A few years ago, Shailene Woodley found a journal she had kept while working as a child actor. “The day I’m on the cover of a magazine,” Woodley wrote when she was 7, “is the day I’m going to quit.”
“I didn’t want fame,” says Woodley, 29. “I didn’t have in my head, ‘I want to be at the Oscars one day.’ In school, I never told people I was an actor. Kids would be like, ‘I saw you on My Name Is Earl last night,’ and it was like a taunting, a way of making me feel insecure at the time.”
Woodley is sprawled on the floor in a house in L.A. in late June, scratching the ears of her 95-pound German shepherd rescue with her long red fingernails, the first manicure she can remember getting for fun instead of a role. “Normally when I’m not working, I don’t cut my hair, I don’t dye my hair, I don’t do anything to my body because I just like, wait until whatever’s next,” she says. “I’ve had nails for characters before, but I was like, ‘I’m going to do it for me.’ ”
This summer, Woodley plays a 1960s socialite whose seemingly perfect life is far more complicated than it looks in The Last Letter From Your Lover, a period romance due from Netflix on July 23. She also recently finished shooting a role as a talented but troubled police officer in the independent thriller Misanthrope, starred opposite Jodie Foster as an earnest young attorney in the STX legal drama The Mauritanian and was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her part as a member of the cast of HBO’s soapy hit Big Little Lies.
Woodley’s recent roles represent a transition to playing fully grown-up characters — career women, lovers, a mother. And they come at a time when the actress is stepping into adulthood herself. She has a mortgage now, a dog to parent and a very well-known fiance, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In a surprise to both of their fan bases, Rodgers announced that he was engaged in February during his NFL MVP acceptance speech, and two weeks later during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Woodley confirmed to Jimmy Fallon that she is to be the bride. “When we announced that we were engaged, we wanted to do that only because we didn’t want someone else to do it before we did,” Woodley says. “And we didn’t do it for months and months after we had become engaged, but the reaction to it was really a lot, and so we were like, ‘Let’s just politely decline [to talk about the relationship] for a little while and live in our little bubble.’ ”
Despite her youth, Woodley has lots of experience navigating the life of a public figure. In nearly 25 years as an actress, she has earned attention for inhabiting a range of gutsy-but-sensitive roles, as a sexual assault victim in Big Little Lies, a nonconformist teenager bent on saving the world in Summit Entertainment’s dystopian young-adult film trilogy Divergent and an adolescent cancer patient in Fox 2000’s The Fault in Our Stars. But she also has ducked out of the industry for long stretches — after breaking out and earning a Golden Globe nomination in Fox Searchlight’s The Descendants at age 18 in 2011, she took two years off. “All the opportunities that were coming to me were huge, huge blockbuster films that maybe to my lawyers looked like great opportunities but to me didn’t represent any creativity,” she says. In between jobs in her late teens and early 20s, she took months-long backpacking journeys in Europe and the U.S., some years earning just $15,000 and sleeping on friends’ sofas. At the time, Woodley was more focused on planning camping trips and studying outdoor survival skills than taking meetings or walking red carpets. “I look back on my 18-, 19-, 22-year-old self and I’m in awe of my ability to say no,” she says. “I had no responsibilities. I got rid of mostly everything I owned and lived out of a suitcase. I didn’t feel pressure to work to make money. It was a very simple life. Because I wasn’t surrounded by the rhetoric of this industry and of Hollywood, I don’t think I knew anything other than saying no.”
On one of her backpacking trips through Italy with a friend, when she was staying in hostels and sleeping on trains, she connected with her Descendants co-star George Clooney, who has a home near Lake Como. “We’re staying in some shitty hostel in the middle of Milan, and he was like, ‘Send me your address. I’ll send a car,’ ” Woodley says. “I was like, ‘No, we’ll just get a train.’ He was like, ‘Give me your fucking address.’ So I gave him the address and we come outside, it’s this beautiful Lincoln Town Car and these scraggly, dirty women with our backpacks. That was a sweet, funny moment in life where I got to experience so many different worlds from such a young age, the really big lives and the really small lives. I feel so fucking grateful that the perspectives that I’ve been given now as an adult have all come through my desire as a young person to not spend all of my time in L.A. trying to pursue a career or to be something that I wasn’t.”
On occasion, Woodley turned down work because of a health condition about which she has shared little publicly. “It was pretty debilitating,” she says. “I said no to a lot of projects, not because I wanted to but because I physically couldn’t participate in them. And I definitely suffered a lot more than I had to because I didn’t take care of myself. The self-inflicted pressure of not wanting to be helped or taken care of created more physical unrest throughout those years.” Woodley says her health is improving but that the experience left a lasting mark on her. “I’m on the tail end of it, which is very exciting, but it’s an interesting thing, going through something so physically dominating while also having so many people pay attention to the choices you make, the things you say, what you do, what you look like,” she says. “It spun me out for a while. You feel so incredibly isolated and alone. Unless someone can see that you have a broken arm or a broken leg, it’s really difficult for people to relate to the pain that you’re experiencing when it’s a silent, quiet and invisible pain.”
One impact of Woodley’s illness has been positive, however: It inoculated her against what she sees as a key sickness of the internet age. “It made me learn the incredibly difficult life task of not caring what people think about you very quickly,” Woodley says. “The more I paid attention to the noise that was surrounding me, the longer it was taking my body and my mind to heal because I wasn’t focused on myself, I was focused on an image of myself via the lens of everyone around us.” The disconnect of trying to project happiness when going through pain is one she sees plaguing her peers who are curating a perfect life on Instagram. “I have so much compassion for my generation, for the generation after me with what people struggle through when it comes to social media and the addictive qualities of validation and the self-destructive qualities that come from externalized validation that’s through a 2D screen.” Woodley’s Instagram account veers between the goofy and the sincere — conversations with her astrologer, boomerangs of her drinking wine, promotions for upcoming acting projects and action alerts about political causes.
Woodley grew up in Simi Valley, California, the daughter of two psychologists, and started acting at age 5 in small TV parts, first gaining some attention for her starring role in the ABC drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager. As a kid, Woodley says she viewed acting as “this secret hobby.” “I always had the vision that when I was an adult, I would have a different career,” she says. “Obviously, it is my career now. It’s what I spend most of my time doing, but I don’t live and breathe acting.”
Beginning in her teens, Woodley has devoted much of her life to activism, getting arrested while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, campaigning for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 elections and becoming an ambassador for Greenpeace with a focus on the oceans. (A 20-year-old RV she lived in for months while caravanning for the Democratic National Committee in 2016 is parked in the driveway.)
Perhaps some of that can be traced to the empathic ethos that she says her parents “drilled into my brother and me as children,” she says. “When we were kids, if somebody was bullying us, the conversation was always, ‘I’m sorry that you got hurt, Shai,’ and also, ‘You can’t be upset with that person because you don’t know what’s going on at their home. How do you think they learned to bully? They were probably bullied at home or they probably saw someone else being bullied.’ It was this idea that we never know what’s behind the cover of something, and judgment or assumption really does nothing but poison ourselves.”
In December, at the height of the pandemic, she took a 20-hour trip comprising four flights, a car and a boat ride to get from Rodgers’ house in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the rain forest in Patagonia as part of a partnership with Karun, a company that makes eyeglass frames out of ocean plastics. “It’s very easy to go to a protest and snap a photo and hashtag it,” Woodley says. “Those are the sexy ways to participate in things. The uncomfortable, difficult ways are when you actually change legislation because that can be a 10-, 20-, 30-year process, or when you create whole new systems.”
Woodley traces her environmentalist streak to a surprising source: The Goonies, the 1985 adventure comedy directed by the recently deceased Richard Donner about a bunch of suburban kids searching for the long-lost treasure of One-Eyed Willy. “Watching these kids on this mad adventure through nature, they were underground, they weren’t in some factory, they weren’t in some building,” she says. “As a kid, watching that made me see nature around us as a playground. And because we grew up camping, my brother and I would be running for hours and hours and hours, doing make-believe, creating stories, playing different characters with one another. Nature became the source of true play and true freedom and unbridled adventure. As I got older and I saw the way that we treated nature around us, it was just so devastating to me.”
Coming of age as an actress amid the #MeToo movement, Woodley has seen positive changes in the industry but also a shift in women’s roles that feels limiting to her. “There’s so many stories out there right now about strong, empowered females,” Woodley says. “I laugh when I read these stories because maybe I know literally two strong, empowered females out of all of my friends and myself included. My hope is that more stories come out that explore the intricacies of what feminine energy looks like and not just this desire to represent females from a strong, empowered standpoint. Because there’s a lot underneath there that’s messy, jealous, conspiratorial, competitive, kind, mothering, generous, thoughtful. There are so many aspects to it that I hope continue to be explored deeper.”
Woodley was drawn to The Last Letter From Your Lover, an adaptation of the 2008 Jojo Moyes novel, by the interwoven romances at its center. A contemporary journalist played by Felicity Jones finds a trove of letters from 1965 detailing Woodley’s character’s secret romance. The romance genre has lost favor in Hollywood as studios have single-mindedly focused on spectacles that sell overseas, but Woodley’s Last Letter From Your Lover director, Augustine Frizzell, sees cultural reasons for the dearth of love stories as well, as women from the Girlboss generation have been encouraged to downplay their amorous urgings. “For many years, women have gotten a bum rap as just love-hungry — that all they care about is finding a man or a partner,” Frizzell says. “Women are like, ‘That’s not all we’re about. Let’s focus on a strong career woman.’ Damn straight that’s not all we’re about. But there’s still room for the celebration of love.”
In Woodley, Frizzell found a like-minded romantic. “I love love so much,” Woodley says. “I love romance films, whether the old cheesy ones or the huge blockbuster ones or the super indie nuanced ones.” Her favorite films are romances of the type studios rarely make in the era of visual effects and intellectual property-driven franchises — Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge! “I hope that Last Letter is able to join that brigade, making people feel a yearning and a lust and a desire for life and a desire for emotion even when they’re on their couch at home.” Woodley is also an executive producer of Last Letter From Your Lover and was a uniquely dynamic presence on set, according to Frizzell. “Shailene is one of the only people I know who lives for the experience rather than the outcome,” Frizzell says. “She has no artifice. There’s just a brightness to her. A glow around her that follows her everywhere she goes.”
In 2020, Woodley appeared in another romantic drama, Drake Doremus’ largely improvised Endings, Beginnings, which Samuel Goldwyn released digitally during the early weeks of the pandemic. In the film, in which Woodley’s confused character is bouncing between two men, she has multiple passionate sex scenes. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable doing intimate scenes because I’m very vocal,” Woodley says. “I always sit down and talk with the director, the other actor. We always have conversations of, ‘How are you planning on shooting it? Is nudity necessary? Is it going to distract from the scene, add to the scene?’ We know exactly what the boundaries are. And I’ve never been in a situation where those things haven’t been honored.” She chooses realism over modesty. “Oftentimes in movies, you see two people having sex and the woman has her bra on, and in real life, I don’t think I ever did that, sex with a bra — or very, very rarely,” she says.
Doremus says Woodley’s directness and unselfconsciousness are rare among contemporary actors. “She’s not modern, she’s a throwback, like a French actress in the ’60s or something,” he says. “She owns her sexuality in a way that’s just so liberating and magical. She’s able to use her gut and her intuition a lot. She’s chill and easy and present and kind and thoughtful and humble. And just so not — I hate to say the word, but — actory.”
One of Woodley’s primary techniques as an actor is to think about what a character is trying not to reveal in a scene. “I’ve always been so fascinated with, ‘What is this person giving to me on the surface and what is behind their eyes?’ Because there are so many things that we don’t allow other people to see.” It’s a technique she applied to Jane, her character in Big Little Lies, a middle-class single mother who became pregnant from a sexual assault and is attempting to fit in among the residents of a wealthy, insular, status-conscious coastal California town. “From the very first scene I shared with Shailene, I was mesmerized by how natural her instincts were,” says Woodley’s Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon. “There’s a scene where Jane explains her assault to [her son] Ziggy that moves me to tears every time I see it.” Although the series, which has won eight Emmys and averaged 10 million viewers per episode, seemingly ended after its second season in 2019, Woodley says she and her castmates are eager to shoot a third season. “We all constantly say, ‘When are we doing season three? How do we make that happen?’ ” Woodley says. “I’d like to say, knock on wood, that it is happening. The biggest thing is everyone’s schedules and getting the scripts written and just making a commitment.”
Woodley’s schedule, like the rest of the world’s, was dramatically slowed by the pandemic. “I loved it at first,” she says. “I hadn’t been home that long since I was maybe 17. It was a blessing in so many ways even to just hang the pictures on the wall that I’ve never gotten around to hanging and spend time with myself uninterrupted and bond with this guy” — she gestures at her dog. “He was originally supposed to be a police dog, but he was too nice and he got kicked out of the police academy,” she says. As the world now knows, Woodley also spent the pandemic getting close to Rodgers, whom she met through mutual friends who are musicians. Within months, they moved in together and shuttled between Green Bay and Los Angeles. “You could travel, but you had masks on,” Woodley says. “There was a sense of anonymity that otherwise I don’t think we would have had. We were really able to get to know one another the way we wanted to get to know one another and not have any noise or chaos around us.” She helped Rodgers prepare to host Jeopardy!, which he did in April, and they shared caring for their dog. Woodley, who had never seen a football game before dating Rodgers, was unprepared for the intense response to their partnership, as when a promotional video they shot at Disney World for Disney Parks in April with her wearing Mickey Mouse ears and Rodgers talking about their “cuddle time” went viral.
Woodley has industry friends, like her Spectacular Now and Divergent castmate Miles Teller, who traveled to Hawaii with his wife, Woodley and Rodgers in May. But most of her socializing, she says, is with people from her off-camera life, like two women she met on a train platform in Spain while backpacking. She has reached the age where most of her friends are getting married and having children, and she spent the morning of this interview planning a bachelorette party for a friend. “It’s a lot of trying to navigate experiences for others that you love so much, though you’ve never been through them yourself,” Woodley says. “To hold that space and know what to say and how to say it but also be completely transparent that I have zero idea what it’s like to push a baby out of myself.”
In August, Woodley will start shooting the independent comedy Robots, opposite British comedian Jack Whitehall, from Borat writer Anthony Hines. “I’ve never really done a comedy before,” Woodley says. “I definitely have a lot of — anxiety is not the right way to describe it, but … the terror that I’m feeling for it is also what makes me know that I’m over-the-moon excited about it.”
While she’s adjusting to the new attention brought by her engagement to Rodgers, Woodley is committed to holding on to the honesty that has taken her this far. “It’s just easier, in my opinion, to be open,” she says. “I really don’t feel there’s any need to put on a face or be anything other than who you are because otherwise it’s exhausting. You always fucking remember the truth. … It’s really hard to keep up with the lies or the fabrications or the masks that we put on out of self-preservation. The only person that ends up coming back to haunt is ourselves.”
This story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.