Shailene Woodley is bundled up underneath a blanket, her hands balancing a cup of piping-hot green tea as she stares out the window at the green of Central Park.
“Come in my nook,” she says.
The 27-year-old actress—of Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and Big Little Lies fame—is in New York to promote her partnership with American Express, #BackOurOceans, wherein the company has committed to helping remove as much as 1 million pounds of marine plastic. It’s a pretty organic union for Woodley, herself an outspoken environmental activist who started an environmental nonprofit at 19, was arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and currently serves as an Oceans Ambassador for Greenpeace. Just last month, she went on a journey to the Sargasso Sea to study how microplastics are harming marine life.
“Dude, I’ve been on so many planes I don’t even fuckin’ know what day it is!” she exclaims. “But with American Express, they’re in a position to drive consumer-based change from their level, and the more corporations are willing to do that because consumers are demanding that, the more that will lead to true progressive change.”
With that, we discuss the environment, whether she’s still backing Bernie Sanders in 2020, and much more.
How was your Greenpeace trip to the Galapagos? It looked pretty extraordinary on the Instagram.
It was wild. It was spiritually, mentally and emotionally profound just to be on the water, to be disconnected from land and the chaos of everyday life, but emotionally and mentally it was also very, very hard and sad, because I was able to witness firsthand the ramifications of the decisions that we make on land every day, and fuck, I’m usually very optimistic, but it was hard to be super optimistic when you’re out there witnessing a piece of microplastic once every three seconds per, like, square inch. The amount of waste that’s in our oceans, and the lack of technology right now to—at scale—accurately and properly clean them up, is devastating. But there’s hope in innovation.
You’ve been environmentally conscious from a pretty young age, and co-founded a nonprofit as a teenager. How did that come to be?
I just always cared about trees and about the ocean. I don’t really know; I came into the world that way. Maybe in a past life I was a fucking tree, who knows! There was something about nature to me that was so neutral that no matter what was happening at my home or as a child, I could be in nature and it was neither for me or against me—it just was. It had a presence, and it was something that I learned from. In high school or middle school, where there was chaos with girls or boys or the drama of being a human being and emotional creature, nature helped diffuse that for me. It reminded me that none of that stuff matters. It was kind of the greatest friend I had growing up in a way, because it gave me nothing but support.
My girlfriend has me using the metal straws. What sort of practical things do you do—or would recommend doing—to pitch in and help out?
“Practical” and “comfortable” is the metal straw thing, becoming mindful…
I told her if I fall and stab myself with the metal straw that’s in my pocket then she’s paying for my medical bills.
Yeah, she’s getting you a new liver. [Laughs] Stainless-steel water bottles, bringing your own bags to the grocery store are simple things we can all do. The more difficult, uncomfortable decisions and lifestyle changes we can all make that will make a bigger impact in the long haul is, going to your store managers and saying, “Look, I’m really uncomfortable with these plastic bags, and I have a petition that I got a hundred of your customers to sign, and we really want paper bags,” or going to your local mayor or school board and saying, “I don’t want my child’s burritos wrapped in plastic anymore”—or whatever it may be. Those conversations are uncomfortable to have, but they help move the needle. We’re not protesting you; we’re coming to you and saying we want something to look different.
How do you manage to stay optimistic given the news about the environment—that climate change could pose an “existential threat” by 2050—and that the office of the presidency is occupied by people with no interest in saving the environment?
It’s kind of the same thing I was saying about nature as a kid: you need to drown out the noise and pay attention to what matters. What matters is love. What matters is human connection. Bleeding further out of that, what matters is survival. If we truly want to sustain our species, we should pay attention to species that are going extinct, but we also need to realize that we’re kind of in that position as well. If we don’t have a planet, if we don’t have certain animals, if we don’t have a functional, healthy ecosystem, we’re not going to make it. So, do I waste my time with the distractions and the noise of certain politicians or will I put all of my energy into education and knowledge—not for other people, but for myself, and to learn how I can change and help my small bubble of a community. Really, the power always lies with the people, and we’ve become disillusioned because we’ve been told over and over again that we’re powerless, but if every single person raised their hand and said, “I don’t want this anymore,” it would change in two seconds. The problem is that we don’t know how to communicate with each other and find one thing that we can all get behind.
There are so many things.
There are so many things, but really, there’s only one thing—and it’s truly love. You break down any social injustice, any environmental injustice, and it comes down to: we all want to be loved, we all want to give love, we all want to be seen, we all want to be told we’re important, we’re worthy, and that we matter, and none of that is happening. We’re trying to repair everything that’s wrong on our planet with Band-Aids, but we’re not getting to the root of the root, which is we don’t know how to communicate anymore or admit when we’re wrong.
Have you been paying attention to the Democratic candidate debates so far?
I missed the last one because I was traveling, but yeah.
Are you still Feeling the Bern?
I mean, yeah. Look, I’m not going to get behind any particular candidate right now—it’s just too early—but where Bernie lies, and his values and his standards and his policies, I’m very much in alignment with. I’m also in alignment with a lot of Elizabeth Warren’s policies and standards. At the end of the day, we just need to fucking get a good person in office. So, I’m putting a lot of my energy towards Bernie Sanders’ campaign—not so much for Bernie Sanders at this moment but for politics in general, and just trying to get people passionate and excited for the 2020 election. But I will forever in my heart be an “I Love Bernie” person, because I just think that what that man has done for our country and our world—I spent a lot of the last year overseas, and more people know about Bernie Sanders in other parts of our world than I think they even do in America, because American politics affect so many different countries that people internationally recognize how much good he’s done, and how he’s brought issues to the table that weren’t being talked about before.
He’s certainly helped move the entire Democratic Party’s agenda further left.
He switched the GPS of the Democratic Party. He put in new coordinates.
You said you were trying to increase interest in the 2020 election. With millennials and voting, what do you say to young people who tell you, well, I’m disillusioned with what’s going on having lived under Bush and Trump, and fuck it, I’m not sure I can make a difference.
I feel similarly in a lot of ways. How do you encourage people to vote when they’re handed a provisional ballot on Election Day? How do you encourage people to vote when the nearest polling booth is five miles away, and you don’t have a car and have no way to get there and you’re raising your four children?
It’s crazy that it’s not a holiday.
It’s crazy that it’s not a holiday, and it’s crazy that it’s not accessible to all communities. It’s very real that for marginalized communities, polling locations are very inaccessible. So for me, the empowerment and the encouragement and the mobilization comes from a place of community. Of course everyone should vote in 2020, but I love focusing on our small communities, because it’s easy with the noise to feel that everything is huge in scope—which it is, and at scale it’s massively important—but real, direct change comes when you’re dealing with it firsthand. It’s so much fun to show up to your community town hall meetings, raise your hand, say, “I don’t agree with this,” and then several months later see that you affected change just by raising your hand. I encourage everyone to vote in 2020—do it for your future babies!—but also talk to people and express where your concerns are.
I remember the day Trump was elected, and it very much seemed like a referendum on women in this country—to elect someone president who treats women so grotesquely. How does it feel to be a young woman in America in 2019?
You know what? It’s fucking awesome to be a woman in 2019, because so many women are coming together and being vulnerable together, and so many women are saying things now to one another that we never did. I feel blessed because I’ve always had a circle of sisters in my life since I was young, but there are conversations I’m having in my industry, there are conversations I’m having at grocery stores. The other day—this might be too much information—I was having this personal experience and talking in a [bathroom] stall, and the woman next to me started talking to me about the issue, and then another did two stalls down, and this was in a bathroom in D.C., and then we all got out of the stalls and looked at one another, three women strangers in a bathroom, and had a really beautiful, emotional experience. If we weren’t where we were at in our country, I don’t know that that conversation would have been had, and so much healing came from it. Not that there aren’t traumatic things happening every single second or grave challenges, but there’s room for change within our deep, female selves that before perhaps we didn’t think there was room for. I think there’s been a giant shift. At the end of the day, as women, we can say “this isn’t fair,” but unless we feel in ourselves a sense of deep value, how are we going to make the change that even we want to make? What I’m seeing with women right now is a spark in a revolution of self-identity, and self-identification, and true self-worth, which is really what we need because that’s where true equality will come into play.
Speaking of quality, I read through the Big Little Lies Season 2 drama, and as a big fan of Andrea Arnold’s, it very much seems like she was undermined by a powerful man on the show and had her vision for it altered. I’m curious what your thoughts on that are now that she show’s aired.
Let’s just say I’m Switzerland in this scenario. I’m just neutral. I’m taking the Swiss stance.
That’s been the stance of the cast. It seems a bit strange, given that it’s a show dominated by women, to have this powerful dude come in and do that.
Is there going to be a third season?
I don’t know if it’s happening or not. People like it! I love it, because I get to work with my friends. I’d love there to be a third season so we can all get back together again and have a ball.
How do you feel your career is going? There was the Divergent stuff, but as a viewer it seems like you really shine in more intimate, character-driven pieces like The Spectacular Now, which is such a lovely film.
Let’s just say after Divergent I took like a year off from acting. It’s demanding in a different way. That particular project was very demanding because we had a deadline to turn out a product, so the creativity levels involved weren’t as high as they could’ve been because of the deadlines. But I feel like the luckiest fucking person on the planet with the career I have and the people I get to work with right now. I’m in a place where I don’t quantify the project based on budget, which is what I used to do. If it was too big of a budget I’d get worried or if it was a studio that was giant I’d get worried, but I don’t have any of that now. It just comes down to the script and the people involved. Something that happens in our industry is, the more success you have the more direct offers you get, and every time you wonder, “Am I attached to this project because my name is going to pull in money from China, or am I attached to this project because the director genuinely thinks I’m the only person who can play this character?” And most of the time, it doesn’t feel like the latter. The worst jobs I’ve ever done are when I’ve taken a project on that I knew from the beginning I wasn’t the best person to breathe air into that character’s lungs, but I did it for various reasons. That’s something I’m very mindful of right now. I also live by the notion that slow is fast. I don’t work unless I’m passionate about something. It always comes down to passion.
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