long, steady, beautiful stroll.”