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Shailene Woodley – a Californian who began appearing in commercials at the age of five, landed the lead in the TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager at 16 and earned a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress at 20 for playing George Clooney’s rebellious daughter in The Descendants – has a lot of ideals.

Robert Yager/NYT

The director Gregg Araki has a photo of Shailene Woodley on the set of their 2014 film, White Bird in a Blizzard. "It's just Shai, sitting by herself with her script, quiet, studying it, thinking about the scene," Araki, who's best known for directing Mysterious Skin, tells me in a phone interview. "Something about it is so moving to me. She's so serious about what she's doing."

White Bird, about a young woman coping with the disappearance of her tempestuous mother (available on DVD/VOD), is not the film people will think of when they recall what Woodley, 23, was up to in 2014. In theatres, it grossed a mere $34,000 – a stark contrast with the nearly $600-million raked in by her other two films last year, The Fault in Our Stars (teens dying of cancer fall in love) and Divergent (the first instalment in a series about teens who rebel against their dystopia. Its sequel, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, opens March 20). But it does represent one of Woodley's ideals: to do only work she's passionate about.

Woodley – a Californian who began appearing in commercials at the age of five, landed the lead in the TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager at 16 and earned a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress at 20 for playing George Clooney's rebellious daughter in The Descendants – has a lot of ideals. (She also has a coltish grace and excellent manners, and radiates commitment, even in a phone interview.) She prefers hand-written letters to e-mails and texts. She sunbathes her privates to feed them Vitamin D. She carries packets of chaga (powdered mushroom) to interviews, brushes her teeth with clay and wears rubber shoes that mimic being barefoot. She practises 5Rhythms, a kind of movement/meditation based on the idea that everything is energy, and connecting to it is a conduit to one's soul. ("You find your own movement," she told me. "It's pretty major for me.") And she hugs people on both their right and left sides, to keep their hearts balanced.

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"I'm constantly learning," Woodley says. "The planet always interests me." Lately she's been boning up on fracking, and pondering the question, "What is healthy?" which led to her "studying indigenous cultures around the world, and specifically the native cultures of southern California" to see how they ate.

"Food is an open-ended relationship," she continues. "Every few months I learn something new about my body and its connection to food." And though she tries "to always feel like my most authentic self," she admits, "that changes every day, because I feel we change every single day."

One of Woodley's beliefs – that she won't call herself a feminist, because to her the term "pits women against one another" – ticked off a lot of people, including me. But she stands by it. "I'd rather say I'm a creature of the planet," she says now. "I like to embrace all things."

So if her ideals are occasionally misguided, isn't that what youth is about? On screen, she's the real deal. I didn't buy Clooney's grief in The Descendants, but I did Woodley's. The Fault in Our Stars could have drowned in sentiment, but Woodley never let it; she gives her doomed character a core that makes her anger and sorrow feel utterly specific. Her seriousness elevates Divergent above the Hunger Games-wannabe it could have been. And in the post-Descendants limelight, when she was awash in scripts, she chose Araki's moody tone poem (which called for full nudity) over more commercial fare.

"Shai approaches work from a purely creative place," Araki says. "It's not about the money or her career. It's about a passion that takes over her life. She's so emotionally open, so honest and natural, audiences immediately respond to her. It's refreshing, her realness."

"I related to the [White Bird] character's false maturity, which I definitely had as a teenager, this bravado and courage, wanting to be older than I was," Woodley says. "I think we can all relate to adolescence, where you're seeing things in the world for the first time, and you feel that your ideas are new and progressive, and nobody else in the world has ever thought like you before. Then you leave high school and realize that the entire world thinks like you do, and you're really not that much of an individual." She laughs.

Her attraction to the Divergent franchise was also personal. "I love the fact that it talks about things like genocide, and deals with young people handling guns in a tragic manner," she says. "I'm not an actor so I can have power or control. I'm an actor because I love being on film sets, and the artistic creativity that comes with that. But if I'm going to do a big-budget film that reaches a lot of eyes and ears, I love the idea that it puts out a powerful message."

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Though she took a beating for her definition of feminism, Woodley chose to see it as a learning experience – though perhaps not the one you'd imagine. "For me it was a realization that it's none of my business what other people think of me," she says. "I think that grew me up a lot. When you're younger, you're eager to prove yourself. The second that you realize it's none of your business what other people think of you – whether you prove yourself or don't, whether you're given a label by others or you give yourself a label – I think there's a lot of freedom and liberation that comes with living your life for yourself, within the rules of your own integrity. Then you can interact with others from a place of a grounded interior. Versus trying to get your point across.

"The only thing I really know is how I like to live my life," she sums up. "I think it's remarkable that we're able to be inspired by others, but I don't think there's any point in trying to change another's view or opinion based on your own." Smile at Woodley's naiveté if you want. But that's an idea worth taking seriously.

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