When talking to Shailene Woodley, it’s immediately clear that she’s not your typical starlet. Right off the bat, she calls attention to the peculiarity of the interview process. “How funny are our jobs?” she laughs. “I’m talking about myself, you’re asking me about me and we don’t know each other.”
And while she’s happy to discuss her most recent role — starring in the March 21 cinematic adaptation of the wildly popular, Chicago-based Divergent novels — she’s noticeably more animated when expounding upon on the real-world causes close to her heart, including, to name just a few, feminism and “re-wilding” (more on that later). In the throes of these types of conversations, any Hollywood posturing falls away and Woodley’s voice takes on a musical quality, rising as she makes a passionate point, falling as she pauses to consider an answer and punctuated by a steady beat of laid-back “dudes” and “mans.”
For the wise-beyond-her-years 22-year-old, acting has nothing to do with celebrity. Yet, almost to her chagrin, she’s got fame to spare, thanks to critically acclaimed performances in last year’s indie hit “The Spectacular Now,” 2011’s Oscar-winning “The Descendants” and ABC Family’s ratings juggernaut “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” In Woodley’s world, performing — like everything else she does — is about passion. “It’s been the same since I was five,” she says. “I either have butterflies in my stomach when I read a script, or I don’t. If I do have butterflies, I do everything in my power to be in that film, because it’s something my soul asked me to do.” And perhaps because she’s following her heart instead of chasing fame, each of Woodley’s parts has taught her something about herself. “You collect little tidbits of wisdom as you go,” she says.
“Divergent” more than passed Woodley’s butterfly test. Based on the first installment of the best-selling young-adult trilogy by Barrington native Veronica Roth, the film is set in the not-so-distant future in Chicago, where every member of society is forced to join a “faction,” or tribe, based on their personality type. When Woodley’s character Beatrice “Tris” Prior attempts to, well, diverge from the dystopian system, she instigates an epic war. Woodley says she instantly identified with Tris’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. “Tris is fighting for selflessness and bravery and courage in a world where those things are looked down upon. That was an interesting connection to things that are important to me.”
Growing up in Simi Valley, Calif., Woodley displayed that same sense of purpose. She began modeling at the age of 4, and by the age of 10, she was already guest-starring on TV shows like “The District” and “The O.C.” She landed her first lead role on“The Secret Life of the American Teenager” at 17. The show, which ended last year, chronicled her character’s coming-of-age as she struggled with teen motherhood. But it was also a coming-of-age for Woodley, who wrestled with promoting messages she didn’t fully support. “The show did so many beautiful things for me, and there were times when I thought the writing was really realistic and truthful,” she says. “But there were other times when it was written from a [viewpoint] I didn’t agree with.”
Woodley talks about truth a lot, and, likely because of her experience on “Secret Life,” it’s become a key criteria in selecting jobs. “When I started thinking about acting, I was like, ‘Why do I love it so much? Why do I feel so fueled from it?’ ” she says. “And I realized it’s because when I see most films, I leave feeling affected and inspired and emotionally captivated. And all of that has to be based in truth.”
That epiphany encouraged Woodley to accept the part of George Clooney’s bright, troubled daughter in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which marked her feature-film debut and nabbed her a Golden Globe nomination. But the industry accolades were nothing compared to what Woodley calls the “life-changing” experience of filming in Hawaii, where she formed lasting bonds with the cast and crew — particularly Clooney. “He’s like my second dad. He’s got my back,” she says. “I’ve never met somebody in the industry who’s more grateful, who pays it forward without talking about it in the press or speaking about it to anyone else. That to me was the best advice, just learning through his actions.”
Living in the lush paradise, Woodley discovered yet another passion: environmentalism. “It was the first time I’d been surrounded by that much nature,” she says. “It really raised the stakes for the life I wanted to live.” After leaving the island, Woodley got into “re-wilding,” which for her means “reconnecting to the ecosystem” by doing things like eating organically, studying herbalism and spending time outdoors. She also began using her burgeoning fame as a springboard for speaking out in the press about the things that mattered to her. “Part of what I’ve been given is an opportunity to talk about things that I feel like need to be talked about, regardless of whether people agree with me,” she says.
In her following movie, “The Spectacular Now,” Woodley made a bold statement without saying a word. As down-to-earth teen Aimee, she wore no makeup on screen, and often refused to paint her face for the red carpet in hopes of promoting a more realistic standard of beauty for young women. “One big thing for me is empowering my sisters that are around me, every woman on this planet,” she says. “We got this. We can love each other.”
The “Divergent” script spoke similarly to Woodley’s female-empowering instincts — she found herself drawn to the unorthodox relationship between Tris and her love interest. “In a lot of young adult films, relationships are based on attraction and materialism versus respect, honor and communication,” she says. “I thought this would be a great platform to showcase what love can be. It doesn’t have to be something that revolves around codependency.”
Though Woodley spent several months shooting the film in Chicago in the summer of 2013, playing the lead meant she rarely had time to explore the city. “I got to know my apartment and I got to know movie sets,” she laughs. During her limited downtime, she ate at The Publican and thrift-shopped virtually unrecognized, something she knows she’ll no longer be able to do once the much-anticipated movie premieres. But she’s not concerned about her snowballing stardom. “I know me, I know my friends and family, and if it ever gets to be too much, I’ll do something else,” she says.
She’s not bluffing: After she shoots the sequels, “Insurgent” and “Allegiant,” Woodley’s schedule is clear. “Right now, I have zero intentions of doing another film,” she says. “Until I read something I’m deeply invested in from an artistic point of view, there’s no reason to.” For now, though, Woodley’s fans can still catch her in two big projects set to premiere in 2014: Gregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard,” a moody 1980s thriller that debuted at Sundance, and another adaptation of a popular young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.”
The latter, a heart-wrenching romance involving a cancer-stricken teen, instilled in her yet another life lesson: “We have a set number of years to be alive. Are we going to focus on negativity and fear and doubt? Or are we going to focus on love and compassion and kindness and fun and laughter?”
And even as Woodley’s focus increasingly turns toward activism, she’s careful not to cast herself as a heroine. “I don’t even know that it’s bravery or outspokenness — it’s just who I am,” she says. “I feel like we have a duty, we have a responsibility to be the best version of ourselves every single day.”