LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shailene Woodley calls fame “the F-word.”
“I’m fine with the other F-word,” the 21-year-old actress says. “But that F-word is too much.”
She better get ready. An actress since age 5, Woodley earned notice — and an Independent Spirit Award — for playing the angst-ridden teen daughter of George Clooney’s character in 2011′s “The Descendants.” Starting Friday, she can be seen in another indie, “The Spectacular Now.” She may also play Mary Jane in “The Amazing Spider-Man” franchise. And Woodley has just wrapped work on a project that could bring her “Twilight”-sized fame.
“I have a very, very fun life outside of this industry, so if anything were to not happen or if things got to be way too overwhelming … I will go and be an herbalist,” says the actress, folding her lithe frame and bare feet beneath her as she sips a cappuccino made from ground mushrooms. “I never want to stop. I want to act until the day that I’m not here anymore. But the day it becomes boring is the day I’ll quit.”
That’s not likely. Not only is Woodley “a crazy positive person by nature,” she just finished filming her most empowered role yet. She plays the lead in “Divergent,” the big-screen adaptation of the young-adult novel that’s been compared to “The Hunger Games.” And if it’s as popular as predicted when it hits theaters next year, Woodley may have to leave her anonymity behind.
“I’ll never, ever think of myself as famous, even if I ever get to the point of George Clooney … because I think you might go crazy if you start referring to yourself in those terms,” she says, considering a future marked by paparazzi and private entrances. “But the main thing for me is just, I’m me, and I live such an amazing life which I’m so lucky for and I have such amazing friends and the perfect family … that I don’t see anything changing.”
She’s already playing by her own rules where she can. She often skips makeup on red carpets to feel more like herself. And when she does submit to full regalia, she tucks a favorite crystal necklace beneath her designer dress. She also talks about herbs and the environment every chance she gets.
“In middle school, I became a really avid environmentalist,” she explains.
During a recent appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” Woodley showed off some echinacea flowers she picked while walking through New York City. During this interview, she shares the vials of herbal tinctures she typically travels with, and offers a visitor an herbal cappuccino like the one she’s drinking.
“I was able to talk about something that I love on a show that generally doesn’t talk about things like that, so there’s ways to have fun with it,” she says of her Fallon interview. “It’s cool to be in a position where I can maybe start shifting the views on what it means to be a young actor and what it means to be in this industry.”
Her grounded nature and ability to effortlessly reflect adolescent angst onscreen is why director James Ponsoldt chose Woodley for “The Spectacular Now.”
She plays Aimee Finicky, a shy, smart high-school senior who develops a relationship with classmate Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a popular, charming, hard-partying kid who takes life as it comes. Though they appear to be ill-matched, they help each other grow past self-imposed boundaries.
Ponsoldt says Woodley reminds him of Sissy Spacek, Barbara Hershey and Debra Winger — women who feel “a responsibility to play their characters with the highest intelligence… to not let themselves be cheapened or used as poor depictions of womanhood.”
“Shailene knows exactly who she is and I don’t think she feels like she has to sell herself out to have a career,” the director notes.
As for “Spider-Man,” she filmed some scenes as Mary Jane but was ultimately cut from the second installment, due in theaters next year. She says the script for the third chapter is still in development.
“We’re assuming MJ is in there, but they’re so tight lipped about it,” she says without a hint of longing or disappointment. “I would love to be MJ, but I think it’s just a matter of my schedule and their schedule.”
Woodley’s, of course, is full. She’ll start filming the independent medical drama “The Fault in Our Stars” with Laura Dern later this month, wrapping just in time for “Divergent” promotions to begin.
She credits her parents — psychologists who split when she was 14 — for helping her develop a strong foundation. When she first caught the acting bug at age 5 while accompanying a cousin to theater class in her hometown of LA suburb Simi Valley, Woodley begged her mom and dad to enroll her in the $700 program. She got an agent right away and made 60 commercials by the time she turned 11.
“I had three rules when I was growing up: I had to stay who I was, have fun and do well in school,” she recalls. “And if I constantly abided by all three of those, then I could continue to act.”
Woodley says she’s grateful to have grown gradually in the entertainment business, “so I’ve been able to get it in doses instead of all at once.”
It’s still scary when paparazzi follow her through the airport, which happened recently for the first time, but she’s applying her sunny attitude to the challenges of fame.
“There’s this obsession in our society and in our culture about actors,” she says. “The magazines and the excess and red carpets and the heels, they’re kind of terrifying. I’m able to handle it and it’s fun and I can enjoy it, but it’s terrifying on a human level, just looking at our culture and thinking, ‘In 50 years are we going to look back to this moment in time and roll our eyes?’”
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .