It’s a horrible cliché to say it, but Shailene Woodley really is a breath of fresh air—especially after an 8:30 a.m. screening midway through the Sundance Film Festival.
I’m fresh out of her latest film, the coming-of-age drama-mystery White Bird in a Blizzard, which was directed by Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin). The film is set from 1988-1991, and Woodley stars as Kat, a young woman who struggles to find herself after her overbearing mother (Eva Green) mysteriously disappears. The trauma strains her relationships with her boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez) and terribly shy father (Christopher Meloni). It’s another strong bildungsroman for Woodley, who has become something of an expert at the genre, what with her stellar turn in last year’s The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars, out later this year.
But I’m exhausted. And then I meet Woodley. As anyone who’s ever met her knows, you’re always greeted with a hug when you met Shai (her preferred handle). Following the hug, she offers me coffee. This is highly unusual behavior for anyone, let alone the star of what many are calling the next Hunger Games in March’s Divergent (which has already been green-lit for a trilogy).
We sit down on a couple of couches and have a nice, long talk about her latest film, her high school days, that upcoming franchise, and everything in between.
I remember running into you a few years ago outside the Sundance premiere of Smashed, and you didn’t even have a film here, you’d just come for fun.
I love coming here. This is my fourth year in a row. One of my best friends has a condo 15 minutes outside of Main Street, which is so nice because we can leave the crazy Sundance thing at the end of the day and go back to a cute, cozy fireplace. I love the environment. We always road trip out here from L.A. Sundance is so special because you never know what kind of movie you’re going to get. There are times where you see the lineup and it’s this great director and actors and you’re all, “This is gonna be great!” and you’re bored out of your mind, or there are movies where you haven’t heard anything and you walk out and think, “This is the best.”
Araki’s films are a little before your time. How did you stumble upon his work?
My manager, Nils, is a friend of Gregg’s, and a few years ago he told me, “Oh, you should watch this movie Mysterious Skin.” So I watched it and was like, “Who the hell is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why is this guy not in every movie ever?” And Nils was like, “He’s actually really famous … he was just in Inception.” I don’t watch a lot of movies so I’d never heard of Joe before. But I was blown away by Mysterious Skin, and watched all of Gregg’s other movies, and have been wanting to work with him ever since.
I felt that this film had a certain kinship with Mysterious Skin in that both films are about how personal traumas can linger on and have lasting effects on one’s emotional development. But the time period here is fun, since it goes from ’88 to ’91.
I have an older sorta sister and, growing up, she’d always play early Nine Inch Nails and Cocteau Twins, so it was fun to explore that world through the lens of something I’ve never known myself. But Gregg knows the period very well, so we’re wearing the Doc Martens and going to the grunge/goth clubs.
Are you a Law & Order: SVU fan?
I’ve never watched it. I don’t watch TV, and I never have!
Ah, it’s so addictive. So, White Bird in a Blizzard is similar, in some respects, to The Spectacular Now, in that both tackle first love—and sex. Both the sex scenes are very realistically and tastefully done, but you are nude in this film for I believe the first time. Did you have any reservations about that?
The whole thing for me—with life—is truth. Miles Teller told me I have a good bullshit meter, and it’s true. I don’t like falseness. So, when I watch a movie and I see a sex scene and people are wearing clothing, I’m like, “That’s bullshit.” That’s not how I have sex in life, so why would we do that onscreen? I think there’s a big difference between being exploitive in a film and accurately conveying the truth of a situation. There were actually a few more scenes in the script where I was supposed to be topless and I sat down with Gregg and said, “I don’t think this necessarily needs to be in there,” and Gregg is so great at telling the truth. For him, it’s not about exploiting actors or making it sexy or daring, it’s about being truthful.
You do seem to be drawn to—and excel in—these coming-of-age stories, whether it’s The Spectacular Now, White Bird in a Blizzard, or the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars.
I feel like that’s just the age I’ve been able to play. Now, it’s a little bit different. I’m becoming a woman so different roles are available. But that was the experience that I’d had, so those were the movies that made sense to me, and called to me.
These coming-of-age stories seem to really stand the test of time—the John Hughes films, Clueless, and the like—because everyone can relate to being that age at one point and sifting through all those emotions. Are you nostalgic for anything?
I don’t know about nostalgia, but I’m very big on tradition. This is sort of a materialistic tradition, but every year for Sundance, my friends and I road trip out here. It’s a special time where we give each other our time and space and existence.
Do you have favorite coming-of-age movies? I know every word of Clueless.
They’re not the typical coming-of-age movies, but Dirty Dancing, for me growing up, was my favorite.
Nobody puts Shai in a corner.
[Laughs] No, I loved that movie. And still do. It’s so classic. And The Goonies is a big one for me, too. I thought, “I want to see the world and adventure through it.” I want to know when someone is going to make another movie like The Goonies. Film it on film, no makeup, get the inhaler and the braces in there.
Your character in Blizzard rebels against her parents and ends up sleeping with a much older guy, played by Thomas Jane. I’m curious why you think women tend to be attracted to older men? It seems to start in high school, with the freshman and sophomore girls dating seniors. I’d be the first one to admit that we mature a little slower, as a sex.
I’m trying to think of it from my own life … I think that’s definitely part of it, especially when you’re younger. I think Kat being drawn to Thomas Jane’s character, who is 30 years older than her, has a lot to do with validation. When you’re younger, you try to be older, and when you’re older, you try to be younger. It’s a funny clause of life. For me, when I was younger, having somebody older be attracted to you and respond to you said, “Look how mature I am!” It was more about trying to prove something to the world, which is a very adolescent thing to go through. Then, you grow up a little bit more and realize, “Wow, I really don’t know shit.”
It’s also a tale of first love, with your character and Shiloh’s. Do you remember the first time you thought you were in love?
I totally do. It was the dude I moved to New York with. I definitely thought I was in love with him. Looking back on that, it was so sweet. It was the day after I turned 18, and we moved to New York and I lived by myself. I learned some things from my younger self—the adventurous, kindred spirit.
You have a pretty big movie coming out in a couple of months—Divergent. The last time we spoke, you said you’d taken Jennifer Lawrence’s counsel about what you were getting yourself into with a big franchise.
I still haven’t met her! I’m sure it will happen, and hopefully not in a Hollywood-type environment.
That needs to happen. But one of the positives about The Hunger Games and Divergent is that it’s giving us a couple of kick-ass screen heroines. There weren’t a lot of those when I was growing up. I think most of them were in Disney movies, really. It’s a very positive development for young girls.
For me, one of the things that I’m so passionate about in life is empowering young girls to reconnect with their own power. There’s this trend in society where, up until The Hunger Games, which was one of the first young adult series’ that did this, it was always the damsel in distress, or the girl having to change herself for love. It’s important for high-schoolers and young adults to go through bad relationships because that’s how you grow and learn—you need to fall on your face—but there are a lot of movies where someone falls in love with someone else based purely on attraction, and there’s no depth, and no conversation. It just feeds the fire of materialism, and feeds the fire of make up, and false attire, and whatnot. The one thing I really loved about Divergent is that Tris is a heroine and fights for what she believes in, is passionate about it, and is willing to risk her life for the greater good of humanity, but also, the relationship between her and Theo. I feel very proud to be a part of a franchise that doesn’t exploit young love, and doesn’t exploit what that means, and really treats it tenderly. They’re more partners than they are lovers, and for me, that’s what I want in my life. So, to be able to share that with the world is very unique and I feel very grateful.
Is it true that you auditioned for Katniss in The Hunger Games?
I did, yeah.
What scenes did you do for your audition?
It went well, I think. But I walked out of there and thought, “I’m definitely not getting it.” We had to do two scenes that weren’t even in the movie, I believe. One of the scenes was when she first gets called to go into The Hunger Games and has to say goodbye to her mother and Gale.
You had a say in the casting of Theo James in Divergent and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars, and I think that’s really cool, because it signals a paradigm shift. In Old Hollywood, it was usually the aging star—the Cary Grant—who would be cast first, and then influence the casting of his love interest. Now, young actresses like you, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kristen Stewart are being cast first and having a say in the male co-star.
That’s true. I’d never even thought about that. Yeah, man!
You’ve managed to strike a nice professional balance between bigger films and smaller ones like White Bird in a Blizzard. How have you managed to achieve it?
For me, it’s all based on the script, or the story, or the director. I’m not keen on only doing small movies or only doing big movies. If anything, I’d say no to every big movie and only do indies because I’m so passionate about them, and everyone involved is so passionate about them, and I love the whole festival circuit. I love being on an indie set where everyone’s exhausted, no one’s making money, there’s no vanity, and there’s no glitz. You’re all there for art. On a big film, the art aspect sort of disappears and more of the machine aspect comes into play, but it’s fun to explore both worlds. It’s all about the passion.
And what you’re attracted to.
And right now, everyone’s like, “Oh my god, you’re everywhere,” which is so true. It’s kind of weird! But it’s just because I happened to read four scripts in a row that I thought were amazing, and had to be in them. After The Fault in Our Stars, I have nothing coming out and no plans to do another movie anytime soon. Apart from the two other Divergent’s, unless I read a script that I really love, I don’t want to do anything. I never want to have to sacrifice my integrity for the machine that is Hollywood. I want to create art.
It must have been cool to work with Kate Winslet on Divergent.
It’s ridiculous. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. She’s such an empowered, powerful woman, and it was really cool to get to know her. We only spent about two weeks together, but she was no bullshit. She got to the set, knew her lines, and was so professional.
Back to Blizzard. Are you a big ‘80s music fan? You rocked a really cool Depeche Mode shirt in the film.
Oh, hell yeah! I tried to keep that shirt by the way, and I couldn’t. I think it was rented or something. The entire soundtrack of White Bird is incredible. I love the ethereal, punky ‘80s, but I also love the dance-‘80s music. And Blondie.
There’s an amazing ‘80s dance sequence in Blizzard too. I hope you don’t dance like that in real life.
No, that was a Goth thing. Gregg sent me a video and in it, they describe it as “clearing the cobwebs from the air” and “stepping over a dead body.” That scene was great. Everyone in the club were actually “Goths,” so everyone knew what they were doing and came dressed in their natural attire—big, black eyeliner and pale skin, fishnets, etc.
What were your adolescent years like? Rebellious?
I was a very late developer. I was playing with Barbie’s as a 13-year-old. I went through an angsty period from 15-16 where I was like, “I hate the world!” But I got over it. It was a normal teenage rebellion thing where I was just rebelling against anything because I could. I was just mean. It’s so funny to look back on it and think, “That was me?” A lot of sneaking out of the house and things like that.
You mentioned “materialism” earlier, and one of the themes of both The Hunger Games and Divergent is class warfare. They’re both these dystopias where people are born into a certain caste and are stuck there because there’s no social mobility. These films do provide interesting social commentaries on what’s going on right now in society as far as the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
It’s insane. One of the big reasons I tried to do Divergent was to be able to talk about it in the press, which is sort of counterintuitive because usually, you don’t want to do a ton of press on a film. But Divergent is so metaphorical to today’s society. In the book, Tris says, “Back in the day, they had a choice between non-GMO food and naturally-irrigated food, and now, we don’t have a choice. All we have are genetically engineered foods.” I thought that was so daring for Veronica to put in her books because if we don’t seriously look into this trend, that’s all we’re going to have. We’re starting to chip people, there are drones in the sky, there’s EMF radiation everywhere. It’s insane. I think progress is so healthy and necessary, but it’s also something that we need to be conscious of, and learn to be more sovereign in our decisions. A lot of people bring up “the gun issue,” because in the film, I’m shooting guns a lot and I’m a young character and people ask me about the message that sends out. It’s sad. It’s sad that Tris has to shoot a gun and had to lose her parents, but it’s not that she wants that, and it’s not that people in America want that necessarily, but it’s a sort of fight-or-flight situation right now. And in the movie, Tris chooses to fight, and I think that’s a great message to be sending out. Just going back to sovereignty, we’ve got to fight for what we believe in, be passionate about it, and not stop talking at all costs because this world is amazing and I think we should all treasure it for a long time.