Woodley was born in San Bernardino County, California, but grew up in Simi Valley, California. Her mother, Lori Victor, is a school counselor, and her father, Lonnie Woodley, is a school principal. She also has a younger brother named Tanner Woodley.
At the age of fifteen, she was diagnosed with scoliosis and was put in a chest-to-hips plastic brace to stop her spine from curving further. Woodley was educated at Simi Valley High School and at the age of 4 began modeling for commercials. She also took some acting classes with Anthony Meindl.
Woodley began her acting career in 1999 in Replacing Dad, a television movie. Then in 2001 he continued with minor roles THE DISTRICT and CROSSING JORDAN (in the latter, she portrayed the ten-year-old version of Jill Hennessy’s title character). She followed with a leading role in the television film A PLACE CALLED HOME (2004) as California Ford, which earned her a nomination for a Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actress in a TV Movie, Miniseries or Special. She also originally played the young Kaitlin Cooper in THE O.C. and appeared as the titular character Felicity Merriman in the television film FELICITY: AN AMERICAN GIRL ADVENTURE (2005). Her performance received another Young Artist Award nomination, this time for Best Performance in a TV Movie, Miniseries or Special (Comedy or Drama). Following this, Woodley appeared in numerous guest roles in other television series, including EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, MY NAME IS EARL, CSI: NY, CLOSE TO HOME, and COLD CASE.
Woodley was then cast as the main character, Amy Juergens, in the ABC Family series THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER (2008–13), about a 15-year-old girl who learns she is pregnant. The show explores the effects of her pregnancy on her family, friends and herself as well as life at Ulysses S. Grant High School in California. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly praised her performance stating that “Woodley’s performance lifts a well-meaning, rather brave, but ramshackle show a notch.” Popular among viewers, the show became one of ABC Family’s most-watched telecast throughout its five-season run, spanning over 121 episodes.
In 2011, Woodley made her feature film debut in THE DESCENDANTS, where she played Alex, the troubled elder daughter of Matt King (played by George Clooney). Her performance received positive reviews from critics. A. O. Scott from The New York Times said, “Ms. Woodley..[gives]..one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory.” Peter Debruge from Variety said that her performance is a “revelation” and that “in the role of Alex, [she is] displaying both the edge and depth the role demands.” Receiving accolades for her performance, Woodley received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture, and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. People named her one of 2012 “Most Beautiful at Every Age.” Woodley was also considered one of the 55 faces of the future by Nylon Magazine‘s “Young Hollywood Issue”.
Woodley starred in the film adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, as Aimee Finecky, an innocent, bookish teenager who begins dating the charming, freewheeling high-school senior (played by Miles Teller). The film premiered at Sundance on January 18, 2013. Her portrayal of Aimee gained praise from critics; Los Angeles Times’ critic Betsy Sharkey said that Woodley and Teller “bring such an authentic face of confidence and questioning, indifference and need, pain and denial, friendship and first love,” while another critic from The Guardian said that they gave “remarkably strong performances” that “display a depth of feeling that’s breathtaking in its simplicity and honest.” Additionally, Woodley won the Special Jury Award for Acting, alongside Teller, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.
In October 2012, it was announced that Woodley was offered the role of Mary Jane Watson in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. On June 19, 2013, it was announced that she was cut from the film. Director Marc Webb told The Hollywood Reporter that the cut was “a creative decision to streamline the story and focus on Peter and Gwen and their relationship,” and that everyone loved working with Woodley. She had also signed on to star in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD, directed by Gregg Araki. Although filming took place in October 2012, the film was not released until January 20, 2014, at the Sundance Film Festival and then on October 24, 2014, to wider audiences, where it received mixed reviews. In the film she plays teenager Katrina “Kat” Connors, whose life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears. Critic Moira MacDonald commended her by saying that “Woodley’s depiction of Kat is low-key, natural and utterly unaffected; as she has in every role, she makes the character her own, with her scratchy little voice and level gaze.”
In 2014, Woodley starred as Beatrice “Tris” Prior in the film DIVERGENT, an adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name, and the first installment in The Divergent Series. Set in a dystopian and post-apocalyptic Chicago. The film received mixed reviews, but Woodley’s performance as Tris received a positive reception; Sam Allard from Orlando Weekly said that, “with her performance as Tris Prior in Divergent, Woodley rescues and then raises up a film that could have been an utter disaster.” Divergent reached the No. 1 spot at the box office during its opening weekend and was a financial success.
Afterwards in 2014, Woodley starred as Hazel Grace Lancaster in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the film adaptation of John Green’s novel of the same name. She portrayed a 16-year-old cancer patient who meets and falls in love with Augustus Waters (played by Ansel Elgort) (and also her brother in the Divergent series), a similarly afflicted teen from her cancer support group. Green added via Twitter about Woodley; “There were so many amazing auditions for the role of Hazel, but Shailene’s love for the book and her understanding of Hazel blew me away.” The film was a blockbuster success, grossing over $307 million worldwide. Woodley’s performance received critical acclaim from critics; Peter Travers from Rolling Stone called her a, “sublime actress with a résumé that pretty much proves she’s incapable of making a false move on camera”, and Richard Roeper of Chicago Sun-Times stated that her performance as Hazel is Oscar-worthy; and added, “she’s that memorable” on November 14, 2014, she received The Hollywood Film Award for Hollywood Breakout Performance – Actress for her performance as Hazel.
2015 – PRESENT
In 2015, Woodley reprised her role as Tris in THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT, the second installment in The Divergent Series. Her performance once again received critical acclaim, with Daniel M. Kimmel of New England Movies Weekly writing, “Woodley does solid work here as she’s done elsewhere, and continues to be someone to watch.” Despite a more negative critical reception than the previous film, Insurgent was commercially successful, making nearly US$100 million in its worldwide debut and grossed $295.2 million worldwide. She reprised her role again in the penultimate film of the franchise, ALLEGIANT, which was released on March 18, 2016. The film, however, was panned by critics and a box office bomb. Lionsgate had planned for the final film in the series to be made for television, but Woodley announced that she would not be a part of it.
Woodley starred opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone’s biographical thriller SNOWDEN, in which Gordon-Levitt portrayed Edward Snowden. Filming began on February 16, 2015, and Snowden was released on September 16, 2016. Owen Gleiberman’s review said that Woodley “gives a performance of breathtaking dimension: As the movie goes on, she makes Lindsay supportive and selfish, loving and stricken.”
Starting in 2015, Woodley took a break from filming for nearly a year, stating in a later interview that she “had hit a wall with acting.”
In 2017, Woodley starred next to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the HBO limited series BIG LITTLE LIES. Woodley was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe Award in 2017 for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television respectively for her role of Jane in the HBO series Big Little Lies.
Woodley also starred in and produced the film ADRIFT (2018), with Baltasar Kormákur as director. Her performance as Tami Oldham Ashcraft, a real life sailor who was stranded at sea after a storm, was praised by critics and fans alike, with Daniel Feingold from WSVN calling her work “Oscar-worthy.”
When asked, Woodley has repeatedly asserted that she does not consider herself a feminist: “No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance… My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism. I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t seem to respect each other.”
Shailene called herself a feminist in an interview with the New York Times in August 2017.
Woodley is an avid environmental activist and climate advocate. She and her mother co-founded the All it Takes non-profit organization in 2010. All it Takes is a youth leadership program that aims to educate young people to practice empathy, compassion, responsibility, and purpose in hopes to foster sustainable, positive change for themselves, others and the environment. She supported Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.
In 2016, she protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a US$3.87 billion underground petroleum transport pipeline being built by Dakota Access LLC. On October 10, she was arrested for criminal trespassing in Saint Anthony, North Dakota. Woodley pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of probation.
In mid-2016, Woodley joined the board of Our Revolution, a political organization aimed to educate voters about issues, get people involved in the political process, and work to organize and elect progressive leaders.
On September 29, 2016, Woodley was honored at the 20th Anniversary Global Green Environmental Awards receiving the Entertainment Industry Environmental Leadership Award for co-founding the All it Takes organization. In October 2016, she was given the Female EMA Futures Award during the 26th Annual Environmental Media Association (EMA) Awards.
In 2018, Woodley took activist Calina Lawrence to the 75th Golden Globe Awards as her guest; they first met at Standing Rock while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.