Nobody puts Shailene Woodley in a corner.
The “Mauritanian” star didn’t grow up watching many movies, but 1987’s “Dirty Dancing” was “one that my mom had on quite often,” she says. She calls the Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey romance one of her “apple pie films,” along with ’90s rom-com classics like “Pretty Woman” and “Notting Hill.”
“Any time I put them on, they put me in a good mood,” Woodley says. “I love love and I love films that explore (romance) in heightened and grounded ways, and aren’t afraid of being cheesy for the sake of being cheesy. There’s something really captivating and delicious to me about a popcorn film like ‘Dirty Dancing’ that makes you want a Johnny or a Baby in your life.”
“Dirty Dancing” was a touchpoint for Woodley and Augustine Frizzell, director of Netflix’s swoony new romance “The Last Letter from Your Lover” (now streaming). Based on Jojo Moyes’ 2012 novel, the film jumps between the 1960s and present day, as a young journalist named Ellie (Felicity Jones) uncovers old love letters between discontented socialite Jennifer Stirling (Woodley) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), a finance reporter writing about Jennifer’s domineering husband, Laurence (Joe Alwyn). Ellie becomes determined to track down and reunite the forbidden pair, while also finding love for herself with a work colleague (Nabhaan Rizwan).
“Both of us just love ‘Dirty Dancing’ and we wanted to do something like that,” Frizzell says. “We just felt there aren’t many films like that that come out anymore. It combines all the things you want in a romance: It’s very female-forward, and it’s filmed with such an eye for Patrick Swayze’s physicality versus just sexualizing (Grey).”
Woodley, 29, liked the fact that “Last Letter” tells a timeless story of enduring love and self-discovery, as Jennifer stands up to Laurence and forges her own path.
“You watch all the walls around her come down that she’s built for so long as a sense of survival,” Woodley says. “And you witness how this specific man, Anthony, has opened up the doors for her to feel alive and to feel free within the constrictions of her mind and heart.”
The film is also sweetly personal to Frizzell, 41, who first met her now-husband, director David Lowery (“The Green Knight”), in 2001 while acting in one of his short films. The two briefly dated but eventually lost touch, only to reconnect in 2008 when he found her on Facebook. They exchanged letters and mix CDs for about four or five months before reuniting in person, and eventually married in late 2010.
“Even to this day, if I hear one of those (mixtape) songs, I get chills because it was so connected with me falling in love with him,” Frizzell says.
Woodley says she sends handwritten letters “multiple times a week,” although they didn’t factor into her courtship with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (She confirmed their engagement in February during an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”)
“We met during the pandemic, so there wasn’t really lots of time apart. Getting to know each other happened in the physical,” Woodley says, politely declining to elaborate further on their relationship.
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The actress has been famously private about her personal life ever since breaking out a decade ago in Alexander Payne’s 2011 drama “The Descendants” starring George Clooney, whom she now considers a “beautiful mentor.” Despite starring in popular films such as “The Fault in Our Stars” and the “Divergent” franchise, Woodley has also taken time away from acting to travel and fight for environmental causes.
“There’s obviously been ups and downs (of fame) and coping mechanisms that have worked and haven’t worked,” Woodley says. “The biggest thing that nobody talks about is that your lifestyle doesn’t have to change, even if the experiences around you shift. How you choose to live your life doesn’t need to change and that has been my lightning rod throughout the waves of my career.
“I constantly remind myself (that) I get to live any life I want to live, and I’m not going to let any external circumstance stop me from doing specific things I want to do or accomplish certain things I want to accomplish. That’s when I feel the most fulfilled.”
This fall, Woodley will shoot her new Showtime drama “Three Women,” based on Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 bestseller about women exploring their sexuality.
“I lived much of my 20s in Europe and I’ve always been fascinated with the way Americans view sexuality,” Woodley says of the series. “So any book or author who dives into themes that explore our relationship to intimacy is always an alley I am keen to go down.”
Then there’s Woodley’s Emmy-winning HBO hit “Big Little Lies,” which returned for a surprise Season 2 in 2019. Plans for a third season of the addictive drama, which co-stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, are “very much up in the air,” Woodley says. But rest assured, the “Monterey Five” group thread is still kicking.
“Everyone is pretty good at text communication, apart from me and Nicole,” Woodley admits. “We’re definitely the worst when it comes to texting.”