In the year since Shailene Woodley was last at Sundance with “The Spectacular Now,” a lot has changed for the actress. Then a Spirit Award-winner for her breakout performance in “The Descendants,” Woodley came to Park City last year with a lot of pressure on her to impress with her anticipated follow-up project. She did and swiftly got cast as the lead in pair of big-screen adaptations of popular young adult novels — “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”
This year, she showed up to Sundance with Gregg Araki’s sexually charged teen film “White Bird in a Blizzard,” based on the novel by Laura Kasischke. In the film, Woodley plays Kat, a college-bound teenager whose mother (a hammy and delicious Eva Green) mysteriously vanishes. Was she murdered? Did she run away? Over the course of Araki’s giddy new film, Kat gradually comes to discover the reason for her disappearance, all while exploring her own burgeoning sexuality.
Woodley called Indiewire days after leaving Park City to discuss the risque role, her love for all things Araki, and why she’s so selective about what she takes on.
I wish we were doing this in person because I actually last interviewed you at Sundance for “The Spectacular Now.”
Oh my gosh, we didn’t run into each other at Sundance this year?
Well I think I saw you at the after-party for the movie?
Oh… you saw me dancing?
Yeaah! Right on.
Loved you in “White Bird.”
Whoa, thanks man.
I grew up watching Gregg Araki, but you’re eight years younger than me. How did you discover his work?
Yeah, I found Gregg, he’s really good friends with my manager randomly, and so a few years ago my manager was like, “You gotta see ‘Mysterious Skin,'” and this was just a few years before ‘”Kaboom” came out, and I watched “Mysterious Skin” and I was blown away, not just by the movie but by Joe’s performance, by the entire thing. So yeah, ever since that moment, I was like “I have to work with Gregg Araki,” and I started watching his other films, and I loved that he had such a unique voice. Every one of his films was so drastically different from one another and yet, they all could be related back to being a Gregg Araki film, and I think that’s a rare quality and art, a very rare trait.
You’re a bigger star now than when you came to Park City last year with “The Spectacular Now.” Gregg asks a lot of you in the part, especially in the nudity department. Were you scared of taking this on?
I wouldn’t say that it scared me, but it was definitely something I’d never done before, so it was a fun challenge. Gregg creates such a comfortable environment though, that it didn’t feel like a vulnerable choice, it didn’t feel that intimidating or that frightening. I think the biggest thing though is that, especially nudity-wise and sexuality-wise, nothing’s exploitative, explotative, how do you say that?
Yeah, nothing’s exploitative. So, it felt very truthful and natural, and that’s what I’m really keen on when I see a movie and when I do film, because I want to make sure I’m being as truthful as possible.
And that’s the thing I love about Kat’s character so much, is that she’s so refreshingly frank about her sexuality, and that the film in no way judges that. Did that kind of appeal to you?
Oh absolutely. I had someone say to me, “It’s very rare in a movie that you see a woman chase a man, let alone a younger woman chase a man,” not in a desperate way but in an empowered way. I thought that was really neat actually, and I love that about Kat, I love that she knew what she wanted, regardless of whether or not that was actually a healthy choice for herself, she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to fulfill those desires.
Now, although you lose your virginity in both this film and in the film you had last year at Sundance, “The Spectacular Now,” the two roles you play in each film couldn’t be any more different. Who do you identify more with? The quiet girl you play in “The Spectacular Now” or kind of the brash and outspoken Kat?
I think I’m kind of a mix between both. You know, we’re lucky… when we do characters, to be able to explore different colors of ourselves and different sides of ourselves. When I was in high school, my experience was maybe more similar to Amy’s, story-wise, but my personality was more similar to Kat’s. So yeah, I just feel that they’re both extensions of who I’ve been throughout my life.
At the Spirit Awards when you won the supporting female award, somebody asked you “Do you have anything in the works?” and you said “Not yet.” So you were clearly really really conscious of how you were gonna follow something like that up. You’ve done a remarkable job. What do you attribute that to, that kind of dedication to finding the right roles for you rather than just doing something right off the bat that you were offered just to keep your name out there?
Well for me, acting has always been about the pure pleasure and fun that I get out of it. I’m so passionate about it, I used to call it a hobby, it’s just like, this incredible art form that fulfilled a part of my soul that nothing else did, or that nothing else came close to being able to do. And so, after Sundance, even now, I have nothing planned, I’m doing the second “Divergent” movie, “Insurgent,” later this summer, and after that and before that, I have nothing planned because I haven’t read a script that I felt passionately inclined to do.
So for me it’s about, when I read a script, I know immediately whether I have butterflies in my stomach or if I don’t. And if I do have butterflies in my stomach, I will do anything, and fight so hard to be a part of the film. And if I don’t, then I graciously let it go and let somebody else who’s gonna be perfect for that role take it on. Because if I jump into something that I’m not 100% dedicated to, it’s gonna show in my performance, and it’s gonna show in the movie, and there’s gonna be this weird missing link, and if I do a character that I’m not passionate about or the character’s not right for me or I’m not right for it, then that’s obviously gonna show as well, versus when somebody else jumps in there and they do have the passion for it and they do have the dedication, they’re gonna do a remarkable job. So, I’ve never believed in the whole ride-the-wave thing, that you’re on top of the wave, you gotta stay up there. Like, I don’t know man, I think it’s kinda fun to paddle in the water a little bit, maybe go for a little swim. I mean why do we gotta ride the wave?
I totally agree. How did you find, then, the right management team to help you with that vision? It sounds like you’re more selective than most. Especially for actresses your age.
I’m very lucky. I’ve been with one of my agents since I was 8, so 14 years now. I’ve been with my other agent since I was 15, so 7 years, and I’ve been with my manager since I was 13, so now almost 10 years. So I’ve really kinda grown up with all of them, and they all know me in and out, and we have an incredibly healthy beautiful relationship where they can say, “We think this is important for A B and C reasons,” and I can say “OK I hear you, but I disagree, and this is why” and they say “OK I hear you.” So, we are very much a team.
I know lot of people who have agents and managers and publicists who don’t necessarily feel like they’re on the same team as them. They’re more working together as business affiliate partners, than as a team. And for me, it was very very important that they know me in and out, and I know them in and out, because as much as this could be called a “career,” it really is, at the end of the day, acting is an art form. It’s just like being a musician or painting a picture or taking a scrapbook class. And so to have people I’m surrounded by who understand that, is really special, I’m so fortunate.
I’ve been following your career since “The Descendants,” but there’s been so much hype placed on this “Divergent” movie, and it still has yet to come out. Are you ready for the eventual release and all that’s gonna follow?
I don’t know man, I mean, I think it’s something that I have absolutely nothing in my back pocket to compare it to, you know, I have no idea what it will be like. And who knows if the movie is going to do incredibly well, and things are gonna “change” like everyone keeps talking about, or who knows if it’s not gonna do that well, if it’s not gonna happen. You never know, and you just sorta live your life, wondering what’s going to happen a few months down the road seems pointless to me. The sun is out today, I’m not gonna pay attention to what’s happening in March, I’m paying attention to the beautiful sky above me.