Shailene Woodley has gone from impressive film newcomer to star at rocket-speed.
She earned rave reviews for her film debut as George Clooney's bad-tempered daughter in "The Descendants." She won an acting prize at Sundance for her turn as a touchingly vulnerable smart girl in the indie hit "The Spectacular Now." She took the reins of a high-profile Hollywood franchise in "Divergent," based on the hit series of dystopian young-adult books by Veronica Roth.
Her latest project, now in theaters, puts the full weight of a serious studio film on her shoulders. She stars as Hazel, a teen with cancer who experiences first love with a boy who is also a cancer patient in the adaptation of John Green's best-seller "The Fault in Our Stars."
Against all odds, the 22-year-old actress from Simi Valley seems to be keeping her head on straight. Her recent appearance on David Letterman's show became an extended teasing session as he grilled her about her high regard for organic living and herbalism, which includes eating clay.
"Haven't you heard of Metamucil?" he asked. Blogs have poked fun at her wearing Vibram FiveFinger shoes to the Golden Globes, and setting the mood every morning by screaming "Exciting day! Exciting day!" Miles Teller, her co-star in "The Spectacular Now" and "Divergent," has told interviewers he's "pretty sure she lives in a tree."
While she has acquired the image of being America's favorite moonbeam, Woodley has remained authentic and serenely good-humored through it all.
"I don't say the things I say for others; I say them because it's my truth," she tells me by phone from New York City. "I try to live by two things: A, it's none of my business what other people think about me. And B, you do you, I'm gonna do me, each and every day.
"I'm not going to position myself as being in any place to tell someone how to live their life," she adds. "But if someone asks me a question, I am completely open to speaking my truth, with what works for me."
That both her parents are psychologists, she says, probably helped ground her disposition and her acting. "Growing up, it was always, 'How does this make you feel? If this person hurt your feelings, why were your feelings hurt?' It helped me observe people, like to figure out what made them so sensitive to something that was said. What is the rhythm of their mind in getting offended by this or excited by this? Empathy and compassion were two things that were hard-core ingrained" in the household, she says.
That's one reason she's proud, amid all the summer movie blockbusters, to be in a film about recognizable humans. "Even though there's no superpowers and whatnot, the truth of what these people are going through is so relatable," she says.
Woodley's Hazel is a bright girl who dislikes being reduced to a cancer diagnosis but withholds herself emotionally for fear of the pain her eventual death will cause. "Not everyone can relate to the cancer, but we all know the feelings of being in love, being sad, grieving and being happy, celebrating life," she says.
The film is "not about cancer," Woodley says. "It's about first love and loss. It's about appreciating moments and not taking things too seriously, because nothing is guaranteed in life. When there's a finite timeline on your life, you're not worrying or stressing or feeling guilty about the small things ... that most people in the world are wasting their time on."
Woodley says she fell in love with Green's novel. "It changed the lives of millions and millions and millions of people." She corresponded with the author to thank him for writing it and to say "it would be an honor to audition" to play his heroine. She chopped off her chestnut mane for the casting process and committed herself to the book's principle that sentimentalizing people because of their illness also dehumanizes them.
To portray a character with a terminal illness honestly, she says, "you pretend to be a normal human. Cancer doesn't define a person. For Hazel, I didn't think 'I'm playing a girl with cancer.' I thought, 'Omigod, I'm playing a girl who's falling in love for the first time.' "
So does she live in a tree?
"Um, no, but the place that I used to live in had a tree growing through it," she says. "I don't know if that constitutes a yes. I guess that's a yes-and-a-half."