"I'm sorry you have to see my pancake face."
Those are among Shailene Woodley's first words as she opens the door to a suite in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She's got a publicists' luncheon later in the day — otherwise, she explains, under absolutely no condition would she have worn makeup for an interview.
Woodley is against makeup. She's against new clothes. But she's a Hollywood starlet whose job it is to mask herself in makeup and couture. She thinks people should know how imperfect her skin is in real life, but Woodley is also pragmatic about Hollywood's demands on young actresses, especially those shouldering potentially multimillion-dollar franchises.
And Divergent, Woodley's new movie, is being positioned as the next The Hunger Games. It's the first installment in a big-screen adaptation of the bestselling young-adult trilogy by Veronica Roth — set in a dystopian future Chicago, where citizens are divided into factions — and Woodley's being seen as possibly the next Jennifer Lawrence, who, of course, stars in the Hunger Games films.
Like Lawrence, Woodley hopes to leverage an offbeat persona into girl-next-door relatability. And like Lawrence, Woodley is strategically making a number of smaller films intended to show off her range.
Last year, she played a rabbity nerd in the critically acclaimed The Spectacular Now; in June she'll be seen as a young cancer patient hoping to meet her literary hero in another young-adult novel adaptation, The Fault In Our Stars. Then comes her turn in a movie by provocateur director Gregg Araki, White Bird In A Blizzard, about a girl whose mother disappears in the wake of a nervous breakdown, also based on a novel.
"The books kind of do the work for you," Woodley observes about the advantages of playing such roles. "I would read a scene, then read that same scene in the book and get a bigger perspective of what my character is going through in that moment."
Woodley enjoyed two big breaks before her current crop of movies. Starting in 2008, she played the lead in the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which ran for five years. In 2011, she played George Clooney's sulky daughter in The Descendants.
But she started acting when she was only five, in TV commercials.
"I learned as I went," she says. "I mean, I would take acting classes — not like scene breakdowns, just improv-ing."
Woodley stresses that acting, for her, isn't about analyzing scripts or probing her characters' motivation.
"I don't really work that way," she explains patiently. "For me, it's about being fully present and actively listening to every single thing that's going on around me and reacting to it. Because I feel the second I premeditate something, it's going to feel premeditated."
In Divergent, Woodley's character, Tris, faces countless extreme situations --leaping into dark pits, getting trapped in water-filled boxes, facing down fierce dogs — and even worse, Kate Winslet as an icy, politically powerful nemesis. Author Veronica Roth, who wrote the trilogy, remembers being on set and listening to Woodley loudly emote though a scene in which something truly awful happens to her character.
"When you hear someone making those kinds of gut-wrenching, agonized noises, you feel like you have to go help them," she recalls.
Author John Green knows just what she's talking about. He had the exact same experience while watching Woodley film an emotionally devastating scene in the film based on his book The Fault In Our Stars.
"She was so inconsolable I wanted to go there and check on her," he confesses. "I actually asked the producers — I think you should stop and make sure she's okay. And they were like, She's fine."
Afterwards, Green was startled when Woodley bounced off set and asked lightly what he'd like for lunch. One of the things he appreciated about Woodley was her determination, like his heroine's, to live by certain principles.
Woodley often comes across like an enthusiastic senior at Earlham or Evergreen State College in her passions for indigenous culture, herbalism and sustainable farming. That impression is only strengthened when she's asked what character she'd most like to play.
"Stevie Nicks," she responds immediately. "She's my dream. My dream! My dream!"
She could do worse than look to someone like Nicks — someone who found success by subverting the expectations of the traditional ingénue and playing more or less on her own idiosyncratic terms.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The new movie "Divergent" is being positioned as the next "Hunger Games," which means its star, Shailene Woodley, is being touted as the next Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence helped the "Hunger Games" series haul in more than $200 million at the box office so far. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the 22-year-old Woodley, like Lawrence, is balancing a high profile franchise with smaller films intended to show off her range.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Shailene Woodley has been on screens since she was only 5 years old. First on TV ads, then her big break in 2008. She was the lead in an ABC Family series called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Hardly a secret. She played a mom still in high school.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER)
SHAILENE WOODLEY: (as Amy) I lay you down right here and then I'm gonna finish making the soup and then give you a bath then read you chapter 27 in world history.
ULABY: Over the course of her career, Woodley says she tried to avoid formal training.
WOODLEY: I learned as I went. I mean, I would take acting classes, not any, like, scene breakdowns, just improving.
ULABY: That's Woodley today in a Los Angeles hotel room, all gangly limbs and huge hazel eyes. She's spending the day explaining to reporters how acting for her is not about analyzing scripts or probing her characters' motivation.
WOODLEY: I don't really work that way as an actor. For me it's about being fully present and actively listening to every single thing going on around me and reacting to it. So, I feel the second I premeditate something it's going to feel premeditated.
ULABY: That intuitive approach earned raves when Shailene Woodley played George Clooney's sulky daughter in the movie "The Descendants" back in 2011. Take a scene when she tells her dad about her mother's affair.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESCENDANTS")
WOODLEY: (as Alex) I was gonna call and tell you everything and then the accident happened. And I was gonna wait till she woke up, I guess. And you didn't suspect right?
ULABY: Woodley impressed critics even more in a film from last year called "The Spectacular Now." She played a sweet rabbit-like nerd, who falls for a troubled boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SPECTACULAR NOW")
MILES TELLER: (as Sutter) Do you read a lot? You like books?
WOODLEY: (as Aimee) I do. Actually, I love books. They're mostly just science fiction and mystery.
ULABY: That film was based on a young adult novel. So is "Divergent," which opens tonight, and so is her next one, "The Fault in our Stars," coming out in June. That's about two young cancer patients falling in love. Woodley's a filmic face of today's young adult fiction boom.
WOODLEY: The books kind of do the work for you. I would read a scene and then read that same scene in that book and get a bigger perspective of what my character was going through in that moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIVERGENT")
WOODLEY: (as Tris) Help me.
ULABY: In "Divergent," Shailene Woodley's character faces all kinds of extreme situations. Veronica Roth wrote the "Divergent" trilogy. She remembered what it was like to listen to Woodley emote to a scene when something awful happens to her character.
VERONICA ROTH: Like when you hear someone making those kinds of like gut-wrenching agonized noises, I don't know, you feel like you have to go help them.
ULABY: John Green, who wrote the book "The Fault in Our Stars" had exactly the same experience when he watched Woodley film an emotionally devastating scene in his movie.
JOHN GREEN: She was so inconsolable that I wanted to go up there and check on her. And I actually asked the producers I think you should stop and make sure she's OK. And they were, like, she's fine.
ULABY: Green was then startled when Woodley bounced off the set and asked him lightly what he'd like for lunch. One of the things he appreciated was how much Woodley resembled his heroine in her determination to live by certain principles. She prefers used clothes and avoids the trappings of Hollywood glamour.
WOODLEY: In my personal life I never wear makeup.
ULABY: She tries to use public life to promote things she cares about, like sustainable farming.
WOODLEY: I have done, like, woofing in the past.
ULABY: Woofing - I had to ask. That's a network where you can stay and work on organic farms. Shailene Woodley tends to come across more as an enthusiastic senior at a hippy-ish liberal arts college than a starlet anchoring a potential new mega franchise. That impression is only strengthened when I asked what character she'd most like to play.
WOODLEY: Stevie Nicks. She's, like, my dream, my dream, my dream, my dream, my dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")
ULABY: You could do worse than look to someone like Nicks, who found success by subverting the expectations of an ingenue and played - more or less - on her own idiosyncratic terms.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS")
STEVIE NICKS: (Singing) When the rain washes you clean, you'll know, you'll know...
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.