Twenty-two-year-old actress Shailene Woodley is self-aware enough to know that she’s young. The idealistic young actress had plans to study interior design, but has since drastically shifted career paths. She’s starred in such films as The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and the upcoming Divergent. In her new movie, White Bird in a Blizzard, Woodley plays a 16-year-old girl whose mother suddenly goes missing in 1988. We talked to Woodley after White Bird’s Sundance premiere about working with Mysterious Skin director Gregg Araki, acting in a period piece/ghost story, and sitting next to her father while baring her breasts onscreen.
ESQUIRE.COM: White Bird in a Blizzard has lots of specific ’80s references. Depeche Mode posters, that ostentatiously placed Joy Division bumper sticker. Do those mementos resonate with you at all? It’s almost as if you were inhabiting someone else’s adolescence.
SHAILENE WOODLEY: I was born in ’91, so I did not know that world at all. But the great thing about acting is we get to be great pretenders. We got to pretend to exist in a world that I would honestly love to exist in. That whole late ’80s — even early ’80s — scene is so fascinating to me, especially the grunge aspect of it, the punk and goth scenes. And Gregg knows that world so well. He was very helpful in educating me about certain trends I didn’t know. I knew most of the bands, but different styles of attire… It was different back then. They didn’t have the same technology, so you never see Kat sitting there watching TV.
ESQ: Were there any bands that Araki insisted that you know that you didn’t already?
SW: Before we started, he sent us videos of goth dance clubs as well as multiple CDs of music he wanted in the film. You know exactly what he wants when you get there because he has such a strong, unique sensibility and tone. So there wasn’t a lot of guessing. If I had a question, he was right there with all the answers. He’s an incredible director.
ESQ: In interviews you say — and this is fairly atypical for an actor — that you have a pretty healthy relationship with your mother.
SW: [Laughs] I do, so healthy. Oh my God. She’s here somewhere…
ESQ: But that’s not the case in the film. How did you put yourself in a space where you, as your character, feel nothing after your mother disappears?
SW: I know a lot of people who weren’t very close with their parents, and never talked to them about anything. Kat probably never talked to her mom about personal things because her mom never asked, her mom never cared. And also, her mom is really damaging. That scene where she comes into her room, and calls her daughter a “slut”? That’s intense. More than not missing her, I think it was just the… the rebellion against missing such a cruel, cold human.
ESQ: Acting wasn’t your original plan but you’ve stumbled into this career. What made you choose this script at this point?
SW: I watched Mysterious Skin, oh my God, six or seven years ago. And I wanted to work with Gregg Araki ever since. And the opportunity to do a movie with him doesn’t come around that often. So I jumped on that bandwagon and told him, “I’d do anything to work with you.” But this script was so poetic, and dark, and thrilling, and different than anything I’d ever done. I also love the way he treated sexuality. We hide so many things in America. I’m really keen on European culture, where sexuality is who they are. And a lot of South American societies are comfortable with that. So I thought this was a fun opportunity to explore… A friend of mine said “You know, there aren’t a lot of movies where you see a female chasing a male for sex, or a female that enjoys sex.” And in this movie, she’s not just a female, but a young female chasing an older man for sex, not the older man chasing her. I thought that that was really refreshing. Whether it’s right or wrong — just to see that was cool.
ESQ: And there’s a lot of talk of sex in the movie. How do you prepare for something that requires thinking about sex all the time?
SW: My biggest thing in life is truth, whether it’s in movies, or your own personal life. There’s no room, no time for bullshit: just be truthful, honest, passionate, whatever. And in movies, I love and respect truth. Those are the kinds of movies I want to watch. So, for this film, sex was a big part of it, and it’s depicted truthfully. It wasn’t exploited, there wasn’t too much of it, and there wasn’t not enough of it. I think it struck a perfect balance. As an actor, you don’t really think about that in the moment. There’s the scene where Thomas Jane’s character seduces mine. It’s soooooo creepy, and so sexy at the same time. You think, “I shouldn’t be watching this, but I can’t stop watching it.” So when we were doing it, that’s how I felt. I thought, “I shouldn’t be pretending to be a sixteen-year-old, and be attracted to this sexy, strange environment…”
ESQ: With no lights. There are no lights in that man’s apartment.
SW: Yeah, no lights. [Chuckles]
ESQ: The voiceover in the movie seems like it was a challenge.
SW: Oh my God. What did you think of the voiceover, I have to ask?
ESQ: I liked it. I was surprised. It’s not easy doing voiceover narration.
SW: The funny thing about that is… We’re halfway through a 22-day shooting schedule, and Gregg goes, “Okay, we’ve got 15 minutes for lighting. Let’s go upstairs.” So we go upstairs, and we’re in this tiny room in this old warehouse. And the sound guys have two little blankets on the walls… [laughs] …very indie, stapled to the walls. And Gregg goes, “Okay, let’s go.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re going to do the voiceover.”
And I go, “Oh, you mean for editing, and we’ll go back and re-record it later on?”
And he was like, “No, no, we’ll just go through the script two or three times, and just use that.”
I was like, “What?”
We’d do it a couple times, and then they told us, “Okay, we’re ready for you downstairs.” We’d film a scene, have another break for lighting, and we’d do the rest of the voiceover. I said to Gregg, “Is this what you do in your movies?”
“Yeah, this was what we did with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin.”
There’s something so great about that. I didn’t have time to think about it: “All right, we’re in the moment — I guess we’re doin’ it!” [Laughs] And Gregg knows exactly what he wants, so he’s able to fine-tune you right there. Sometimes he’d say, “Why don’t you just try it like this?” There’s no guessing. He gives you the space to be creative, very similar to Alexander Payne. And he very gently steers you in the direction he sees the film in.
ESQ: It’s interesting you mention Alexander Payne because in this case, you knew it was going to be a Gregg Araki film. But I read that, before doing The Descendants, you had seen Sideways, but didn’t know who Alexander Payne was. So now that you know acting is the thing, are there names that you know, and would you either reject or accept a project based on them?
SW: Yeah. I never really did before, with directors. But now, just having done a few more films, and been on a few more sets, it’s really… Life is easier when you’re a good human. I’m so lucky to pretty much exclusively work with kind, great directors. I’ve heard some horror stories. [Knocks wood table] So grateful. Something I do now that I didn’t do before is: I’ll watch one or two of a director’s movies before going to meet with him or her. Because it gives you great insight into what storytelling means to them.
ESQ: Has there ever been an instance where a director asked you to do something, and you thought that they were treating you with kid gloves, assuming you couldn’t do something you knew you could?
SW: No. It’s none of my business what people think of me. [Laughs] Changing the question: Up until now, I’ve only been able to do young-adult films, because that’s all the life experience I’ve had. And now that I’m becoming a woman, it’s exciting to think about doing a woman…
ESQ: Your own age. [Both laugh]
SW: Exactly. I think White Bird in a Blizzard is the most mature film I’ve done. I need to think about the future. Maybe that was a limitation before? But now that I’m at the age I’m at now, it’s a new chapter in filmmaking.
ESQ: I read that you not only keep a dream diary, but you take mugwort to induce dreaming?
SW: Sometimes. I don’t do it regularly.
ESQ: I’m curious because in the film, your character’s psychiatrist says, “Dreams don’t necessarily mean anything.” Do you believe that? I’d imagine not.
SW: You can say dreams don’t mean anything, because they’re wacky and crazy. But sometimes I’ll have a dream where… I’ll see something, and it will happen. It’s one of those things that you have to have fun with. It’s like spirituality, and religion: It’s very different for every person.
ESQ: It’s really rare that, at your age, you can pick and choose who you work with. Is there an actress whose career you want to have? Do you think in those terms?
SW: Not really. I want to have fun in life. The day acting becomes not-fun is the day I’m not going to do it.
ESQ: But do you try to challenge yourself with the roles you choose?
SW: Hell yeah. Doing this film was pretty intimidating, all of the sexuality that’s explored. I’m comfortable with that, but it’s still an intimidating thing to sit there, and watch yourself half-undressed with your dad sitting next to you. Your mom’s there, your best friends are there. But I think it’s fun to take risks in life. Conformity’s just kind of boring.
ESQ: The first Divergent movie hasn’t come out yet, but I’m already afraid for your sanity. You not only have to put up with fans’ expectations, but their physical presence soon. How are you mentally preparing yourself for this?
SW: I dunno. I just gotta do me, surround myself with people I care about. The one thing I will say about fandom is that it’s a fire I will not feed. There’s a lot of things wrong with our modern day. We idolize people we don’t know, and we idolize people who aren’t doing things in a certain way, but dressing a certain way. And that’s not something I want to participate in. I want to idolize people who are out there every day, fighting for beautiful causes.
ESQ: Who is a director or actor you know you want to work with, because you know they’re going to bring out the best in you?
SW: Oh my God, so many. Actor-wise, Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard — however you say her name — Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Ruffalo. I would do anything to be in those people’s movies. Melanie Laurent! I’m obsessed everything those people do. And director-wise… I feel so lucky to have worked with the people I have. I would love to work with Gregg, Alexander, [Spectacular Now director] James Ponsoldt. Those three men, holy shit, can they direct. And for the future, I think it would be really fun to do a big Scorsese film. Or… Black Swan… Darren Aronofsky!