Talking to actress Shailene Woodley is like a breath of fresh air. Kind, eloquent, impassioned, and intelligent, she doesn’t seem capable of giving a prepackaged answer to a question. Lounging in a comfortable looking chair in a downtown Toronto hotel room on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, she’s here to talk about her role in controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone’s Snowden (in theatres Friday, September 16, 2016 following its debut at TIFF earlier in the week), but if you bring up anything she likes talking about, she’ll happily ditch the need to sell a film (one that she’s quite proud of) to engage on any number of topics.
In Snowden, she plays Lindsay Mills, the longtime girlfriend of real life NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Far from merely acting as a supportive loved one, Stone has crafted for Woodley a role that helps to inform Edward’s eventual shift in political ideologies away from an initially conservative viewpoint to more of a centrist one. Together the actors explore the ups and downs of a relationship one has when half of the couple keeps secrets for a living and internalizes most of their feelings. Woodley’s Lindsay is the yin to Snowden’s yang.
We caught up with Woodley to chat about the rarity of landing such a strong female role, how she came to her own personal forms of activism, and how Edward Snowden’s actions personally affected her own life.
What kind of contact did you have with Lindsay before filmmaking and what were your impressions of her?
Shailene Woodley: I actually didn’t meet Lindsay until three months into production, and it was delightful to finally meet her after all that time, but also really intimidating because I had just created a character based on her, and she was coming to a film set where I had to play her in front of her. (laughs) But Oliver and Kieran [Fitzgerald], the co-writer, had met her many times while writing the screenplay, and they sort of had a good idea of what to base her character on.
“Movies like these really are once in a lifetime opportunities to present a story to the world that’s unbiased and elicits thought and encourages individual research and individual observation.”
One of the things I love about the movie the most is that it feels like a movie not about a controversial figurehead, but about real people. There’s a real love story here, and a real story about someone showing concern for a loved one who’s having problems coping with their job. What’s it like taking on a project of this weight and magnitude and portraying them first and foremost as everyday people instead of what people normally get in headlines about Edward?
Shailene Woodley: That’s the beauty of what Kieran and Oliver did with this movie. I get chills thinking about it. They delivered a product that questions every judgement that has ever existed about Edward Snowden, whether it’s a good judgement or a negative judgement, by offering up simply that this is Edward Snowden’s narrative, and that narrative is grounded in humanity. It’s so easy to take him for granted and make him a poster child of sorts. That’s what journalists, the Obama administration, and all sorts of various interest groups have painted him out to be. To many now, he’s just a face and a name, but here you see the humanity behind him, and that relates to you as an audience member. Because of that, it affects you differently than if you heard about his story in a sterile environment.
That was one of the most important things for me with Lindsay. It could have been a political thriller with a hot girlfriend and a flashy CIA backstory. It could have been made into this really sexy story that could be mass marketed, but that was never what we wanted to do. We wanted to recreate the trials and tribulations of these two human beings who are alive right now and in Russia at this moment, as we speak, in real time, and to show what they went through and continue to go through.
Lindsay and Ed were already together for ten years when Edward turned 29 and did what he did. We wanted to obviously explore the arc of two people who are falling in love for the first time and the awkward absurdity and excitement of that up through the point where they become comfortable together as a couple and then to when they become annoyed with each other as a couple, at times, and then the points where they feel desperate for one another.
Oliver was really open to character discussion and shifts in dialogue to make it sound like real and grounded people.
It seems like this is the kind of role and project that some people might go to great lengths to try and get, so were there any special lengths you went to in order to get the part of Lindsay?
Shailene Woodley: Yeah, definitely. I wrote Oliver a letter first thanking him for making this movie. I did ask to possibly audition in the letter, but mostly I wrote to let him know I truly wanted to thank him. I was 23 at the time, and when Snowden released what he did in 2013 it dramatically affected my life and my psyche. What Edward did meant a lot to me. And when I heard about it, I knew that Oliver Stone was the only person who could make a movie like this. And I knew that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the only person who could do justice to Edward Snowden and bring him to life. I saw what an impact this film could and would have on society. I wanted to be in this movie not only for the experience of working with such amazing talents, but to eventually be at a point where I am in the room with people like you to talk about it. Generally, as an actor, you really don’t do movies because you want to talk to people about it, but for something like this it’s something you just want to talk about. I haven’t been happier talking about a film.
Edward’s story really affected me. I think I was a part of the last generation to not really have smartphones and such at their disposal all the time. I got my first iPhone during my senior year of high school, but my little brother who’s three year’s younger than me had one throughout high school. We wouldn’t have once called three years a generational gap, but we do now because of how technology moves so fast, I can see differences with him and his group of friends and how I function in my life and with my friends.
When I first got my iPhone I always thought that there would be a way for people to record us and see us, and that people were watching us, but I was kind of joking about it. I mean, we all read “1984“, so that’s a pretty easy joke to make. Then all of a sudden for that to become a reality and be validated by someone who did work for the NSA, that’s when it hit me. I read a lot of articles about it, but I’ll admit that I didn’t do too much to change my lifestyle at the time versus now when I do feel the need to take certain precautions and extra personal security measures.
As for working with Oliver, I didn’t really grow up with film in my life. Things are different now, obviously, but I think I had only seen Born on the Fourth of July before becoming an actor, and that was it. I didn’t have that sort of thing for Oliver Stone that a lot of people have. I feel kind of fortunate that I don’t have that with any director, really. Maybe Darren Aronofsky because I just love his films. But what I did love was Oliver’s TV series The Untold History of the United States because I love that he would approach things everyone thought they knew a lot about from different perspectives. While working with him, I tried to stay as quiet as possible and just observe because his brain is just truly unprecedented in the way it functions. We often have to remind ourselves to think outside of the box and to look at something without immediately judging it for what it is. Oliver’s brain does that naturally. It’s unnatural for him to think in a linear fashion, and that’s a rare opportunity to work with someone like that. I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get a chance to work with another person who possesses that type of genius and the intellectual ability to do that. I can’t articulate with words properly how he thinks, and if you ever meet him, you’ll see what I mean. It’s shocking because you’re just not used to people thinking so differently, but it’s so beautiful to behold. In his thinking differently from everyone else, he empowers us as individuals to widen our horizons and broaden our perspectives.
“People use the word activism, but all activism is, is trying to create a better world not only for ourselves but also for generations to come. If I see something that causes suppression or oppression on anything from a person to a tree, I’m not going to stay silent. Staying silent doesn’t change anything.”
Now that people have been seeing the film and you’ve been out talking about it, what have you noticed people have been discussing with you? Is it more the politics of what Edward Snowden did or do they want to talk more about the film?
Shailene Woodley: People have really been talking mostly about the film. Every now and then a journalist will ask something about the politics behind it, and I just say that I can’t answer that because I’m not Edward Snowden. (laughs) I can only speak from my perspective.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so thoroughly committed to the role of Edward Snowden in terms of how the character looks, sounds, and even moves. Does it make your job easier to have someone that committed to their appearance in the role working alongside you?
Shailene Woodley: Absolutely. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s for a long time, but what’s so beautiful about this human being is that he does things that most actors wouldn’t have done. I think most actors who got a role like this would have made the role all about them. It could have been the kind of performance where an actor showcases what they could do with the character, which isn’t always a bad thing. But what Joe did was to deeply and thoroughly commit to the integrity of this man who’s alive right now really is. To witness the humble nature of an artist who was creating something not for himself, but for someone else that this artist believed in, was unbelievable and so inspiring.
You said at the TIFF press conference for Snowden that awareness leads to empowerment, so is there anything that you really want to learn more about now in your life?
Shailene Woodley: Everything! (laughs) I mean, who doesn’t want to learn everything about everything? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be empowered about all issues? I can’t define that to a singular issue. Literally everything. [points to a lamp in the room] I would love to start learning how this lamp was made because we could look at everything about what goes into every part of this lamp. We could look at the science of it down to a molecular level on one hand in terms of functionality, or in terms of production we could be looking at any number of issues tied to it. It could lead to reading about climate change, ecofeminism, labour laws, immigration, and all sorts of things just by looking at this lamp. (laughs) I’m one of those people who once they learn about one thing, they want to learn about everything associated with the first thing they learned about. It’s all connected.
“It could have been a political thriller with a hot girlfriend and a flashy CIA backstory. It could have been made into this really sexy story that could be mass marketed, but that was never what we wanted to do. We wanted to recreate the trials and tribulations of these two human beings who are alive right now and in Russia at this moment, as we speak, in real time, and to show what they went through and continue to go through.”
The story of Edward Snowden is one of a man who became an outspoken activist fighting for what he believes in, and how he came to believe what he does. Somewhat similarly, you have used your profile and standing to speak up for a lot of causes near and dear to your heart. Was there anything that you can think back to that informed your own view towards activism?
Shailene Woodley: The causes that I’m outspoken about, whether it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline, which I’ve been opposing and fighting for months, or working for the Bernie Sanders campaign, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the label is, it’s all social justice, equality, and planetary justice. I kind of always saw things in those terms. I mean, you can have a three year old who can see a piece of trash on the ground and know that it shouldn’t be there. People use the word activism, but all activism is, is trying to create a better world not only for ourselves but also for generations to come. To me, the public figure thing is just what I do, so there is the nature of that kind of awareness, but if I see something that causes suppression or oppression on anything from a person to a tree, I’m not going to stay silent. Staying silent doesn’t change anything. I think it was just learning to be honest. It’s also about being responsible. What we do will determine if my children will not just survive, but if they can thrive on a planet that isn’t five hundred degrees, and on a planet that doesn’t discriminate based on the colour of your skin, or a place where just because you’re a certain religion people will judge you, or a place where if you’re indigenous, people can just steal your land from you. I don’t want to birth my children into that world, and I do want to have kids, and part of why I support the things I believe in with all my heart and soul is because I want to make sure there are these kinds of changes.
So for you, something like Snowden, which is the rare kind of film these days to get a wide release that presupposes an intelligence on the part of the viewer, must be really rewarding. Especially one with such an intelligently written female leading role.
Shailene Woodley: I’m incredibly grateful. Movies like these really are once in a lifetime opportunities to present a story to the world that’s unbiased and elicits thought and encourages individual research and individual observation. But also, just to be a part of movie where I can talk about something of substance is a rarity, too. As you’re writing about this film or when you leave the theatre you’ll be thinking about mass surveillance or this man in Russia or how my life and your life are affected. That’s what democracy is, and when we can marry art with reality – and you’re right when you say that, and I believe these opportunities are few and far between – that’s when great things can happen.
And it’s nice to see that when it comes to female characters in film that things are changing. The roles for women are getting better. Ten years ago, I don’t think that was the case, but there are a lot more strong female characters and voices emerging. Sometimes it feels like a rarity, but it’s exciting now to see how things are starting to change.