Tuesday 23 July 2019

An actress and film with a strong credo at its core

Like most young adult storytelling, Divergent has a powerful message at its core, as does its 22 year old star Shailene Woodley

OWN WAY: Shailene Woodley in a scene from Divergent, a movie about nonconformity and fighting for one’s identity in a repressive society
OWN WAY: Shailene Woodley in a scene from Divergent, a movie about nonconformity and fighting for one’s identity in a repressive society

Julia Molony

Here's one reason why 22 year old Shailene Woodley was the perfect choice to play a futuristic girl-warrior who doesn't fit in, in the film industry's latest behemoth young adult franchise, Divergent; she's a bit divergent herself. In fact, she's all out kooky. Consider the evidence; she is the first trained herbalist I've met who is wearing cashmere and knee high boots. She hugs everyone she meets as a point of principle, including me as I'm ushered into her room by her publicist, she believes her menstrual cycle is a beautiful thing and is keen to explain why.

She is from California, but is anything but your typical valley girl. She likes to forage her own food, and source her own drinking water. And she is about to be as famous as Jennifer Lawrence.

Like many, I discovered her in the 2011 Alexander Payne film The Descendants, in which she starred alongside George Clooney – as the eldest daughter of a Hawaiian landowner whose mother is seriously injured in a boating accident. She turned in a performance of breathtaking naturalism and emotional range, which bagged her a Golden Globe nomination.

But even with that first success, the jump from The Descendants to the centre of the box office tsunami that is Divergent is a big one, and one that Shailene admits to feeling apprehensive about.

"I was definitely daunted by maybe the anonymity factor – the lack of anonymity, simply the amount of people that it would reach. Doing a big movie – a big franchise – was never something that I ever envisioned for my career, for my life. So when the opportunity came about, I almost said no at first. I mean, I kind of did say no at first."

For guidance, she turned to meditation, among other things. "I realised I was basing a creative decision on fear. I was saying no to something because I was afraid of what was going to happen. And I was like, that's not who I am. I don't want to base art on fear."

Last night was the London premier of the film, and the normally tomboyish Woodley was dazzling in blue ... Today, she has been up since 5.30am and is understandably tired, but the positivity is unflagging: "It's really busy but it's totally fun," she says. In the centre of all this madness, she relies on meditation to keep her sane.

"For me, meditation is a way to check back in and clear anything that needs to be cleared. I've been doing this new thing this year, of meditating every morning before I start my day. And it's made all of the difference in the world to start my day before my day starts me. It's really made a huge difference."

She doesn't follow a defined practice. "It's basically just really reflecting and setting a strong intention for the day and the way that I want to approach the day physically and mentally, and who I want to be."

She said doing it first thing in the morning, before talking to another human being, is lovely. Throughout the day she checks back on her intention to see if she is on course and, if not, what threw her off course. "It's a point of me being able to hear my own voice when there's a thousand voices out there."

Woodley started performing when she was just five. "I was in an after school programme and the teacher's friend was an agent and she was like, 'oh, I'm interested in Shai', and my mom was like, 'what's an agent? Who are you?' Her parents are educators – her mother a school counsellor and father a principal, so it wasn't a world they were familiar with, but they were supportive.

"At five you don't care if it's gymnastics or ... you just want to try something. So for me it was like, can I try acting? I'm very lucky to have parents who supported me, and have always supported me. But I had three rules growing up in order to act. I had to stay the person they knew I was, have fun and do good in school. And if I did all three of those things, then I could continue to act."

Divergent, like all the best young adult fantasy storytelling, has a strong credo at its core. In this case, it's about nonconformity, about being willing to fight for one's identity in a repressive society. This is another reason why Shailene, a fighter and outlier herself, was well cast. She's got her own way of doing things. Last year, she filmed The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of the bestselling novel about a teenager with cancer. She got completely immersed in it.

"I do have an incredibly strong sense of self," she says. "Last year was really the moment where I recognised life is so fleeting and everything is so temporary. And nothing is guaranteed, so you might as well live every single day to its fullest and soak up every moment, whether you are tired, whether you are excited ... I think part of that is waking up every day and choosing me. There's millions of bodies out there and this is one that I have. And it's so much easier when you finally recognise, OK, this is the body I have, this is the mind I have, this is the heart I have, I'm going to choose my day. Instead of saying, I have to get up in the morning, I'm going to choose to get up in the morning. You just sort of switch, you look at things and that, I think, really changes the way you feel internally. Especially with happiness.

"After doing Fault, you really recognise, life is a very... there's no way to justify it. There's no way to justify why we are sitting here doing this in this nice hotel and there's people out there younger than us who are struggling with cancer. There's no way to justify it – so it really makes you recognise every moment and be so grateful for every moment."

On her Twitter feed, she names one of her interests as "sacralising the feminine". Since she's a self-confessed tomboy, I ask her what she means by that.

"It just means honouring the female body and reconnecting to our roots," she explains. "There was a moment when I realised, wow, as a woman, I'm so disconnected from my menstrual cycle, I'm so disconnected from my sexuality. I think it may be different in Europe. I don't know how it is in the UK, but in America, sexuality, sensuality, all of those things are so taboo to talk about and they're kept very private. And I realised the effect that had had on me at a young age.

"And so, what I mean by sacralising the feminine is just connecting back to our feminine roots and realising what a gift it is to be creatures that can bleed every month and not die. And that's so beautiful – it's incredible," she says.

"And so often it's like, that's gross, don't talk about it, keep it to yourself. And actually I think about it and it's like – that is beautiful, the fact that my body can do that. And just the differences that I notice in my own physical body when I sort of switch the way that I looked at, not only my cycle, at all the parts of being a woman."

With the spotlight now firmly on her, this credo has taken on a new significance; she's into the idea of "empowering women to feel like they have voices and to bring about sisterhood again ... Movies are a big part of that – there's a lot of jealousy and envy and malicious behaviour that goes towards one woman against another woman. One of the things I want to bring about is just how important sisterhood is – to have that special group of girls that you can be vulnerable around."

  • Divergent is in cinemas now.

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