Maricela Mangana / Michael Priest Photography for 92Y
Shailene Woodley is anything but predictable. After all, she started on such teenybopper gems as The OC and The Secret Life of the American Teenager before taking a star-making turn in the George Clooney vehicle The Descendants and then going on to star in the Divergent trilogy (and also making us cry for days in The Fault in Our Stars) and now the cultural phenomena that is Big Little Lies. She is also quite outspoken offscreen and was arrested in 2016 for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
During a recent interview at 92Y Ladders was on hand for, the Golden Globe-nominated Woodley sat down with SELF magazine Editor in Chief Carolyn Kylstra to discuss the imminent premiere of the second season of Big Little Lies; the conversation then crescendoed into a manifesto on all things related to women empowerment, therapy shaming, and the delicate subject of domestic abuse.
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On the complexity of the word “empowerment”
At one point during the interview, Kylstra prompted Woodley to explain why she allegedly had an issue with the term “empowered” being used to describe women. Woodley asserted that she did not have a problem with the word empowerment itself, but rather took issue with its overuse.
“Right now in Hollywood, the conversation I often have with journalists is ‘how do you feel about portraying one of the many strong, empowered females in your cast?’ I have to ask myself, are they strong? Are they empowered? Or are they just broken, hurting, messy, funny, corrupt, human beings who don’t have it all together? There’s a common narrative surrounding female based projects that imply the women are strong and empowered. We tend to throw catchphrases out there to uplift the idea of equality and justice that’s not actually addressing the real situation, which is that there is a learning curve in how we can all communicate properly together to achieve equality. You take away the power from “empowerment” by using it inaccurately.”
On working with the Big Little Lies cast
“We’re all very different people. We’re all from different generations. We each have distinct generational journeys and are coexisting. But we all genuinely like each other…whether the conversation is political or emotional, we’re very open. We always have the same idea of a solution but have different ideas on how to get there. I may have a specific idea in mind in how to get things done, and so do the other cast members. I’ve never met a group of women who are able to achieve this with such transparency and honesty. We hold space for each other. Holding steadfast to your viewpoint exacerbates apathy and lack of empathy.”
On the cast members she was most initially excited to work with
“I’d already worked with Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz, so I was most excited to work with Nicole [Kidman] and Reese [Witherspoon]. They’re all so down to earth so you don’t feel like you’re working with them as legends, because they really are such normal people. You never get to see them that way. It feels special to get to know them in such an intimate way.”
On Meryl Streep joining the cast
“I immediately noticed the way Meryl held herself and the way she effortlessly and gracefully handles a script. Meryl not only memorizes her own script, she knows everyone else’s. I remember her pointing out a certain line in the third scene and another line in the 60th and remarking on how they are related. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’ll memorize everyone’s lines…she has such respect for the writers.”
On how Big Little Lies navigates the portrayal of sensitive subject matter
“Big Little Lies has been very challenging. The subject matters that we’re dealing with are so personal. Many have experienced domestic or sexual abuse or know someone in their lives who have experienced it. We have to take the time to dig into these topics, include the levity and proper human psychology that isn’t always morose — there’s a lot of complexity.
Capturing this in the character of Jane has been challenging. When you have moments of extreme trauma in your life, you hold yourself differently. I felt that at the end of the previous season Jane has this cataclysmic release. My character needed to separate her old identity from her new one. I actually approached the team about giving Jane bangs. It’s dramatic and a big change.
…I’ve had friends in my close circle that have had similar situations in their lives. One of my extended family members actually reached out to me and told me her story of abuse. You realize that what you’re doing actually matters, apart from the story line.”
On her favorite role of all time
“I don’t have a favorite role. For me it’s not about the role, it’s about the story. Adrift was very meaningful for me. We filmed the entire thing in two weeks with 10 or 15 crew members in the middle of the ocean.”
“I wouldn’t say that Divergent was my favorite acting experience by any means but it was a good learning experience. It was like being in a frat or sorority for a short period of time. It was a bunch of young kids stuck together in Chicago in the middle of winter trying to make this movie work. The special effects were also a learning experience in and of itself.”
On how acting compares to producing
Right now, I would say I prefer producing. You’re really like a conductor — you pick each piece of the puzzle and pray that they work together. I love the creativity involved. As an actor, creativity can get lost. As a producer, the amount of magic is infinite. Also, the business aspect really gets me going. I love being in charge.
On setting aside your career life from your personal life
“In my early 20s, I decided to cut my mother outside of my career. It was really difficult for her because it has been her life too for so long. She was the middleman in a lot of situations. But it was so important for me to make this operation happen. Me not telling my family everything about my career was a self-protection mechanism. I come from a very normal suburban family — that is where my true joy lies. If I only lived in my career or only in my personal life, I wouldn’t be able to experience that joy.”
On her arrest at Standing Rock and activism outside of acting
“My arrest was not planned. My friend at Standing Rock asked me to use my platform to get the petition signed…Cut to my arrest many months later, I just felt lucky to have had a Facebook live that I could stream to 50,000 people in that exact moment of arrest. What was so beautiful about standing rock was that native and non-native people were coming together to recognize all that was wrong with our system. Standing Rock really created that knowing.”
“I’m a huge proponent of all the work Conservation International is doing. They’re an amazing environmental conservation organization. They are so different from other organizations. It’s really about letting nature heal nature…They have employees on the ground that act as the bridge between politicians and the government, communities, and grassroots and indigenous leaders on the ground. They do the real work. I’m not a huge fan of huge corporate charities, but these guys are doing it right.”
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