To say that Shailene Woodley isn't your average famous person is an understatement. The 26-year-old may have starred in blockbusters like The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent, wracked up awards nominations for projects like Big Little Lies and The Spectacular Now, and befriended celebs like Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney, but she's also homeless. And not a big fan of cell phones. Or TV. Or anything, really, that doesn't fit into a carry-on suitcase. Basically, Woodley has spent the last several years couch-surfing across the world, with only a few possessions and no actual house to call her own. Her controversial choices have put her at odds with the Hollywood norm — which, ironically enough, made her a perfect fit to play a free-spirited, nomadic sailor in her new movie Adrift.
"I think that’s why my friends Aaron [Kandell] and Jordan [Kandell] thought of me initially for this role, because they knew my vagabond spirit and they’ve seen me live out of a backpack in Hawaii and hike all day," says Woodley, referring to Adrift's screenwriters when we speak on the phone.
When the Kandells first gave the actor the script a few years back, she explains, she immediately felt a connection to the true story of a woman who chose to spend months at sea in the 1980s alongside her fiance before tragedy struck. To travel across the ocean together, Tami and Richard (Sam Claflin) gave up many things that most of us would consider essential: fresh food, real shelter, dry land. It might seem like a risky move to some, but to Woodley, Tami's decision made perfect sense.
"My life has sort of been like that," she explains. "Tami left home when she was 18 so she could understand what it was like to be accountable and to be responsible for herself, and I do feel that my lifestyle choices over the past decade have really aided me in my deep understanding and connectivity to what her inner psychology must be like."
Just because Woodley understood Tami's motivations for setting sail doesn't mean that getting into character as Tami was easy, however. To convincingly play a sailor, Woodley started taking lessons three months before production on Adrift, out June 1, began. "I really wanted to immerse myself in that world and understand the culture and the physicality of what it takes to be a sailor, because it’s hard work," she explains now. "It looks romantic, but it’s so physically taxing and mentally taxing. The reward and the payoff is great, but in order to get that, you have to be willing to work your ass off. I wanted to learn what that discipline is like."
Thankfully, Woodley had the real Tami to rely on for inspiration. Now going by Tami Oldham Ashcraft, the sailor, who co-authored a memoir about her experiences called Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea in 2002, was a frequent presence on Adrift's set. For Woodley, having Ashcraft watch her film understandably caused complicated emotions.
"I felt this deep fear or anxiety that a) it would be a traumatic experience for her to sort of relieve it and see it and see me pretending to be her, and then b) I just wanted to be the absolute best version as an actor of her that I could possibly be to do her justice," Woodley explains. Ultimately, though, she felt that being on the Adrift set was a good thing for Ashcraft. "I’m not speaking for her, but from my perspective and from conversations we’ve had, being part of this project was healing a little bit," the actor says.
As a producer on Adrift as well, Woodley did all she could to ensure that Ashcraft felt as comfortable as possible on set. "Playing her and knowing that we were going to share this story with the world, I felt that it was my responsibility to do way more than just act, and to go above and beyond to make sure that the script was as truthful as possible," she says.
Adrift marks Woodley's first foray into narrative producing (she executive produced a documentary on Standing Rock in 2017), but she doesn't plan on it being the last. And being surrounded by actors-turned-producers like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman on Big Little Lies has helped her understand what goes into the behind-the-scenes work.
"There is so much that I learn from those ladies by example," Woodley says. "And not just the ladies themselves, but their producing partners — I think that’s what makes a brilliant producer, is when you have a strong team to stand with you. Reese is as good as her team, and Nicole is as good as her team."
And perhaps after Adrift, Woodley will similarly have a team of her own — although knowing the actor, whatever path she chooses won't look anything like that of her peers.