HEROINE 18 Cover Story

“I believe in the power of love more than I believe in anything else” – Shailene Woodley in conversation with Nicole Kidman
24 March 2023
Photographer Fabien Kruszelnicki

Shailene Woodley has a genuinely heartfelt openness to collaboration. This selfless attitude – at the core of Woodley’s outlook – has laid the groundwork for honest, raw and truthful performances that tread delicate lines of power and nuance – the characters she creates are questioning, striving, determined, and unnervingly relatable. Later this year, Woodley stars alongside Adam Driver as Lina Lardi in Michael Mann’s Ferrari.

Nicole Kidman worked with Woodley on the set of 2017’s Big Little Lies and an instant friendship was born out of trust. Today, two formidable powerhouses of cinema catch up, against the unseasonable backdrop of a snow-hewn LA sky.

dress by RICHARD QUINN SS23; mask by HOUSE OF MALAKAI; necklace by CARTIER

Nicole Kidman: Hi baby, how are you?
Shailene Woodley: I’m so good, how are you?

NK: I’m good, I’m in Nashville starting a film.
SW: You get to work there?! [gasps] The dream.

NK: Yes, with this extraordinary female director called Mimi Cave who you have to work with. I’m on a mission to find all these women who have made one or two films but now need to get real traction with their vision and support them.
SW: That’s what Jean-Marc [Vallée] was doing too, you’re carrying on watering things he wanted to do, that’s so beautiful. You’re so good at supporting people and figuring out ways to put it into action.

NK: This is about you! [both laugh] From the first moment I met you I have always felt incredibly close to you. I can just go into any conversation with raw honesty and a willingness to share anything, because it feels safe.
SW: I think for me what makes it feel safe is I know there is nothing that is too weird. We can be a little cuckoo for cocoa puffs – but we’re not! But other people might think we are! [laughs] I always feel safe in my existential weirdness or ideas.

NK: I don’t see it as weird.
SW: That’s why we’re safe! [both laugh]

NK: It’s just very easy. I’ve watched you change and grow and grow up as well because when we did the first Big Little Lies you were really young. You’ve been in this industry for… How old were you when you started?
SW: I was five, it’s been 26 years now, which is wild.

NK: Wow, I didn’t start until I was fourteen, which I still feel is early.
SW: It’s so young.

NK: I’ve had this conversation with Reese [Witherspoon] and Laura [Dern] because, strangely enough, we all started really young. You started really young – toddler young, I call it. [laughs] That comes with its own baggage, its own opportunities and joy but it is a very different path when you’ve started working in an adult world as a child, having to play by adult rules. But the desire when you’re young to be an adult, did you ever have that?
SW: Oh yeah, I always wanted to be at the adult’s table. It’s funny when people talk to me about being a child actor, they say, “You must’ve missed out on normal childhood.” In one respect, now I’m 31 and have gone through the metamorphosis of looking back on my life, understanding what patterns and conditioning run me and why I am the way I am, I’ve realised there have been a lot of things that are maybe negative about being a child actor. But, on the other hand, my parents didn’t care about it, they were very supportive but they didn’t put any importance on it. I was playing with Barbies until I was fourteen, I was such a late bloomer and had such an innocent, naive childhood in so many ways I think most kids don’t. That’s one thing I actually love about you and your family, I see you and your daughters and I’m just like, “Wow, they’re kids.” It’s so rare to meet parents and children who are able to keep that innocence and that magic of childhood intact because there are so many things in the world that try and make you grow up quickly. A huge pattern I’ve recognised over the past year and a half through various friends, conversations and experiences I’ve had is, I had this repetitive feedback where people were like, “You’re kind of a know-it-all,” or, “You have an answer for everything.” At first, I was like, “Wow, why is this continuously coming up for me?” Then I was in this really intense, harsh dynamic with somebody and it was very aggressive the way the feedback was coming at me. It forced me to realise the reason why I feel like I have to have an answer for everything is because as a five-year-old, a seven-year-old, a twelve-year- old, I was surrounded by adults and I wanted to be perceived as an adult. So I developed this coping mechanism of needing to know everything all the time because it meant I could survive in a world as an equal and not as an other. It’s fun now to peel the layers back like, “I don’t need to know everything, I don’t need to have an answer all the time, I don’t need to be right, I don’t need to feel like I understand the weavings of the world.” I think that’s probably been the hardest lesson to reverse from growing up that I didn’t even recognise I had until the past year.

opposite: jacket and jeans both by GIVENCHY SS23; t-shirt by SUNSPEL; necklace by CHRISHABANA

NK: I love it sometimes when you just don’t have an opinion on something or you’re not ready to have an opinion – you’re allowed to say that. And I’m a huge believer in changing your mind.
SW: All the time!

NK: There’s that thing like, “Oh my gosh! That’s what I believe, that’s it, that’s set in stone, so that’s what I’m going to be now and that’s my identity.” But I think part of growing is a willingness to learn, to change. Then you find out certain things that adjust your moral code, that you live by, and those become more solid as you get older. The other thing I’m very much teaching my daughters is, you better get used to saying ‘no’.
SW: Oh gosh, that is so powerful.

NK: It’s such a hard word. The idea of delivering a ‘no’ is like, “Oh, [sighs] I’m sorry,” but there doesn’t have to be a sorry attached to it. It’s just, “No, I don’t feel like doing that, I don’t want to do that right now.” It can also be right now because maybe I will change my mind in a week, but right now I don’t want to do that. ‘No’ needs to become part of our language just as much as a ‘yes’ is. But I do think, particularly as actors and performers, in this world we’re trained always to say yes – try, try, try. It’s fabulous not to shut things down, but I really had to learn not to be uncomfortable saying no and to think I was letting so many people down by doing that.
SW: It’s disconnecting from yourself to connect with other people. We’re trained to do that and it makes no sense in the end because you can’t actually connect with someone else if you’re not in integrity, truth and alignment with who you are. The power of no, that’s a huge lesson, I remember I was eighteen or nineteen and there was this man named Daniel Vitalis who was a very influential person in my life. I got an offer for this movie and it was during a time when I was studying survival skills and living in the woods making fire.

NK: Come on, I love all that, we’ve got to dig into that! [laughs]
SW: I was doing Divergent, and then when I’m not working I’m doing crazy things like talking about rhizomes and mycology. Anyway, I got an offer for this film that had all these promises and I was like, “I don’t love the script, I think the script doesn’t have a lot of truth to it and I don’t really connect to it, but everyone is telling me I should do it for a, b, and c reasons.” He sat me down, looked me dead in the eye and he was like, “Shai when you get to a place in your life when you recognise the power of no is actually saying yes to who you are and the purpose of your soul, that’s when your true journey of self-love can begin.” I’ll never forget it because it really helped me dictate the choices I would make for the rest of my adult journey.

NK: The other thing I always have to be honest with myself about is asking if it’s a no because I’m terrified or fearful and it’s actually going to be a good place for me to go, or is it a no because I sense this is a very dangerous place for me to go and I’m doing it to please somebody else. Or I’m doing it out of responsibility, which is sometimes [a factor], there are responsibilities and you’ve agreed to things. Some of my greatest experiences have been saying yes to something I initially said no to, or tried to pull out of, and then going, “Oh but this is fear-based; I’m just terrified,” or, “I don’t want to leave my family,” or, “I don’t want to do this or that.” Then diving into it with abandon and realising there is a flow that can exist, my family will travel and be there with me, and everything will kind of work out.
SW: That was Big Little Lies for me.

“When fear shows up – and it will show up constantly because it’s a constant in our lives – we have the choice to not let it stop us, but to see it from a different perspective.”

jacket by PRADA SS23

NK: I didn’t know that.
SW: You didn’t?! I was in London and I was about to go to India. I was planning to be there by myself for an unlimited amount of time and I didn’t know if it would be a week or four years. It was when I was really ill and I was going to go live with these monks, which I did, so I said, “No.” I got to India and checked my phone once every week and I got a text from Laura [Dern] because we had worked together on The Fault In Our Stars. She was like, “Listen, I know you’re on your journey right now  but I really believe you need to do this project and these are all the reasons why.” She said, “It’s not even about me, Reese [Witherspoon] and Nicole. She really emphasised Jean-Marc, and was like, “Shai, the way this man will direct us and be an ally to us is incredible.” She had worked with him on Wild and was like, “I just feel it in my soul that you have to say yes to this project.” She asked me to call her, so we had a conversation and that was a decision I at first said no to out of fear because I didn’t know if I wanted to continue acting at that point in my life. It was obviously one of the best choices I ever made, but it’s a good example of how fear can so often cloud our ability to see with clarity and really put us in touch with our intuition.

NK: It’s also a good example of genuine friendship, somebody looking out for you and feeling comfortable to express things, take it or leave it. I always say, “Take it or leave it,” because people are going to do what they want to do ultimately. Even just going, “Are you willing to hear this? Because if you are then here it is.” That’s a really good friend, and Laura is a great friend.
SW: She’s such a good friend. Everybody in this group really shows up for everyone. It’s funny you bring up the fear thing, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently because I’m one of those people, and I feel you are too who, when fear arises – obviously your first instinct is to turn away from it – but I actually see fear as an opportunity for growth and challenge, and expansion. The other day I was about to do something and I was very scared, so I reached out to my dad and I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this or if I have the courage.” And he was like, “You’ve always had the courage to do this.” And I was like, “Actually this has been something that has forever paralysed me: the fear of rejection or the fear of being seen a certain way or being too much.” He was like, “But it’s never stopped you.”

It was such a powerful moment I will always remember because it’s true. When fear shows up – and it will show up constantly because it’s a constant in our lives – we have the choice to not let it stop us, but to see it from a different perspective. That is something I really admire in you, and I think it shows not only through all the choices you’ve made as an actor, but also through your life as a human being and a woman I know and love so intimately. From an objective point of view, you just seem to be a beautiful example of how to walk in tandem with your fear instead of in rejection of it.

“I think I’m finally in a place in my life where I don’t see constructive criticism as an attack, I see it as an opportunity to understand myself better.”


 NK: My heart races at times and I go, “What am I doing?!” Feeling OK with that feeling is the thing. Standing side-stage when I was doing a play in London I remember going, “This is now turning into a feeling I’m not sure I like, of my heart racing.”
SW: Was that the play you did about…

NK: The scientist Rosalind Franklin.
SW: I saw you in that and it was so beautiful.

NK: The fear side-stage was not the same as I’ve had before. It was way more, but once I was on stage I was fine. And it never left, I just had to go, “OK, I’m waiting for it to go!” After six weeks it never did, so I just utilised that energy into taking me onto the stage and it put me in an emotional state which was very helpful. Instead of rejecting it, you use it. I don’t know if you know Rick Rubin at all?
SW: I do.

NK: I thought you might, have you read his book? I’m in the midst of it right now.
SW: Are you reading this book right now? [holds book up to screen]

NK: Right here! [holds the same book up to screen] That is hilarious.
SW: A friend told me to buy it a couple of weeks ago and I bought it literally three days ago. I love it.

NK: Yes! My husband gave it to me and it’s just extraordinary.
SW: It is.

NK: I can’t recommend it enough. It’s called The Creative Act: A Way of Being, and that is something I’m always thinking about now. One, because I’m raising little creative people, and two, because I live with one and I am one. The greatest part of it was just acknowledging you have to keep the childlike qualities.
SW: Wonder! Awe!

NK: Yeah, walking in and going, “Let’s play!” Which I’ve always done. I’ve always said I make teenage choices. Then suddenly I was like, “Rick gets it!” What I mean by that is overthinking all these things really is crippling creatively. On set – and I don’t how you feel about this – I’m uncomfortable with ‘Action!’ a lot of the time. I know you’ve got to have a beginning, but when I walk into a rehearsal room we’ve already started. The minute you walk into the space, there is no beginning to a creative process, you’re bringing everything in. The scenes and ideas roll out of that. I loved watching The Beatles documentary [Peter Jackson’s Get Back] because it was in motion all the time. They were [messing] around, then suddenly they were playing and they were writing one of the greats, and you’re like, “What! How did that song suddenly appear?” But there wasn’t like, “OK, now we’re going to write a song, sit down, everybody get out their instruments.” I find that pressure really weird. I much prefer the blending where you walk in and it’s already there. And a great director knows that.
SW: Yes.

NK: They’re watching you in the space immediately, how you move and start to mould it. It is crazy we’re both reading that book simpatico.
SW: Yes, of course.

dress by GUCCI R23; headpiece by J.R. MALPERE

NK: You’ve just filmed in Italy?
SW: Yes, we filmed Ferrari in Italy last year with Michael Mann and Adam Driver. One thing I love about acting that makes me feel so grateful to do what we do, is nothing about what we do is linear. Speaking of creativity, I always think of myself as a professional chameleon. If I work with somebody who wants to rehearse all day long every day, then I see it as an opportunity to practice that, because that’s not something I normally do. Or, if I’m with somebody who wants to start the scene when we’re still in hair and make-up and take that energy into the scene, then great, it’s another opportunity to try out something new. Working in Italy with these passionate Italians and a crew that is so different from an American, English or Australian crew, with  Michael Mann and Adam, it really elevated my experience of what creativity could look like. Their ways of being are so specific. Especially Michael’s, he has a very specific way of working, I adored it and feel so appreciative of the opportunity to learn and watch the way he operates as a director, because he is someone who is so aware of every single detail. Sometimes as an actor it’s easy to get lost in the experience, emotion and feeling of a scene, but with Michael he really held up a mirror as a reminder to say, “This cup is influencing the scene as much as you are, and the way that cameraperson is feeling this morning is influencing the scene as much as the on set craft services and catering providing us nourishment.” Having a holistic view of the experience was very refreshing and very beautiful, the whole thing felt like a playground because we had the time and ability to try out and do whatever we wanted. There was nothing off-limits, there was nothing out of bounds. It’d been a while since I’d had that sort of creative freedom and licence to play in that way.

NK: I love that. I’ve never worked with either of them.
SW: It was incredible. Adam is so incredibly honest, he’s so present, so real and every take felt like wherever we were in that moment is what was guiding us, there was nothing rehearsed or predetermined. It was a very powerful experience for me.

NK: I spoke to you when you were over there and you were just glowing. You had the Italian glow. You’re also deeply passionate, not just about acting and creative ways, but also about the future. You’ve always been incredibly bold and true to what you feel is the right path in the world for you and what you want to be the voice for. Is there anything coming up in your future you want to discuss?
SW: The most interesting thing to me about being someone who is bold or vocal, and I don’t know if you feel this way, is you’re assigned labels that aren’t labels you necessarily identify with. The minute you speak about something you suddenly become an activist or you become an environmentalist or you become a philanthropist. I don’t identify with any of those labels because the only thing I try and identify with is love. As hippie or as cheesy as that may sound – and it makes me emotional – but I believe in the power of love more than I believe in anything else, and I know you do too. To me, love manifests in millions of ways, it can be through prayer if you’re somebody who is a spiritual person, it can be through definitive action, being on the frontlines holding a sign for a cause you believe in, it can be being kind to someone, it can be self-care, it can be expression – it can be anything.

So, in my life, I try to wake up every day and think how I can be a better version of myself, and how I can be in greater service of the world – and I don’t know what that looks like. Then my intuition will guide me. Sometimes it looks like being with someone in a really raw or vulnerable way, and sometimes it looks like talking about things publicly I feel called to speak about. It always comes from a place of offering a little bit more softness and a little bit more love to the planet, because that’s also what I want to experience. I want to figure out how to be a kinder, more compassionate version of myself, so I think through the journey of understanding myself better, I also feel like I understand the pain points and trigger points of the world because we’re all just micro versions of this big macro experience. I don’t really ever know how to answer the question, ”What do I want to do in the future?” Because I have no idea, all I know is I want to love, I want to feel love, I want to give love and I want to understand love more and more every day. For me, that honestly comes a lot through play, like we talked about – play and wonder. It’s so fun to be joyous, it’s so fun to be silly, it’s so fun to feel like a child, and if there is one thing I’m really proud of myself for is that I’m definitely a fun machine. I love to have fun. The more I lean into that and get away from the monotony of being serious and heavy all the time, the more joy I’m able to offer myself and other people around me. What about you?

“I want to figure out how to be a kinder, more compassionate version of myself”

NK: I think empathy and viewing through different lenses is probably why I’m committed to this… I’m always going to call filmmaking and theatre an art form because it is, and that’s how I’ve actually changed. I’ve also changed through literature, through going to see a painting or listening to an opera or listening to a beautiful piece of music that made me go, “Wow.” I heard [Frédéric] Chopin recently when I was in a museum, we went to Mallorca and I found this little monastery Chopin had composed in, he had been there with George Sand for about six weeks. They played the music that he wrote when he was there and that was life-changing for me. Standing in this stone, austere place with the most gorgeous view, seeing what he did there – I think George Sand was miserable [laughs], but that’s a different discussion – and out of it came some of the most exquisite music that, when you listen to it you go, “What?”
SW: Art is transformative. It’s a vehicle to transform our inner experience, do you think?

NK: Everyone is different, which is why there is no answer to what it is ultimately. I can see things through different perspectives, which is empathy. I will walk out of a theatre or a movie theatre sometimes where I’ve just had to go home and go to bed because I’d absorbed it so much. I was shaken to the core, and I went and made very different decisions after that. There are other times when I’ve come out and I’m walking on air, it’s lifted me through real disturbance or depression. It’s also made me travel; just by sitting in a theatre, you can travel and see different perspectives, for a glimpse. Who influences you right now? Who is somebody besides Rick Rubin who is influencing you? [both laugh] I love it when suddenly people’s paths cross and things change.
SW: Massively, there have definitely been a few people who have entered my life in the last couple of years. The last couple of years has been very difficult for me. I’m an astrology freak so I attribute it to this thing called Saturn return which happens every 27 years, it’s a review of where you’re at, why you are the way you are and how you want to shape yourself moving forward.

NK: How long does a Saturn return last?
SW: About three years.

NK: How many years are we into it?
SW: I’m in mine so it happens from 27 to 30 then again in your late 50s or early 60s. Oftentimes it’s when people meet the person they’re going to be with forever, get divorced, change careers, move to the other side of the country, or experience a death, there are big shifts that happen. For me, there was a lot – it’s been massive. And in the last six to eight months there have been these little glimpses of angels who have appeared. To bring it back to the beginning of the conversation, in a loving, soft and kind way they have been calling me out on my shit in a way I’m not used to, and in a way that has been a bit disarming. I think I’m finally in a place in my life where I don’t see constructive criticism as an attack, I see it as an opportunity to understand myself better. I really respect when somebody can speak kindly and honestly about things that aren’t necessarily always positive. I think we live in a world where we always constantly uplift one another, which is a beautiful thing, but part of uplifting one another is being honest, and I’d say the people who have been in my life recently have been very honest examples of reflection. It’s been really lovely. One person who has always been a pillar of influence and continues to be is the writer, Anäis Nin.

dress by RICHARD QUINN SS23; mask by HOUSE OF MALAKAI; necklace by CARTIER

NK: Oh yeah.
SW: I always go back to her because in a way she represented everything we’ve tried to put a label on for so long, but she was it without needing to talk about why she was the way she was. Her quest was to understand through psychology and experience, using all of her senses to absorb, taste, smell and feel the world. I always turn back to her in moments of pain or sadness or loneliness because she had the ability to sit with stillness and inanimate as much as animate. I think it’s a very special way of existing. It’s actually something I felt when I met you, you are a person who actually stops and smells the roses, and I am too.

NK: I did it this morning! [laughs]
SW: Of course you did! When we met you gave me permission to feel like I’m not ridiculous for hugging a tree every now and then, or wanting to jump in the ocean. You really are someone who uses all five, I’d even say six with your intuition, but all of your senses. You feel things, you smell things, you taste things and you hear things. You absorb the life experience as richly and deeply as a human being possibly can. To me, that’s all you can really ask for as inspiration, because it reminds us of all the beauty we’re constantly surrounded by. Unfortunately, when having a mind and a heart that has a lot of different emotional experiences, we can get distracted from the beauty. As a reflection to you, thank you for being such a beautiful influence in recognising the beauty of life.

NK: Well, in a very literal way I’m about to build a greenhouse.
SW: Of course you are.

NK: To house my gardenias, my roses and the things I love. I actually love going in there and smelling those things. As I’ve gotten older my love for animals has grown deeper and deeper, all of those things have come in a very powerful way to me. Growing things, taking care of animals and being far more aware of all that has happened to me in the last couple of years. My Saturn return is probably about to hit me. [laughs] What’s going to happen next?
SW: It’s going to be delicious.

NK: You wear your heart on your sleeve, it is open, it is raw, it is honest and it is incredibly pure, Shai. When you say angels come around you, I think you attract people who want to nurture because you’re a nurturer, and it’s that simple. We all need a little bit more nurturing right now, and the world does too.
SW: We do.

Interview originally published inside HEROINE 18. 

fashion assistant NIAMBI MOORE;
hair assistant ANASTASIA VAVINA;
make up assistant TESS GARVEY

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