Shailene Woodley has had to answer more questions about Jennifer Lawrence than practically anyone in Hollywood. Maybe including Lawrence herself.
Her answer varies. Sometimes she’s flattered by the comparisons, sometimes she brushes it off, and sometimes, like in the segment that was cut from her recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, she seems downright exhausted.
But there’s a reason that she and Lawrence seem to invite comparison. If Jennifer Lawrence is the girl you want to be, then Shailene Woodley is the girl that you are—and her gift is for making that person just as inviting as the idealized alternative. She’s got the look of a girl who’s only recently learned to love herself—a girl who’s still engaging with the woman she’ll become.
And now with the premiere of the highly anticipated weepie, The Fault in Our Stars, it’s about to be Shailene Woodley’s moment to shine.
Woodley has been acting since she was a child, but her first real brush with the spotlight came in 2008 with the ABC Family original series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She was chosen for the lead role as Amy, a high school freshman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with the school’s resident bad boy. Combining the wooden but earnest tone of 7th Heaven with the explicit issue-tackling of the Canadian import Degrassi, Secret Life was a natural continuation of ABC’s After School Special tradition. Every episode ended with a heartfelt PSA, every character was an archetype, and every scene presented a new teenaged dilemma. Woodley’s job as an actress was less about asserting her personality or even her abilities, and more about providing an open, malleable face that teen girls could project onto.
Judging by the ratings, the producers picked the right girl.
Secret Life made ABC Family. For its first two seasons it was the network’s highest-rated show, beating out juggernauts like the CW’s Gossip Girl to become the most popular series among women ages 12-39. When ABC Family premiered their headliner Pretty Little Liars, they made sure to do it with a lead-in from Secret Life—solidifying their reputation as the network to beat for teen girls.
But ratings aren’t the equivalent of respect. Respect, at least from adult critics and audiences, wouldn’t come until 2011 with the release of Alexander Payne’s film, The Descendants. The film—a hodgepodge of Muzak, misanthropy, and mediocrity—never earns Woodley’s affecting turn, again as a teenager struggling through family issues—but critics didn’t notice. In all fairness, it is hard to remember the film’s problems when you’re faced with the immediacy of Woodley’s performance—her face scrunched up in tears underwater, her voice breaking as she tells her dad about her mom’s infidelity. She’s so real, she could make you believe the rest of the movie is, too.
Fortunately, once Woodley played her hand with The Descendants, it didn’t take long for a project to materialize that did live up to her abilities. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now hews so close to the pain and the beauty of real life that at times it’s uncomfortable to watch. A small, independent release, The Spectacular Now came nowhere near The Descendants box office, but for Woodley, every promise that was made in The Descendants was answered and then some. Her Aimee is wholly original—she’s self-conscious but open, vulnerable without sacrificing her strength. Beyond anything, she’s an emotional livewire, inviting empathy as easily as if it were breathing.
If that quality didn’t quite come through in Woodley’s $100 million franchise follow-up, it’s not for a lack of trying.
Divergent was the first of Woodley’s two YA novel adaptations to hit theaters this year, and its box office numbers proved that Woodley could front a franchise, as three sequels were greenlit immediately after the film’s debut. But, as was maybe to be expected, the film itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Divergent isn’t bad, it just never quite overcomes the generic slickness of its genre. Not unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in the first Hunger Games film, Shailene Woodley’s performance as Tris feels like one of real humanity and intelligence, buried under a somewhat disjointed production.
But the challenge of acting in a major franchise was just a hiccup when compared to the challenge of acting in front of the press.
It’s always been preferred for stars—especially female stars—to arrive fully formed right out the gate. Meg Ryan, perky and self-effacing. Julia Roberts, charming and brash. Jennifer Lawrence, headstrong and down to earth. But Shailene Woodley, both onscreen and off, seems to elude quick characterization. She’s beautiful, but not quite glamorous. Earnest, but not quite accommodating. She’s outspoken about women’s roles, but she doesn’t seem to quite get feminism.
That last bit has caused considerable backlash, especially among the blogger set. As feminism makes its way out of the closet and back into public dialogue, it seems as if every woman in the spotlight is put to the test—are you a feminist or aren’t you?
When Time magazine asked the inevitable question, Woodley refused the label.
Nevermind that Woodley’s self-proclaimed “humanism” sounds awfully similar to feminism itself—with her support of sisterhood, female agency, equality, and the like—and nevermind that pressuring young women to conform to the feminist label might in fact be a bit anti-feminist itself. What mattered was that Woodley used the wrong word, and her relationship with the press has been uneasy ever since.
But even if the last few weeks have been difficult, Shailene Woodley has nothing to worry about. Not with The Fault in Our Stars on her horizon.
For any young actress, the role of Hazel, a cancer-stricken teen in love, would be a starmaker, but for Shailene Woodley it presents a uniquely perfect opportunity. As presented in the pages of John Green’s book, Hazel almost feels like she was written specifically with Woodley in mind. It’s The Spectacular Now raised to melodramatic heights, and this time she’ll have the audience she deserves. Early box office projections place the film at the top of the charts, early reviews whisper about Oscar chances—all signs point to supernova. By this time next week, Shailene Woodley will be bigger than the girl next door. She’s about to become America’s Sweetheart.