Shailene Woodley Defends Adrift's Big Twist

Photo: Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Motion Picture Artwork.
This story contains spoilers about the real story behind Adrift.
Based on a true story, Adrift, which hits theaters June 1, stars Shailene Woodley as the fiercely brave Tami Oldham. The 23-year-old is suddenly fighting for her life on the open seas after a sailing trip with her fiancé Richard Sharp, played by the charming Sam Claflin, takes a disastrous turn.
When the trailer for the impressive film was first released, there was immediate skepticism about Richard's dominating presence. In real life, Richard was lost at sea, and tragically presumed dead, after Hurricane Raymond threw him off of the yacht he and Tami were sailing on across the Pacific, from Tahiti to San Diego. In real life, Tami survived on the open sea, sailing 1,500 miles, for 41 days alone. Why, according to the trailer, was Tami not alone? Were filmmakers male-washing a woman's survival story? If James Franco was given the opportunity to have a one-man show in 127 Hours, why not Woodley?
The answer to that question requires a spoiler for the movie that comes in the form of a big, delicious twist. Despite it seeming as such, Richard doesn't actually survive in the movie — his presence is merely the physical manifestation of a voice in Tami's head. At the end of the film, the audience realizes that the badly injured sailor is never going to get better because he isn't real. The writers and filmmakers used the twist to bring vivid memories of Richard to life in the form of a spirit guide, which they pulled directly from the real Tami's memoir of her experience, titled A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea.
"The most important thing for me, more than making friends or being perceived a certain way, was that we protected Tami’s story, and that we protected the authenticity and the truth of what she endured, and who she is today, and who she was in the '80s," Woodley told Refinery29 over the phone when asked about the decision to include Richard in so much of Tami's journey. "That is what I fought for day in and day out, and that is how the producer credit came along," she elaborated. (Woodley previously produced a documentary, Awake, but this is her first foray into narrative films.) "Initially, I wasn’t [a producer], but through the circumstances of making a movie out on the open sea and wanting to shift the storyline to make it a little more truthful and grounded, it happened."
Ahead, Woodley elaborates on why Adrift is actually a love story, why there wasn't a conventional love scene, and just how perfect Meryl Streep is on the set of Big Little Lies.
Refinery29: Why did the team decide to change the original story?
Shailene Woodley: "Well, I didn’t write the script so…[laughs]. The script was already written when I became attached. I will say that the movie is based off of the book, and the way that the book is formatted is pretty verbatim to how the story is formatted in our film."
In the book, Tami really felt Richard was with her for the duration of the trip, too?
"The way Tami wrote the book was that he was present throughout her entire experience at sea."
Was it ever an option to have you do the movie just you by yourself?
"That wasn’t something that we considered. The beautiful thing about this movie is that it is a survival story, and it is a story about love. It is a love story. I would argue it is even more so than a survival story in a way because it proves that true love — whether that relationship is formed by a lover, a partnership, a mother, a daughter, a friendship — and camaraderie is our ultimate tool in self-validation and self-acknowledgement in our strength."
I read that you talked to Tami. Has she seen the movie?
"You know what — I don’t know if she has. [Woodley holds phone away to call out and ask: Has Tami seen the movie?] I don’t think she has, because I haven’t spoken to her about it."
But you did speak to her when you were preparing for the role? What was that like?
"Of course. For me, and I know this rang true for both our directors as well, the most important thing for us regarding the story was that we were as truthful and authentic to Tami’s story as possible. The book really was our Bible. We had one script, and then we had another writer provide another rendition of that screenplay. But at the end of the day, each moment of actual filming was determined by what was written in her book. She and I had multiple dialogues about everything from what clothes she wore, what music she listened to, to what her disposition was personality-wise, to the deeper, more psychologically conflicting issues surrounding self-preservation, survival, vulnerability, and love."
Photo: Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Motion Picture Artwork.
For it being a love story, I thought it was interesting that there were no sex scenes. The only nudity was you by yourself on the boat. Was that for a certain reason?
"You know, we actually did film a love scene, and there was quite a bit of intimacy, but myself, the writers, and the producers felt that we didn’t…we were very, very fortunate to have a director who is Icelandic [Baltasar Kormákur] who has a different disposition than a lot of American film makers in the way that he views sexuality, sensuality, romance, and love. He found it to be much more interesting to tell a real love story than to use physicality as a means to portray love. He chose to use emotion as a way to portray love. I don't know what your reality is, but for me that has always been the number-one thing that brings two people together. I thought it was a beautiful choice, and a dynamic one, that we didn't have to have a love scene in order to prove the depth of the connection that these two human beings shared. We’d rather have an image — a final image of them sailing together — which I think is a louder picture anyways than any physical intimacy in the story."
I think it’s interesting that you said your director not being American was a big part of him being able to tell the story like that. Have you been in other circumstances where you felt that love scenes or other gratuitous sexual moments were diluting a film?
"No film that I have been a part of because it is a very important thing to me that no matter what movie you’re making, you make it authentically. Sex is something that can be perceived in a million different ways based on who the viewer is. But absolutely, I have seen films portray sex in the way that you just mentioned."
Switching gears just a little bit: I really like the Instagram caption you had from the Golden Globes when you brought Calina Lawrence as your guest. I wanted to talk about the “sacred sisterhood” that you mention in the post and what the Time’s Up movement means to you.
"It is incredibly vital that women are in this stance to stand together and tell strong stories and to unite. Women should also practice what we preach in eliminating competition, ego, fear, and envy. At that event, what the Time’s Up movement stood for for me was a beginning for women to recognize one another as sisters instead of competition. I think that branches far beyond just this industry, but to all industries together."

"I can’t give any behind-the-scenes things, but I will say that Meryl Streep is a beautiful human..."

Shailene Woodley
Speaking of sisterhoods, I have to ask you about Big Little Lies, which is filming again. Can you say anything about how your character, Jane, interacts with Meryl Streep’s character?
"I can’t give any behind-the-scenes things, but I will say that Meryl Streep is a beautiful human, and is actually as good in every take she does as she is in the edited scenes you see in films. That is not the case for most actors. She shows up take, after take, after take."
Big Little Lies is very different from Adrift in that most days it was just you and Sam filming or you alone. What was it like doing so many scenes by yourself?
"We filmed a majority of the film on the open sea, and every shot of Sam and I in the actual water was filmed out in the open sea. As an actor, every job you do it so unique and so specific to that particular project that comparing Big Little Lies to Divergent to Adrift to any other project I’ve ever done is like comparing each piece of journalism that you type up. You’re bound by the outline and the story that you’re producing."
Absolutely. But I would say that those also have one thing in common in that those films are all about survival in their own different ways. Is that something you look for in a project?
"I like for projects that, regardless of what the story is, and regardless of who the character is, or how outlandish or how grounded a particular film is, I look for stories that have truth as the base and their foundation. For me, you can have a movie like Alice in Wonderland or you can have a movie like Adrift. As long as each person and character feels grounded in their truth, then I’m on board."

More from Movies

R29 Original Series