Exclusive Interview with Shailene Woodley, star of Divergent

by BUST Magazine

We’re pretty excited for the opening of Divergent this Friday, woot!

Check out our exclusive cover story with hippy child Shailene Woodley below.

The first thing I notice about Shailene (pronounced “Shay-LEEN”) Woodley is her feet—they’re bare. She’s just arrived at the Los Angeles hillside house where we’re shooting her BUST cover, and ditching her footwear outside the front door was the first thing she did. The shoes she slipped off are those articulated-toe getups that allow you to be out and about in the world while being as close to barefoot as possible. They’re the same kind of shoes the 22-year-old actress got an endless amount of shit for in the press, when she wore them under a chic black, one-shouldered gown to a Golden Globes afterparty in 2012. The Telegraph warned that it would be watching her “every fashion mistake,” and Gawker decried that she should be shot. But her choice in footwear exemplified what becomes most apparent about Woodley as the day goes on: she doesn’t care. The star—whose upcoming lead role in the hotly anticipated sci-fi blockbuster Divergent has secured her a spot among the young Hollywood elite—loves acting, but she’s not about to conform to the industry’s rules regarding how a starlet should dress or behave. And wearing toe shoes on the red carpet was only the beginning.

“I was at this Elle event two nights ago,” Woodley says, when we sit down to chat at a long wooden table on the patio before the shoot. She’s referring to the magazine’s annual “Women in Hollywood” gala that took place at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where she was given the Emerging Star Spotlight Award. “I had to get up and give a speech, so I led everyone in a meditation: ‘Close your eyes, blah, blah, blah.’ When I finished, I was like, Well, that’s probably never happened before in a room full of these people.” By these people, she means the A-list celebrities and highfalutin fashion folks who were in attendance, including Reese Witherspoon and Rachel Zoe. “Afterwards, I was like, God, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. But then I was like, Fuck it. We have to make a change, and we gotta do it now, and that’s the only way,” she says, pounding the table with her fist but punctuating her tirade with a peal of laughter.

Suggesting to an audience of designer-clad film stars that they “send warmth to every woman on the planet” is a manifestation of what Woodley self-deprecatingly refers to as her “hippie-dippie-ness.” Combined with her enthusiasm (“Look at this beautiful life we’re living!” she exclaims, looking out over the hills), self-awareness (she swears by meditation and yoga), and easy-going energy (when I tell her this is the Love and Sex Issue, she says, “Oooh, I love love and sex”), it’s what makes Woodley seem like the free-spirited sister you dreamed of having as a kid. Pair her IRL personality with the complex, authentic depictions of teens that she brings to the mainstream, and it’s easy to understand why we’re so psyched that she’s leading the crusade for girl culture in Hollywood. She did it first as the star of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a TV show that ran from 2008 to 2013, which co-starred Molly Ringwald as Woodley’s mom and dealt with issues like adolescent sex and pregnancy. Then she wowed audiences by stealing scenes from the formidable George Clooney in The Descendants. As the lead in the critically lauded 2013 drama The Spectacular Now, she delivered a truly genuine coming-of-age story (the sex scene between Woodley and her costar Miles Teller is cringingly realistic). And in June, she’ll be appearing as Hazel Grace in the film adaptation of John Green’s heart-tugging novel The Fault in Our Stars (it’s been on The New York Times Young Adult bestseller list for more than a year), about two high school kids with cancer. But it’s Woodley’s turn as Tris Prior, the action-hero lead in the film version of Divergent, the first book of an insanely popular YA trilogy by Veronica Roth, that has her poised to rise to the next level of stardom. With its dystopian, futuristic setting; strong-willed female protagonist; and, of course, crushworthy male love interest, Divergent (which premieres March 21) has been hailed as the new Hunger Games. And because of its box-office potential, the film’s also been compared with another international blockbuster franchise: The Twilight Saga. It’s a movie that will likely blast Woodley into the Jennifer Lawrence stratosphere of fame, one of the main reasons she almost didn’t take the part.

“I found out I got it, and I said no at first,” Woodley says. She was afraid of losing her anonymity, of finding campers parked outside her house at all times like Lawrence (whom she calls Jen) experienced. But a conversation with her mother, a middle-school counselor, helped sway her. Woodley told her mom that despite all of Divergent’s appeal, she didn’t want to do a movie with such a major budget. “And she said, ‘That seems so unlike you. Even though you love the character and you love the story and you love what it stands for, you’re gonna say no to it just because it’s $90 million and not $9 million?’” Woodley says. “And something clicked. I was like, ‘You’re so right!’ I can’t base my decisions on fear of what other people are going to create in my life.” Along with The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Woodley’s portrayal of 16-year-old Tris, a girl who ranks as high in ass-kicking as she does in smarts, marks the return of the canny female action star, of which pop culture has seen an incredible dearth in the last 10 years. “I feel like we’ve skipped a generation,” Woodley says. “We had, like, the Ashley Judds, the Sigourney Weavers, the Demi Moores, and then it sort of faded and went into [a period of] making women appear dumb, like they had no worth in the intelligence arena. Now there’s this reemergence, and the fact that I get to be part of another cycle is so exciting. I plan to do some major shit with it,” she says, laughing.

It’s clear that the materialistic side of Hollywood doesn’t vibe with Woodley’s values—she’s wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and red meditation beads around her neck. Her not-quite-pixie cut, which she unconsciously runs her fingers through on the regs, seems to suit her personality more than the dramatic, nearly butt-grazing locks she sported before. And her hands—which she motions with emphatically while talking about things like Hawaii (her home away from home) or being BUST ’s cover girl (“Truly, this is very exciting”)—reveal a weathered black-polish mani. (“P.S., they were painted yesterday, and do you see how many chips there are already?” she asks. “If my fingernails weren’t painted, you would see a lot of dirt right now.”) But despite this no-frills attitude, she does like using her position of rising fame as a way to talk about the things that are important to her, particularly what and how we eat. She showed up at the BUST shoot armed with mason jars of matcha tea and kombucha that a friend had made, along with a meal from Café Gratitude, a vegan L.A. eatery, just in case the food on set wasn’t organic and GMO-free. It’s an obsession that began with the avid environmentalism of her high school years. “That’s when I started learning about the food system in America,” she says, “which is so fucked.” After a long period of reading books and watching documentaries about meat production and the way genetically modified foods have taken over our agriculture, she began studying herbalism, too, and would probably be just as happy living in the mountains, whipping up tinctures, as she is acting—the latter of which she’s been doing for more than three-quarters of her life.

Woodley grew up in Simi Valley, a somewhat secluded suburb north of L.A., and was barely in kindergarten when she caught the eye of an agent in the theater class she was taking. “I didn’t care at five years old if it was gymnastics or soccer or acting, I just wanted to try something,” she says. “And I loved it. I loved the rejection. I loved going to 50 auditions a month and being rejected every single time. Getting one yes out of 500 nos was exciting to me as a child.” She shot more than 40 commercials before film and television gigs became her mainstay, but she recalls one particularly life-shaping role that she didn’t get. She lost out on playing Sean Penn’s daughter in 2001’s I Am Sam to Dakota Fanning, which she remembers being incredibly upset about. But her dad, a family therapist who had been a longtime school principal, used the experience to help Woodley understand a key component to growing up with her self-esteem and humility intact as a girl in show business. It also shows where Woodley’s seemingly endless gratitude may have germinated. “My dad looked at me and said, ‘You need to send that Dakota girl so much love and so much happiness because this is the best day in her life. One day, you’re gonna have a best day in your life, and you’re not gonna want people to be angry at you for doing something that they wanted to do,’” she recalls. “I sort of begrudgingly did that, and then a few years later, I got the lead in some movie of the week. I was 13, and we were sitting in the car, and he was like, ‘Now close your eyes and think about all the girls who wanted this role as much as you did, and send them love and tell them that when they’re right for something, it’ll manifest.’ I really have the coolest parents,” she adds.

The rejections seem to be few and far between now, especially since Woodley’s scored two highly sought-after roles—Tris and The Fault in Our Stars’ Hazel, which she calls “the biggest honor of my life”—and in the process is raising the bar for Hollywood’s portrayal of girls. “It’s so important,” she says, about bringing well-rounded female characters to the forefront. “Stereotypes are so silly. No one is just a nerd, no one is just the cool girl, no one is just shy or popular. Each of those things is maybe a shade of who a person is, but it’s not who that person is.” And it’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “I do feel very grateful for bringing teenagers to life in a real, authentic way, because that is such a vulnerable time to be alive and such a fantastic time to be alive,” she says, taking the beads from around her neck and wrapping them around her wrist as she talks. “All of our teenage years affect who we are as adults, so it is an honor to bring these young women to life.”

Her passion for these characters makes me wonder if feminism influences the way she thinks on a day-to-day basis, and she does not hesitate to answer. “One-hundred percent,” she says, matter-of-factly. But it’s something she admits she’s still figuring out how to talk about in the press. “I think anytime a label comes up, it immediately creates some sort of image in someone’s mind,” she says. “I love men, and I think that this notion of putting men aside so women can rise to power could not be more wrong. I’ve read so many feminist books, and I’m very well acquainted with a lot of different theories, but I think there has to be balance, we have to have the yin and the yang. My whole thing with women is to inspire them to have strength. Like, you don’t need to give your power away to anybody, whether it is your daughter or your husband.” Woodley describes the female support network she has with a palpable reverence, noting that sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. “I’m really connected to women just because I’m a huge fan of sisterhood,” she says. “There’s so much focus on males appreciating females, but until females appreciate females, how is anything gonna change? There’s so much jealousy, there’s so much envy, there’s so much ‘She’s prettier,’ or ‘She’s taller,’ or ‘She’s this,’ or ‘She’s that.’ Where is the ‘Oh my God, you are such a stunning individual and you’re my sister! What can we do for each other?’” It’s a topic Woodley tells me she could talk about for hours. “The GMO thing, that’s a lifestyle. But the woman thing, this is my soul. I’m so hippie-dippie with it, though. I have to find a way to integrate my cramp bark [an herbal menstrual-cramp remedy found in health-food stores] and washable Moontime pads into the mainstream world. People are like, ‘Oh my God, don’t tell me that,’” she says, cracking up.

But until the day comes when her kind of candor becomes more the norm for young actresses instead of the exception, she’s content working her views into the national conversation one socially palatable sound bite at a time. And for now, that includes infiltrating Hollywood from the inside, even if that means leaving the toe shoes at home in order to have a proverbial platform for her causes. “If I show up to the Oscars wearing what I want to wear, no one’s going to take me seriously, and I’m gonna feel insecure,” she says. “But if I show up to the Oscars fully, authentically representing who I am, but with a fancy dress on and this certain look, then when I’m on the red carpet, and we’re doing video interviews, I can talk about the things I want to talk about, and people will be able to hear me. It’s a fine balance.” That doesn’t mean she won’t be working the system wearing as few beauty products as possible, though—her favorite look is a bit of coconut oil in her hair, mascara (by all-natural makeup line 100% Pure, the only one she’ll wear), and nothing more than beet juice to stain her lips and cheeks (DIY makeup to the max).

Given the air of sageness Woodley has when talking about her career and how she plans to use it, it’s easy to forget that she’s been of legal drinking age for only slightly more than a year. But then she tells me about her goal for age 22, and it’s one that women of any age would be smart to consider. “I don’t want to stop my life because I’m afraid of how it might affect someone else. Like, I’ve done that my entire life so far, and I’m done,” she says. “It’s so empowering to live for you. It feels so good.” At the end of a long day of shooting, during which Woodley strikes yoga poses in a flowy caftan, dons an earth-goddess crown that seems utterly natural, and soaks in the sunshine like a napping cat, the actress, who’s heading to Orange County for dinner with friends before the next day’s Divergent ADR (additional dialogue recording) session, hugs me good-bye. When I naturally lean toward her right side, she says we should hug again, to the left this time, so that our hearts can touch. It’s a signature hippie-dippie notion that is somehow more endearing than ridiculous, a testament to Woodley’s realness. The scent that lingers after she leaves is some sort of herbal oil, like patchouli but less obvious—an olfactory reminder to be exactly who you want to be, no matter what people may think.  

By Lisa Butterworth

Check out the Divergent trailer below:


Photographed by Michael Lavine

Styled by JAK

Makeup by Roxy

Hair by Campbell Mcauley

Originally appeared on BUST’s February/March 2014 issue 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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