Shailene Woodley loves nature, even when it could kill. In Adrift, she suffers through the real-life story of Tami Oldham, who survived 41 days marooned in the Pacific after her two-person yacht was totaled by Hurricane Raymond. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur opens with the storm’s concussive aftermath: Tami, bloody and panicked, screaming for her fiancé Richard (Sam Claflin) as dark water licks at her wounds. It’s horrible, but the film itself is a tempest of emotions, spinning from Tami’s exhausted efforts to keep herself and Richard alive, to romantic flashbacks of the couple’s falling in love with each other and with the sea.
“This isn’t a story of woman versus nature,” insists Woodley in Marina del Rey, California, steps away from a hundred boats tucked safely in their docks. “It’s a woman learning to commune even deeper with nature after experiencing such a traumatic event.” As she’s wearing a crisp, striped black-and-white pantsuit that makes her look like the world’s most professional pirate, you’re primed to agree with everything she thinks about the ocean.
And you should. She’s spent months soaking in it, and years fighting for it in her urgency to protect the planet. Today’s Shailene isn’t exactly the truth-bomb-spewing hippie who used to spend her interviews convincing people to toss their store-bought toothpaste and tan their vaginas. You sense that she’s taken stock of how her passions have been chopped into sound bites, as happened four years ago when Twitter seized on her discomfort with the word feminist. Yet she still greets every new person with a hug, and she still sticks up for her beliefs while sheltering herself from media squalls.
You met the real Tami Oldham when she visited the set. Did you get an insight into what it took for her to get back on a boat and keep being a sailor?
I wondered that all the time with her. We haven’t spoken about it, but I feel like it’s almost something she can’t articulate. Her affinity for the ocean far extends anything my mind could possibly conceive. She had to dig deep and find forgiveness within the reverence that she holds for the ocean. And I think that forgiveness is what has propelled her to continue this dance with the sea. She had to rely on the ocean and on Mother Nature in order to survive. So even though it is the thing that put her in the most dire situation, it’s also the thing that kept her alive. And I think that she recognized that, and instead of resenting the ocean, she found appreciation and gratitude for it.
Right now, the ocean needs all the help it can get. You were a teenager when you filmed The Descendants in Hawaii, which became this important moment for your commitment to environment. How did Fiji compare?
I had never been to Fiji. We were in Suva, the country’s capital, and it’s not a place that as a tourist you’d ever go to. It’s very local. It’s very political. And I think because we weren’t situated in a resort-like environment, or a faux version of what Fiji really is from a cultural perspective, we got to know the underbelly of the country very quickly. We got to learn about the culture and their local practices from the locals themselves. It’s very different from Hawaii, because Hawaii’s under the jurisdiction of America. The Fijian government operates differently. But as far as the people go, there’s this joy and desire to place family and community as the priority over anything else. That’s very similar to Hawaii. It’s something that probably comes with a lot of island life. Because you’re stuck on an island, you’re forced either to get along or not. It’s much easier to create community and have one another’s backs.
Maybe we’ll never solve America because we’re just too big.
Yeah. There’s so many people here.
In Tami’s flashback scenes where she’s falling in love with Sam Claflin’s Richard, she just looks like a normal, awesome surfer girl. She doesn’t have that perfectly curled fake beach babe hair. Is that a conversation that you have to have? “Let me look like a normal person”?
Obviously, it was something I felt very passionate about. I didn’t want her to have makeup on. We never even did mascara. It was always just eyelashes. I wanted that sense of authenticity, because I know that life so well. Living in Hawaii — and having spent much of my life overseas and in other parts of the world besides America — makeup, clothing, it’s not a priority when all you want to do is hang out with your friends and surf. What is priority is making enough money to put gas in your tank to get your surfboard to the beach. Baltasar [Kormákur], our director, was completely onboard with that as well. Had this movie been aesthetically different, you wouldn’t connect with her because she would have seemed like a fabricated version of something that she’s not. Had Tami in real life worn a lot of makeup, we would have done that. But she didn’t. She never had makeup on. She always had salt in her hair and dirt under her fingernails, and bruises and scratches from sailing. We wanted to portray her as honestly as possible.
Which means, in the scene when she jumps off a cliff, you jump off a cliff. Had you done that before?
I grew up in the water — oceans and lakes — and I grew up camping. So cliff diving, and pretty much everything we did in this movie, was was nothing foreign to me because I’ve been in those situations before. Obviously, not the life-or-death situations. But swimming in these large swells and being in river gorges, I was comfortable in those landscapes.
Is acting like jumping off a cliff? Like, deciding you’re going to take the plunge on a script and here goes the next four months of your life?
It can be, but it doesn’t feel scary. It doesn’t feel like you’re jumping off of a cliff into a rabbit hole. It feels like you’re jumping off of a cliff into a lake, into something that you know you’re going to be supported by. For me, I do a lot of cross-referencing before I say yes to a project — or before I chase after a project. You want to make sure the script is in a good place, you want to know that the director is a good human. Regardless of how talented anyone is, I think it’s important to have a “No jerks” policy. To work with actors who are inspired to be actors, and who love what they do. So that when you jump off the cliff, you have an idea that it’s going to hold certain truths regardless of what the external environment provides.
Baltasar being a literal Viking, did you feel extra safe doing stunts on a ship?
You definitely establish a certain confidence when your director’s willing to do everything he’s putting you through, first.
He would dive into the water first?
Yeah, he would show exactly what he wanted before we did it. At least in the beginning. Once he knew what my abilities were, and Sam’s, then we did it on our own. But it was nice to know that he wouldn’t put us in a situation that he wouldn’t himself go into. And it was comforting to know that we had an incredible marine team. Baltz was a competitive sailor growing up in Iceland. Our DP Bob Richardson has lots of sailing experience. So it makes you feel more comfortable when the boat is keeling over on edge, but your director’s calm and your DP is calm and your marine team is calm. It establishes a certain confidence in yourself, as well.
Do you have a strategy for how to survive if we all suddenly have to fend for ourselves?
I think a lot of survival is is mental, psychological. And then a little bit is skill-based. Tami had the mental skills and the mental capacity to survive. But had she not known how to use a sextant, she wouldn’t have been able to navigate her way to Hawaii. What we all can take away from this movie, seeing as it took place in the ’80s, is we’re so dependent on technology that it’s important to pay attention to some of the basic survival skill sets that aren’t reliant on batteries or gas or oil.
Tell me about the day a hundred dolphins showed up on set.
That was magical. There were so many moments doing this movie that felt like blessings from whatever — however you want to interpret. We were meant to film a scene where a whale was breaching, and as we were taxiing out to the middle of the ocean, we were all joking about how amazing it would be if a whale showed up. We hadn’t seen any whales, so it was so out of left field that a whale would show up. And then right when we began filming, one dolphin appeared, and then another dolphin, and then hundreds of dolphins surrounded our boat and stayed with us the entire time we shot that scene. And the second we finished it, they disappeared. We didn’t get a whale, but we got hundreds of dolphins literally within a foot of Sam’s and my hands. To me, it was divine. It felt to me like nature was blessing me.
What do you even do when that happens?
You want to jump in. It took everything I had not to just jump in the water and swim with them.
What were your dreams like making Adrift?
Like, my heart’s desires?
Like, your actual dreams when you went to bed at night.
Wow, that’s a great question. For most of this movie, I was not eating dinner, because we had to lose so much weight that I would have a glass of wine and pass out at the end of the night. So I think my slightly inebriated mind just didn’t dream while I was doing the movie.
You were sent the script for Adrift the day you got arrested protesting the Dakota Pipeline. Did the cops know who you were when they handcuffed you?
I got the script around that time, which is why I didn’t read it. I can only assume that they knew I was Facebook Live-ing it and there were tens of thousands of people watching.
What was your year of probation like? What couldn’t you do?
You’ve gotta be careful. Don’t do anything that’s against the law. Make sure that you lay low. Basically the probation that I was on just meant I couldn’t break the law.
Which is tricky because when you’re arrested for protesting, that means you … can’t protest?
Yeah. It’s tricky to live in America right now.
You’ve mentioned that you’re thinking about getting involved in politics. Looking at the rise of the Parkland kids, it feels like people in their 20s might really be able to run for office and get taken seriously.
It’s an exciting time for progressives anywhere to run for office. And I think we also have to reframe our idea of what running for office looks like. When we think about specific positions in politics, you think about Congress, governors, the Senate. We don’t often think about school boards, city council, mayors. Even mayors are quite big positions, but there are so many small positions that make a huge impact in the political landscape. People in their 20s have so much to offer, specifically because of the technology that’s available today. It’s a brilliant opportunity for people to start taking more control of their community and demanding that their voices are heard. Ultimately, our government works for the people — as much as we pretend that they don’t, they really do — and we have the power to change everything. Whether it’s by our lifestyle choices, or using our voices to vote, or using our voices in a position of power on the political side, We, the People are the ones to make the difference.
Women in Hollywood are coming together and having conversations about where we want this moment to go. I’m imagining those conversations are great on the set of Big Little Lies.
I’ve been very fortunate to have always worked with women. One of the first big projects I did was a TV show [The Secret Life of the American Teenager] where half of the cast were women and half of the cast were male. From there, even Divergent had Zoë Kravitz. I’ve always worked with women. And I think it’s a sign of the times, me being younger and growing up in a different world. But it’s also perhaps luck. It’s important to talk about and explore the complexities of both females and males. Psychology is fascinating. And if we don’t have balance between that exploration of psychology and genders, then there’s obviously going to be an imbalance in the way that we all look at the world.
That sounds kind of like what you were driving at when you were quoted saying that you weren’t a feminist. Was that quote taken out of context?
And that quote was so long ago. It was also in a different time of feminism. You know, feminism has had so many forms over its many, many decades of being around. To me, I say today that I resonate as a feminist. But take that word out of it — a word is a word, a movement is a movement — practice and action are what actually makes a difference. So I can call myself a feminist all day long. Or I can say I’m not a feminist all day long. But if my daily interaction with the world is taking steps to uplift, empower — not only women, but also men in their relationships with women, and women and their relationships with men, and women to women, and improving sisterhood with women, and changing our judicial system to reflect that which society is asking for — that, to me, is where my greatest interest lies. But for the sake of the movement, and also for my beliefs, I think at this point it is important to use that word as a tool just for means of other people understanding who you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.