This is what badass looks like About-tobe-a-star Shailene Woodley
SHE JUMPED ON AND OFF MOVING TRAINS, SCALED A FERRIS WHEEL AND LEARNT MARTIAL ARTS FOR HER ACTION-HERO ROLE IN DIVERGENT. BUT THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR DOWN-TO-EARTH SHAILENE WOODLEY WILL BE FACING IMMINENT SUPERSTARDOM. WE’RE NOT WORRIED
it’s a week before her 22nd birthday, and Shailene Woodley is living out of a suitcase containing all her remaining possessions: some old clothes, a few trinkets, crystals and altarpieces to remind her of home, herbal supplements, a jump rope. ‘I’ve only been home nine days this year,’ she says in her room at London’s Soho Hotel, ‘which is sort of what inspired me to get rid of everything.’
Woodley has her soaring popularity to blame for this accelerated work rate. Having spent most of her teenage years playing the lead in ABC Family’s TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, in 2011, she was cast in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and immediately proved what she could do on the big screen. Wise, grumpy, heartbroken and mesmerising, she stole the show from co-star George Clooney. Since then, she has shot four movies and become the girl everyone wants in front of the camera.
To exaggerate the extent to which films are ‘hotly anticipated’ is standard in Hollywood, but in the case of Woodley’s next two roles, that sense is genuine and palpable. She has become the screen incarnation of two adored characters from monster-selling young-adult novels. In Divergent, touted as the new The Hunger Games, she plays Tris, a girl coming of age in a dystopian regime, too human to fit neatly into just one of its five social factions – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. (The second in Veronica Roth’s trilogy, Insurgent, starts filming in May; the third, Allegiant, has yet to get an official release date.) In June’s The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green’s book, she portrays a teenager who falls in love as she is dying of cancer.The slick mega-explosion of the Divergent franchise, for which Woodley trained in martial arts,hand-to-hand combat and knife-throwing, is one thing. The implacable, eloquent heartbreak of The Fault in Our Stars is another. That Woodley can do both is, somehow, incredible.
Those who know Woodley comment on her seemingly infinite capacity for warmth, which is not to say she’s soft. In fact, by all accounts, she’s pretty tough. Theo James, her co-star in Divergent, tells me, ‘Shai’s empowered – she’s a strong actress and intuitive. She’s not like a “girl” in the Hollywood sense. Once we had to do a complex stunt – running next to this train and jumping on and off. She fell off the train and smacked her head. But she was up five minutes later, going, “I’m good.”’
Wearing leggings, a tank top and no makeup, Woodley is like an advertisement for yoga (her preferred form of exercise). She folds herself up effortlessly, like a long-legged bird, and runs a hand through her hair, sheared for The Fault in Our Stars. One day, she says, she’d like to shave it or get a Jean Seberg [a Seventies movie star] style: ‘That would be so badass.’
If Gloria Steinem’s famous line – ‘This is what 40 looks like,’ in response to being told she didn’t look 40 – changed the way women of that age were perceived, you could say Woodley has done the same for young adults. Not since the Fifties have teenagers been at the forefront of entertainment culture, and Woodley is about to become Hollywood’s best symbol of that rite-of-passage phase. ‘I think there’s this big rise right now in giving teenagers the worth that they have,’ she explains. ‘For so long they were – and still are – depicted as codependent whiners or rich, beautiful daughters or dumb cheerleader types. But teenagers are smart. I was probably smarter as a 16-year-old than I am today. There is a zest for life that you have at that age that is beautiful.’
Ironically, Woodley has just begun to feel she has left her teenage years behind. ‘For the first time, I feel like I’m entering my womanhood.’ she says. ‘I’ve decided to take a few months off, just to see who I am as that woman in the world, because I’ve never been able to experience it outside of this industry.’
Wise, grumpy, heartbroken and mesmerising, she stole the show
All this time, Woodley has been boiling water in a kettle and going back and forth to the bathroom, where she has prepared some herbs so we can treat ourselves to a DIY facial. She has brought little sachets of organic grains, French clay and kelp, put together by
a company called Mountain Rose Herbs, which organised the 2011 Rootstalk Festival (‘a celebration of plants, people and planet’) in Oregon, where Woodley met the people who are now her best friends. This is what she loves: herbalism, barefoot running, living in a house in Topanga Canyon. She’d like to live off the grid if she could and raise chickens and sheep.
Woodley is remarkably relaxed about exercise and food (although she’s ‘addicted’ to raw chocolate and makes her own). Unless it’s for a yoga class or a 5Rhythms session, she doesn’t go to the gym. ‘For my whole life I’ve been self-conscious about being skinny. Now I don’t care. All insecurities are projected because of what you think others are saying about you, but they don’t really matter at all. My only real insecurities in high school were having such long legs and thick hair – things I’m so very grateful for now.’
She continues: ‘It’s funny being in this industry, because everyone I talk to is like,
‘Nothing was overnight for me. And I feel very lucky that it was all baby steps’
“What diet are you on? What thing do you subscribe to?” I’m like, “Dude, diets are not the healthiest things in the world.”’ Her calm is all the more remarkable for the fact that she suffers from scoliosis. As a teenager, she had to wear a brace 18 hours a day for two years. ‘It didn’t faze me,’ she says with a shrug. ‘Some people have crooked teeth, some people have broken fingers, and I’ve got a back that…,’ she laughs a little, ‘has my initial on it.’
‘“How do you stay so grounded?”’ That, says Woodley, is everyone’s favourite question. But she has only to think about the way she was brought up to respond: ‘There’s no choice.’ Both her parents are psychologists – her mother is a middle school counsellor, and her father, a former school principal, is a family therapist. Though they are divorced, they all spend Christmas together with their respective partners. ‘We’re like a big Greek family, but we’re not Greek,’s ays Woodley, who was raised with her younger brother, Tanner, in Simi Valley, California.
Her parents’ response to an agent’s approach when Woodley was five years old was, she recounts: ‘What’s an agent? Who are you?’ But Woodley, who went to acting classes as a form of day care, was passionate about it. ‘I loved that it was a challenge. I loved that I was told “no” 500 times, because it was something I had to work hard at. It was never a competitive thing for me, and it still isn’t.’
Kate Winslet, who plays the bad guy in Divergent as Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews, makes a point of praising Woodley’s even-keeled sense of self. ‘There’s an honesty and an openness to her that is really rare in young women of that age, let alone young women in a fast-paced business that can chew you up and spit you out as soon as it’s said hello to you. You see young actors and actresses coming up and doing well, and then suddenly they start to unravel a bit and they forget themselves. With Shailene I get the sense that the more she does, and the more of the world she sees, the more well-rounded she becomes.’
Woodley says she’s constantly asked if she feels weird about her new-found career. ‘In my mind, it’s new but not new. I mean, it took 13 years to get a feature film, The Descendants. It took 10 years to get a series. Nothing was overnight for me. And I feel very lucky that it was all baby steps, because if I’d seen this side of it before I was an adult, I probably would have said,“No, thank you, I’m done.” As a kid I [said], “I never want to be on magazines or go to the Oscars.” Now it’s easier to rationalise and have fun with it.’
I wonder aloud how she’s preparing for the onslaught of public attention about to hit her. ‘I don’t pay any attention to the fan thing, because I think it’s a very strange culture,’ she says. ‘People have always been fans of people, but I can’t relate to any of these girls or boys who scream. It’s idolising someone you don’t know. None of those people knows me.’ Social media exacerbates that ‘100 per cent. It’s much easier to get on with people you don’t know and to gang up on people you’ve never met over the internet. It’s such a beautiful gift, but the whole social media thing is too weird for me.’
She mentions that she recently deleted her Instagram account. ‘Everything I was posting was for a story – like, “Look how interesting I am!” It felt disgusting to me. It feels as though we’re so detached from actual human connection.And I got rid of my phone, too. We’re all such narcissists, and that’s what social media caters to. Our society conditions us to be our own planets, which is great. Independent thinking is so important. But then we expect everyone around us to be our moons.’
A couple of months later – after she’s been travelling in Italy, gone home to ‘soak up’ her family and generally checked out of the movie industry for a while – she calls me. ‘I kind of look at this year as a year to have fun and to exercise my power. I feel very alive right now. More alive than I’ve ever felt.’
with (left) Francia Raisa and (right) Megan Park, 2008; in the 2005 TV movie Felicity,An American Girl; with George Clooney in The Descendants, 2011; with Theo James in Divergent, 2014.
From top Shailene Woodley with AnnMargret in the 2004 TV movie, A Place Called Home; in longrunning TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager
From top Red-carpet style at the 2012 Golden Globes; at a screening of Divergent, New York, 2014; at the Divergent premiere in Berlin, 2014; at a function honouring Kate Winslet in LA, 2014.