Rare is the woman who delicately blends sweetness with badassery, but Shailene Woodley fits that bill.

Just a few months ago, the passionate activist was arrested for criminal trespassing while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Now she’s starring in the trippy, sexy new HBO miniseries Big Little Lies (Sundays at 9/8c, beginning this weekend) alongside Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who are also executive producing.

Here’s what the outspoken 25-year-old told us at the premiere and at the recent Television Critics Press Tour.

“This might sound ridiculous, but I didn’t expect these children to be so fucking smart! I can’t remember hanging out with a bunch of seven-year-olds for six months straight. They are so wise beyond their years.”

In Big Little Lies, your character moves to Monterey, California and has to navigate how to feel comfortable there. Have you ever felt that awkwardness of stepping into a new community and figuring out where you fit in?
I think in middle school I experienced that, for sure. But not since then.

You starred as a teen mom in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and are again playing a young mom. What’s this experience been like?
I had done the mother thing, but it was a little different. This was really exciting to me, especially within the constraints of a Monterey lifestyle… which for the most part, people who live there, live very privileged lives. From the outside, it’s sort of like you have the white picket fence syndrome, where you assume everything within those walls is OK because of their paychecks or cars they drive or what they look like. Then you read the script and you get to know someone and recognize that those are all facades; right?

Something that was really fascinating to me about this is, I know someone who was pregnant as a teenager and a very smart individual, now in her twenties. But watching her go through her process of trying to be a mother and also trying to mother herself and grow herself up… trying to live in an adult’s world as a child still, but she has to be an adult because she has someone who is now looking to her for answers… while she’s still looking to the world for answers—that was really interesting to me.

I think it’s hard for a project or a screenplay to nail that kind of character in a really authentic way… she’s trying to relate to these women that she has nothing in common with. And yet because she’s a mother, she can learn from them as an individual and can also learn to raise her child in a better way, or, I guess, a more grounded way. So it’s just a beautiful opportunity and I felt really grateful to bring authenticity to a character like that  because it is so rare to find writing that’s so pure and organic within the restrictions of that type of lifestyle.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
I don’t like ever answering that question because I feel like that projects a certain outcome upon them. I will say for me, the series represents a certain amount of relatability, to empathy, and to judgment. And to allowing ourselves to feel within the dynamics of our current lifestyle constraints. Not everyone can relate to living in Monterey, California—super white, super privileged area. But everyone can relate to being a mother, or having been mothered or in a relationship, whether it’s with your children or your lovers.

It’s not often that we see such a female-driven cast. What did it mean to you, to be a part of this television series?
It means a lot. Until we reach the day where you do a red carpet for a show like this and people don’t say, ‘what was it like working with four female leads,’ because it just becomes a societal norm—we have a lot of work to do. You don’t see five men leads being asked what it was like to work with five other men. It’s just accepted. And so, this is a great step in the right direction, and now we need to continue this momentum so that it becomes the normal—and it doesn’t become the ideal or the celebrated.

What surprised you about working on the show?
This might sound ridiculous, but I didn’t expect these children to be so fucking smart! I can’t remember hanging out with a bunch of seven-year-olds for six months straight. They are so wise beyond their years. And they are also so rooted in wonder. Ego hasn’t developed, so everything is a surprise and pleasurable and exciting to them. But yet, they also have the consciousness to be aware of their decisions when the camera is rolling. I guess I wasn’t expecting to be so inspired by the seven-year-olds that were running around.