Allegiant star Shailene Woodley says female heroines are making headway in Hollywood

Divergent star Shailene Woodley finds inspiration in heavyweight actresses she works with

The post-apocalyptic Divergent movies show Earth in tatters and society on the brink of collapse, but this dystopian world has at least one thing going for it: Women seem as likely as men to become leaders.

The face of the franchise, Shailene Woodley, believes Hollywood is becoming more receptive to female-centric films such as these and tells The Straits Times she has witnessed a move to empower women behind the camera too.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, the 24-year-old star says she has seen a slow but sure progression since 2014's Divergent - the first film to explore her character Tris, a young heroine who sparks a revolution when she refuses to conform to the role society assigns her.

In Allegiant, which opens in Singapore tomorrow and is the third instalment in the franchise, the actress shares the screen with Naomi Watts (The Impossible, 2012) and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011). They play leaders of rival factions jostling for power in a war-ravaged Chicago while Tris discovers what lies beyond the wall encircling the city.

Woodley thinks "there's always been a demand for" female-centric stories. "But I don't think there's always been an open, public dialogue about it, and now there definitely is."

She adds: "Four years ago, people would talk about the power of women in film, but we'd have only one event a year - Elle Women in Hollywood. There was a lot of dialogue about it on a personal level, but not really publicly.

To have them as role models and to see how they walk in the world and how committed they are to their paths as well as careers is empowering.

'' ACTRESS SHAILENE WOODLEY on her Big Little Lies co-stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern

"And now dialling in with the whole feminist movement and the push for equal work for equal pay, it's opening doors within Hollywood, where we are publicly asking for more female directors, more female-driven films, more female producers and even female grips.

"If you go to a movie set, the crew is still predominantly male. If you have a female director and a female actress, you still have a 95 per cent male crew. So it's about encouraging female participation in all aspects."

The actress' feminist credentials have been called into question, though.

She was criticised in 2014 for telling Time magazine she was uncomfortable being labelled a feminist because "I love men and I think the idea of 'raise women to power, take men away from power' is never going to work because you need balance. My biggest thing is sisterhood, more than feminism".

She repeated this the following year while promoting the Divergent sequel Insurgent, and has continued to reject the label even as 25-year-old The Hunger Games' star Jennifer Lawrence, with whom she is often compared, began publicly embracing feminism. Lawrence was also praised for writing an essay last year about not being paid as much as her male co-stars in American Hustle (2013).

But however she feels about the term "feminist", Woodley says she enjoys talking about women's rights and advocating gender equality in Hollywood, although again, she is careful to add that this does not mean men should not headline movies too.

She says: "Females constitute half of this planet, but that's not to say I don't think we shouldn't have any male-driven films - we absolutely should - but there should be a balance between how many male-driven and female-driven films we have. Just like there's a balance when you go out onto the streets in how many people are male and female."

That said, one reason she has enjoyed making the Divergent films - which are based on the best-selling young adult novels by Veronica Roth - is because they have introduced her to some of Hollywood's most formidable actresses, including Kate Winslet, who played the villain in Insurgent, and Ashley Judd, who plays Tris' mother.

"The great thing about these movies is having so many women who are so powerful, like Kate and Octavia and Naomi and Ashley," says Woodley, who will play Tris again next year in Ascendant, the final part of the series.

These actresses have been a profound source of inspiration for her, she says.

"They've worked so much, but the beautiful thing is, they're still so dedicated to acting," she says. "I've worked with some actors who don't love acting, and you're just like, 'Why are you here? You're wasting your time and our time.' But those ladies genuinely love it."

Woodley will soon join another cast crammed with female heavyhitters - she is to appear in the upcoming HBO limited television series Big Little Lies, a dark comedy about three mothers whose seemingly perfect lives begin to unravel.

Due to air later this year, it will co-star Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, who will call the shots behind the camera as executive producers, and Laura Dern, who played Woodley's mother in the cancer drama The Fault In Our Stars (2014).

"I'm so lucky to be working with these ladies, these badass power players," Woodley says. "To have them as role models and to see how they walk in the world and how committed they are to their paths as well as careers is empowering."

Asked if she wants to be a power player herself, she smiles.

"Yeah, why not, who wouldn't? We've got one life to live, so we might as well."

The actress - a committed environmentalist and alternative medicine fan who collects her own spring water and brushes her teeth with clay - already knows where she could put her influence to good use - in "causes that matter, like women's rights; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights; climate change; creating more things that give women jobs; and spreading awareness about Native Americans and indigenous cultures - because that's not something we're really talking about on a public level, but really need to be".

Her co-stars have given her not just inspiration, but career advice as well, she says.

"I've had lots of advice from Laura Dern and Kate Winslet. And George Clooney," she says of the actor who played her father in The Descendants, her 2011 breakout role.

The best lesson has come from watching Oscar-winner Winslet balance career and family.

She says: "When Kate had kids, she took a long break because she was like, 'I'm going to be a good mum, I don't want to be juggling raising these two kids and working on movies and have my kids going, 'Where's my mummy?'

"She took a break and didn't let the fear of not being able to get back into Hollywood get her down. And I think it's easy for people to get afraid, like, 'What's the next job going to be, am I still going to be relevant, are people going to care?'

"Ultimately, if you're talented, you're going to get a job, even if it's not the job you had before. I think there's something humbling about having to fight for jobs again and not have everything just handed to you. That's part of the art form," says Woodley, whose next big role this year will be in Oliver Stone's Edward Snowden biopic, Snowden.

"So I really take that as a beautiful example of how to live your life for yourself and recognise your art, but not marry yourself to your art."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Fired up by formidable females'. Print Edition | Subscribe