Shailene Woodley is 23, and she really does want to save the world. She not only has made her own soap, but also tells fans to pick up a few pieces of trash every day and advises interviewers on how to do their own composting.
“And please turn off the water when you brush your teeth,” added the actress, fresh-faced and makeup-free for an early-morning interview in Los Angeles. “We’re in a drought.”
It’s not as hands-on as leading a revolution against a tyrannical government, as she does in “Insurgent,” the new sequel to her hit “Divergent” (2014), but Woodley does what she can, on or off the screen.
The actress resumes her role as multifaceted survivor Beatrice “Tris” Prior in “Insurgent,” which is due to open nationwide March 19. Again based on the popular series of young-adult books by Veronica Roth, this installment forces Tris to confront her inner demons while on the run with her boyfriend, Four (Theo James), as war looms.
Clad in black pants and a matching shirt with a large, white collar, a red-string bracelet on one wrist, Woodley said that find her way back into the character wasn’t the cinch she expected.
“Getting back into Tris was much more difficult than I anticipated,” the actress admitted. “I figured that going back into her world would be simple, but what I didn’t take into account was that I had grown. My personal mindset had progressed in my own evolution. I had to go back into who Shai was, a year ago, to get back into Tris’ mind.”
She also had to deal with other changes in the “Divergent” world. Neil Burger, who had directed “Divergent,” was gone, replaced by Robert Schwentke, best known for “Flightplan” (2005) and “RED” (2010). Woodley had never met Schwentke.
“It was strange to wrap your head around a new director,” she said. “Neil created this visual world which took ‘Divergent’ from the page to the screen. He breathed life into the work.
“When I first met Robert, I was thrilled that he was a genuinely warm human being,” Woodley continued. “He made me feel instantly comfortable. He also doesn’t have an ego and was very open to collaboration. If someone had come in and didn’t care about what the rest of us thought, there might have been an intensity to the situation, because we knew this world so well.”
The sequel’s action scenes match the first film’s in their intensity and visual flair, Woodley said.
“There is one really rad scene when Tris is chasing a burning house and both the house and Tris fly away and are midair,” she said. “We had four or five stunt doubles on the set. A bunch of women with short hair were walking around, and that was really funny.
“I got to do a lot of that stunt,” she continued, “which meant that there was a house tilting on wires with me on wires hanging on. At one point the house was tilted at a 90-degree angle. Flames were coming out of the windows. I had to swing around and grab a pole.
“If I didn’t grab the pole,” Woodley added with a laugh, “I would have been dangling in the air with a crazy-bad wedgie!”
Amid the action, “Insurgent” also further develops the love story.
“One of the reasons I fell in love so deeply with ‘Divergent’ was the relationship between Tris and Four,” Woodley said. “It’s grounded in truth, respect and authenticity. It’s not just the basic infatuation based on surface-level young love. These two people see each other as individuals, which heightens the curiosity about the other, because each also carries a strong mystique.”
Tris can’t bring herself to tell Four that she is being consumed by her guilt over the deaths of her parents.
“This relationship is based in truth,” Woodley said, “so at the core the message is that it’s better if you can be vulnerable when you’re in love. You can’t put those walls up, or you’re keeping the other person at arm’s length in order to protect your own inner vulnerabilities.”
The past year has been a life-changing one for Woodley, who began 2014 as a young actress whose resume boasted mainly television roles. She ended the year as the star of two of its biggest hits, “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014), which grossed roughly $300 million apiece worldwide and landed her squarely on Hollywood’s A-list.
So far, her “Insurgent” co-stars say, it doesn’t seem to have gone to her head.
Octavia Spencer, who is new to the franchise as Faction leader Johanna, says that Woodley made sure to welcome her to the set.
“There was a letter waiting for me in my hotel room from Shai,” Spencer recalled. “She couldn’t have been more open and real.”
“She is an open book, but a very complex person,” said Ansel Elgort, who plays her brother in the “Divergent” films and was her love interest in “The Fault in Our Stars.” “The thing is, most fans don’t know much about her, which is a good thing. I think she keeps things private in order to stay herself.”
Born in California’s Simi Valley, Woodley is the daughter of educators: Her father is a school principal and her mother a middle-school counselor. At 4 she was acting in commercials, and at 8 she made her acting debut in the television movie “Replacing Dad” (1999). She went on to recurring roles in “The District” (2001-2003), “Crossing Jordan” (2001-2004) - she played the younger version of the title character (Jill Hennessy) - and “The O.C.” (2003-2004), and guest roles on numerous other shows.
wIn 2008 she was cast as Amy Juergens, the title character on the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (2008-2013), which led to her first substantial big-screen role as the daughter of George Clooney’s character in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (2011), which in turn led to starring roles in “The Spectacular Now” (2013) and “The Fault in Our Stars.”