"Divergent" is the first of Veronica Roth's hugely popular young-adult trilogy that is set in a dystopian future where society has been divided into five factions, each devoted to a particular virtue — honesty, selflessness, bravery, peacefulness and intelligence. Sixteen-year-olds choose one to devote their lives to. The story centers on Beatrice "Tris" Prior, a young woman whose tests find she is suited to three groups, making her dangerous — a "divergent" — in the eyes of the authorities.
For the role of Tris, Lionsgate was looking for someone to fit into the strong young woman mold of Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games" and Kristen Stewart of its own "Twilight" franchise. At the time, Woodley had just had her breakthrough moment in films with her performance in Alexander Payne's 2011 comedy-drama "The Descendants," her first feature. The role earned her an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination and made her a hot property. And though she may not have been seen much on the big screen, Woodley already had a fan base due to a five-season run as the star of ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
A bit reluctant to commit to a multipicture franchise deal, Woodley wanted Lawrence's take before she made a decision.
"I sent her an email," Woodley says. "I was curious. She'd gone from doing indie films to 'Hunger Games,' and I wondered if it had changed her life. She said, 'Don't do anything stupid, don't do drugs or go to Whole Foods the day the movie opens and you'll be fine. The amount of beauty and positivity that come with it will transcend any of the other complications.' "
Woodley, you soon learn, is not your typical young Hollywood star. She eschews dressing up except when she's asked to glam it up for the red carpet, and believes in saving the Earth. She studies herbalism and practices survivalist techniques, including foraging, which she even does in the city. I ask where she gets her values.
"A lot of it was the way I was raised by my parents who are both psychologists," says the Simi Valley High School grad. "Empathy and compassion were ingrained into me in a very young age. I feel like a lot of people don't learn about those values until later in life, but I was very fortunate to have two parents who made sure that they were two very important things in my brother's and my lives."
As opposed to playing soccer or learning gymnastics, Woodley says she's wanted to be an actress since she was 5. Her parents didn't know anything about acting, but supported the idea. "They said as long as I stay the person they thought I was, had fun and did good in school, then I could keep doing it."
Unlike some youth soccer or T-ball teams, when losing sometimes gets a trophy anyway, losing auditions only teaches what rejection feels like. Woodley says she looks back now and wonders how she had that much confidence or was so strong-willed as a kid.
"I would literally be told 'no' 500, 600 times at auditions, finally get one 'yes' for a small commercial and then get told 'no' 600 more times," she says. "There must have been something at the time I did not recognize. I think that I like the challenge. I like the ability of constantly having to grow and work on a craft in order to get better, to perfect it."
In "Divergent," which also stars Kate Winslet, Tris is born into the Abnegation faction, which is for those who are selfless. She is also suited for Dauntless, meant for the soldiers/protectors, and Erudite, meant for the thinkers and scientists, like Winslet's character.
"A lot of who Tris is resonated with me," Woodley says. "When I was her age, I was going through a lot of those struggles. I had to balance being compassionate and empathetic toward my peers and also living my life for myself. She was raised in a society where she had to be selfless and then join a faction that's all about being selfish — she had to find the balance between that."
It took Woodley 13 years to get a feature film role, and that, she says, may be a good thing. If she had gotten one at a younger age, she might have given up acting. At one point she thought of going to college and studying interior design, an idea that she finds "hilarious, because it's totally not what I do now."
"Divergent," directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless"), is an action film, and Woodley said she enjoyed all the running and jumping. Before production began, she spent a month in training. During the shoot, she fell off a train and got two hernias and a black eye. She and her co-star, Theo James, also climbed a large Ferris wheel tethered to a wire.
"I did all the stuff that the insurance company would let me," she says, adding that it was important for the action to look real. "If you are shooting a gun, you want to convince the audience you can, whether or not you know how to use one."
At the moment, the actress isn't planning on shooting any other movies beyond the "Divergent" sequel "Insurgent," which likely will lens this summer. She has a couple of upcoming releases — "The Fault in Our Stars," scheduled to open June 6, about teens who fall in love after meeting in cancer support groups, and "White Bird in a Blizzard," a coming-of-age drama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.