After her breakout performance in The Descendants, Shailene Woodley could be forgiven for getting swept up in a whirl of red carpets, glittering parties and fashion events. But whenever you see a photograph of the actress at an awards show or gala, know this: she’d rather be in the woods.
‘Right now I’m studying herbology,’ she says, ‘which is the study of plants medicinally. I study indigenous cultures, and I’m really into the outdoors and foraging for food or collecting spring water, hiking—anything outdoors.’
The 20-year-old actress, who played Alexandra King, daughter of George Clooney’s Matt in the 2011 film, has been acting since she was five years old. An agent discovered her through her participation in local theatre productions; roles in TV movies, The O.C. (young Kaitlin Cooper, anyone?) and a multi-season role in The Secret Life of an American Teenager followed.
Throughout, acting has ‘never felt like a career or anything other than a fun hobby,’ she says. ‘And to be honest, it still doesn’t. It feels like something I do because I’m passionate about it, not because I have to.’
The role that changed everything arrived in the form of The Descendants. The story of a father and two daughters grappling with the loss of their wife and mother involved filming on a remote Hawaiian island for months on end—a setting that brought Woodley closer to co-star Clooney and director Alexander Payne, who she has described as big brothers.
‘I like to call it the four months of my spiritual awakening,’ she says. ‘We were on an island and I was surrounded by the most positive, incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. I really came into my own.’
She also came into critical acclaim, earning a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for her portrayal of the guarded-yet-vulnerable Alexandra. For that event, stylist friend Kristin Zero helped her choose a strapless Marchesa gown covered in palest-pink, art deco-style beading.
‘I’m not in the industry for the awards or the magazines or the fancy dresses,’ she says. But when the Oscars rolled around, ‘I fell in love with that Valentino dress.’ Long-sleeved and floor-length, the couture gown was a more grown-up choice than many might have expected from a young actress attending her first Academy Awards.
‘I thought it was different, I thought it was elegant, I thought it was simple,’ she says. ‘I wanted to wear something that was a representation of who I am rather than what the fashion industry wanted me to be… Something that showcased my personality, as well as something respectful of the event.
‘I think it was the perfect choice. I would wear it to every Oscars if I could.’
Although she can visualise a life beyond the film set (‘If I wasn’t acting, I would be somewhere in the woods, leading herb walks, or being a professional masseuse,’ she says), she has clearly defined ambitions. ‘I would love to play Patti Smith one day, or Stevie Nicks—I think they’re both incredible.’ She wouldn’t mind emulating the careers of Natalie Portman, James Franco and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, actors whose discretion and other interests one senses have powered their longevity.
For now, though, she’s in Cannes, accepting the Chopard Trophy alongside fellow rising talent Ezra Miller and dancing around a flower-strewn pool with Jessica Chastain. She’s contemplating her next film project, and pursuing other goals. Like archery.
'I really want to become an amazing archer for hunting. I want to master that craft,’ she says. ‘[And] I would love to be able to name any plant and be able to tell you all its medicinal purposes, culinary purposes, where it grows, what season it’s best to harvest in, all of that.... There’s a lot of different career paths I could follow.’
The Descendants is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD