As Big Little Lies hits screens for the second time, the actor opens up about taking tips from Meryl Streep and her life as a Hollywood misfit
Words by HELENA DE BERTODANO
Photography by CAITLIN CRONENBERG
Creative & Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
Shailene Woodley is something of an anomaly in Hollywood: She eschews most of the trappings of fame, calls acting “a hobby” and at the moment does not even have a home to call her own. Currently she is staying with a friend in Silver Lake.
“I’m chronically and constantly fired up about injustice”
“I’m still on the road. … I don’t have a permanent place anywhere. I do have piles everywhere. My friends call them Shai piles. I have very generous friends who house me all over the world. So much of my life is in hotels that if I’m in a city where I have friends, I ask if I can stay with them … or I find a condo or somewhere where there’s a kitchen,” she says, adding: “I just have to be able to cook. My constitution is not built for fancy food three times a day. … Sometimes your body just wants a cutting board and a knife — just to chop up a good salad.”
Simply dressed in a white cotton shirt and black jeans, she carries a heavy bag with books and a laptop to the Chateau Marmont where we meet.
She has 3.8 million Instagram followers and uses her platform to advance causes important to her. Nonetheless, she is conflicted about social media. “I wrestle with [it]. Is it something that’s beneficial? I don’t know. I still have it. And we’ll see if I have it tomorrow …”
Woodley is a strong environmental activist and also campaigned doggedly for Bernie Sanders during the last election. In 2016 she was arrested during a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was being built across sites sacred to Native Americans. (While the Obama administration denied approval for the construction in response to the protests, President Donald Trump greenlit the pipeline just days into his term.) Jailed for a few hours, she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to a year of probation. “I’m chronically and constantly fired up about injustice, whether it’s environmental or social,” she explains.
These days, of course, the star of HBO’s blockbuster series Big Little Lies is recognized everywhere she goes. “The one thing I don’t like is when someone just stops me, doesn’t even say hello, and whips out their phone to take a photo. I’m not cool with that.”
What does she do? “I say, ‘I feel violated and that was inappropriate. If you would like to introduce yourself to me, then we can have a conversation. Otherwise, you need to delete that photo.’”
The anecdote gives an interesting insight into Woodley’s real-life character. She may look sweet and friendly, but the quills shoot up when provoked — there is a tough edge to her, which has no doubt helped her survive in the industry. As she recently put it: “I am the queen of saying no.”
Luckily for us, she is still fired up by her favorite hobby. At age 27 and at the top of her game — with a raw, openhearted quality to her performances — she recently reprised her role as Jane Chapman for season two of Big Little Lies, the darkly comic show based on Liane Moriarty’s novel by the same name that has attracted a cast of fellow top-tier actors: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz. Joining them this season is Meryl Streep, playing the meddling mother-in-law of Kidman’s character, Celeste.
The arrival of Streep enhanced the already close relationships between the women on set. “Meryl is just so warm and friendly,” Woodley says. “Everyone’s so supportive of one another and genuinely cares for each other. Nobody has to wear a mask. I think we’re all very real. … We’re a very candid, transparent group of women — together and individually.”
Streep, she says, approaches each day with the same enthusiasm as if it were her first day on a movie set. “She is so passionate about what she does. That was the thing that really blew me away. She notices things that a lot of us fail to notice about the script [and] she knows every single person’s lines, not just her own. I remember there was a day all of us ladies were sitting together and Meryl was separate. She walked over and said: ‘I wonder what this on this page and this on this page have to do with each other?’ And she walked away. And we were like, ‘What?’ And we looked [at the script] and were like, ‘Oh my god. She’s right.’ She built a bridge between two scenes that none of us had noticed.”
Born in Upland, Calif., Woodley and her younger brother, Tanner, grew up in Simi Valley. Her mother was a school counselor and her father a school principal who later became a psychologist and part-time actor. Although they later divorced, Woodley says her childhood was a very happy one. “I had an amazing [childhood]; I had food on the table every night, I had parents who loved me [and] who worked very hard to give me and my brother the best life possible.”
Woodley started auditioning for commercials and television roles at age 5. Her parents supported her but were not pushy. “It was always me, something I wanted to do. My mom would drive me to auditions.”
She started landing parts in television series and in 2008 was picked to star as the lead in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which ran for five years. She found her success overwhelming at first: “It’s hard to justify why you’re 15 years old and making more money than either of your parents have ever made.”
In 2011 she made her big screen debut in The Descendants, playing George Clooney’s troubled teenage daughter, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. “I’ve never seen anyone so young that has so much together,” Clooney told Vanity Fair at the time. “We’ll be talking about Shailene Woodley 40 years from now.”
“He’s like a father figure for me,” Woodley says. “I feel that with him I will always have an ally, someone I can trust and call upon in a time of great need.”
Her reputation was solidified with two more lead roles: one heartbreakingly realistic — the cancer-stricken teen Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars; and one sci-fi — the warrior-heroine Tris in the Divergent franchise.
After Divergent, Woodley took a break from acting, telling her agents not to send her scripts for a year. “I wanted to explore other things and to learn about who I was in my mid-20s because it had been a while since I’d had alone time.” She is, she says, a loner. “I’m not a people person. I really enjoy solitude.”
Just before the year was up, her agents sent her Big Little Lies — and at first she was not enthusiastic. Dern (who played Woodley’s mother in The Fault in Our Stars) apparently called Woodley and persuaded her to do it. “She was definitely an aspect of the equation,” Woodley says. “I was grateful that they thought of me.”
She enjoyed spending time on the rugged coastline where Big Little Lies is set. “I hadn’t spent much time in Monterey, but it was wonderful to move up there, that area is beautiful. And on the weekends you can go to Santa Cruz. There are so many things to do.”
Her appreciation of the outdoors is one reason she loves California. “I’ve camped at every campground there is to camp at in California, and I’ve been to every hot spring. If I was stressed out as a teenager, I would drive up to Big Sur and back in a day — just to see the coast, to breathe. The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is you can surf, snowboard, be in the middle of the desert, go on a hike — all on the same day.”
As for what her career holds, in the past she has hinted at running for political office. “I don’t foresee that in my near future,” she says. “But never say never.” She adds: “I think I’ll act for the rest of my life. It’s who I am.”
Upcoming projects include an untitled film from director and Sundance regular Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) with Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey): “The entire movie was improvised in 21 days, it was a life-changing experience.” Later this year she will start shooting a serial killer thriller titled Misanthrope, directed by Damián Szifron and starring Woodley as a cop recruited by the FBI. The movie just presold worldwide at the Cannes Film Festival, which Woodley attended, appearing at one premiere dressed in a one-of-a-kind ensemble: a floor-length tuxedo jacket paired with tiny black shorts by Dior Haute Couture. Will there be a third season of Big Little Lies? Woodley cannot confirm. “It would be great if there was: I would absolutely be down.”
When she’s not on a film or TV set, Woodley says she’s a “less is more” person. “I like going to small get-togethers: fewer people in a house with good wine and fun games. I’d take a game night any day over an event or party or a concert. I’m a homebody.” Last year she confirmed on Instagram she was going out with Fijian rugby player Ben Volavola, but she rarely talks about their relationship and says she has no plans to settle down any time soon. “Everything about my life is ‘let’s see what happens,’” she explains. “I’m a firm believer in following my purpose instead of creating my purpose.”
Feature image: ALBERTA FERRETTI dress, $10,440. JENNY BIRD earrings, $70.
Hair by JOHN D. at Forward Artists using TRESemmé
Makeup by KELSEY DEENIHAN at The Wall Group using Själ Skincare
Manicure by EMI KUDO at Opus Beauty using Chanel Le Vernis
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of C Magazine.
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