Shailene Woodley delivers an exciting performance in the thrilling action-adventure, “Divergent,” set in a futuristic world where people are divided into distinct factions based on human virtues. Woodley portrays Tris Prior, the heroine of the best-selling book series by first-time author Veronica Roth, who is warned she will never fit into any one group. Opening in theaters on March 21st, the film directed by Neil Burger from a screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor was shot on location in Chicago.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Woodley talked about how Jennifer Lawrence encouraged her to take the role, what she shares in common with her character and how they differ, what inspired her to take a course in urban survival skills, what the experience was like doing many of her own stunts, her most memorable sweaty palm moments, zip-lining over the streets of Chicago and climbing the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, her challenging fight sequence finale with Theo James, working again with Miles Teller, and what she learned about herself in the process of making her first large scale studio movie.
Here’s what she had to say:
QUESTION: There was a report online that Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in another dystopian movie about an empowered young woman, urged you to take this role and I’m wondering if that’s true?
SHAILENE WOODLEY: Yeah, I mean, I feel like 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. But yes, I sent her an email. I was just curious. She’d gone from doing indie films to doing “Hunger Games,” which is a giant film obviously. I wondered if it had changed her life in positive ways, if she was happy with her decision, and just what that looked like, because I had zero reference to what a studio film would feel like in my personal life. I asked her and she said, “Yeah. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t do drugs, 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 come with a decision like this, but the amount of beauty and positivity that come with it will transcend any of the other situations.”
Q: How much are you like your character, Tris, in real life and in what ways are you different?
WOODLEY: Oh wow, that’s a good one. A lot of who Tris is resonated with me, because I felt like when I was her age, maybe 17 or 18, I was going through a struggle. 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, which 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 compassionate towards my peers, while also living my life for myself and not basing my decisions on those around me, and really living a life where I receive my happiness from my own experiences rather than from people pleasing. Tris goes through that as well. She was raised in a faction where she had to be selfless, and yet she joins this other faction which is all about being selfish, and she has to find the balance between that. I feel like I went through something similar, so that’s how I relate to her, as well as 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 for my life and who I am, and I think Tris is similar. As far as being different, Tris has really long hair and it’s blonde, and I don’t anymore. So, I guess that’s a difference. I don’t know. That was an awful joke. (Laughter) I feel like we’re actually very similar. I don’t think there are a lot of differences between us.
Q: I understand you went on a little survivalist journey on your own unrelated to preparing for this film. What did you get out of that and how long do you think you could make it on your own?
WOODLEY: (Laughs) Survive? I hope a long time. This earth is exciting. There are so many things happening. Survival skills? I started studying indigenous cultures a few years ago and I was really inspired by their life styles and the way that 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. I started studying herbalism and edible plants that existed in the wild. And then I realized, “Okay, cool. I know how to make a fire with sticks and I know how to build a shelter, but I live 90 percent of my life in an urban environment, so these skills aren’t really going to help me because there aren’t trees that grow in Los Angeles that I can just take a branch and make fire out of, because that wood isn’t conducive for that. So I started learning urban survival skills. During Hurricane Sandy, I had a friend who was living in New York and she was like, “I didn’t have any water for a week. I didn’t know what to do. We freaked out. We stood in line for hours just to get a bottle of water.” That was terrifying to think about. Everything is easy right now. You turn on the shower or you do whatever, but especially right now with the drought in California, there are so many resources that we are depleting so quickly. And so, I thought it would be an interesting skill set to have if something were to go down, or even if it weren’t. It’s not post-apocalyptic idealism. It’s more just like a fun hobby. What would I do if A, B and C were to happen? It’s kind of fun. (Laughter)
Q: You work with two great seasoned actresses, Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet. What was that experience like for you and what did you learn from that as an actress?
WOODLEY: It was amazing. Ashley and I, we’re both very kindred spirits, and Kate as well. We all connected on that level. One thing that I thought was neat about them is they’re both so empowered. They’re both women. They are a woman among women. They’re strong and live their lives with integrity. Also, one thing that I found so profound about both of them, but specifically with Kate, just because we talked about it so much, was that she loves the art of acting. She loves being on a movie set. She shows up early. She knows her lines. She shows up with questions to ask the director to enhance the movie, to bring about more awareness to certain situations. She’s never in her trailer. Whether it’s hanging out with the actors or hanging out with the craft service dude or the transpo guys, she’s just a citizen of the set. As obvious as that might seem, I feel like a lot of actors two hours after getting there are already complaining about being there. I’m like, “Why don’t you go do something else? We’re lucky to have this life and do what we do.” Kate fully knows that, and so she brings this sense of enthusiasm and excitement to a film set, which is so special. It seems like it should be obvious and everyone should do that, but that’s generally not the case.
Q: In the beginning of the movie, not everyone knows or can see that Tris is Divergent. I was wondering, for you personally, what is something that people don’t see or know about you?
WOODLEY: I feel like I’m kind of an obvious person. I like to keep some things in my life sacred, like keep the sacred, sacred. Apart from that part of my life, I’m a very open person. I feel like what you see right now is who I am always. Maybe, I guess, that’s different? That’s diverging? (Laughs)
Q: The producers said you actually climbed the Ferris wheel with no stunt people involved.
WOODLEY: We did.
Q: Are you a fearless person and were there any accidents on set since you get beat up a lot?
WOODLEY: We definitely did get some black and blue bruises and have a few scars on our bodies still. Theo always says if you do stunts or you do a big action movie and you don’t walk away a little banged up, then you’re doing something wrong. So there is that. And yeah, the Ferris wheel was super fun. We got to climb the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel. I don’t think anyone’s probably ever done that before. And we got to climb it during the full moon last year and it was also a super moon. I don’t know if anyone is into astrology, but that was really exciting for me. We got to watch the moon cascade across the sky as we were climbing up and down this Ferris wheel. Oh, it was gorgeous! It was so beautiful!
Q: You weren’t afraid at all?
WOODLEY: No. I am afraid of heights, but that sort of fear — I love adrenaline and so that got me excited to keep going, and also we were hooked up. We literally could have fallen off the side of it and been fine. It was fun. The 20 degree weather, that was the hardest part, I think. It was freezing.
Q: I had quite a few sweaty palm moments because the action is very visceral. Was there anything that gave you a rush?
WOODLEY: Yes, the fight scenes are so intense, specifically the one with Theo at the end of the movie. That dude boxes in real life, and he’s strong and not afraid to be strong. If I forgot to duck at the right time, or if I moved left instead of moving right, he would have decked me and I would have been out cold. That was a terrifying fight scene where my palms were sweaty and my adrenaline was spiked the whole time because we were moving so quickly. I learned the fight sequence that morning, and we filmed it a few hours later. We really had to be on top of our toes because he’s intense. He makes it look amazing, but also at the same time you’re like, “Oh wow, we’re acting but this is kind of real right now.” (Laughs)
Q: The zip-line scene scared the crap out of me.
WOODLEY: Did it? Good!
Q: Was that completely CG?
WOODLEY: Some of it.
Q: How much of that was shot on location versus CG in a studio and how did you get your reaction?
WOODLEY: My stunt double went through five blocks of actual Chicago streets on the zip-line going really fast. She was maybe 50 stories up in the air going through the streets. She went thousands of feet and I did the last 600 yards. I did two blocks of Chicago streets doing it. It was really fun, but that was also a scary, sweaty palm moment. That’s just for the wide shots. And then, the rest of it was all done with green screens and giant fans blowing in our face, and Neil Burger on the microphone going, “Okay, now there’s a building to your right! Look! Look! Now there’s a building to your left! Look! Look!” and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I get to be a kid and use my imagination again!” It’s so whacky. Working with a green screen is so different than working with another human. I think they did [a great job] and the song that was with that scene I thought was really well placed.
Q: Because this story is so much about making choices, finding that place where you’re supposed to fit in and belong and contribute, how difficult of a decision was it to say acting in Hollywood is the life I want to pursue? Do you feel like you’re making the contributions that you want to make to 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 so I’ve been doing it for 17 years, which is crazy to think about. It’s always been something that was really fun for me. It was a passion project in a way and it still is. And even though it’s a career now because it takes up all of my time, it’s something that I enjoy doing. The day that that fun disappears, if that day ever comes, 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 part of them in a way, it’s this beautiful art form and that’s what it feels like for me. I’m not a painter, but I can express myself visually in a way that allows me to artistically create.
Q: What was it like to work with Miles Teller again after “The Spectacular Now”? How was it different this time?
WOODLEY: It was so fun. He’s like the funniest person you’ve ever met. He’s so great, and we have an amazing sibling relationship. When you go to do a new movie, you’re surrounded by 300 new people in a new city and you get thrown into it. With a movie like this, because it was a studio film, there were even more than 300 people involved. And so, to have somebody that I knew already that could be that rock and have that comfortability factor involved was really nice. Also, I’ve got his back and he’s got my back, so that felt good, even though we didn’t have to use that which is lovely. I knew that there was somebody there who supported me and I supported him. It was fun to have these scenes where we got to go against each other. Specifically, the fight scene was fun. I remember actually feeling hurt when he was saying things that were rude during the scene. I was like, “Dude, I’m your sister. You can’t say stuff like that to me.” Afterwards, I went up to him and I was like, “I hope we’re okay and there’s nothing going on” and he was like, “Shai, we’re just acting! Come off it!”
Q: How much of a force was Veronica Roth? Was she on set for you during production and did she give you any insight into your character? Do you want that kind of insight?
WOODLEY: She was on set a little bit, but not too often. She didn’t really give me advice on Tris. It was more I would ask her questions like, “Where did you get your inspiration from and how did you come up with this story?” because as much as she was the charter of this entire book series, this was Neil Burger’s film, so I felt if I had questions about my character, those questions belonged to him, not Veronica necessarily. He was in charge of the ship. But yes, she was insightful as far the book. She was 21 when she wrote this book which is incredible. Can you imagine? She’s 25 now, I believe. She’s married and she has three books under her belt. What a badass! (Laughter) It’s so cool, and she kills the lead in her last book.
WOODLEY: Oh guys, come off it! It’s out there. (Laughs) You totally just made me sweat a little bit. I was like, “Shit! What did I do?” (Laughter) But it’s out. It’s so cool. 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 Tris. I think she’s got a little Tris in her.
Q: You did an amazing job and it’s been a pleasure watching you grow as an actress. So now, having completed a film of this magnitude and this intensity, what have you learned about yourself in the process of making “Divergent.”
WOODLEY: Oh man, I feel like… I don’t know if you guys feel this way, but was last year really an intense year for anyone? It was really intense, right? I think it was the Year of the Snake and shedding all of that stuff. It has to be that, because it was a really crazy year. Filming “Divergent” was interesting because it was the first movie that I had ever done where I was in every single scene and worked every day. There was one moment where I was so sick, and Neil looked at me and he was like, “Can you keep going? Do you need to go home?” and I was like, “Do I have a choice?” and he was like, “Well, if you go home, everything stops.” That was really difficult. I learned what was important to me during that process, because when you only have six or seven hours at home between work days and you’re working 5-1/2 months straight, you learn what you cherish and you learn who’s important in your life, and when you have one phone call to make a day, like who you are going to call. I feel like that’s something that “Divergent” taught me in my personal life. How to use your time, and when you have only a set amount of time, how to use it wisely and am I going to take care of myself during the process.