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‘I always wanted to be a teacher and just thought I would act on the side... the glitz and glamour side never appealed to me’

Shailene Woodley at the premiere of Adrift
Shailene Woodley at the premiere of Adrift

With a career that began with TV adverts at just five years old, Big Little Lies actor Shailene Woodley feels most at home on a film set. However, the rising star shuns the glamour of Hollywood for the sake of a private life, and she’s not afraid to throw herself into gritty and gruelling roles, as she tells Paul Whitington.

Most young Hollywood actresses learn fast what’s their best profile, and find a way of looking airbrushed and gorgeous even when they’re supposed to be in the middle of a tsunami. Big Little Lies star Shailene Woodley, though, doesn’t seem to care. In her new film, Adrift, which is based on a true story, she plays a woman who survived at sea for 41 days after her yacht was severely damaged by a hurricane.

Tami Oldham was just 23 when the 40-foot yacht she was sailing from Tahiti to San Diego with her boyfriend ran straight into the middle of Hurricane Raymond, losing its mast, its radio and suffering chronic structural damage. Miles off shipping routes and with dwindling supplies of canned food, she had to fight with every fibre of her being to stay alive and not be driven mad by the yawning terror of the open ocean.

In the latter part of Adrift, Woodley is shown dishevelled, dirty, starving, wildly staring: proper order, she tells me. “We really wanted to get across the reality of what happened out there, you know? I mean Tami herself lost 40 pounds while she was at sea and had hair so matted it took four days of four people working with hairbrushes to get through it. We wanted all that suffering and hardship to come across.”

For Shailene, who also co-produced the film, adherence to reality was the most important thing. “The fact that this story is true was one of the most appealing things about it for me, and we wanted to do everything we could to keep it as truthful and grounded as possible.”

To that end, Shailene spent a good deal of time talking to the real woman she was playing, Tami Oldham, who remains a keen sailor to this day. “We had the chance to speak a lot — she was very open. We spoke for a few months before the film commenced, and she was very generous in her offering of details such as what she wore, as well as giving me insights into the emotionally complex details of her experience, what she saw, what she felt. She came to set halfway through the film, which was really nice.”

Keeping everything as real as possible meant shooting for long periods at sea. “We were at sea for three months,” Shailene says, “and then we were on a green screen for two weeks at the end, because of the storm sequence and so on — we couldn’t have done on the ocean, because it was so horrendous. But the wave that is in the movie is the exact size of the wave that Tami actually experienced in the storm.”

It looked to me about 100 feet high, and provides Adrift’s most terrifying moment.

Watching the film, you can see how gruelling a shoot it was, and Woodley is on screen for virtually every second.

“It was definitely a demanding film, emotionally and physically, but every single day, regardless of the discomfort any of us were facing, whether it was seasickness, fatigue or sunburn, one of us would chime in and remind the others that someone actually went through this and didn’t have a bed to go home to at night, didn’t have food and water, luxury or companionship. That always put everything in perspective.”

Then there was the problem of learning how to sail. “I grew up swimming, so I’m fairly comfortable in the ocean, but sailing was new to me, so me and Sam (Claflin, her co-star) spent many months learning to sail, because we didn’t want to look like actors pretending to know what we were doing. It’s not a walk in the park, you know, it’s not a glamorous occupation: you get bruises and cuts and calluses. But we wanted it to feel real.”

She may be a Hollywood star in the ascent, but this is not the first time Shailene has experienced hardship in the pursuit of her passions.

An environmentalist and human rights activist, in 2016 she was arrested for trespassing while protesting against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

“I live a very privileged life and I still experience things that are uncomfortable every now and then, so if that is my human experience, then what is the experience of indigenous people around the world who have been colonised and told that they’re not important? What is the human experience of children who are in cages at the moment in America with no plan to be reunited with their family?

“It’s not America and it’s not an American thing to do, but that is the current state of our government’s decisions, and regardless of whatever executive order was placed the other day by our president, there’s no prospect of those families being reunited, and I think that is the most tragic part of this entire situation.”

Shailene’s performance in Adrift has been called by some her most accomplished yet, and she certainly convinces as a woman at the end of her tether who endures everything from starvation and exposure to nightmarish hallucinations while bobbing on the open sea.

But her excellence is hardly surprising, because the 26-year-old Californian has been impressing critics for decades.

Shailene, born in San Bernardino County, California, on November 15, 1991, began acting at a very young age. Is her name really derived from the Irish moniker Shay? “No! It’s based on a licence plate that my mother saw when she was 18 years old. Shailene is a Gaelic name, but it’s really rooted in traffic on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles!”

By the time she was five, she was appearing in TV adverts, and by seven she was landing small parts in TV shows. But acting wasn’t always her abiding dream.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says, “and I just thought I would act on the side. I remember being seven and writing down on the cover of a magazine ‘I’m going to quit acting’, because I didn’t like all the excess of it. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older things have shifted a bit, but the glitz and glamour side of it has never appealed to me: it was always about the fun and the activity of being on a movie set, and it still is.”

Not surprisingly, given the fact that she grew up on them, Shailene feels most at ease on a film set.

“I love the environment of a set; that to me feels like home. Film-making is an art form that requires hundreds of individuals, and if one person falls short then the entire project can fall short. I think there’s something to be said about camaraderie and the family, the tribe, if you will, that gets created, and for me that’s where I feel the most comfortable.”

Off camera, she’s resolutely private, and avoids the limelight. “I don’t think I’m particularly shy, I just like having a life that no one knows about. I guess I value having a life that is public in some areas and also extremely private in others.”

Her growing success has made that yearning for privacy more problematic. After starring in hit US TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Shailene was cast as George Clooney’s moody daughter in Alexander Payne’s 2011 film The Descendants. That fine performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination, and she was then cast as the heroine Tris Prior in the action fantasy film series Divergent. She also starred in the 2014 hit weepie The Fault in Our Stars. Then, last year, came Big Little Lies, a devilishly clever TV drama exploring the supposedly perfect lives of a group of wealthy Monterey matriarchs. Its runaway success took Woodley by surprise.

“I was out of the country when Big Little Lies came out, but I just remember coming home and sitting in the hair salon and I was getting my hair dyed for Adrift, and in the salon all these people were talking about Celeste and Renata and Madeleine.

“I looked at my hairdresser and asked  ‘Are they talking about Big Little Lies right now?’ And she said, ‘You have no idea, it’s all the salon’s been talking about for the last four weeks!’

“I don’t think any one of us expected it to be as popular or as well received as it was, but I think it just goes to show how excited people are by understanding the psychology of women.

“We’re in the middle of filming the second season right now. It’s going well. It’s nice to be back with everyone again and we somehow have Meryl Streep among us as well, so that’s not half bad either.”

Adrift is in cinemas now

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