Exclusive: Shailene Woodley On ‘Divergent,’ J. Law, and Why She Turned Down ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
You’re about to become very familiar with Shailene Woodley.
The 22-year-old actress is the star of Divergent—a dystopian adventure based on a series of bestselling YA novels by Veronica Roth. In Neil Burger’s film, in theaters March 21, Woodley is Tris Prior, a teenager living in a future society that’s divided into five factions based on personality. Tris’s parents are from the Abnegation faction, but she soon learns she is divergent, meaning she shares traits with multiple factions. She enlists in Dauntless, a faction composed of the fearless who protect the city. When Tris uncovers the Erudite leader’s (Kate Winslet) plot to first wrestle control of the government from, and then wipe out the Abnegation faction, she teams up with fellow Dauntless Four (Theo James) to stop them.
Many are calling Divergent the next Hunger Games, and the film is reportedly set to match, or exceed, the opening weekend box office of the first Twilight. And Woodley, who’s already starred in the hit ABC Family sitcom The Secret Life of the American Teenager and received critical acclaim for her excellent turns in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, is about to see her star rise considerably.
Over a very candid, lengthy chat, the actress opened up to The Daily Beast about everything from Divergent and wire-tapping to why she thinks she and J. Law will get along swimmingly.
When we last discussed Divergent at Sundance, we spoke of how relevant the story is to the times we live in.
That’s part of the reason why I did this movie. There’s so much opportunity for conversation since the movie is so metaphorical to today’s society. One of the most beautiful quotes in the book is when Tris says, “Back in the day, my mom had a choice between eating naturally-irrigated food and genetically-engineered foods. Now, there is no choice. That’s all we have.” I thought that was so powerful because we’re getting to a point where all agriculture is going to depend on seeds that were created in a lab—which is so counterintuitive to the way Mother Nature meant it to be. There’s the issue of a tyrant taking over and genocide—someone going in, choosing a particular class of people, and murdering them by brainwashing other people. And there’s the issue of spying on other people and this whole drone situation going on now.
Right. In Divergent, the Dauntless faction is implanted with chips that track them, and are also brainwashed into committing genocide.
It’s crazy. I just got back to L.A., where I live, and me and my friend were in the carpool lane driving under a sign and it went beep-beep, and I was like, “What’s that?” And she said, “Oh, it’s this new thing you can buy that allows you to drive in the carpool lane and it registers with these signs, and every time you go under one of these signs it tells you you’re going under it.” There’s no privacy anymore! There are cameras everywhere, there’s technology everywhere, everything’s out in the Internet. It’s like 1984. It’s a weird time to be alive. It’s a beautiful time to be alive, but it’s different from the past because technology is so advanced today, so there’s really no precedent when it comes to our privacy.
Are you worried about your own privacy? You’re about to become a bigger star because of Divergent, and we’ve already seen how the UK press has treated celebrities when it comes to hacking.
Not really. The thing with privacy is I’m just going to make sure that whatever I hold sacred stays sacred. What I hold dear to my heart is nobody’s business in the same way whatever you hold dear to your heart is nobody’s business, unless you’re willing to share that. As far as the hacking stuff goes, I don’t really have to worry about that. I’m not a big technology person. I don’t even have a smartphone. I don’t even have a cellphone! And if I were to have one, it would be a flip-phone. There’s a bigger lack of privacy than there’s ever been, but there’s also a bigger lack of camaraderie and community than there’s ever been. I mean … just asking people for directions. Since I got rid of my phone, having to pull over and be like, “Hey, buddy—do you know how to get here?” I’m talking to people more than I’ve ever talked to in my life because I no longer have that crutch. The more you get away from all the technological buzz, the more freedom you have.
I also saw a metaphor in the film when it comes to the Erudite faction, the conservative, buttoned-up, capitalistic group, and Abnegation—the more social welfare-oriented faction interested in helping the poor through various programs. Erudite is trying to wrestle control of the government away from Abnegation via nefarious schemes. It seemed like the Erudite stood in for right-wingers.
That’s the thing with this book—there are so many correlations. The whole government-takeover thing is a huge deal, whether it’s right-wing, left-wing, or Timbuktu. Because of the state of the economy, there’s so much more tension in politics right now than I can ever remember. I don’t really know enough about politics to go into it in any detail, but the interesting thing about the movie is: you have two very strong, very bright, very empowered, very brave females—Kate, the antagonist, and my character, the protagonist—but if you look at it from an objective point of view, neither character is bad. If this movie was told from Kate’s point of view, Tris would be the antagonist. We don’t know what Kate’s intentions are. Yes, chipping people and telling them to wipe people out is mental, but Tris is also murdering people. Sure, she’s killing people based on what she believes in, but she’s still killing people. It’s The Art of War. So it’s tough to judge them based solely on their intentions. It’s their actions—what they end up doing—coupled with their intentions, that matter. If the Republicans or the Democrats started murdering a bunch of people, that action doesn’t necessarily say what their intention is, but it says how far they’ll go to fight for what they believe in.
You mentioned “empowered” females, and it’s great that today, we have these young female protagonists kicking ass onscreen—whether it’s Divergent or The Hunger Games. When I was a kid, you’d have been pretty hard-pressed to find any of that in movies, let alone blockbusters.
One of the biggest things I enjoy about it is the relationship between Zoe’s character (Christina) and my character. Oftentimes in films, even if you do have a really strong woman, there’s jealousy and envy among her sisters. So you’ll have this really empowered leader, who’s a chick, and then she has some sort of envious relationship with another woman in the movie. And in this movie, there’s no envy and no jealousy—no ridiculous girl-fights. It’s such an important message to send out there in this age of feminism because, yes, men need to respect women, and women need to be the leads of films, but at the same time, how do we expect men to respect women if women don’t respect women? A big theme in my life is sisterhood, and I think that this movie is a really great representation of that—of being there and supporting one-another without the malicious attacks that so often come in movies and media. So many women feel so much anger towards other women.
It’s cool that in today’s Hollywood, the young actress is sometimes cast first—in your case, or Jennifer Lawrence’s, or Kristen Stewart’s—and then they have a say in the casting of their male co-star. That would never have happened in Old Hollywood. How did you land on Theo?
Isn’t he so good in it? We auditioned a lot of guys, and a lot of these actors were playing male, masculine leaders. Even if they were good, they were still acting it. Theo walked in and just demanded it with his presence. Theo is smart as a whip—he majored in philosophy and traveled the world before he even became an actor—so he’s had a full life before the industry, and he didn’t feel like he had to prove his masculinity.
Did you audition with the kissing scene? Was it basically just you kissing a bunch of studly guys and going, “Sorry, not feeling this one.”
[Laughs] That would have been awesome, but no, it was not. With Theo, I think everyone knew. When we were filming, everyone said, “You and Theo have such crazy chemistry,” but I didn’t realize it until I saw the movie. Theo is in it for the right reasons. He’s not in it for the glamour, the toys, or the excess, and neither am I, so we respect each other on that level. And we’re good teammates and have each other’s backs, and I think a lot of our chemistry stems from that.
How were you cast as Tris? I imagine you had to go to bat for it.
It’s kind of crazy, actually. The way it happened was so quick and easy. I had a meeting with the producers and told them about my interests—which involve survival skills—and then I met with Neil, and he said, “I think you’re Tris.”
What are these “survival skills” that you touted?
The producers asked me what I liked to do in my spare time and I told them I used to study how to survive in the wild—how to make shelter, build fire, and create weapons out of the ecosystem—but I live in a city, so it also got me thinking about urban survival skills, because this was right after Superstorm Sandy and I had multiple friends who said, “I didn’t have water for a few days because I wasn’t prepared,” so after they saw me studying urban survival skills my friends said, “That’s cool… you should read this book Divergent.”
What sorta weapons were you making out of the ecosystem?
It was more just if you were stranded outdoors and you needed to hunt, fish, cut down a tree, or staple a wound, this is how you’d do it.
What faction would you choose, and why?
I stole this answer from Veronica Roth, but I thought her answer was so brilliant and perfect: I would choose to be factionless. I wouldn’t want to be a part of any one faction and be living by a specific set of rules. And I love the sovereignty that comes with the factionless. I would probably choose to be Dauntless, and then I’d be annoyed by the rules and purposely fail out to be factionless.
And if you were put into that Dauntless simulation that triggers your worst fears—or “fear landscapes”—what would your worst fears be?
I’m one of those people that sort of gets off on fear—like heights and stuff. I enjoy things that make my adrenaline run. But mine would probably be being in a submarine submerged thousands of feet underwater, or being in space. Those two things are fucked up. No way.
Did you see Gravity?
A lot of people saw Gravity and told me, “I almost had a heart attack!” But I thought it was really beautiful. It didn’t give me anxiety, but it also made me feel very grateful that my feet are on the ground.
We also discussed at Sundance how you were almost cast in The Hunger Games, and how the epic J. Law-Shai meeting hasn’t happened yet. Has it still not happened?
It’s still not happened! I’ll meet her one of these days.
But we also discussed how you sent J. Law a letter asking for advice before taking the role of Tris in Divergent. How did she allay your fears?
She was like, “Small things will change, but if you stay who you are, nothing will change. The big picture won’t change. It’s only going to make your life greater and you’ll be so grateful for it. Don’t be stupid, don’t make a sex tape, don’t do drugs, don’t go to Whole Foods the day the movie opens, and you’ll be fine!” I thought, “I’m gonna love this chick when I meet her.”
Is it true that you also turned down the chance to audition for the Anastasia Steele role in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie?
It actually is true. I didn’t want to audition for it. It’s because I had already done Divergent and I knew there was no way I wanted to do multiple franchises at the same time, because that’s crazy, so I didn’t see the point in it.
Divergent is set in a dystopia and provides a pretty bleak portrait of our future. What are your biggest fears for the planet, or humanity?
I don’t have any fears for the planet because I believe Mama Earth can take care of herself, and will be fine. It’s good at regeneration. My biggest fear is that people aren’t going to realize in time that we are nature, and that we need to think about that fact and respect that fact. People talk about global warming, the oceans, and the rainforest, and we need to be talking about it, but nothing’s going to change unless we change ourselves. It goes back to the whole female thing—no one is going to respect females until females start respecting females—and nothing’s going to change in nature until we start with our own bodies, mental health, and happiness. The human race isn’t going to be so fine if we don’t take some necessary steps pronto.