A model at age four and an actress starting at age ten, she’s racked up accolades for her earnest, touching performances.
The rising star talks to us about her twin passions: acting and activism.
Shailene Woodley might not have had the chance to return as Tris in what should have been the fourth film in The Divergent Series, but the 27-year-old has moved on. These days, she’s winning acclaim as Jane Chapman in HBO’s Big Little Lies—holding her own in the company of such actresses as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and, in the second season, Meryl Streep.
The role has earned Shailene a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress—already the second in a career that started when she was just ten years old. Her first Golden Globe nod was for her feature film debut in 2011’s The Descendants, where she played George Clooney’s teenage daughter. Other worthy performances include her portrayals of Aimee Finecky in The Spectacular Now and of Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars, which helped her land the role of Tris in Divergent.
A passionate environmental activist, she protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline and has joined the board of Our Revolution, a progressive American political action organization that aims to educate voters about issues. On the acting front, her coming films include an untitled Drake Doremus drama with Jamie Dornan, the serial-killer thriller Misanthrope and the animated feature film Arkie.
In Big Little Lies, your character, Jane Chapman, is a struggling young mother among all these wealthy women. Was there a time in your life when you were also struggling, and things seemed beyond your reach?
Part of our societal conditioning is the yearning for something that’s outside of ourselves and constantly comparing yourself to the external world or comparing yourself to what someone else has said and done, or what their life may look like. Social media is not helping at all, especially for younger generations. They go on there and see this beautified perception and vision of what life can be, then go back to their normal life, look at the mirror and go, “That’s not what I look like.”
It’s something that I definitely had a lot of in my early 20s. As I get older, I don’t have it as much because I don’t tend to care as much about perception. I have a stronger core of who I am inside.
You’re a passionate environmental activist. Where do you think we are headed?
The biggest fear with climate change is that no one really knows. It is the great unknown. There are scientific estimates and projections but in the same way that there are scientific projections and estimates about things that happened millions of years ago. We’re projecting the same thing forward.
So, the biggest thing that we can do regarding climate change is just keep talking about it. It has to become a daily conversation in any and every circle, from every single point of view. It’s intersectional with gender equality, racism, classism. There are so many different points of entry into the [issue].
You are one of the actors who are consistent in their activism. Is it a challenge to be firm with your beliefs?
I don’t find it difficult because it’s just me. I also don’t think of myself as an activist. I just think of myself as someone who sees injustice and can’t sleep at night without doing something about it. It’s like breathing air. I just am very passionate and outspoken.
You have to also reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re living in a world built on systems that are created this way, so how do you find grace and softness to change those systems without becoming so extreme that you end up hurting yourself and the people around you? Because if you do become extreme, you’re not actually able to listen, and to relate to the experience that is the majority of people on this planet.
How do you pamper yourself when you find the time?
My friends and I call it “spa life”. But spa life can be anything. It can be when you put on good music at night and you dance in your house by yourself. I heal in solitude. I’m an introvert. I can put on the clothes and makeup and go to work but my way of recharging and reconnecting to myself is in silence.
Every single day, I’ve built in time to just zone in and collect myself. It’s different every day. It doesn’t mean I’m om namah shivaya-ing 24/7, but it does mean that whether it’s music, a phone call with a friend, a book, meditating or going on a walk or exercising, that’s a necessity. That’s my medicine.
You found your voice early in your life. Was there an “A-ha!” moment for you?
A lot of the deep personal stuff is very recent. It’s just from growing up. It’s simply something that happens as you get older.
But my real moment of finding my voice happened early on. I came into the world very headstrong. When 9/11 happened, I was in fifth grade and I remember just thinking of all those little kids who lost their family members, whether it was a mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent or a neighbor. It destroyed my little nine-year-old heart.
I put together this whole plan of getting teddy bears, blankets and notecards from our community to send to the kids in New York. That was a defining moment for me — to realize you can make a change. It doesn’t matter how old you are.
And when everyone says you can’t, you can still try. One of my favorite mottos in life, starting from a young age, is: “Tell me it’s impossible and I’ll see you on the other side.” Not to say that you can make everything happen but it’s worth a good, valiant shot.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Smile magazine.