Shailene Woodley makes leap to big screen in ‘Descendants’

The loose braid down her back, her trendy silver necklace and her perfect skin give away Shailene Woodley’s tender age. Yet, hearing her speak you would think you were talking to her mom or at the very least her older, more mature sister.

For Woodley, George Clooney’s costar in the Alexander Payne drama “The Descendants,” is one of those precocious young actors who make you wonder whether it’s possible that someone at age 20 can be so self-possessed. Friendly and sweet like someone you’d want to babysit your children, Woodley may have just starred in her first feature role but acts as if she’s been doing it for years.

And she has grand ambitions. She’s interested in working with other top-rate filmmakers — naming Danny Boyle, Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky. Yet the lithe brunet with hazel eyes is currently hampered by her commitment to a television show.

The actress, who has appeared in commercials since she was 5 and landed her big break as the lead of the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” during her junior year of high school, is getting rave reviews for her role in “The Descendants,” in which she plays the wayward 17-year-old daughter of George Clooney’s Matt King.

She was called “beautifully nuanced” by Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times and credited by the New York Times for giving “one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory.”

Woodley’s character, Alexandra, joins forces with her father in an attempt to locate the man who’s been having an affair with her mother, who has just been hospitalized after a boating accident. Woodley had been chasing the coveted part since she first read the script, months before Clooney joined the film.

“The relationships between the characters were really strong in ways that most scripts just aren’t today. It was truly human and not Hollywood,” Woodley said while lounging on a couch in a Toronto hotel before the film’s debut at the annual film festival.

Unable to audition in Los Angeles because of conflicts with her television show, Woodley tracked down Payne in New York to finally try out for a part that higher-profile actresses such as Kristen Stewart were considering.

“I had been looking for a young lady who could express both fire and vulnerability, like a young Debra Winger,” Payne said. “One minute into [Woodley’s] audition, I knew I had found her.”

Payne was also impressed by Woodley’s maturity. “She has a remarkably good head on her shoulders — clever, compassionate, perceptive — and she has been well-parented.”

Growing up in Simi Valley with two educator parents, Woodley was allowed to pursue acting as long as she followed three rules: “Stay the person I knew I was, do well in school and have fun,” Woodley said. “If I did all those things, I could continue to act.”

Woodley studied acting as an extracurricular activity during her childhood. “I’d take classes for a year, then take a year off to do other things — build tables or climb mountains,” she said.

Despite little film experience, Woodley was not concerned about playing in the Hawaiian sandbox with two pros as seasoned as Clooney and Payne. She found it “bizarre” to know that Clooney, whose film “Up in the Air” was playing in theaters when she got the part, “was going to play my father.” But she showed no signs of intimidation on the set, according to the director. “That’s part of her talent and maturity — she can hold her own in any situation,” Payne said. “She’s the real McCoy.”

Woodley is equally fond of Payne and describes his directing style with a metaphor: “He’s the shore of the river, and we are the water. He gives us the freedom to create whatever currents we want, whatever rocks we want, but within the rules and boundaries of this vision.”

Woodley has multiple years left on her TV contract, though her representatives won’t confirm the exact number. “It’s difficult when you have a show,” she admitted. “Even though ABC Family is great and they let me out, if it’s not the right movie, they tend to not let you out.” She added that timing and content are the two factors the network takes into account before letting her off the show to attend an audition. “It all comes into play.”

In the meantime, Woodley, who said “her heart is in movies,” will continue working on the popular “American Teenager” — in which she plays the lead character, a teenage mom juggling parenthood and high school — and will keep looking for projects that inspire her.

Despite the bump “The Descendants” will inevitably bring to her career trajectory, she said she doesn’t intend to make a move for strategic reasons. “I don’t want to play the game of cat and mouse, where I have to do this part so I can get that part,” she said. “If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. If not, I’ll be a third-grade teacher.”