By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—A teenage girl in a future dystopia is required by society to train to fight but eventually realizes the leaders are corrupt and dangerous, which inspires her to rebel against authority. The story is based on a series of popular young adult novels. The girl is played by an immensely talented and comely actress in her early twenties, who started out in independent films, but has since catapulted to the top of Hollywood’s list of most in-demand actresses in just a couple of years. And, no, it’s not Jennifer Lawrence.
Shailene Woodley, the brown-eyed beauty, who delivered a memorable performance as George Clooney’s estranged daughter, Alex, in 2011’s “The Descendants,” stars as the young heroine Tris Prior in the big screen adaptation of Veronica Roth’s wildly popular young adult novel “Divergent.”
In the thrilling action-adventure film, Tris lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where society is divided into five factions. As youngsters come of age, they have to decide whether to join another faction or stay put. If they choose a faction different from the one to which they were born, they cannot return. Born into the Abnegation faction, a group that is all about selflessness and helping others, Tris decides she wants to be a Dauntless, a group of brave, courageous adrenaline hounds, who like to test themselves. They are responsible for defending the city. After joining, Tris discovers she may not be suited to just one faction, but dares not tell anyone less she become an outcast known as a Divergent. Soon she discovers there are others like her, who don’t fit neatly into one faction. The society’s leader, Jeanine (played by Oscar winner Kate Winslet), who is part of the brainy but cold Erudite faction, is plotting a Nazi-like consolidation of power with Final Solution-like plans to purge the community of undesirables. It’s up to Tris, her friends and family to try and escape the tall walls that surround the Windy City before they are found out and killed.
The 22-year-old Woodley, who grew up in Southern California, recently spoke about depicting a popular literary heroine, and the prospect of becoming part of a major Hollywood studio franchise. Roth’s other books in the series, “Insurgent” and “Allegiant,” were also bestsellers so, depending on the success of the movie version of “Divergent,” Woodley could be busy outmaneuvering the authorities in big screen sequels for a few more years.
Arriving for an interview, the charming and poised actress speaks with candor about her leading role and becoming a famous Hollywood actress. Diverging from the stereotypical glamorous Hollywood look, she has shorn her signature long brown locks for a more free-spirited, pixie-like ‘do in which she resembles Roth, the 25-year-old wunderkind author of the book series.
Q: Some are comparing “Divergent” to another dystopian movie about an empowered young woman…
Woodley: (Smiling) “FernGully?” That must be what you’re talking about.
Q: It’s been reported that Jennifer Lawrence (who stars in the similarly themed “Hunger Games” movies) urged you to take this role. Is that true?
Woodley: Yeah. We had one conversation. I still have yet to meet Jen, which is kind of funny, because I’m talking about her so much right now. I sent her an email and I was sort of just curious. I wondered if it had changed her life in positive ways, if she was happy with her decision – just sort of what that looked like, because I had zero reference to what a studio film would feel like in my personal life. So I asked her and she said, “Yeah, 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 with it will transcend anything in any of the other situations.”
Q: Do you feel that you are like Tris?
Woodley: A lot of who Tris is resonated with m, because I felt like, when I was her age, I was sort of going through similar struggles. I was raised by two psychologist parents, who are the most beautiful, selfless people I’ve ever met. Compassion and empathy were two things that, as a young child, were ingrained into my system. It 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 and also living my life for myself and not basing my decisions on those around me? And how to live a life for my own experience, rather than people pleasing and whatnot. 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. It’s also just being a very strong, empowered woman. I feel very strong and I live my life with a lot of integrity, based on what I want from my life and who I am. And I think Tris is similar.
Q: How are you different from her?
Woodley: Tris has really long hair and it’s blonde, and I don’t anymore. So I guess that’s a difference. That was an awful joke. I feel like we are very similar. I don’t think there are a lot of differences between us.
Q: You took a survivalist course, where you were left on your own in the wilderness with only a gun and a hatchet for the weekend, before you did this. What did you get out of that? And how long do you think you could survive on your own?
Woodley: Survive? I hope a long time. I started studying indigenous cultures a few years ago, and I was really inspired by their lifestyles and the way they lived. Part of that was knowing how to survive in the wild and knowing how to heal themselves from the plants that grew around them. That’s how I became interested in wilderness skills. So I started studying herbalism and I started studying edible plants that existed in the wild. Then I realized, “Okay, cool. I know how to make fire out of sticks and I know how to build shelter, but I live 90 percent of my life in an urban environment. So these skills aren’t going to really help me, because there aren’t trees that grow in Los Angeles, where I can just take a branch and make a fire out of, because that wood isn’t conducive to that.” So I started learning urban survival skills. During Hurricane Sandy, I had a friend who was living in New York and for a week she was like, “I didn’t have any water for a week. I didn’t know what to do. We sort of freaked out. We would stand in lines for hours just to get a bottle of water.” And that was sort of terrifying to think like, “Oh wow. Everything is easy right now. You turn on the shower, you do whatever.” Especially now, with the drought in California, there’s so many resources that we’re depleting so quickly. And so I thought it would be an interesting skillset to have. If something were to go down, or even if it weren’t, it’s sort of like a post-apocalyptic idealism. It’s more just like a fun hobby. It’s kind of fun.
Q: In the beginning of the movie, not everyone knows Tris is Divergent. For you, personally, what is something that people don’t see or know about you?
Woodley: I’m kind of an obvious person. I like to keep some things in my life sacred. Keep the sacred sacred. Apart from that part of my life, I’m a very open person, so I feel like what you see right now is kind of who I am always. Maybe I guess that’s different. That’s diverging.
Q: How difficult of a decision was it for you to decide Hollywood is the life you want to pursue? Do you feel like you are making the contributions that you want to make, that you fit in the way you want to?
Woodley: Just to clarify, I never thought Hollywood is the life I want to do. I thought acting is the life I want to do. It’s not even that. I started acting when I was five. I’ve been doing it for 17 years now, 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, because it takes up all of my time, really. It’s something that I enjoy doing, and the day that that fun disappears, if that day ever comes, and then I’m not going to do it anymore. Because I feel like, at the end of the day, as entertaining as movies are when you’re a part of them, it’s this beautiful art form. Q: How much of a force was the author, Veronica Roth? Was she on set? Did she give you any insight to your character? Did you want that kind of insight?
Woodley: She was on set a little bit, not too often. She didn’t really give me advice on Tris. It was more, I’d ask her questions like: “Where did you get your inspiration from? How did you come up with this story?” Because as much as she was the charter of the book series, this was (director) Neil Burger’s film. So I felt like, if I had questions about my character, those questions belong to him, not Veronica necessarily. He was in charge of the ship. (Roth) was 21 when she wrote this book, which is incredible. She’s 25 now, I believe, she’s married and she has three books under her belt. What a bad***! (She reveals a spoiler in the third book at this point, and then looks embarrassed when people in the room gasp.) Oh, guys. Come off of it. It’s out there. You totally just made me sweat a little bit. But it’s out, and it’s cool. I think (for Roth) to make a decision like that is so strong. It’s a bold move, especially for someone that young to have the courage to do that. I think it says a lot about her. I think she’s got a little Tris in her.