The young actor Ansel Elgort has worked with Shailene Woodley in two films. And he has a suggestion for anyone meeting her.
“My advice to people, when they’re first meeting Shailene, is to hug her back,” Elgort says, laughing. “You are going to be hugged, so be ready.”
“I do love a good hug,” says Woodley, whose work on TV in “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” led to breakout film performances in “The Descendants” and last summer’s “The Spectacular Now.”
Critics and her peers noticed her open-eyed, open-hearted transparency, the way any film she takes on instantly feels more real just because she’s in it.
“ ‘Authentic’ is the right word for her,” says author Veronica Roth. Roth wrote the “Divergent” series, the sci-fi novels that Hollywood is predicting could become the next “Hunger Games.” “Shailene’s not afraid to go places, playing it from the gut. Vulnerable.”
Elgort, who plays Woodley’s character’s brother in “Divergent” and her love interest in this June’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” agrees. “It’s science fiction. You need somebody as real as her to make it real.”
For her part, Woodley considers acting “not so much a skill as just how I am.” Maybe it’s something she picked up. Maybe she was born with it.
“I’m astrologically a triple water sign (Nov. 15, a Scorpio), so I’m basically an emotional watery mess,” Woodley jokes. “But I grew up with two psychologist parents, which explains a lot. They established feeling and compassion in me in a very young age. I wonder if that helped me connect, emotionally, with someone really easily.”
“Divergent” depicts a dystopian future where teens choose their lifelong career path, their tribe or “faction,” whether they’ll be warriors or rulers or thinkers or laborers, based on their true natures – nurturing or brave, imaginative or cogs in the agricultural or manufacturing faction that makes this world work. Roth admits to being fans of “The Hunger Games” novels and owns up – a little – to the resemblance between the two series.
But “Divergent” – to be followed by “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” as Woodley’s character, Tris, finds herself and sets herself up in opposition to the rigid social structure she’s born into – has the best Young Adult bona fides of any book turned to film series in that genre. It’s not just the stars who are young (Woodley is 22, Elgort, 20). Roth, the novelist, is only 26.
“The choices real teenagers have to make at 16, 17 or 18, feel like these life-and-death decisions,” Roth says. “It’s their emotional reality. I felt that at 16, this pressure to get it right the first time. People change majors, change colleges, change jobs. But when you’re 16, 17, you don’t have that perspective yet.”
Woodley felt that herself as she pondered whether to tackle her first “franchise.” She’s spent a couple of years making smaller movies.
“I had to decide if I wanted something this big in my life,” Woodley says. “I’m grateful that I did, because I have no regrets and I know that thinking about it more made it easier to see it was the right decision.”