Shailene Woodley has a decision to make. She recently spent several weeks traveling through India, along with jaunts to London and New York (not to mention Atlanta, where she’d been shooting her latest film, The Divergent Series: Allegiant). But now, after months of living out of a suitcase, she has returned home to L.A. and thinks she might just get herself a place to live.
For someone who has been proudly possession-free for years, this is a big deal. “Three years ago I got rid of everything,” says Woodley—meaning her home, her car, and even her phone. In fact, that iPhone sitting on the dinner table between us? “It’s Lionsgate’s [the studio behind Allegiant]—they’re like, ‘Here you go! We need to be able to track you.’"
While she was traveling, Woodley reveled in the freedom of not being attached to her belongings. “What I found was, the less I had, the less I craved or needed.” By the end of her trip to India, the only clothes she had were practically the ones on her back: “a pair of leggings, a pair of sweats, one long-sleeve shirt, and this shawl,” she says. The lightness she felt was intoxicating. “I think we have such an attachment to ‘Ah, I’m going to need this’ or ‘I should bring this just in case.’ But the most beautiful moments I had were when I was stuck in the rain and had no raincoat and ended up laughing because what could have been an everyday experience of it raining in London turned into this hilarious adventure of being soaking wet and having to borrow someone’s dryer to dry my clothes.”
If Woodley seems unusually determined to stay grounded and savor the present moment, it’s easy to understand why. Success—and all its attendant demands—has come fast and furious for the free-spirited actress: At just 24 years old, she’s already checked off more career milestones than most actors do in a lifetime. After starring in the ABC family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she scored a breakout film role as George Clooney’s daughter in the Academy Award–winning The Descendants and went on to earn teen-cult status with the romantic dramas The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now. Soon she will also add a cable-TV-binge show to her résumé (the HBO limited series Big Little Lies, with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon). And, of course, there’s the ongoing series of blockbuster movies about post-apocalyptic Chicago that started with 2014’s Divergent and continued with last year’s Insurgent. The third installment, Allegiant, opens this month, with the final chapter, Ascendant, due in summer 2017.
The last time we saw Woodley’s character, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, she’d just found out that her home city was actually a walled-in experimental haven created by unknown forces 200 years ago. Everyone in town knows that “divergent” citizens like her—the few who possess all five of the futuristic society’s virtues instead of just one—aren’t a threat to survival. They’re vital to human existence. “What now?” Tris asks her boyfriend, Tobias “Four” Eaton (played by Theo James, this month’s Man of Style), in Insurgent’s final scene.
It’s a question Woodley herself has been pondering lately. Like many 20-somethings who head off backpacking across South Asia looking for meaning before they settle down, she’s been doing a lot of soul-searching. “We’re so wrapped up in getting somewhere or achieving something that we sometimes skip over the beauty that exists right in front of us,” she says, explaining her desire to be “fully present” in her life. Yet unlike most would-be spiritual junkies her age, she has the added burden of reconciling her Zen leanings with the ego-driven, often narcissistic world of Hollywood. Her main goal, she says, has been “practicing no attachment”—learning to be content in every moment no matter what. “Happiness is not something I need to achieve,” she says. “It’s more about learning to embrace the simple truth that I am happiness.”
For more from the actress, where she talks in detail about living a life of beautiful simplicity, pick up the March issue of InStyle, now available on newsstands and digital download.