Shailene Woodley isn’t used to being at home. Since she began acting at 5 years old, she’s spent much of her life on set in TV shows (“The O.C.” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), movies (the “Divergent” franchise and “The Descendants”) and more recently, two seasons of the HBO hit “Big Little Lies,” in which she played the troubled single mother Jane.
But now that the coronavirus has upended everything, the 28-year-old Woodley has sheltered at home for the last few weeks, social distancing with no company besides her dog. It’s the longest she’s lived in her own home since she was 17.
And to be honest? She’s kind of loving it.
“I’m an introvert’s introvert,” Woodley told me this week by phone, “so this feels like heaven in a lot of ways because I don’t have to talk to people, I don’t have to deal with people, I don’t even have to look at people. I can play the game of being an extrovert when I need to — it’s a big part of my job — but my happy place is honestly being alone.”
Normally, Woodley would be gearing up for a press tour to promote her new film, “Endings, Beginnings,” but with theaters closed down, the movie will now debut April 17 on digital and on demand May 1. In the romantic drama, directed by Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”), Woodley plays Daphne, a young woman torn between dating two best friends: Jack (Jamie Dornan), a nice guy offering stability and comfort, and Frank (Sebastian Stan), who’s wilder, harder to pin down and better in bed.
Much of the film is improvised, which posed a unique challenge for Woodley and her co-stars. “You understand the elements that create that particular person, and you create borders for that,” she said, “but the thing about a Drake Doremus movie is that you don’t really establish a character: You kind of go in as yourself.”
She also spoke about her new outlook on her career and health problems in her early 20s. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When you don’t know what lines are about to come out of your mouth, how does that change your relationship to who you’re playing?
For me, when I’m building a character, I’m only experiencing different shades and colors of who I personally am. Daphne is one color of me that I got to explore, but I was speaking as Shailene, from a place within my own heart. I think she’s a little bit of my alter ego.
When I was 18, I moved into a cabin in the middle of the woods with no cellphone, no Wi-Fi. I’m a loner, and in Daphne, I got to explore some of the more extroverted side of myself who could go out and be free and live with abandon. It was fun to put myself in the position to think, “If I wasn’t worried about the consequences of taking all these drugs and staying at a bar in Silver Lake until 2 a.m., what would that be like?” Because it’s just not something I would allow myself to do.
How do you approach a love scene differently when there’s a level of improvisation to it?
Luckily, our intimate scenes came toward the end of the shoot, so there was a great level of trust with the actors. In one scene, Sebastian picked me up and took me across the room as the camera followed us, and it was a completely different sex scene than what ended up in the movie. But we had to explore all different parts of these two people’s physical nature to really get down to the essence of what worked for this film thematically.
Was there an intimacy coordinator?
For me, intimacy coaches make me uncomfortable because it feels like another set of eyes that I don’t need. But I have no problem stopping production when I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t think that’s the case for a lot of people, so I think it’s wonderful that there’s a lifeline that people can lean on to know they’ll be protected. That being said, the best thing a director could do is ask an actor right off the bat: “What are you comfortable with? What are your boundaries?”
There’s always a tension to cinematic love triangles where you wonder who the lead character will end up with, but while I was watching “Endings, Beginnings,” I did think to myself, “What would be so wrong with Daphne just continuing to see both men, if that’s something that they can make work?”
Listen, I’m someone who has experienced both an open relationship and a deeply monogamous relationship in my life, and I think we’re in a day and age where there should be no rules except for the ones designed by two people in a partnership — or three people, whatever floats your boat! But there has to be a level of responsibility in any relationship dynamic, and that responsibility is simply honesty and communication and trust. Apart from that, it’s really none of our business what people choose to do with their lives.
And this situation is not necessarily about Daphne trying to figure out which guy she likes more. It’s about them offering different versions of herself she could be, too.
Absolutely. We’re societally conditioned to assume that one person can be our end-all, be-all. This is a concept I’ve been thinking about often right now, because I’m very much single [after being in a relationship for years with the rugby player Ben Volavola], and I’ve chosen to be single for a while. The idea of being with someone … is it only because you’ve fallen in love with that person, or because there’s a newness to understanding yourself because of what that person can offer you?
Daphne spends much of the movie trying to unpack her past. You’re 28 now, nearing the end of your 20s. When you think back to what you were like 10 years ago, how different were you?
In my late teens, I had a strong idea of my identity and the meaning of my life, but then I went through an abusive relationship. That combined with, honestly, the commercial success I had in this industry began to wear on my strength. My 20s felt a little bit like being in a washing machine, where you’re being thrown all over the place.
As a teenager and as a child, I always thought acting was a hobby, and I never wanted the idea of making it into a career to take away my passion for it. But in my 20s, there was a huge chunk of time where fear and anxiety and competition were definitely at the forefront of my mind and my ego in a way they weren’t when I was younger.
Was that being whipped up by the industry, or were those things deep inside you and you had to learn to deal with them?
I think it was probably a mixture of both. I haven’t spoken much about this yet publicly, and I will one day, but I was very, very sick in my early 20s. While I was doing the “Divergent” movies and working hard, I also was struggling with a deeply personal, very scary physical situation. Because of that, I said no to a lot of opportunities because I needed to get better, and those jobs ended up going to peers of mine who I love. They went on to a lot of success, but there was a mix of people saying, “You shouldn’t have let that go!” or “You shouldn’t have been sick!”
That was combined with my own internal process of, “Am I going to survive what I’m going through right now and ever be healthy, or even have the opportunity to work on projects I’m passionate about again because of the situation I’m in?” I was in a place where I had no choice but to just surrender and let go of my career, and it brought out this negative voice in my mind that kept spinning for years and years afterward.
And how are you feeling now?
Now I’m on the other side of it, thank God. A lot of the last few years has been about focusing on mental health for me, and it’s a slow process. But because of that work, I feel very grounded and rooted in who I am and very clear about everything in my life, whether it’s my career or my relationships or my own internal worth. I feel very grateful to have walked that line of fire, because now I know what I don’t want to ever go back to.