Interview with Shailene Woodley of ‘The Descendants’

As good as George Clooney is as beleaguered Hawaiian nabob and family man Matt King in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” 20-year-old Shailene Woodley still steals the show as King’s messed-up teenaged daughter Alexandra. Her subtle, funny, and vivid performance will probably catch the eye of critics groups and the Academy as the awards season approaches. Not bad for her first big movie role (she may be best known for playing another troubled youth in the TV series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”).

Her accomplishment impressed me even more after I met her in person. Her character cusses, bitches, drinks, rebels, and basically just doesn’t seem a positive role model for her 10-year-old sister Scottie (Amara Miller). In contrast, when I interviewed Woodley a while back at the Toronto International Film Festival, she seemed upbeat and happy about just about everyone and everything.

Which is the act? Or are they both?

You enjoying this?
Absolutely, definitely.

What did you draw on for inspiration?
I get that question a lot, and the honest answer is nothing. For me as an actor, it’s what works for me, it’s different for everyone. But for me it’s not about developing a character or researching a character or being a character, it’s about being myself within the rules and restrictions and rules of a specific character. So, essentially one could conclude that I was Shailene through Alexandra’s mouth.

Sort of the John Wayne approach.
Yeah, I guess. I’m not a good actor. I’m just a professional listener. If you listen to the words, if you listen to the truth of a moment, you’ll react truthfully.

How about crying underwater? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in any movie before.
It was a great experience. I started swimming when I was one-and-a-half so water has always been comfortable for me; it’s like a safe zone, I guess you could say. So it wasn’t that big of a deal, it was exciting that I get to go underwater and lose my shit, so to say, and freak out and have this emotional disaster without having to be emotional in front of anyone.

Was the water as dirty as it looked?
Yes, it was. It was very dirty and actually the pool guy came cause it was brown from the leaves, so the day before the pool guy came and put the chemicals in it so that the camera could actually get a vivid…

No stunt double though?
Yeah no stunt double. But the chemicals were still in it so after four takes I came up and my eyes were BURNING but it was so worth it.

But it helps with the tears, right?
Yeah, I guess so.

Yeah actually it looked like your eyes were red….
We filmed the underwater scene a completely separate day from all the above water sequences.

How many takes was the underwater?

What a slave driver, huh? What was it like to work with him?
George Clooney or Alexander Payne

Pick one. Which one has been asked about least?
You know it’s pretty equal when it comes to them. Together, I mean individually, but speaking about them at the same time, they are both two of the most brilliant, humble, and grateful men I have ever met in my entire life. Alexander Payne is one of my top five favorite human beings. It brings me to tears talking about him because I have so much gratitude and love for who he is as a person and the art that he makes and the joy that he brings to this world. And then George Clooney is a super-human. You can call him a superstar but he’s not a superstar he’s a super-human.

Has he invited you to the villa in Italy yet?
I actually did get to stop by there last year when I was in Italy for a little bit. I was literally backpacking through Italy and I showed up at his house with my friend and a giant backpack and dirty shoes and I was, like, can I borrow your laundry machine cause our clothes are dirty?

Are you serious? How did you get by security?
I mean he knew we were coming.

Always call ahead. You’ve been in the business since you were five years old. What’s that like? Do you feel like you lost part of your childhood?
No, goodness no. It’s like doing gymnastics all your life, or cheerleading all your life. For me, it was never the typical child actor situation. I went to school, got picked up, went to an audition, came home and played with my friends. When I was at the auditions, my friends were at soccer practice, then we’d reconvene in the neighborhood park. It was just a hobby, a passion really. If I booked a commercial or something when I was younger I never told my friends. Three quarters of my friends didn’t even know I acted until my junior year of high school when I booked the show. I never talked about it, it was fun for me, but it was never something like “oh, guys I’m an actor and one day I want to be this.”

The secret life of the American actress.
Yeah. My dad’s a school principal, my mom’s a school counselor, education was always very important in our household. I had three rules growing up: I had to stay the person they knew I was, do good in school, and have fun. And if all three of those things continued to be completed then I could continue to act.

What grades are you giving yourself in those three things so far?
I graduated high school with a 4.0, I always have fun, and I’m definitely the person I was back then, so.

Could use some improvement. So do you remember what your first gig was?
Oh goodness, I believe it was a Kelloggs’ commercial. I did over 40, 45 commercials when I was younger. I did a lot of commercials, from the age of probably six-and-a-half, cause I didn’t book anything for a while, to maybe eight? Nine? And from there I started doing small co-star roles on TV and then guest star roles, and then “Secret Life,” and now this.

“The angel-faced killer on CSI.” Is that fun?
Yes. It is fun. I am an extremely positive, optimistic, happy human being, I just am innately happy. So I guess I can easily tap into my dark alter ego side and play these hardcore characters that kill people and scream f-bombs at people like George Clooney. I’m a happy person so I guess my alter ego works well in this business.

You’re getting it all out of the way on screen.
I guess that’s what’s happening

So movies or TV? I’m sure no one’s asked you that before.
I love movies. TV is great, but for me, movies is where my heart is.

Has it always been that way?
Always. TV has always been fun, but movies, even before “Secret Life,” has been where I want to be in the future.

Do you remember the first movie that you saw?
The first movie I remember loving was “Beauty and the Beast,” when I was 3.

Probably not the Cocteau version, which I’m sure Payne is going to put on your list of required viewing.
Oh my goodness; I have a list of hundreds of films from the likes of George Clooney, Alexander Payne, and Jim Burke [one of the film’s producers].

You’ve got your work cut out for you. Meanwhile, I imagine this role has been getting you a lot of buzz and attention.
There are no words. Again, acting is an art and a passion for me and no more, so I was grateful to do the film. And now to reconvene with everyone from the film and be able to do the publicity press with everyone is exciting because I get to be with Alexander and George and Nick [Krause, who plays Alexandra’s raffish friend Sid] and all these great human beings again. And then to hear compliments on top of that, it’s just exciting and so new, and a day by day process that I’m so grateful for.

Not to jinx it but you do know you’re probably gonna be in the mix for…
Again, it’s just day by day with gratitude and see what happens.

Do you have anything scheduled right now to follow-up this?
No, not right now. I’m just still in the show.

You spent four months in Hawaii. Tough job.
Yeah, four months in Hawaii. So rough, Alexander Payne, George Clooney, four months in Hawaii. Oh, and Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard…our set was one giant Ohana, which means family in Hawaiian. Everyone showed up with a smile on their face every morning whether it was locals who were transportation or the people who came in from LA, there was never one dispute, never one argument, never one clash, between anyone on set. Which never happens, let alone in this industry, but in any job. You always have two people who don’t get along when you have 300 people together.

Even Beau Bridges?
Even Beau Bridges. Everyone got along flawlessly. Beau Bridges was great. There are really not enough words in the English vocabulary to express the ambiance, the beautiful ambiance of this movie and the set and the environment. But, the word “aloha,” in Hawaiian, everyone knows it, but no one knows the true meaning which is, “ha” means breath, so when you say “aloha” to someone it’s the giving and receiving of breath. So if I say “aloha” to you it means I see you, I respect you, and I’m giving you my breath and I am taking yours. And it’s this beautiful word, and if you will, the set was just one giant “aloha.”

So this was an introduction to an entire culture for you, really.
Absolutely. I had never been to Hawaii and it’s home. My body is everywhere else, but my heart is in Hawaii, and that is where I will have my babies one day.

Good idea. Obama was born here, for example.
I know, he went to Punahou, which is the school my character goes to.

Are you going to go on to a University?
Yeah, right now the show that I’m doing, I only have time for online courses, and I could take them, get an A, forget it, and that would do me no good. So I’m waiting for a time where I can fully immerse myself into the four-year university. I’m a visual learner, so.

Do you have any idea what you’d want to study?
Absolutely. Both my parents are psychologists, or have their degree in psychology. So, I think that’d be interesting just because I grew up with all that. As well as, herbology. I’m really interested in natural healing, and besides the healing and medicinal purposes of plants, what plants you can use for paper and building in a sustainable way.

So you’re actually studying this now?
I’m not studying this now. I AM studying it now through my own sources, so through my own internet sites, through my own books, through my own magazines, but I’m not actually taking a course.

So you couldn’t wander out into the woods and find a medicinal herb and save someone’s life.
That’s the goal. I’m not quite there yet. I can tell you what herbs will do what, but I can’t recognize it.

You’ve probably seen a bunch of movies while you’ve been here at the festival.
Yes, I saw “The Artist,” which I fell in love with. It’s such a feel good movie and I’m so happy to see a silent black and white film made in 2011, in this century.

That was in 3-D right?
(laughs) Yeah, exactly, 3-D. I also saw the documentary “The Island President,” which I fell in love with. My biggest passion is the environment and how we as human beings can start to live more sustainably, and that documentary really exampled a beautiful human being, the President [Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives], and how he has taken on the role of helping global warming….and I don’t mean helping it in the positive I mean ending global warming.

And that’s one of the themes of this movie, too.
It is. The environment definitely sticks up for itself in that movie as far as the way Alexander wrote it. The land, right now in Kauai, because Kauai, or Hawaii in general, is such a new colony to the United States, there are a few families who own large pockets of Hawaiian land, from their ancestors. And even though the novel and the script aren’t officially adapted after any particular family, there is a family in Kauai who owns just as much land as Matt King in “The Descendants” does. So when you talk to Hawaiians about the movie they always bring up this particular family and how grateful they are that the family hasn’t sold the land. Because it would completely change the dynamic of the island.