When Shailene Woodley was weighing her decision to star in “Divergent,” she needed some advice. So she consulted Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who’s made one spectacular career move after another.
Just like Lawrence, Woodley started off in TV before appearing in well-received indies. And just like Lawrence, Woodley was pitched the potentially life-altering role of a heroine in a young adult movie franchise.
Before signing on the dotted line, Woodley sent off an e-mail to the Oscar-winning actress asking if she was satisfied with all of the fallout from “The Hunger Games.”
“I wondered if it had changed her life in positive ways, and if she was happy with her decision,” recalls Woodley. “And she [wrote back] saying, `Just don’t do anything stupid. Don’t do drugs and don’t make a sex tape and don’t go to Whole Foods the day the movie opens. Other than that, you’ll be fine.’
“She was, like, ‘There can be some hard things that go with a decision like this, but the amount of beauty and positivity that will come from it will transcend anything in any of the other situations.’
With the buzz on the $85 million “Divergent” reaching a fever pitch, it looks like Woodley made the right decision. The sci-fi film is expected to draw many of the same fans who flocked to “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”
Based on a series of books by Veronica Roth, “Divergent” stars Woodley as Tris Prior, a Chicago teenager struggling to fit in. Her options are limited in a futuristic society where she’s expected to join one of five groups or “factions” based on human virtues. Her options include Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), and Erudite (intelligence).
After taking a mandatory test, Tris finds out she’s “Divergent,” or capable of fitting into a number of categories. When she discovers a conspiracy by a faction leader (Kate Winslet) to destroy all Divergents, Tris decides to put her trust in Dauntless leader Four (Theo James) in hopes of discovering what makes being Divergent so dangerous.
“A lot of who Tris is resonated with me because I felt like, when I was her age, I was sort of going through [the same] struggles,” says Woodley, 22, who spent five seasons starring on TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
“I was raised by two psychologist parents who are the most beautiful, selfless people I’ve ever met. And so compassion and empathy were two things that, as a young child, were ingrained into my system, which is such a lovely gift, because I feel like those are two lessons that often don’t get learned until later on in life.
“As a teenager, my struggle was, ‘How do I balance being empathetic and being compassionate towards my peers with living my life for myself and not basing my decisions on those around me?’
“Tris sort of goes through that as well. She was raised in a faction where she had to be selfless, and yet she joins this other faction that is sort of all about being selfish. She has to find a balance between that. I went through something similar, so that’s how I relate to her.”
After seeing Woodley play George Clooney’s troubled daughter in 2011’s “The Descendents,” director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) thought she’d be an ideal choice for “Divergent.”
“I’d been blown away by her in [‘The Descendents’] because she had this incredible combination of vulnerability and rebelliousness, plus arrogance,” says the filmmaker. “That was the perfect combination for Tris.”
Burger isn’t the only filmmaker who’s jumped on the Woodley bandwagon. Since her acclaimed performance last year in “The Spectacular Now,” she’s been working nonstop.
She starred in both Gregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” and the film adaptation of John Green’s novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” which is due in June. And she signed up for the “Divergent” sequels “Insurgent” (due March 20, 2015) and “Allegiant” (due March 18, 2016).
“Last year was a really intense year,” says Woodley. “Filming ‘Divergent’ was interesting, because it was the first movie that I had ever done where I was in every single scene.
“Literally, there was one moment where I was so sick. Neil looked at me and he’s, like, ‘Can you keep going? Do you need to go home?’ And I was like, ‘Do I have a choice?’ And he was like, ‘Well, if you go home, everything stops.’”
In addition to toiling long hours on the movie, Woodley also did many of her own stunts. She fought off a fear of heights to both hang onto the ledge of a building with a 70-foot drop and scramble up Chicago’s Navy Pier Ferris Wheel. She learned how to jump on and off moving subway trains. And she stepped into the ring with Theo James, who boxes in real life.
“We definitely did get some black and blue bruises and still have some scars on our body,” says the actress, an ardent environmentalist who, in real life, practices survival skills by attempting to live off the grid for weeks at a time.
“But Theo always says, ‘If you do stunts or you do a big action movie and you don’t walk away a little banged up, you’re doing something wrong.’”
Woodley has nothing but praise for her castmates, particularly Winslet, who impressed the younger actress with her work ethic.
“Kate loves being on a movie set. She shows up early… with questions to ask the director to enhance the movie. … She’s never in her trailer. She’s a citizen of the set, whether it’s hanging out with the actors or talking with the [craft] service dude or the transport guys.
“I feel like a lot of actors, two hours after being on the set, they’re already complaining about being there. I’m like, ‘So why don’t you go do something else? We’re lucky to have this life and do what we do.’ Kate fully knows that, so she brings this sense of enthusiasm and excitement to the job.”
Woodley was also happy to reteam with Dowingtown’s Miles Teller, with whom she worked on “The Spectacular Now.” In “Divergent,” he plays the ruthless Peter, one of Tris’ fellow Dauntless initiates.
“He’s like the funniest person you’ve ever met, right? He’s so great. And we sort of have a sibling relationship. When you go to do a new movie, you’re surrounded by 300 new people, in a new city… and to have somebody who I already know be my rock… that was really nice.
“I’ve got his back, he’s got my back. That felt good.”
In the movie, the pair play antagonists, which occasionally freaked Woodley out.
“The fight scene was fun… but I remember actually feeling sort of hurt when he was saying things that are rude during the scene… Afterwards, I went up to him and I was like, ‘I hope we’re OK. I hope there’s nothing going on.’ He’s like, ‘Shay, we’re just acting. Come off it.’”
A native of Simi Valley, Calif., Woodley had already been acting on TV for more than a decade when she made her film debut opposite George Clooney in “The Descendents,” Alexander Payne’s look at a dysfunctional family.
Acting came so naturally to Woodley that she felt almost fated to pursue it.
“I started acting when I was five,” she notes. “I’ve been doing it for 17 years, which is crazy to think about. But it’s always been something that was really fun for me, and a passion project in a way. And it still is, even though it’s a career now too, because it takes up all of my time.
“Acting is something that I enjoy doing, and the day that that fun disappears, if that day ever comes, then I’m not going to do it anymore. I do feel like… movies are… this beautiful art form. That’s what they are for me, a way to artistically create.”