“I just landed in New York!” exclaims a giddy Shailene Woodley. “I’m in the car coming from the airport and the skyline just appeared and I’m tearing up because it’s such a beautiful day!”
As far as movie stars go, the 22-year-old is one of the least affected actors around; a frank, perpetually optimistic aspiring herbalist who’s in tune with nature. That Woodley’s become one of the biggest names in Hollywood—thanks to Divergent—is surprising, to say the least. She’s become the go-to gal for silver screen adaptations of acclaimed YA novels, including The Spectacular Now and the aforementioned sci-fi franchise. Her latest film, The Fault in Our Stars, continues the trend.
Directed by Josh Boone and based on the novel by John Green, Fault centers on Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), a teen who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her only companion is an oxygen tank—that is, until she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a sick boy with a prosthetic leg, at a support group. Before long, the two fall madly in love. Things, however, get complicated when the love-struck duo are forced to confront their mortality.
In an in-depth conversation, Woodley spoke to The Daily Beast about the summer weepie, the importance of sisterhood, the first time she smoked weed, and much more.
The chemistry between you and Ansel in this film is really what sells it. What gave you the sense while making Divergent that you two could be an onscreen romantic couple—because that dynamic is very different.
It’s so different. The thing with Ansel is he came onto Divergent and it was a big cast and everyone else on the movie had acted in a lot of different things before and had a lot of on-set experience. Sometimes when you’re around people who have been on movie sets a lot, people seem to lose the excitement versus the art, and the ability to be on a film set. Ansel came in with these fresh eyes and this beautiful innocence and excitement for what it meant to be making a movie. We instantly connected, and before Fault even came around for him, we struck up a really close friendship and instantaneously became very brother-sister. We have such deep reverence and pride for one another. We’re completely different in almost every way, but are very intrigued by each other’s differences, so when Fault came around, there was a fault in Hazel and Augustus’s stars, but there wasn’t a fault in our stars because we had that deep respect for one another. In real life, I look at him with such admiration and such love, and when you apply that to the rules and regulations of what it is to be in love with somebody, the natural chemistry is able to exist.
We’ve spoken about the first time you thought you were in love with the guy you moved to New York with, but since The Fault in Our Stars is a love story, I’m curious what love means to you. I know everyone really has his or her own “definition” of it, even though it’s pretty indefinable.
I fall in love every day, so I don’t know if I have the answer! The real love that I’ve experienced in my life is when, A) I think you need to have a deep understanding of who you are and love yourself deeply enough to be able to receive love and feel love from others in a deep way, and as far as why or how I fall in love with people, you might meet somebody and be in love with them as your best friend, as your mother, as your father, as your lover, as your cousin, but I don’t think there’s any definitive answer as to what love is because it’s so individual. What makes me feel in love may be completely different from how you feel.
You guys filmed Fault on location in Amsterdam, which is such a beautiful city. What was that like for you, and had you spent time there before?
I had. It was funny—the only other time I’d been to Amsterdam was when I was backpacking through Europe when I was 18, staying in hostels, and sleeping on trains, so going back to do this movie was the complete opposite experience. It’s surreal to juxtapose both of those experiences, and what they held.
Do you have a crazy Amsterdam story? I remember me and my friends took some… psychedelics and came to many, many hours later in Vondelpark.
I don’t have anything that crazy! The first time I ever smoked weed was in Amsterdam, actually, which is so cliché.
We did that, too. Everyone was looking at us like the asshole Americans because we used a big bubbler and everyone else was smoking joints.
I know, right? No American teenagers know how to roll their own joints!
As far as Amsterdam goes, the sequence in the Anne Frank House was pretty powerful. What was it like shooting that scene there where Hazel is climbing to the top? It’s such a symbolic one for Hazel.
For me, in the book, that was one of the most powerful scenes that he described and visually, interpreting it in my own mind, I saw it the way it was written, and then the way that they filmed it in the movie was exactly the same. Anne’s story and Hazel’s story are so synchronistic, in a way—the theme of how you don’t have to live a long life to have a powerful and meaningful one—and Anne Frank had her first kiss in that house, and Hazel did, too. And then having the ability to film there and the history of what those walls held was powerful in those scenes. Hazel’s thinking, “This might be the last time in my life I’m here, and if I have to die going up these stairs, I’ll die going up these stairs.” She’s also thinking, “If Anne Frank did it, I can do it.”
My coworker—who by the way is a guy—was sobbing when we saw the film. Do you remember the movies that made you cry? The last one that got me was the ending of Beasts of the Southern Wild… and I also broke down a bit at the beginning of Up because it was so unexpected.
Up is a real tearjerker. Actually, Wall-E, for me, was really emotional. Her was really emotional, too. It’s such a beautiful film. Joaquin Phoenix is perfect in that, as is Scarlett.
In Fault, Hazel is very fixated on meeting her idol, author Peter van Houten. Is there anyone you’re really dying to meet?
Yes…but unfortunately she’s dead, so it won’t happen in the physical realm: Anaïs Nin, the French author. I just think that she’s so incredible. Patti Smith, too. But with Anaïs Nin, I’ve never really had an obsession with anybody, but I have a huge, huge draw to her. I read her book Henry and June a few years ago for the first time, and have since read it so many times it’s not even funny, but the connection she has with her own body and her own spirit—her feminine and masculine spirit—and the way that she writes is so in touch with what her experience is, and I’ve very rarely found people who are able to articulate exactly what their mental state is feeling, and I haven’t found anyone who can do it better than her.
I’ve spoken with coworkers about this, but with the Time story and the whole media backlash over the feminism question, I really empathized with you because I thought it was a loaded question—because if you say you’re not a feminist these days, the pitchforks come out—and that you were being set up by someone who came into it trying to burn you on that. And the negative reaction to it was surprising because it really seemed to prove your point about the lack of “sisterhood.”
Honestly, I started laughing when I found out. I got a phone call from my publicist because I don’t read anything about me or go on the Internet ever, because it’s such a dangerous hole to get yourself into, but she said, “Heads up, you’re going to do an interview in the next few days and people will ask you about this and blah blah blah.” So I went online and read the article and I started laughing because it’s exactly what you said: Everything I was trying to say that I support in life and that I’m here for was completely counterintuitive to what writer was trying to do.
It really did seem like the writer was trying to burn you on that one.
Completely. And the word “feminist” is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that. I don’t think there has to be a separation in life in anything. For me, bringing up the whole “sisterhood” thing was about embracing each other’s differences. Embrace my point of view even if it’s different from your point of view, but see that our end goal is the same. The way that we’re getting there might be different, but as long as we approach life with kindness and compassion, that’s all that matters. So it made me sadly laugh that a woman who I was trying to say, “Let’s embrace one another,” distinctly chose to do the opposite. But you know what? Everything is out of your control, and you can only be truthful about how you feel.
I was talking about this with one of my close girlfriends because I read it and I was really disappointed and sad, actually, because I do consider myself someone who’s so embracing of women and loves women, and the way the journalist decided to say, “So, Shailene is trying to use men to prove women’s power” or whatever she said was hilarious to me because that’s not what I said at all. But I was talking to my close girlfriend about it and she said, “Listen, Shae: labels are labels. I don’t need to label myself because I know who I am.” That clicked for me really hard, and it was this defining moment in my life that I’ve taken with me and encourage others to do the same. Labels are for other people to understand us, so for me, I know how I feel and I don’t need to call myself a “feminist” or “not a feminist” because I know what my truth is. If you need in your own mind to say that I’m a feminist so you better understand where I’m coming from and what my ideals mean, then that’s for you. Labels are for people to understand one another, not for us to understand ourselves. I know where my cayenne sits in my spice cabinet. You can go and label each distinct spice, but I know what my flavors are. Once that clicked, I didn’t feel any sadness or disappointment at all anymore because I know how I feel, and I know what I do in the world with other women, and I don’t need to prove that to anyone online.
If you were in Hazel’s shoes and knew your days were numbered, what would be on your bucket list?
It’s funny because that struck my mind while we were filming. I’ve always been a naturally optimistic, happy person, but it never struck my mind until doing this movie how every day is such a luxury and such a gift; to just survive and be alive with breath, without oxygen tubes, that in itself is a victory. We wake up every morning and we’re already winning. It doesn’t matter what our boss says, what our boyfriend says, or what the mean uncle you’ve never gotten along with says. None of that matters. All that matters is that we are alive. We only have moments. The future is not guaranteed and the past is gone, so worry is a product of the future and guilt is a product of the past, and those things have no place in our lives. So if I had two weeks or two months to live, I’d appreciate every moment. If I had to choose a location, I’d choose the beach because I don’t think there’s anywhere more powerful or beautiful in the world than the ocean, but I think I could be anywhere as long as I was aware of the fact that those were the moments that counted, and that laughter ensued in those moments. Laughter is kind of hard to come by with a lot of people, but I think life is so funny and so unfair, so why are we trying to be so serious about it? That makes no sense to me.
You’re very vocal on Twitter about how you’re a big fan of this book The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte. I’m not familiar with it…what’s it about?
This writer is amazing and a sister beyond sisters. She reps the sisterhood thing and women’s empowerment, and she wrote this book called The Desire Map where it’s basically charting the things that you want in life, and not just sitting back and saying, “I’m going to manifest this…here’s how,” but actively doing something to manifest your dream.
A lot’s happened with you in the past few years, and your “profile” has risen considerably within the film industry and media. Many actors struggle with the media intrusion that comes with it, but how’s the transition been going for you?
I just feel really, really lucky. Really lucky. The way that I’ve set up my life is so fortunate. My best friend happens to be my makeup artist, so whenever I have to travel for work, I have my best friend there with me, so every single night at the end of the day you forget about the day and you’re there with this person who knows your world outside of this—and I know what she’s going through, too—and we’re able to just chill, drink lots of wine, and laugh.
But people ask me a lot about how my life’s changed, and the thing that I’ve found is this whole concept of “Hollywood life” is so fake and fabricated—it doesn’t exist. There seems to be this idea that you go home, wear a fancy dress, and live a luxurious life, and yeah, there are some luxuries that come with doing this and I’m not trying to discredit that in any way, but at the end of the day, everyone still goes home and does dishes, deals with a crying baby, or does laundry—maybe not everybody does, but I do—so this aspect of “Hollywood life?” I don’t relate to it at all because I don’t really feel my life’s changed, and the only thing that’s changed is I’ve become extremely busy. As far as the whole press thing goes, the press tour for Divergent was a month long, and during the last week I was like, “I have no idea who I am anymore! I’m losing my mind…what’s going on?!” and all it took was two days in nature. I went on a mini solitude trip and camped out in the woods, and after those two days I felt replenished and like my mind was back on track—that I could hear my own mind again without the voices of others. But other than that, I feel really lucky to be on this amazing adventure. I don’t know how I’ve been dealt these cards, but I’m appreciative and grateful for every second of it.