Shailene Woodley on Divergent and the TFiOS movie

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in the film adaptation of Divergent. Picture: AP
Shailene Woodley and Theo James in the film adaptation of Divergent. Picture: AP
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SHAILENE Woodley is about to make the transition from jobbing actor to global superstar with the release of Divergent. And she’s determined to do it on her own terms.

“Do it... But don’t do a sex tape, don’t do drugs, don’t be stupid and don’t go to Whole Foods on the day the movie opens.” That is the advice Jennifer Lawrence gave to Shailene Woodley when Woodley asked the Oscar winner and star of The Hunger Games what she would say to someone who’d been offered the leading role in what is set to be a multi-million dollar movie franchise.

Maybe it struck a chord because Lawrence’s down to earth attitude fits perfectly with Woodley. After all, she’s the gal who describes George Clooney as “a guy from Kentucky with a heart of gold”, who stresses the importance of her “BS meter” when deciding on projects and who pitches up on red carpets wearing jumpers and flats, much to the consternation of the newspapers and magazines looking for the next Hollywood clothes horse.

Jennifer Lawrence may have started the revolution that is redefining what a young female movie star can be, but Woodley is ready and willing to join the struggle. Funny, straight-talking, clear-eyed about both the world and the industry she is a part of, Woodley, 22, wants to shake things up. And you know that what she and Lawrence are doing is having an impact by the number of headlines you’ll spot naming Woodley as ‘the next’ Jennifer Lawrence (replaced and she’s only 23) and the frequency of questions about who would win if the two were to arm wrestle (I kid you not). In fact, Woodley answered the arm wrestling inquiry with a raised eyebrow and the suggestion that she and Lawrence would realise they didn’t really want to arm wrestle each other but if they joined forces they’d be a pretty awesome arm wrestling team. Nice one.

Woodley, like Lawrence, emerged from an indie movie, garnering attention first in a fabulously foul-mouthed appearance as George Clooney’s elder daughter in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. She also wowed critics in a low budget love story called The Spectacular Now. But whereas Winter’s Bone was Lawrence’s first real gig, Woodley has been a jobbing actor since she started in commercials at the age of five. Even while she’s been building her movie career she maintained a long-running role in ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. And now there is Divergent.

Based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s bestselling Young Adult trilogy, Divergent is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago. Ravaged by war, the city is walled and the surviving population has been divided into five factions according to each individual’s strongest personality trait: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Children are born into a faction and then, at age 16, are tested to discover which faction they are best suited to. At this point they can choose to stay with their family or join with those whom they are deemed to fit, accepting that once they choose to change faction, they have to stay for the rest of their lives. The people with personalities who fit into multiple areas are perceived to be the problem and punished for their difference.

Woodley’s character, Tris Prior, is born into Abnegation, replete with drab, shapeless clothing and a permanently put-upon demeanour. But self-denial isn’t for Tris. On Choosing Day, her results are inconclusive – she is divergent.

Roth’s novels have been a huge success and the hope is that the movies will capture the same audience. With its focus on the pressure to fit in – Tris’s ‘Choosing Day’ is Harry Potter’s sorting hat, is the reaping of Katniss Everdeen – it’s the perfect metaphor for adolescent anxiety.

Not every actor would be willing to describe Tris as a role model for fear of sounding a little earnest, but Woodley isn’t one of them.

“I really loved Tris’s values and what she cares for,” Woodley says. “She lives with so much integrity and I really responded to that. I think she’s a great role model.”

So what was that email to Jennifer Lawrence about?

“I was pretty nervous about doing Divergent at first because of all that it comes with – the publicity, the loss of anonymity, the security,” Woodley says. But although she has thought about the impact of becoming a household name, she decided not to let herself get obsessed by it. That, she says, would “drive you crazy”. “I just decided there was no need to worry about a future that I can’t guarantee.”

Woodley, despite being so young, has been working as an actor for more than 15 years, which might be why she sounds older and wiser than she is. Growing up in California, she was five when she first got an agent.

The path of child actor to movie star is hardly straightforward but Woodley seems too sorted to be in any danger. What is interesting, though, is whether now that acting is her career rather than a hobby, does it live up to what she thought it would be?

“It’s different,” she says. “As a kid, I did commercials and small parts on TV shows. I was working but I never had to do press for anything. Then you learn about that side of things and some of it, like what we’re doing right now is totally fine, it’s fun, but other parts of it make you feel that if you didn’t hold on to your own integrity it’d be real easy to lose a bit of yourself.”

The pressures young women in Hollywood face are only too well known. The diets, the paparazzi, the relentless scrutiny of physical appearance and every nuance of what passes for a private life.

“I think the pressure is to be something that you’re not,” she says. “It’s like a machine. You see actors get progressively skinnier, progressively blonder, progressively more flawless and that’s strange to me. I don’t want to ever partake in that.”

She sounds clear, sure of herself. I hope that she can achieve what she wants to, but surely she knows she’ll have a battle on her hands? She lets out a little laugh. “People don’t have a choice, it’s who I am,” she says. “If they don’t like it they can say whatever they want but it’s not changing anything about who I am.”

I believe Woodley when she says this. It’s not just because she delivers it with such conviction, but because she’s a woman who is as good as her word. Since she started making appearances on red carpets, she agreed with a friend of hers that every so often they’d go along in civvies, rather than in the usual Hollywood uniform of gown, glowing skin, glamorous hair. Now and then, they go just as they were – no make up, comfy clothes, just like the regular young women they are.

“It came about,” she says, “because we realised that not only were we putting out a bad message to all those girls out there, saying that this is what we look like when in reality that is not what we look like when we get out of bed in the morning. But also we’re actors, not supermodels. It feels like those two worlds have combined a little bit and we wanted to see if there was any way that we could change that.

“It needs to be talked about,” she says. “I think it’s important. It affects everyone – not just the actor but everyone who sees the movie or reads the magazine. I’ve seen pictures of me come out and I look nothing like myself. My skin is perfect and I’m taller and skinnier. That just feels so wrong that that’s the message we’re putting out into the world. It feels violating.”

There is talk that 2014 is going to be Woodley’s year. It’s not just Divergent. A couple months after that hits the screens Woodley will be seen starring in another adaptation of a YA bestseller, this time John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, about Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two Indianapolis teenagers who meet in a kids cancer support group.

“Playing Hazel Grace is such an honour,” Woodley says. “I was a huge fan of that book for so long and fought really hard to be a part of it. I feel so grateful that I was gifted with who she is and what she stands for in the big scheme of things. She’s such a powerful character and it’s such an iconic role.”

For director Josh Boone, who initially thought Woodley was too old for the role – Hazel Grace is only 15 – any concerns he had about her vanished within seconds of seeing her audition. He has described her as “the most talented actress in her age range”.

For Woodley, who says that she loves indie films because of the creativity and the freedom and the fact that, “I love working my butt off but not knowing whether it’s going to pay off”, the next 12 months are going to be interesting. Until this point, she’s chosen roles based on gut instinct and good fortune – she knows immediately, she says, when she reads a script whether it works for her or not and the variety of movies she’s been in so far is down to “luck”. But global fame could change everything.

“After The Descendants I felt a little bit of pressure because for the first time I had people saying ‘I can’t wait to see what you do next’ or ‘I’m watching for you’,” she says, “and that felt weird because I’ve always just acted for my own pleasure. But I’ve had to just learn to let it go. After a little while of it feeling strange I just got back to remembering that I do this for me and I’m going to continue doing it for me and then that pressure goes away.”

Woodley is earnest in a way that only people in their early 20s can get away with being but she is also refreshingly unstarry. Ask her how she prepares for a role, for example, and you’ll get short shrift, although it’s very politely delivered.

“When you’re dealing with a great script – and The Fault in Our Stars was a great script – there’s really not much to do other than learn your lines, turn up to work and see what happens. If you try to do too much then it doesn’t work. I love naturalistic performances and I think the way to do that is just to be present and see what unfolds.”

Away from the camera, Woodley’s “simple life” is handled in a very similar way. She likes hanging out with friends and “being immersed in nature”. While shooting Divergent in Chicago she made her own breakfast, lunch and dinner and took them to work each day. It doesn’t sound like much, but in the gilded cage of Hollywood movie stars, it sets Woodley apart.

Harvey Weinstein recently announced that Jennifer Lawrence would be taking some time off to recharge her batteries. Woodley has already decided to do the same, at least for a few months. She says she has felt recently an awareness of no longer being a girl but a woman and now is her chance to “see who I am as that woman in the world, because I’ve never been able to experience it outside of this industry”. Smart, wouldn’t you say? All we can hope for is that one day there will be a Lawrence/Woodley collaboration. That could be amazing.

• Divergent (12A) is on general release in cinemas from Friday; The Fault in Our Stars is released in June.