Shailene Woodley on her "empowering" new movie in which she plays a woman caught between two men

The "Endings, Beginnings" actress spoke to Salon about activism, drive, and costars Sebastian Stan and Jamie Dornan

Published April 16, 2020 4:00PM (EDT)

Shailene Woodley in "Endings, Beginnings" (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Shailene Woodley in "Endings, Beginnings" (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

"Big Little Lies" alum Shailene Woodley gives a delicate, internal performance as a young woman trying to "change her pattern" in "Endings, Beginnings," Drake Doremus' impressionistic new film, one of the more intimate movies available for streaming in April

At the beginning of this romantic drama, Daphne (Woodley) is regrouping. She has broken up with Adrian (Matthew Gray Gubler), her boyfriend of four years, quit her job, and moved into her sister's pool house. She's taking a break from both men and alcohol as she considers what to do next.

At a New Year's Eve party, Daphne meets Jack ("Fifty Shades" star Jamie Dornan) and Frank (Sebastian Stan). Unaware that they are friends, she flirts with both of them and fails to resist their advances when they each ask her out on a date after the party. Jack is a writer who connects with her through deep conversation; Frank is more playful and free-spirited. She also starts drinking again. How Daphne navigates and negotiates these new relationships forms the core of "Endings, Beginnings," and will engage viewers who fall in with the film's rhythm.

Woodley infuses her character with a mix of vulnerability and strength; she deftly conveys Daphne's doubts about her past with Adrian — and was he "the one"? — her present with Jack or Frank, and her future with either or neither. 

The actress spoke with Salon about slowing down, her thoughts on activism, and how to measure success. 

As the film opens, Daphne is taking a break from men and alcohol. We're all kind of on a break with this quarantine situation. What are your thoughts about slowing down, regrouping, and "changing the pattern" of things in life as Daphne does?

I have never been this slow personally in my entire life. I feel like it's important for us and as a society to notice our thought patterns, habits, and ways we deal with circumstances and situations. We distract ourselves with external values and modification rather than go internal and recognize where our true selves lie. But this is a strange way to receive this message. If you are boarded up with your family, you are learning how to truly communicate since we've taken steps to separate. It is a moment to reconnect on a different level. 

Daphne's choice to refrain from alcohol and men is really smart. She feels disconnected from herself because distractions are easier than doing the difficult work.

Daphne and Frank bond over being in "the suffer zone," but Daphne also has doubts about her breakup with Adrian, and says she alternates "panic attacks with being high on the chaos." What observations do you have about her mindset? She is a bit all over the place.

I don't see her as all over the place. I see her as a normal human. We're complicated and complex, and it's easy to put labels on things. But we are always second-guessing decisions with relationships and careers and family. We are always in a state of question and have insecurities. And what I respect about Drake [Doremus] and his work is that he takes the time to notice where a character is in time. I don't think she's messy or chaotic or crazy. She's a normal woman trying to figure out what brings her joy and happiness.  

What do you think Daphne sees in Jack and Frank? Can you talk about her relationship with each of these men? 

I think we're all searching for one person to fulfill all our needs in our minds, hearts, and physically. She finds out that there won't be one person to find and satisfy all those needs. Frank brings her a deep philosophical connection; they see the world through the same lens. Their senses are activated in parallel ways. Jack brings her intellectual stimulation. Jack is easy for Daphne to be around, because there is no second-guessing; there is safety and comfortability in Jack's predictability. 

How did you work with Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan to create the relationship dynamics?

Luckily. the entire film was improvised. There was an 80-page outline. We jumped into it together. It takes open, and vulnerable, and sensitive people to work in this medium. We were fortunate that we were able to do this. We spoke to one another about boundaries, about what's appropriate, but it wasn't hard to create these relationships. We had natural chemistry. As actors, we put ourselves in position to have chemistry with others, but when it exists naturally and is unspoken, and we go to the depths of truth and honesty, that's when you get electric chemistry and that's where we were. 

Do you think the film is feminist? Daphne certainly has agency . . .

I think when we talk about feminism, it's hard to say a character or film is feminist or not based on our life experience. We all have different definitions of what feminism is. For me, I think it's incredibly female-empowering and relationship-empowering. Daphne is in control the whole time, and when she is not in control, and taken advantage of, she handles it well.

One thing Daphne said is she likes "doing s**t for others." I understand you are an environmentalist/activist. Can you talk about that and doing things for others?

The word activism is funny to me. We're all humans, trying to do our best and if that means helping neighbor out of suffering, that's part of our journey. It's our responsibility to leave this world better than we entered it. Use compassion and empathy to bring more love and kindness. What we're witnessing now is showing how being separate and divided creates fear. The remedy is connection, faith, and trust and love towards one another. Activism is trying to do the best you can to alleviate suffering and injustice that exist in social conditioning and in the systemic issues on the planet.

There is a line in the film about destruction being a prerequisite for creative activity. Daphne looks for things that ignite her fire and gives her comfort. She also thinks about what she should have done by now. What thoughts do you have about how you can love what you do, and/or "be better"?

I believe that we're all conditioned to measure our success in how others validate us. We have a very loud definition that success means external validation. When you are really, truly passionate about something — art, mathematics, science — passion will always lead you to do better because it comes from you and for you. If others deem your work successful, that's a cherry on top. Daphne discovers from Jack's support that she recognizes that she gave her artistic powers away in the workplace, so she's learning and readapting to be an artist truly for herself first. 

What ignites your passion for work?

I definitely fall into the trap and trope that I need to work to get another job or continue working to satisfy my ego. I have to remind myself the reason why I'm an actor is that I love to look into another person's eyes and feel their soul; we are so naked and exposed in those moments. It doesn't matter if it is a student film or feature film; it's the experience. That is the reminder I have to offer myself to stay sane in this industry where there is so much competition and "You're not enough," and fame is so polarizing and heavy on one's heart. 

"Endings, Beginnings" is available on digital on Friday, April 17, and on demand May 1. 

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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