Shailene Woodley: An atypical star on the A-list

Shailene Woodley was in two of last year's top young-adult movies, but she has no big plans, no Hollywood agent and no social media account

Anyone who follows Shailene Woodley's career is familiar with her reputation as an atypical Hollywood star.

The star of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars - two of last year's most popular young-adult movies - Woodley (right), 23, would turn up for interviews barefoot and in second-hand clothes, then talk enthusiastically about guzzling smelly Chinese herbs, brushing her teeth with clay, using crystals for deodorant and giving up her mobile phone for a year.

And she has stuck with this alternative lifestyle despite graduating to A-list stardom in what appears to be an exceptionally well-managed career, with roles in both the big-budget Divergent science-fiction franchise as well as indie hits The Fault In Our Stars, The Spectacular Now (2013) and The Descendants (2011). The latter, her breakout film, earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 19.

Yet, she says that she would step back from it all if there were no projects she felt passionate about and claims there is no one but her guiding this and other professional decisions.

When it comes to picking films, Woodley says she operates "always from instinct".

"I think one of the things about art is you can't really have a five-year plan. It's not like, 'Oh, this year, I want to do a comedy and that year, I want to do a dark drama', because if nobody's writing those scripts or the scripts they are writing aren't good, it won't fit into your outline," says the actress, who was speaking to Life! and other press in Los Angeles to promote the Divergent sequel Insurgent.

"If it takes five years to read another great script, then I don't mind not working for five years. Because it has to always come from a place of passion," says Woodley, who did not work for some time after filming Divergent.

And there is no pushy agent, studio executive or stage mum trying to steer her career one way or the other.

"I don't have anyone like that in my life - I'm very fortunate."

Ansel Elgort, her 21-year-old co-star in the Divergent films as well as teen cancer weepie The Fault In Our Stars, has an interesting take on the timeliness of the outsider appeal of Woodley and The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence - the actress with whom she is often compared.

"I think atypical is good now," he says. "If you look at the biggest stars in the world - in art, not in the celebrity world because that's all about being typical - it's about being atypical.

"It's like being cool now is tripping at the Oscars," he adds, referring to Lawrence's stumble as she collected her 2013 Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook.

"That's cool, right? And that's the new trend. So Shailene being atypical is totally in - that's why everyone loves her.

"I think she could be typical and also be as successful as she is, but actually in this world now, atypical is the new typical."

Elgort's assessment also chimes with the celebration of non-conformity in Divergent and many other young-adult books turned into films, including The Hunger Games and The Giver (2014), which are all about teenagers who do not fit into narrow socially imposed categories.

The Divergent books, which are being adapted into four films, is about a dystopian society where people are divided into "factions" according to tests of their aptitudes and personalities. Anyone who falls outside these categories is ostracised, among them a young girl named Tris (Woodley), who turns out to be "divergent", or possesses qualities from multiple factions.

The second film Insurgent, which opens in Singapore tomorrow and co-stars Theo James, Miles Teller and Oscar winners Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, sees Tris on the run after she is outed.

Woodley, of course, identifies with the idea of being different, and believes the film has a positive message for young people about marching to the beat of their own drum, no matter what anyone else says.

"There are many messages in this film, but one of my favourites is that you have these strong women and men - Kate's character, Octavia's character and Theo's character - and they're all trying to influence Tris and change her perspective on how she should accomplish her goal.

"And she listens to them and calculates what each of them has to say, but at the end of the day, she chooses to honour herself and her own integrity.

"It's like being a kid in high school and everyone telling you you have to go to college because that's the only way you can make it.

"And that kid going, 'Well, I think I want to be an artist and I don't think I want to go to college', and regardless of what everyone says, ends up one day being an incredible artist.

"I think that's a pretty groovy message."

Even though such films are clearly pitched at a young audience, she believes this and other themes will resonate with adults too because some of those teenage struggles never vanish completely.

"I think when you're a teenager, it's the first time you're discovering insecurities about yourself and comparing yourself to other people - and I don't think that ever goes away as an adult.

"Insecurities shift and morph into other insecurities and when you finally transcend an issue, there are more trials and tribulations funnelled your way."

She adds: "As a teen, we're constantly trying to define ourselves away from our families - who do I exist as away from the stories that were created in my childhood - and I think that is a theme that stays with us forever."

Both as a young woman and an actress, Woodley continues to resist the pressure to conform.

While many other stars are glued to their social media accounts and directly engage with fans and the media that way, she prefers to stay out of it and makes no bones about saying so. When a reporter asks what sort of relationship she has with her fans, Woodley replies bluntly: "I don't (have one), really.

"I have a beautiful relationship with people who are fans of the films that I do, in my day-to-day interaction with them.

"But because I don't participate in social media, I don't really have any personal connection to anyone," says the performer, who in other interviews has revealed that she gave up her cellphone for almost a year after filming Divergent because she felt "like we place too much importance on ourselves and on people needing to get hold of us".

In the same vein, she studiously avoids reading anything written about her online or in the press.

"Oh god, no. No, you can't," she says.

"You just can't read that stuff, you can't pay attention to it. Because when you read what people write about you or comments about photos that are released that are not photos that you want to be released - you're giving your power away to someone you don't know," she says, referring to reports that she is one of the latest celebrities to have their phones hacked and nude photos leaked online.

"And you're not living a life based on your own perception of who you are, but the perception of someone you don't care about because you don't know them. You just can't pay attention to any of that."

So while the heroine she plays on screen in the Divergent movies is shown as a fearless rebel and fighter, Woodley says the most courageous thing she has done in her own life is remaining true to who she is.

"There are a lot of brave things you can do, but one of the bravest things is to just be yourself.

"It takes kind of a lot of guts to do that when there are 500 million people telling you how you should be."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Divergent Series: Insurgent opens in cinemas tomorrow.