Signature quote: “Don’t try and define me.”—Tris Prior in “Divergent.”
Critics fell hard for Shailene Woodley in her film debut as George Clooney’s pained yet perceptive teen daughter in 2011’s “The Descendants.” But now that she is the heroine of “Divergent,” a just-opened sci-fi action franchise based on a popular series of young-adult novels, the 22-year-old actress is presumed to be in the running as the next Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games”) or Kristen Stewart (“The Twilight Saga”). However, what she really is — according to reviewers at least — is the main saving grace of the first film in a trilogy that carries a tepid 41% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. A typical reaction to her performance from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times: “Woodley’s strong presence allows her to be all that she can be as Tris, dividing her time between scared and self-confident.”
Career peaks: “Descendants” director Alexander Payne called it right when he said of his ingénue find Woodley, “She is going places.” The daughter of a middle-school counselor mom and a principal-turned-family-therapist dad was born in Simi Valley, Calif., on Nov. 15, 1991. At age 15, her parents were divorced and she was diagnosed with scoliosis, which required her to wear a plastic brace for two years to straighten her spine. A model at age 4 and with more than 40 commercials under her belt, she began acting in small TV parts in 2002 and appeared as the title character in the 2005 WB movie “Felicity: An American Girl.” She got her big break in 2008 as pregnant high-schooler Amy Juergens on the ABC family series “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” for five seasons. That led to “The Descendants,” which was nominated for five Oscars including best picture. Pretty soon, Woodley was topping ones-to-watch lists. She revealed a more introspective side as a smart though naïve manga-and-unicorn-loving outsider who falls for a hard-drinking party boy (Miles Teller) in the 2012 Sundance festival hit “The Spectacular Now.” It didn’t take long until she was signed as the lead in “Divergent,” which took in a healthy $56 million over the weekend. Lionsgate/Summit was confident enough months ago to give the sequel “Insurgent” the green light to start production in May.
Biggest assets: Despite what the gossip rags say, Woodley might be a superstar in the making but she is not the next Jennifer Lawrence. Nor should she be. Lawrence is a whiz at screwball-type humor as evidenced by her comic timing in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” and has a knack for parceling out jokey self-deprecating revelations in interviews. Woodley — like her “Divergent” character Tris — is less easily definable. If anything, earnest emoting is her bag. As Manohla Dargis observed in the New York Times, Woodley “has a gift for conveying a sense of genuine, deep-tissue sincerity.” If you want to compare her to anyone, follow Payne’s suggestion and try a young Debra Winger in “An Officer and a Gentleman” or “Terms of Endearment.” “Vulnerable and fiery” are the qualities that caught the director’s eye, he told USA TODAY.
Off camera, though, Woodley unveils a whole other appealing side as a less-spacey version of a ‘60s flower child, with deep thoughts about everything from environmentalism (“Self-love and self-expression for me can just come in the form of trees and come in the form of connecting back to the soil,” she told fellow actress Emma Stone in a recent Interview magazine) to lifestyle choices and wellness products. As she revealed to Flaunt last year: “I gather my own spring water from mountains every month. I go to a farm to get my food. I make my own cheese and forage wild foods and identify wild plants. I make everything from my own toothpaste to my own body lotions and oils.’”
Awards attention: Another difference between her and Lawrence? Woodley isn’t a three-time Oscar nominee let alone a winner. Still, she has collected some choice honors: An Independent Spirit trophy for best supporting female for “The Descendants” and a Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at the Sundance festival, shared with her “Spectacular Now” co-star, Teller. She also was nominated for a supporting actress Golden Globe for “The Descendants.”
Latest misfire: More like a backfire. Her part as Mary Jane Watson (played before by Kirsten Dunst) in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” opening May 2, was cut so the story could better focus on the relationship between Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Spidey’s other gal pal now will likely appear in a subsequent sequel. But given her commitment to the “Divergent” franchise, Woodley has said there is little chance she will play the role given her jammed schedule – a situation that may be for the best, unless the title of the next chapter is “The Amazing Mary Jane.”
Biggest problem: While Woodley’s candor in interviews about her Earth-Mama world view is refreshing and seemingly genuine, she already has unwittingly left herself open to being the object of snide mockery by the likes of Gawker – which declared her to be “America’s Sacred Moonchild.” Mentioned in the article is her recommendation to women to soak up some Vitamin D where the sun usually doesn’t shine and her endorsement of eating clay. Even if such advice is actually beneficial, there is still a fine line between coming off as caring or just plain kooky, and when the public is still getting to know you, perhaps you should play it a little safer. Better to promote your pro-environment organization All It Takes and your work with charities for kids such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Gossip fodder: Woodley has wisely been exceedingly tight-lipped about her love life. That has not kept the press from speculating about supposed relationships with fellow actors such as Daren Kagasoff from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” Teller from “The Spectacular Now” and Shiloh Fernandez who appears with her in the indie film “White Bird in a Blizzard.” The Hollywood Reporter even went so far as to suggest that her two friends, one male and one female, who accompanied her to Sundance this year might be romantic companions. Woodley’s response: “That’s ridiculous.” She added somewhat vaguely, “I fall in love with human beings based on who they are, not based on what they do or what sex they are.” Meanwhile, she told Marie Claire that she has been single for four years.
Career advice: Two lessons Woodley can learn from Lawrence – who played a part in convincing her to sign on for the “Divergent” films — is how to continue to best straddle the worlds of both commercial and art-house films as well as emphasizing the importance of collaborating with actor-friendly directors like Payne, who can draw the best out of her. Much as Lawrence eschews the need to diet herself to death, Woodley also is keenly aware of how her choices might affect young female fans and she has already taken steps toward setting a good example. That includes appearing natural and makeup-free on the red carpet occasionally. As she told Stone during their Interview talk, “Growing up and looking at magazines, I was comparing myself to images like that – and most of it isn’t real. … It’s fun sometimes to dress up for the Oscars and certain events – I get to be like a 5-year-old again, wearing my Cinderella dress. But some events where it’s a more casual vibe, I just want to be me.”
Next step: Besides continuing to carry the girl-power torch while shooting Insurgent, the No. 2 entry in the “Divergent” franchise, this summer, Woodley stars in another film based on a beloved YA novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.” The drama about a teen cancer patient opens June 6 (which is why she cut her wavy cheerleader locks off – not because of Lawrence’s new do). Awaiting release is “White Bird in a Blizzard,” her recent Sundance selection directed by Gregg Araki. Woodley shows a darker and more adult side — including nudity — as her character, troubled by her mother’s sudden disappearance, seduces a 40-ish police detective played by Thomas Jane.