In Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, actress Shailene Woodley gives a movie star-making performance as Alexandra, the rebellious 17-year-old daughter of Matt King (George Clooney). With their mother in a coma, after a tragic boating accident, Alexandra and her precocious 10-year-old sister, Scottie (Amara Miller), find themselves on a course toward rebuilding their family and lives, as their father re-examines his past and determines what that means for his future.
At the film’s press day, Shailene Woodley talked about responding to such a real and messy story, the transition in going from her hit ABC Family drama series The Secret Life of the American Teenager to this big screen role, her own rebellious period when she was 14 and 15, what it was like to work with “superhuman” George Clooney, and that she enjoys acting because it fuels a passion in her. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
SHAILENE WOODLEY: I read the script before Alexander [Payne] or George [Clooney] were attached, and I fell in love with it because it was real and human, and it wasn’t artistically licensed, and it wasn’t glamorized or beautified. So often, I read scripts and am like, “This would never happen in real life. It’s not trying to be funny. It’s trying to be serious.” But, this movie was real and it was messy, and I really responded to that.
What did you think about Alexandra’s character arc?
WOODLEY: I loved her arc because she was a 17-year-old going through an angsty period in life, and she had taken on the victim role and thought the world was out to get her, as so many adolescents and adults do. Throughout the movie, there are a lot of tragic scenarios, and she had to rise to the occasion and break down her walls that she had so thickly put up. I think there is a point in every teenager’s life where they are forced to come into themselves. So, it was fun to play that arc with her, while she had to deal with such tragic occurrences in her life.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
WOODLEY: From a very humble point of view, there weren’t any hard scenes to film because we had such a brilliant screenplay. There wasn’t a lot of guessing for us, as actors, to do. We had it all written down for us, and we just had to show up with our lines memorized, on time, and with a strong sense of professionalism and play. Alexander gave us the room to play. He gives you that freedom, and that’s why every actor wants to work with him.
WOODLEY: I think every teenager goes through their angst. People who are like, “No, I had a perfect adolescence,” make me wonder how that is possible. For me, I was probably between 14 and 15, when I went through my angsty period. I was never very rebellious. I never did things to rebel against society, or against my parents, but I did think I knew everything. I thought I knew it all and had it all figured out, and that was it. Then, one day, I woke up and realized I was a dot in this universe, and that quickly dissipated.
You’ve got some great scenes with Nick Krause, who plays Sid. Did you hang out to prepare?
WOODLEY: He’s amazing. George, Nick and I arrived in Hawaii, three weeks prior to filming, to get to know the island and the vibe of the whole island culture because Alexander was keen on authenticity. Nick and I are the same age, so we bonded immediately. He’s from Texas, and I’m from L.A. We’re very different, in a lot of ways, and very similar, in a lot of ways, so it was great. We had a lot to teach each other, and a lot to learn from each other. We both love to be outdoors and be active and explore, so in every spare second on the movie, we were hiking or kayaking or snorkeling, or doing some crazy thing, like jumping off waterfalls, that we shouldn’t have been doing. My bonding with Nick was a very organic process. We became like brother and sister.
WOODLEY: I’m not an actor who approaches films doing a lot of research. I do zero research, unless it’s a film where I’m playing a mock version of someone who already existed. Then, you’ve got to do a lot of research. Or, if it’s a period piece, you’ve got to do research. But, on this film, I thought a little about her back history, but I maybe spent an hour thinking about it, and that’s it. I think you get the most honest performances when an actor shows up to set with their lines memorized. That’s a very important thing that a lot of people seem to forget. You have a pre-conceived notion of what you want the scene to be, but once you get there, that goes out the window and it turns out to be a way that you never imagined. When you’re on set and you professionally listen to what the other actors have to say, then the emotion is naturally evoked, especially with this screenplay. So many times, you get a script and it says, “And then, the character cries,” and you read the lines and think, “That would never make me cry. Those lines are so untruthful.” But, with this script, if our characters were supposed to be emotional, we would be overly emotional because the words were so thought-provoking and emotion-provoking. My approach is just to be honest to the situation.
Did you read the novel the movie is based on?
WOODLEY: I did read the book, after I had booked the role, but before we started filming. That was incredibly helpful because a screenplay is 90 pages and a book is 300, so it fills in the blanks. I did get that luxury, on this film.
WOODLEY: People always ask about the transition, but it felt like just going to a different school. You don’t really notice the transition, when you’re in the moment, because there really isn’t that big of a transition. I’d always wanted to do a film because film is always where my heart has been. I like diving into the character for a few months, and then leaving it behind. I love the idea of that. Film and television are very different. On the TV show, we do seven or eight scenes a day, so time and money are of the essence, and we have zero room for creativity because you’ve got to do each scene in only five takes. Whereas, on a film, you have an entire day to film one scene, or maybe only half a scene, so you have so much time to choose how you want to fill in a scene. If it’s working, you keep going down that route. If it’s not, you try a different route. So, just from a creative standpoint, television and film are very different. That being said, they both have their advantages and disadvantages.
WOODLEY: I’ve said this before, but he’s a superhuman. That is the only word I can use that will truly encompass everything about him. He’s just amazing. The thing about George Clooney is that you never hear about him being a very philanthropic man. You hear little bits of sweet things that he does, but you don’t hear a lot about it. I have never met a more generous, philanthropic human being, in my entire life. He will do anything for you. There are small things that he does on a daily basis, for anyone and everyone, that just blew me away. He’s so incredibly down-to-earth. He was never in his trailer. He never used hair and make-up. There was one scene where, in the morning, he had to be clean-shaven and, in the afternoon, he was supposed to have scruff. Instead of using the normal make-up, he used a ballpoint pen that stabbed his face with, for an hour and a half. I’m not joking. I was like, “Why are you doing that? Why don’t you just use make-up?” He was like, “Because I can. Why not? I’ve got two hands. I might as well do it.” I was like, “You’re the coolest guy ever!” He’s so normal. Someone asked me about George Clooney’s image, but has no image. He has the image of what materialism has given him, but as a human being, he has no image because he is just so normal and so human. Talk about a professional. He’s a great actor because he’s a great actor, not because an editor makes him look good. I think a lot of people don’t realize that about him. I literally could talk about him for hours. It’s a dangerous subject.
WOODLEY: Totally. Part of the three weeks of research that we did on the Hawaiian culture was going on little field trips around the island, and going to malls, and seeing what the teen life was like and what they wore. Not only did I do that, but the costume designer did that. She’s amazing. Her name is Wendy Chuck, and she’s just really good at finding the authenticity of a certain era and demographic. For me, she said, “I noticed every Hawaiian girl has an anklet on,” and I was like “Yeah, you’re so right. I noticed the same thing.” So, we put a little piece of hemp around my ankle. Then, no one had make-up on in the film. Everyone was just in normal attire. Wendy and I agreed that my character should wear basic clothes that you could find at any mall, like a t-shirt and cut-off jeans. That was what her style turned out to be.
You seemed to really get along with Amara Miller, the actress who played your 10-year-old sister. Was that easy for you?
WOODLEY: Amara Miller was 10, when we filmed the movie, and she’s almost 12 now. She had never been in a school play. She was a friend of a friend of Alexander’s, and she was cast a week and a half before we started shooting. It was crazy. She’d never even thought about acting. She’s from Northern California. Her mom was like, “Amara, let’s put your audition on tape,” and she was like, “What’s an audition? Okay.” She has such a strong sense of self. She’s an old soul in a 10-year-old’s body, but also very much a 10-year-old. We’d be filming and she’d be swinging her arms around and scratching her ear. You’re like, “Oh, my god, we’re making a movie,” but sometimes it worked because she wasn’t jaded. She’s incredible, and we bonded very quickly, in a very natural way. Nick Krause, Amara and I just became a little family.
WOODLEY: Nothing really attracts me to this industry, to be perfectly honest. I look at acting as an art, and that’s all it is for me. It’s just fun. I’ve been doing it since I was young because I wanted to, not because my parents wanted me to. My dad is a principal and mom is a middle school counselor, so acting was like, “Eh, whatever. As long as you get good grades.” It’s really fun, and nothing more. The reason I keep doing it is that it fuels some kind of passion in me, but the day that those butterflies stop, is the day that I’m gonna quit because I could care less about the magazines or being famous or the money or the awards. To me, it’s just about being on a film set and making art. It’s like being an artist with paint, and painting a canvas. The day it becomes something that I dread is the end. Obviously, why would you do something that you hate? I won’t do that.
Do you want to get a college degree, at some point?
WOODLEY: Absolutely! I’m studying independently now. I’m really, really interested in herbalism and holistic practices, so I’m studying indigenous cultures right now.
Do you have another film lined up yet?
WOODLEY: No. Right now, I’m just working on Secret Life.