Shailene Woodley on Environmental Activism, PBS Show Hope in the Water 5

It seems odd to call someone who is just 32 years old a “longtime environmentalist.” And Shailene Woodley herself dismisses labels like “environmentalist” or “activist.” So … environmental enthusiast? Tree hugger? Whatever you call her, the Big Little Lies and Ferrari star has been actively championing environmental causes since she was a child actor appearing in films like Divergent and The Descendants, from campaigning to create a recycling program at her Simi Valley High School in California to getting arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016. 

Woodley says she has gotten judicious over the years about how and where she uses her platform. Her latest attempt to shed light on an environmental issue has her diving for purple urchins in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Catalina Island in the new PBS docuseries Hope in the Water, from Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley and chef Andrew Zimmern. Woodley’s episode, the finale in the series, airs July 3 and is devoted to rewriting seafood menus with an eye toward sustainability. 

In late May, Woodley spoke to THR about reaching beyond “people who shop at Erewhon” with environmental messages, how a childhood spent camping with her family evolved into a conscious push toward conservation, and what has changed about her activism since she was first dismissed as “that cute little hippie girl.” 

You’ve been active on the issue of the environment for many years. Did you come into Hope in the Water with something specific you wanted to communicate?

The only thing that was important to me was that it was authentic and accessible and relatable, not just to people who can afford to eat with a little more awareness. So often when it comes to the environment, specifically with culinary consumerism, the mass majority of people are left out of the conversation for economic or accessibility reasons. The biggest question I had going into this was, “Who is the audience? Who are the people who can participate?” I really loved the fact that it was so inclusive of so many people, regardless of economics or location accessibility. It’s not something that’s limited to people who shop at Erewhon. It’s really talking to consumers and people who live in food deserts and who don’t only live near coastal regions.

How long ago did you learn how to dive?

I guess I kind of illegally learned to dive a very long time ago, but I actually only got my PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] certification a couple of years ago. I grew up in Los Angeles. We were always in the ocean. And then I moved to Hawaii when I was 18 and I did a lot of free diving and would also play around with scuba gear in a way that was, actually, I think illegal, to be honest. Water has always been a part of my life. It’s the thing that makes me feel the most centered and the most grounded. And diving just opened up so many more avenues of exploration and deep care for the sea.

You spent a lot of time outdoors when you were a kid. When did you first start becoming aware of the environment, not just as a place to be enjoyed, but a place to be worried about?

I guess I’ve never worried about the environment because I believe that the Earth will be fine. My worry is more about humanity. I wouldn’t use the word “activist” or “environmentalist.” I understand the need for labels, but I don’t necessarily associate myself with them. I just love the Earth. It’s very simple. There are just so many things that, even if they’re explained with science, still feel like a quantum miracle. 

​​Was there a moment where that sense of awe really crystallized for you?

I remember being in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle visiting my cousin when she was living there, and we were just running through the jungle for hours, kind of popping from spot to spot and picnicking and just enjoying our time there. And there was this tree that was so massive, I felt like I was in Avatar, and I just remember falling to my knees and being in complete awe. But it’s the same feeling that I have when I see leaves fluttering through the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles. Or watching the sun go down every single day. You have that 25 minutes of golden light. To me, nature is art. And I think there’s a very common misconception that you have to travel or you have to be somewhere exotic in order to experience that wonder. In reality, it’s like, you watch a cat at a rescue for 10 minutes, and that thing does gymnastics. That is a wild wonder. And so yeah, I really am very easy to impress when it comes to nature.

The first time I was aware of your activism was when you got arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. When did you evolve from “nature is art” to “I’m going to do something here”?

Probably freshman year of high school was the first time that I was like, “OK, we’re going to go to all of the higher ups in my school and then eventually to the school board and ask to create a recycling program.” In my late teens, Rachel McAdams and a friend of hers started this website called Green is Sexy. It was an old-school-style blog where you could go on and click a button and it would teach you one thing. And that was the first time that I was like, “Oh my God, straws are bad for the ocean.” “Oh my God, I can unplug my toaster and the coffee machine and the hairdryer when I’m not using it.” It got me thinking about the small, simple things that I could do in my life every single day. And those are practices I still use. Every time I’m at a friend’s house, I find myself unplugging things around their house and they’re always like, “Oh, Shai was here.” That website really gave me tangible tools, and I would say dramatically changed the way that I looked at consumption and the way that I looked at my role in the consumer chain. 

How do you decide whether a project or an initiative is something that you want to put your name behind?

Anything that I think can actually move the needle is where I devote my energy. Listen, we live in a world where hashtags and trends are sexy. But I don’t often find that sexiness translating into real change. I look at things and go, “OK, so if we do this now, how is this going to affect us in five years, 10 years, 30 years, 50 years?” The beautiful thing is that so many people care now about nature and conservation, and there’s a conversation happening that wasn’t happening before. I try to figure out where my particular assets can be the most helpful in terms of creating lasting change, not just something that’s sexy for a hot minute.

​​Do you plan to be involved in the presidential election this year?

There’s a deep wisdom that I’m trying to learn and get better at recognizing: All right, so there is a lot of noise right now. Am I just going to be adding to the noise? Or is there a specific frequency amongst that noise that could be heard in a different way or could be helpful? If something can actually make a difference, I’m all in. 

Does the conservation conversation feel different now than it did when you first started talking about these issues? 

When I first started talking about this publicly, 15, 16 years ago, it was like, “Oh, that cute little hippie girl.” I’m definitely a tree hugger, but it was looked at as this cute idealistic thing instead of a real cause to pay attention to. I look at people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Sarandon, Edward Norton, Harrison Ford, people who have been having this conversation publicly for a very long time. It must have felt like screaming into the void. And now there are finally other people who have joined that chorus. I’ve met people who have been trying to have this conversation for decades, and there is a feeling of exhaustion, of, “Where were all of you 20 years ago? Why does everyone suddenly care now?” Oftentimes, until it’s on our doorstep, we don’t want to pay attention.

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

Previous articleBill Skarsgård’s Intense Vampire Epic 5
Next articleWhich Ones Pass Climate Check 5

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here