Shailene Woodley On 'Secret Life,' Sexual Liberation, & Saturn Return

Tory Rust

Shailene Woodley is feeling the peak of her Saturn return. “Shit’s crazy, but in a really profound way,” the 28-year-old Scorpio and self-proclaimed astrology freak tells me. We’re chatting over a patchy Zoom connection; she’s sitting on the floor of her cabin in an undisclosed location on the West Coast. “Big life moments happen generally during Saturn return,” she continues. “People get married, get divorced, have a baby. But for me, I’m stuck in a house by myself with my own thoughts, during a global pandemic, and have to deal with all the things I’ve never dealt with.”

Woodley is quarantining in possibly the most extreme way — alone, in the woods, post-breakup — and her day-to-day sounds like a personal growth montage in a coming-of-age movie. She’s taken up painting, and is trying to shed her codependent tendencies. Sometimes, she lays on the floor and cries, and she’s OK with that. “I was in a relationship with someone and we were very much on the road to marriage and children,” says the actor, who was dating the rugby player Ben Volavola. But while filming her new movie Endings Beginnings (out April 17), Woodley had a major revelation. “I realized I was still at an age where I wasn’t able to fully commit. I couldn’t be available to him in the way that I wanted to be. I didn’t fully love myself.”

When we first meet Woodley’s character Daphne in Endings Beginnings, she’s in a similar place. She’s broken up with her boyfriend and has taken a six-month vow of celibacy. But after meeting best friends Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan), she begins sleeping with them both. Before filming, director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) gave the cast an 80-page outline of the movie and told them to make up the rest. “What improvising an entire movie does is forces you to be truthful in a way that even in your own life you’re not truthful,” Woodley says. “Because of that raw, vulnerable state we submitted to while performing these characters, I learned a lot about what was and wasn’t working in my personal life.”

Sex has loomed large in the lives of the characters Woodley plays since her breakout role on Secret Life of the American Teenager in 2008. “I can only speak [about my characters’ sex lives] through my experience with sex,” she says. “When I signed onto Secret Life, I read [three] episodes and I signed a contract for six years. [Those episodes] all hit home. I had friends in high school who were pregnant. It felt like everything that I wanted to be sending into the world.” But as the show progressed, so did its gospel of abstinence. Characters wore promise rings, vowed to save themselves until marriage, and shamed those who engaged in intercourse. Amy’s pregnancy became more of a cautionary tale than a progressive plotline.

“I love sex,” she says. “I think it is one of the most underrated, underappreciated, and undervalued experiences that we have.”

“There were a lot of things that were written into the scripts that not just me, but a lot of the cast, disagreed with,” Woodley says. “There were belief systems that were pushed that were different than my own. Yet legally I was stuck there. To this day it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. So being on Secret Life propelled me to be more vocal about my own belief systems.” Woodley went on to play a handful of tortured young heroines who came of age on screen in films like The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, and Divergent. “I lost my virginity like seven times on screen!” she exclaims. “I lost my own virginity in a really unromantic, unsexy way, [so] it’s very therapeutic for me that by playing these characters I was showing young women what they can wait for.”

But what is it that women wait for? For a long time, Woodley had what she considers to be an unhealthy, trauma-based relationship with sex, an experience she drew on to play single mother and sexual assault survivor Jane Chapman in Big Little Lies. “I have had very traumatic sexual experiences,” she says. “I translate[d] my personal trauma into what she was experiencing in the best way that I knew.” Woodley also fought to make sure that Jane’s healing process was as authentic as possible, especially when it came to her struggle to be intimate with Corey in Season 2. “There have been times in my personal life where [I] want to experience something with someone, but you’re so afraid because of whatever it is [so] you stop yourself,” she says.

Woodley’s own recovery included spending years in an open relationship. “I had a lover that taught me a lot about my own body and my own emotional connection to sex,” she adds. “That’s when I feel like I healed my relationship with sexuality — when this beautiful man came into my life and helped me walk through that journey.” Her sexuality is now core to who she is. “I love sex,” she says. “I think it is one of the most underrated, underappreciated, and undervalued experiences that we have.”

Now in the next phase of her personal growth — single, celibate thanks to social distancing, and in the throes of Saturn return — Woodley is focused on opening herself back up to love. “I was trying to use relationships to distract me from getting to know myself,” she says. Now, she’s out of places to hide. “I can’t run from myself. I can try, but my house is not that big.”

Virtual photography by Tory Rust