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March 17, 2014

Shailene Woodley: This is What Badass Looks Like

She jumped on and off moving trains, scaled a Ferris wheel, and learned martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, and knife-throwing for her action-hero role in Divergent. But the biggest challenge for down-to-earth Shailene Woodley will be facing imminent superstardom. We're not worried.


Photo Credit: Jan Welters

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It's a week before her 22nd birthday, and Shailene Woodley is living out of a suitcase containing all of her remaining possessions: some old clothes, a few trinkets, crystals and altarpieces to remind her of home, herbal supplements, a jump rope. "I've only been home nine days this year," she says in her room at London's Soho Hotel, "which is sort of what inspired me to get rid of everything."

Woodley has her soaring popularity to blame for this accelerated work rate. Having spent most of her teenage years playing the lead in ABC Family's TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, in 2011 she was cast in Alexander Payne's The Descendants and immediately proved what she could do on the big screen. Wise, grumpy, heartbroken, and mesmerizing, she stole the show from none other than costar George Clooney. Since then, she has shot four movies and become the girl everyone wants on the other side of the camera.

To exaggerate the extent to which films are "hotly anticipated" is standard in Hollywood, but in the case of Woodley's next two roles, that sense is genuine and palpable. She has become the screen incarnation of two adored characters from monster-selling young-adult novels. In this month's Divergent, touted as the new Hunger Games, she plays Tris, a girl coming of age in a dystopian regime, too human to fit neatly into just one of its five social factions—Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. (The second in Veronica Roth's trilogy, Insurgent, starts filming in May; the third, Allegiant, has yet to get an official release date.) In June's The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green's book, she portrays Hazel, a teenager who falls in love as she is dying of cancer. The slick mega-explosion of the Divergent franchise, for which Woodley trained in martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, and knife-throwing, is one thing. The implacable, eloquent heartbreak of The Fault in Our Stars is another. That Woodley can do both is, somehow, incrementally incredible.

Those who know Woodley comment on her seemingly infinite capacity for warmth, which is not to say she's soft. In fact, by all accounts, she's pretty tough. Theo James, her costar in Divergent, tells me, "Shai's empowered—she's a strong actress and intuitive. She's not like a 'girl' in the Hollywood sense. Once there was a complex stunt we had to do—running next to this train and jumping on and off. She fell off the train and smacked her head. But she was up five minutes later, going, 'I'm good.'"

Dressed in black leggings, a black tank top, and no makeup, Woodley is like an advertisement for yoga (her preferred form of exercise). She folds herself up effortlessly, like a rare, long-legged bird, and runs a hand through her hair, sheared for The Fault in Our Stars. One day, she says, she'd like to shave it or have a Jean Seberg style: "That would be so badass."

If Gloria Steinem's famous line—"This is what 40 looks like," in response to being told she didn't look 40—changed the way women of that age were perceived, then you could say Woodley has done the same for young adults. Not since the '50s have teenagers been at the forefront of entertainment culture, and Woodley is about to become Hollywood's best symbol of that rite-of-passage phase. "I think there's this big rise right now in giving teenagers the worth that they have," she explains. "For so long they were—and still are—depicted in movies and TV shows as codependent whiners or rich, beautiful, diamond-clad daughters or dumb cheerleader types. But teenagers are so smart. I was probably smarter as a 16-year-old than I am today. There is a zest for life that you have at that age that is so beautiful."


On Shailene: Tommy Hilfiger swimsuit and pants.

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