One of the most memorable debut performances in a feature film this past year was unquestionably that of Shailene Woodley, as Alexandra King in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), she was honored for her portrayal as the 17-year-old daughter of a distant father (played by George Clooney) and comatose mother. Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what the always friendly actress had to say, both on the press line and during the Q&A.
While there, Shailene Woodley talked about what the whole award season experience has been like for her, what she was doing when she found out she had been cast in the film, that Alexander Payne is one of her top five favorite human beings on the planet, how much she appreciated George Clooney’s understated comradery, how exciting it is to know that her ABC Family TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager will make it to the 100 episodes mark since it just got picked up for Season 5, and how she would love to play a really dark and messed up character. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
SHAILENE WOODLEY: The whole process has been mind-blowingly incredible. I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing. Alexander and I got to go to Dubai for the film festival out there. It was amazing to experience that part of the world. I had never been over there. We went to Abu Dhabi, which is the capital, and we went sand dune bashing, which is where you go on sand dunes in a car and you could possibly die, but we did it anyway. That was probably the best experience.
What were you doing in New York City, on hiatus from your TV show, when you found out that you had been cast in this film?
WOODLEY: I had moved to New York over hiatus to do something different. I’m from Simi Valley. And, I was working at American Apparel, just to do something different, when I booked The Descendants, and I was terrified to have to quit my job. I hate having to go in and put in your two weeks notice. That’s terrifying! I had only been working there for two months, so I thought that she would be pissed that I took a job for two months then was quitting. But, she was very gracious and kind and considerate.
WOODLEY: Oh, totally, yeah! My movie vocabulary extends to The Goonies and Dirty Dancing, to this day. So, it was really nice to get to know Alexander as a human being, before getting to know him as this acclaimed, amazing director, which he is. He’s just a phenomenal human being. I love him to the depths of my core. But, it was really nice to get to know him without the intimidation factor.
What was it like to play a messed up teenager, like your character in The Descendants?
WOODLEY: It was fun. I don’t necessarily see her as messed up. I see her as a 17-year-old who got lost at a very young age, and who didn’t have parents who were available enough to steer her in the right direction. I see her as a little bit rough around the edges. It was fun to smooth her edges over and make her into more of a river stone instead of a mountain rock.
Did Alexander Payne really guide you through the more emotionally difficult scenes?
WOODLEY: Alexander is one of my top five favorite human beings on the planet. I’m in love with him, and every single thing about him. My heart chakra beams when I talk about him. He’s an incredible human being, and on set he was really amazing for us. Every actor wants to work with him for a reason, and it’s because he gives you the time that you need to get to an emotional state and he’s always by the camera, talking you through the scene and helping you in times of difficulty. He’s never stuck behind a monitor or yelling from across the stage, like most directors. He’s really present and available for you.
The one thing you get asked about a lot is the underwater scene, where you cry and scream in the swimming pool. When you were shooting that, did you think that would be a moment that people would latch onto, talk about and be impressed by, or was it just another day on the set for you?
WOODLEY: It was just another day on the set. It was actually really funny. The guy who actually filmed that is a world-renowned surf cinematographer, and he was in the pool with me while Alexander was indoors filming a different scene with George [Clooney]. He would come out, in between takes, to see what we were doing in the pool. We only did four takes, and Alexander told me to go underwater and do whatever I wanted to do. It was my own therapy session, to go underwater and scream. It was so nice.
Where did you find this character?
WOODLEY: She’s the yin to my yang.
Do you have any friends like her?
WOODLEY: No. I’m sure I did in high school, but I don’t anymore. I choose to surround myself with happy human beings. I went through that angsty period. I think every single person does. I think it’s a rite of passage to hate the world and feel like the victim. I don’t know. I definitely went through that.
Are you more or less foul-mouthed in your every day life, now that you’ve played this character?
WOODLEY: I don’t know if she has any responsibility for my language. I’m trying to be polite.
WOODLEY: It was perfect. At the table read, Alexander is very meticulous with his casting and he told us all that he cast us for who we are, as human beings. I don’t know what that says about us. So, he really gave us the creative freedom to be ourselves within the rules and restrictions of the characters. He always told me to speak slower because apparently I’m a speed talker and louder because I spoke on a very quiet level. Another day, he came up to me and said, “You’re not being you. Be Shay.” That was the best direction I’ve ever gotten in my life because acting, at least for me, is just an extension of myself. So, it was really refreshing to have a director who got to know me so well as a human being that he could tell when I was starting to act versus when I was just being authentic to the character.
Are you just used to having to talk faster for your TV show versus the slower pace of the island life?
WOODLEY: Yeah, on the TV show we definitely do speak at a very fast rate. I never got used to the slow pace of Hawaii. My body did. I loved how chill it was there. I’d get up and hike, and then go have a bonfire and camp on the beach. It’s amazing. I love it, for that reason. But, as far as the slow freeways and slow dialogue, I’m still not used to that.
What happened after you had finished filming that scene with George Clooney, where you have to tell him that your mom and his wife has been cheating on him, to make it clear to you that he was happy with what you had done?
WOODLEY: After the scene on the couch, he came up to me and put his hand out for a high-five. It was his way of softly and comfortably letting me know that I did something that he approved of. He’s just a super human. I love him. He’s incredible. He always goes out of his way to make you feel comfortable and wanted and like you did a good job, but without putting you on the spot and saying, “You did a really good job.” That’s always awkward. Compliments are so awkward, especially when you’ve just finished a scene with someone. So, I really appreciated his understated comradery.
Is it nice to know that The Secret Life of the American Teenager has already been picked up for Season 5, and you’ll hit the 100 episode mark?
WOODLEY: Yeah, it’s super exciting. I’m so excited to hit the 100 mark. I really just want the sweater that says “100 Episodes.”
How much longer would you like to go with the show? Do you see an endpoint yet?
WOODLEY: Well, I’m in a contract for two more years, so I will be on the show for two more years.
Have you thought about the kind of roles you’d like to do next?
WOODLEY: I really want to do some dark roles. I would love to play a really dark, messed up character. I think that would be fun.
As an actor, do you prefer playing characters that are closer to who you are, or completely different from who you are?
WOODLEY: I’m generally a very annoyingly positive person, in real life. I think that might have something to do with my gravitation towards angry human beings on screen. I don’t know. I love playing darker roles, or roles with meat. I feel very comfortable in that environment. I don’t know why. I don’t know what that says about me. I really enjoy doing complicated characters.
Was there a performance or film that you saw this year that really made an impression on you?
WOODLEY: I saw the movie The Beginners and I wished that it never ended. I took that movie with me because it was so effective.