Shailene Woodley interview: The face of the new Hunger Games

The self-sufficient star of the latest teen blockbuster would rather be in the wilderness than Hollywood

If anyone is prepared to survive the burden of celebrity then it is Shailene Woodley. Having won plaudits for her performance as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants two years ago, today there is no escaping her as she becomes the face of a massive Hunger Games-style campaign surrounding her starring role in Divergent, the first instalment in Veronica Roth’s popular young-adult trilogy.

Woodley herself was the first to see the writing on the wall, promptly giving up her newly purchased Los Angeles home to her grandmother and storing her belongings with her mother. “I haven’t left any trails. I’m just moving around, staying with different friends. I live out of a suitcase by choice,” laughs the 22-year-old actress, who has paparazzi-proofed herself, aware that every inch of her life is about to be picked over.

In person, though, there is nothing remotely distant about Woodley, who asks to be called “Shai” and greets me with a warm hug despite the fact we have never met. A “survivalist” who has taught herself to thrive alone in the countryside with a gun and a hatchet, foraging for food, she has also lived on urban streets without a cent. She makes her own toothpaste, has little interest in make-up and doesn’t care to wash her hair too often.

“I’ve never really wanted possessions or stuff. I even got rid of my phone although now I have one again,” she says wryly, holding up the cell phone that Summit Entertainment insists she carries while conducting a month-long global press tour. Today, in an elegant Beverly Hills hotel suite, she brings to mind a caged animal. Her lithe 5ft 9in frame is draped in skinny jeans and baggy shirt, a native-American talisman dangling from her neck. Kicking off her shoes, she reveals incongruous orange polka-dot socks.

Woodley began acting when she was four years old and spent five years on the US TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Having auditioned for Katniss in The Hunger Games, curiously she almost turned down the offer to play Divergent’s heroine Tris. On its release in America last weekend, it trounced Muppets Most Wanted to earn $56m (£34m).

“Money has never been my motivation,” says Woodley. “With a big franchise like this, you commit yourself to three years of work. Also, you could see how it affected Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence and I just wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted. But I finally realised, ‘Dude, I’m making a creative decision based on fear’, and that’s not how I want to live my life. I want to feel empowered and to make creative decisions based on artistry, not fear.” She still hasn‘t met Lawrence despite exchanging e-mails where Lawrence advised her to take Divergent but not to do drugs or to make a sex tape. “Yeah, that’s right. Funny.”

Thus far, Woodley has had little interaction with the young fans of the Divergent books. She will also appear in The Fault in Our Stars, the upcoming movie adaptation of John Green’s book about young love and cancer and welcomes the chance to play role model. “‘You do you’ is the message I would love to send out to them. It takes bravery and to be you but once you do it for a little while you realise it’s so much easier than trying to be anyone else.”

Her parents, now divorced, are both psychologists. Their guidance, she says, was invaluable. “I grew up in a very liberal household. They definitely taught me mediation and communication skill sets at a very young age.”  

Life wasn’t always so sweet. At 15 she was diagnosed with scoliosis which meant she had to wear a full body brace for two years. Perhaps serving as an early wake-up call, it gave her insight into the meaning of life. “No life is ever guaranteed so I feel like it’s just important to enjoy and to be open to every moment because it’s all so fleeting and temporary.” She has many ideas on how she would spend her time if she weren’t a star. “I am interested in herbalism and indigenous cultures and am just very passionate about the earth. I could live in the wilderness. At the moment I’m passionate about food and the process of growing it, eating it and seeing how your body reacts. I don’t think I’ve eaten McDonalds since I was nine.”

Taking two months off prior to Divergent’s publicity push, she says, “I spent time with my friends and myself, to get to know this new chapter in my life. I feel like a woman for the first time. It’s interesting going through these shifts where you feel like you have actually become the person that you wanted to be.” 

‘Divergent’ opens on 4 April