How Shailene Woodley and Her Co-Stars Improvised an Entire Movie
Shailene Woodley has done just about everything an actor can do since she began acting at the age of 5, but now she can add a new bullet point to her résumé: improvising an entire movie. In Drake Doremus’ Endings, Beginnings, Woodley plays Daphne, an Angeleno who’s torn between two men — Jack (Jamie Dornan) and Frank (Sebastian Stan) — despite the recent and lingering effects of a bad breakup and personal trauma.
For Woodley, the advantage of working with an indie director like Doremus, who had full creative control, allowed for a more sensitive and vulnerable performance, something that many studio films would hinder by the sheer number of voices with control over the proceedings.
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“Generally, I find that when the director has the most control, that’s when the most creative outcomes can be accomplished. On a lot of studio films, the director doesn’t have complete control, meaning there’s very aggressive producers or aggressive studio execs,” Woodley tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Working with a director like Drake on a small film — where he really is in charge and in control of the entire thing — allows for a very vulnerable and sensitive performance. You are in full communion and in full trust with the leader of this experience that you’re on — versus trying to submit yourself vulnerably to 15 different leaders on studio films.”
One of the challenges that many actors face on projects with a great deal of improvisation is walking the fine line between improvising as the character and improvising as themselves. In Woodley’s case, she doesn’t mind if the lines become blurred.
“I am all of these people; they’re just different extensions and different colors of who I am as Shailene, what I’ve done in the past and what I did with this film,” Woodley explains. “What you see is not an acted performance by any of us; I think it’s truly Shai, Sebastian [Stan], Jamie [Dornan], Lindsay [Sloane] — all of these actors, speaking within the confinements of a particular character, but speaking from our own experiences and our own hearts.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Woodley elaborates on the process of improvising an entire movie, the shared experience between Daphne and her Big Little Lies character and whether she’d make a quarantine movie once the world returns to some semblance of normalcy.
First and foremost, how’s everything with you and yours?
Thanks for asking. We’re good. My family is healthy, knock on wood, thank goodness, and I’m healthy. I think everyone is going a little bit stir crazy, but who isn’t? (Laughs.)
Endings, Beginnings is an intimate and authentic character study. Did production feel just as authentic and intimate to you, the performer, as it does to us, the audience?
Yes, incredibly authentic, real, raw and stripped-down — more so than any other project I’ve ever been a part of. Because the entire thing was improvised, there was a sense of immediate sensitivity and vulnerability that had to exist between ourselves with ourselves and ourselves with each other. Every single day, we’d go home and text each other, “Wow, we got through another day,” because the depth of conversation, feeling and emotion that we were all experiencing with one another was very real. What you see is not an acted performance by any of us; I think it’s truly Shai, Sebastian [Stan], Jamie [Dornan], Lindsay [Sloane] — all of these actors, speaking within the confinements of a particular character, but speaking from our own experiences and our own hearts.
Since there are two credited co-writers, Drake Doremus and Jardine Libaire, would they outline a situation, and then tell you and your castmates to run wild?
So, the way that it worked is we had an 80-page outline that said, “Shai is going to hop on the phone with the reporter, she’s going to ask her something like this and she’s going to answer something like this.” There’d be one example of what that was, and when we’d get to set, the director [Drake Doremus] would say, “OK, let’s just do the first take and see what happens. Don’t worry about what the script says.” So, we’d talk about what the scene needed, and a lot of our first takes were upwards of 10 minutes. We’d just talk as person to person, as these characters. When we’d finish that take, Drake would come back and say, “Hey, I really liked when you talked about this, and I really liked the direction that this was going in. So, let’s cut out all the fat now, and let’s really hone in on these nuggets of gold that I liked from that 10-minute conversation.” Suddenly, the shot went from 10 minutes to two minutes, but every single time we did that two-minute conversation, it was inevitably different because it was improvised. So, it really was an exercise in our ability to stay surrendered while also staying incredibly attuned to what the director needed from a particular scene.
What was your process of discovering Daphne’s psychology?
It’s the same as any character that I ever take on. I am all of these people; they’re just different extensions and different colors of who I am as Shailene, what I’ve done in the past and what I did with this film. I think that it’s incredibly important, as an actor, to just professionally listen. I was fortunate enough to be working with such incredible actors that I could just listen to them and react based on what they were saying. In terms of the solo moments and the moments of internal distress, you kind of have to react the way that you would naturally react. Instead of trying to inhabit something else that’s external from you, I always try to inhabit the internal processes of my own emotions, again utilizing that particular shade of myself that is more geared toward Daphne.
Do you notice a difference in your performance when you work with a small crew in a close-knit setting like this, versus a monolithic studio film?
When you’re working on a studio film, there are more cooks in the kitchen. There’s more competition because everybody wants their opinion and voice to be heard. This isn’t every studio film; I’ve worked on indie films that operate this way as well. Generally, I find that when the director has the most control, that’s when the most creative outcomes can be accomplished. On a lot of studio films, the director doesn’t have complete control, meaning there’s very aggressive producers or aggressive studio execs. So, you’re not able to fully allow the director to witness or realize his or her creative vision. Sometimes, I think that’s a good thing. Sometimes, you have a director who needs more guidance around him or her. I personally think that directors are some of the most creative monsters on this planet. To be able to steer a ship in a particular way while also allowing everyone else’s creativity on that ship to be realized is no easy feat. Working with a director like Drake on a small film — where he really is in charge and in control of the entire thing — allows for a very vulnerable and sensitive performance. You are in full communion and in full trust with the leader of this experience that you’re on — versus trying to submit yourself vulnerably to 15 different leaders on studio films. It’s a little bit of a different challenge.
Is there a greater feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment when you’re able to make a good indie without the resources and amenities of the major studio system?
Absolutely. It kind of feels like when you run a marathon versus when you watch a marathon on TV. (Laughs.) You put in the hard work — and not that you don’t on studio films — but there’s something about independent filmmaking that makes you feel a bit like an underdog. It’s harder for people to take seriously in a lot of ways. So, when something turns out the way that you wanted it to, there is a huge feeling of satisfaction and pride because it was the blood, sweat and tears of our own hands that got us through it, not anyone else’s hands. I never really do movies thinking about how they’re going to be perceived, whether it’s a huge studio film, television show or small independent film. I do them because I love them, I love the characters involved and I love the other artists involved. If you allow yourself to think too much as an artist about how this is going to be perceived once it’s over, you’re kind of setting yourself up for doom. I think that all movies can elicit specific feelings, and all movies have specific pros and specific cons. I’m just grateful that I have experience in all of the worlds to be able to juxtapose them and to be able to understand why I love independent film and also why I love studio films.
The Internet has long been fascinated by your relationship (or lack thereof) with cellphones and smartphones. Did this movie reaffirm what a good decision it was to not own one for a period of time?
I don’t know if the movie did by any means, but what this movie brought was so much human connection, which I was so hungry for, and it’s why I’ve experimented with different modalities of communication via technology and phones. I feel like our world is just losing its sense of human connection, communication and contact. So, this movie was a greater affirmation of that for me, I suppose, which is ironic, because now we’re all so isolated. And yet, we are, in so many ways, more connected than ever, but it is through a 2D screen. (Laughs.) So, maybe I’m wrong about my feelings toward phones.
Since Daphne spent so much time decoding the text messages of Jamie and Sebastian’s characters, I kept thinking, “This is probably one of the many reasons why Shailene avoided this technology for such a long time.”
Yeah, I’m a fan of WhatsApp because of the voice notes. I think that when you try and text somebody via words, it can be interpreted in a million different ways. So, I generally send videos and voice notes to friends because I find that plain old text messaging often doesn’t get the point you really want across.
Daphne and Big Little Lies’ Jane Chapman have a significant shared experience. Were you perfectly fine playing this character detail again since it was approached a bit differently?
Yeah, the truth is it’s incredibly common for women to experience sexual assault — whatever form that sexual assault takes. It’s in the same way that it’s very common for women to have consensual sex. In this movie, we just witness a woman on her journey. It’s not about making a statement; it’s not about trying to say anything. It’s simply about witnessing the reality that most women experience in their lives.
I’m curious about the lasting influence of your former co-stars and directors on new projects like this. Do their voices ever resurface in your mind as you’re working through a scene that reminds you of past work?
Absolutely. I don’t know that in those moments, I’m calling upon past experiences, but when I work with people, I’m constantly taking notes, whether it’s something that the director, makeup artist, cinematographer, grip or another actor says. There’s just so much wisdom on a film set. So, I take notes, and when the movie is done, I have a notebook full of notes from all the movies that I’ve worked on. It’s a bible of sorts that I return to time and time again to remember what has helped me in the past, what might help me in the future and to allow me to gauge where I’m at as a performer in any given moment.
You produced a movie that I quite liked called Adrift. Did you enjoy that responsibility, and would you like to do more of it in the future?
Absolutely. I love producing. I’m having so much fun with it because I’ve always been on the other side of the coin, and as a producer, it’s the most exhilarating thing to put your trust in other artists and other creative collaborators that you find and that come together to create something. I’ve always been a pawn on the chessboard, and as a producer, you kind of feel like you are the chessboard. You are the person who’s holding the weight of so many players. You have to make sure that your integrity is in alignment with their integrity and that the game that you’re playing is a game that everyone is in alignment with. From there, you just hold the space for them to create. To me, there’s nothing more exhilarating than witnessing creative people fly.
In the past, if you didn’t absolutely love the material coming your way, you preferred to take a break versus working just to work. Do you still maintain that approach?
Yes, I love actors that I don’t see on the screen all the time. Every single time that I do get to see them, I feel that there’s something new about what I’m witnessing because I'm watching them grow as a person alongside the work that they’re doing. If I’m not passionate about a project, I can’t be a part of it. I've made that mistake before, and I ended up not being good in the movie and the movie ended up not being as good as it could possibly be because I wasn’t right for the role. So, I still abide by my ethos of whether it takes a year or five years, I have to be passionate about the project; I have to be right for the project. Those are my two pillars of criteria.
While I don’t mean to trivialize matters, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ll react to entertainment after suffering a collective trauma for the very first time in most people’s cases. Do you tend to avoid working on material that hits too close to home, and will you avoid the umpteen quarantine movies that are being written as we speak?
Absolutely not. Whatever you witness or experience in your life is almost your greatest tool for expressing yourself creatively. A lot of times, I’ve found a lot of healing through portraying characters that have been through parallel experiences to my life, whether that be trauma, heartache, love or relationships with family members. It’s almost easier to play characters and portray stories having been through something as traumatic as what that character is going through because you’re pulling from your own well of experience, versus needing to make it up. So, it’s not something I shy away from. That being said, when there's 14 quarantine movies being made next year, I don’t know that I’ll want to do one because I think I’ll be ready to talk about something else. (Laughs.)
Endings, Beginnings is available on digital HD now and VOD May 1.
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