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One-armed push-ups come pretty easily to Shailene Woodley. She proved as much on the carpeted floor of a hushed hotel hallway recently, surprising a reporter with a welcome bit of spontaneity.
It was a fitting bit of theater for her new film, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the latest installment of the $600-million franchise based on the YA books set in a dystopian future. As the fierce revolutionary Tris, Woodley has come to embody one version of the new feminism, rescuing her imperiled beau in one scene and falling into his arms the next.
This, the third of four films adapted from the blockbuster Veronica Roth novels, has Tris and her team escaping the growing unrest in Chicago for a post-apocalyptic desert and the promise of a faraway utopia. Along with Divergent regulars Theo James, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort, Jeff Daniels co-stars as a mysterious genetic mastermind with his sights set on Tris.
In real life, the 24-year-old actress isn’t your average ingénue. She’s an industry veteran who worked her way up as a child from bit parts in The O.C. to co-starring opposite George Clooney in 2011’s The Descendants and starring as a cancer victim in the 2014 hit The Fault In Our Stars. The Divergent series proved that she could bring in audiences for action films, along the lines of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
And yet Woodley has preserved an impressive bit of mystery for such a hardworking star of her generation. She has more than a million Twitter followers but has tweeted just a dozen or so times — most of which herald presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. During her free time, Woodley has trekked the Himalayas and studied an obscure arm of biology known as morphogenetics.
Here, she talks feminism, staying grounded in Hollywood and the narcissism of Twitter:
Los Angeles Times: You must have a physical regimen to get you through the rigors of this franchise.
Shailene Woodley: It’s important for me to feel physically strong in my day to day life, and that just works really well with Tris. I’ve done jujitsu. Krav Maga. I really love martial arts. There’s a YouTube video called Perfect Lean Body. This woman does leg workouts. They’re 20 minutes long and you sweat and kick your …. But they’re only 20 minutes. It’s fantastic. I use this app called Tabata Timer. It’s high interval training.
LAT: Your role in this franchise has elevated your visibility in such a grand way. How has it changed you?
SW: I don’t feel like my life has changed at all. I’ve changed a lot because I’ve grown in the last four years. But my values, my morals, what I stand for, hasn’t changed because of this movie. I feel blessed because I have more opportunities artistically.
LAT: You came back from India not that long ago, right? What was that like?
SW: Being here and rooting for women and equal rights and then you go to India and every single car says, “Save a Girl” on the bumper. And you say, “What does that mean?” And you’re told, “It’s literally save a young girl’s life.” Because a lot of people who are born as women [there] don’t get the chance to live. It just puts so many things in perspective about how the work we’re doing here in America is so important because it does infiltrate down to other countries.
LAT: How do you think feminism is evolving as your generation comes of age?
SW: Everyone defines feminism differently. One thing that’s been beautiful to witness over the last few years is that feminism seems more all-encompassing. It’s embracing the fact that we must come together. I only hope we continue to come together, not only for those of us in this country but for those around the world. Women are getting acid thrown on them in other countries for being a woman. Women have no rights.
When I was in India, we were up on a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas and these two women, maybe in their 60s, were cutting grass and creating big bales of it and carrying it on their heads. And my friend speaks Hindi and said to them, “Do you like doing this?” And they said, “No, of course not. But we have to do this because we have to feed the cow so we get the milk so we can sell the milk so we can have money so we can buy food for our kids.” And that’s their entire life. They don’t have the luxury of being self-conscious. We have to remember that America in so many ways leads the way for other countries.
LAT: How do you stay grounded?
SW: I don’t know how I couldn’t. I’m fortunate to have a beautiful family and solid friends. It’s easy to say the word “celebrity” and say the word “famous” and use the words “movie star.” And for some reason, it’s much harder to call an actor an artist. If you strip all those fabrications away you’re left with someone who just likes to create. And that’s what I like to do.
LAT: Why aren’t you more active on social media?
SW: I feel like in a lot of ways — and I’m speaking for myself — it would breed a narcissistic nature within myself of [needing] validation. It’s interesting what social media has done to this industry. Because all of a sudden you hear actors talking about “I need this many followers” or “I got this many likes, and that’s going to help me get a job.” Is it going to help you get a job? Or is what you do in the room in an audition in front of a director help you get a job? And that’s another question to be asking, are directors, are studios paying attention to how many people follow you or like you based on the popularity of your persona? Instead of based on the artistry of your craft and what you create and how talented you are in your field?
LAT: It is such a time of clamoring for attention.
SW: You asked how you stay grounded. How can you stay grounded when you have millions of people feeding your ego every day? And you’re allowing it and asking for it. You’re participating in that. I think there’s a way to use it and a way to abuse it. And when you abuse it, it’s a feeding-the-ego thing.
Last year, I took three months off, which is the first time I’d done that since I was 15. And that was when I was in India and went to London. Right now, working on this TV show [HBO’s forthcoming drama Big Little Lies], because there are so many lead characters, we have a lot of time off. So it’s either something active or something that has to do with learning. I’m such a student of life.
LAT: What kinds of things are you interested in?
SW: I’m obsessed with the morphogenetic field right now. It’s fascinating. It’s essentially examining genetics through your quantum field and what you can learn from that. I’m living with a friend who’s so well-versed with history, so every single second I have, I’m soaking up knowledge from him. I’m reading a book called Healing the Mind through the Power of Story. It’s how to use story as a tool for psychiatry. There’s nothing I don’t want to learn.
LAT: Do you have any thoughts on the presidential election?
SW: I’m definitely “Feeling the Bern.”
LAT: How do you think your peers might affect the election?
SW: We see what’s not working and we see we don’t really have a voice in politics. We’re not living in a true democracy. [But] so many people I talk to say, “I love and agree with everything Bernie [Sanders] stands for. I love that he’s anti-corporation, I love that he’s a person for the people. But he’s not going to win.” Then I ask, “Who are you going to vote for?” And they say, “I’m just not going to vote.” We forget what a luxury it is to live in America where we have the right to vote. I think it’s easy for the young generation to feel like we don’t have a lot of power. Just register. Go to the polls. Stand up for what you believe in.
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