In Hollywood, everyone loves to make an actor part of a lineage. For stars burgeoning into big time fame, there’s a tendency in the tabloids to lean on an easy crutch: “This star is the next [fill in the blank].” For Shailene Woodley, the 21-year-old actor whose breakout role came alongside George Clooney in 2011’s The Descendants, the options of choice are as follows:
a) Emma Watson
b) Jennifer Lawrence
c) Kristen Stewart
See, the young actor just finished filming Divergent, a futuristic, dystopian film based on the Young Adult trilogy by Veronica Roth. And if you’re remotely familiar with the names Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, or Bella Swan, you know what’s next. Serial movies, particularly Young Adult series, can be the ticket to absurd amounts of fame and enough work locked-in to define an actor’s entire career (who among us didn’t think of Harry Potter as Watson got Bling Ring on us with gyrating dance moves?). Then it’s pixie haircuts, nude magazine covers, and half-baked album releases to get the public to shake loose the all-consuming role.
As she’s prone to do, Woodley had to meditate on it. Her last go around with a series left a sour taste in her mouth. “I didn’t like it because if it started to change, I had no control over it,” she says of her time on the television series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. “It’s like anything in life, whether you’re an actor or you work in an insurance office, if you want to be able to leave your job, it’s nice to be able to leave your job. But when you’re in a contract, unfortunately, you can’t do that.”
In the end, the opportunity to work with a stellar script had its draws. Now, with the first film of the Divergent series entering production, Woodley’s officially committed. In a matter of months, you’ll be hearing the name Beatrice Prior a hell-of-a-lot more.
Speaking tiredly on the car ride back from Comic-Con, where she was on a panel to discuss the film just two days after filming wrapped, Woodley sounds like she’s in a good place with her decision. “I was extremely passionate about the character, and about the project. I thought that it was worth it to sign on to do another series.”
Like her Young Adult predecessors, she’s balancing a range of scripts. While the Divergent series runs its course (possibly as long as five years), smaller budget films with lesser-known directors will put her mug on screens for indie crowds. Slated for an August release, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (already being called “the next The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in some crowds and released by the same distribution company) has Woodley cast as Aimee Finicky, a smart but friendless high-schooler who befriends a popular party boy when he wakes up hungover on her front lawn. Woodley says she’s proud to be a part of one of Pondsolt’s first movies. “I think he’s going to be a director that transcends the times.”
As she talks about the director, her voice is praising. “He gets to know you so well as a person that he really doesn’t need to give you much direction. He can point out when you’re being authentic and truthful, and when you’re being disingenuous. He also recognizes that a film isn’t just one person, it’s a collaborative effort…He made sure that we as actors felt like we were establishing our characters together, which really created a beautiful marriage of people’s creative ideas.”
That kind of freedom is new for Woodley, who looks back on her longest-standing role to date, on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, with mixed feelings. “I’m extremely grateful for it; it was a fantastic five years of my life, but towards the end, morally, the things that we were preaching on that show weren’t really aligned with my own integrity. So that was a bit hard to show up to work every day knowing that we were going to project all of these themes to thousands—millions—of young adults across the country, when in fact they weren’t what I would like to be sending out.”
Switch-hitting won’t be a problem, though. “I’m not one of those actors who feels like they need to get in character, to do any sort of method acting situations. For me it’s all about learning my lines, showing up on time, and professionally listening to what others are saying, and then authentically and truthfully reacting off of their expressions. So, it’s easy to drop roles, because I don’t feel like I acquire them to begin with.”
The biggest adjustment for Woodley will likely be the level of fame that Divergent brings. The most widely covered aspect of the film’s release has been Woodley’s admission that she hesitated taking the role because it might tear her out of what she considers “anonymity,” and put her at a celebrity status that’s permenant.
“I just find the whole f word, this whole ‘fan’ word, so completely fascinating. I think it’s one thing to be a fan of a particular movie—growing up, I was a huge fan of The Goonies and certain bands or musicians. [But] I look back at my favorite childhood films, and I don’t remember being obsessed, or necessarily being a fan of a particular actor. I was excited to see what they were going to do next, but…” she trails off, the perplexity audible in her voice. “Now I feel like there’s this odd sort of obsession with certain people. So, for me, I try to separate myself from my project; and I hope that people support that project. But when people are solely supporting me, it feels odd; it’s something that I haven’t quite gotten used to and I don’t think I ever will.”
Her inability to relate to fan frenzy is at the core of Woodley’s reputation in the film world. She’s known to be a down-to-earth, atypical Hollywood actress who shies away from the aspects of fame that many actors claw toward. “You hear a lot about people who go out and put themselves in the position to be photographed, and go to the places where they’re expected to be seen. And because I don’t really read those weekly magazines, I don’t really know who or what people are talking about right now. But I think somebody like Jennifer Lawrence handles it incredibly well, or Kate Winslet. Strong women who are able to maintain their personal lives, yet graciously—and gratefully—entertain the other side of their lives as well.”
For her own part, Woodley has maintained a certain graciousness thus far. In the past, she’s shown up to events for films she’s featured in with wet hair and no makeup, and defends her need to represent the real her. She’s openly spiritual (#SpiritJunkie is her self-descriptive hashtag of choice) and takes to social media frequently to endorse causes she’s invested in, from genetically modified food labeling (“Unapproved #GE @MonsantoCO wheat found in #Oregon field. Tell @USDA to ban all GE field tests immediately”) to positive body image (“when are we going to learn! EVERY BODY IS PERFECT!… ‘fitting in’ is boring!!!!!!”) to environmental issues (re-tweeting Mark Ruffalo, of whom she’s a big fan, to celebrate big companies making the switch to solar and wind power).
“I think everything about my lifestyle is fairly alternative. I gather my own spring water from mountains every month. I go to a farm to get my food. I make everything from my own toothpaste to my own body lotions and face oils,” she laughs at the long list. “I could go on for hours. I make my own medicines; I don’t get those from doctors. I make my own cheese and forage wild foods and identify wild plants. It’s an entire lifestyle. It’s appealing to my soul.”
The vibe that comes through in talking to her is that she’d have been at home in the peace-loving days of the ’70s. Four separate times, she begins her answer with a variation of the qualifier, “Well, I can’t speak for other people. I only have my own experiences.” The closest she gets to taking a shot at the fame-whore game is when she’s asked to elaborate on where celebrity obsession might come from. “I think it might be a generational thing because now more than ever we have disgusting reality TV shows that are projecting awful images of women to the public, and giving this bizarre outlook on what it means to ‘be on television.’ It feels very exploitative.”
Still, the current state of celebrity isn’t enough to put her off acting, which she says is second nature and “work” only in the sense that she does it for a living. Her twenties—often the most troublesome decade for young stars—lie ahead, foreseeably packed with notable roles. Woodley, though, is likely to take it all with measure. “I think people in this industry make it harder on themselves than they need to. It’s easy to be happy. It’s easier to be happy than to not be.”