Shailene Woodley on How She Wound Up Starring Opposite George Clooney

Each awards season, it seems, I interview a young, little-known actress who is on the brink of full-fledged stardom — only, at the time we speak, she doesn’t fully realize it yet. We usually connect during or soon after the Toronto International Film Festival, where “the industry” gets a sneak peak at the good movies that the general public will only get to see a few weeks or months down the line, at which point she’s as happy to speak with me as I am to speak with her… then a couple of months go by before I see her again, during which time the movie is released and everyone else sees what those of us on the festival circuit saw… and then, the next time we cross paths on the awards trail, she has little or no recollection of us ever having talked in the first place, since it has become blurred in her memory with the hundreds of other interviews that she has been nudged to do as part of the awards “campaign” that has been mounted on her behalf.

As I think back, there was Junebug (2005) and Amy Adams; The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Emily Blunt; Juno (2007) and Ellen Page; Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Sally Hawkins; An Education (2009) and Carey Mulligan; and Winter’s Bone (2010) and Jennifer Lawrence. This year, there’s The Descendants and Shailene Woodley — or, as the sexy, spunky 19-year-old introduces herself to me before our interview a few days ago, just “Shai.” (I’ll let you know if that changes to “Ms. Woodley” over the next few months… my gut feeling, though, is that this particular young lady is not going to be changed for the worse — or much at all — by what’s in store for her.)

Woodley, it turns out, is from Simi Valley, California, just a half-hour from Hollywood, where her dad is a school principal and her mom is a guidance counselor. She started taking acting classes at the age of five, and soon after an agent called her mom and expressed an interest in representing her. Her parents, she says, only agreed to allow her to work professionally if she promised to adhere to three rules: “I had to [1] stay the person they knew I was; [2] have fun; and [3] do good in school.” She did, and hasn’t looked back since.

She started out doing dozens of commercials; then co-starring roles on TV shows; then guest-starring roles on TV shows; then major roles in small movie-of-the-week type TV shows; and then — in the middle of her junior year in high school (which she ended up graduating with her class) — booked the starring role in ABC Family’s “teenage soap opera” The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which has been her biggest showcase to date. (I apologize to her for not being more familiar with it, but she laughingly reassures me, “You are not the right demographic, so don’t even worry about that!”). “It’s been this ladder that I’ve been climbing up,” she says, “and I’m still climbing!”

Woodley’s ultimate goal has always been to get into film, and she finally got that chance to do so — in some pretty elite company — when Oscar winner Alexander Payne cast her as Alexandra, the rebellious daughter of a woman in a coma (Patricia Hastie) and the husband she’d been cheating on (George Clooney), in The Descendants, Fox Searchlight’s big Oscar hopeful this year.

Woodley fell in love with Payne and Nat Faxon’s script the first time she read it — “[I] immediately became so enthralled with it, so passionate about it. I loved how human it was, and how raw it was, and how it didn’t cover up any of the messy shit that goes on in everyday life, ’cause so many Hollywood films do.” — but actually getting the part was anything but easy. The Secret Life wouldn’t give her time off to audition when Payne was seeing young actresses in Los Angeles; she was in Toronto when she learned he was seeing other girls in New York, so she flew down for the day, went through the “standard auditioning process,” and apparently made a strong impression. (“I don’t remember the audition,” she says, “which I take as a good thing.”) The next thing she knew, she had been cast, and everything went pretty rapidly after that: a table read across from Clooney; a month in Hawaii before shooting commenced (“to get the vibe… because it’s very different from anywhere else”); rehearsals; and then three months of production, which she remembers as a magical time.

Woodley has four particularly significant scenes in the film (spoiler alert): when she is told by her father that her mother is going to die while she’s in the family’s pool; when she tells her father that her mother had been cheating on him; and when she defends her father to her mother’s father in her mother’s hospital room. (She shares her memories of each of them at the bottom of this post.) Throughout the entire film, though, she gives a raw, real, convincing portrait of a teenager in crisis (to an ever greater degree than usual). When I ask what she drew upon to do so — things that she had read, things that she had experienced, etc. — she insisted, “There was no research; there was no connecting her to my own personal life. It was just being present in the moment.”

Almost immediately after The Descendants premiered at the Telluride Film Festival two weeks ago, people started celebrating the film and suggesting that not only Clooney but also Woodley might wind up with Oscar nominations (the former for best actor, the latter for best supporting actress). Woodley says that she treasured the opportunity just to be at that festival and see films with people who truly love them; as for the personal acclaim that she has received, she says that she is just taking it all in stride, “day by day, with gratitude.” She goes on, “I’m an artist. I’m not a celebrity, or famous, or a star, and I never, ever, ever will be, because that’s not my goal… What I’m really excited about — and it took me a long time to get it, to understand it — is that I have the ability to spread love and compassion back into the world. That’s why I’m here.”

On meeting George Clooney: “We met at the first table read… I wasn’t intimidated by working with ‘George Clooney’ until I saw him, and my heart started pounding, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s George Clooney!’ And then he came over, and gave me a giant hug, and said, ‘Welcome, sweety!’ Something really warm. And, from that moment on, he wasn’t ‘George Clooney’ in my eyes; he was George Clooney from Kentucky.”

On the scene in which she gets some bad news: “The script said, ‘She goes under water and distorts her face,’ or something similar to that. I’m really comfortable in the water — I was born in the water, started swimming at one-and-a-half, so the water has always been Shai’s safe zone. So it was really exciting for me to take a character who has just heard this… awful news about her family — her mother — and to be able to escape into the water… It was like a baby in a womb — no one can hear you; you can be vulnerable and nobody knows. And I think that was a really special moment, not only for Alexandra, but, selfishly, for me. It was like my own therapy session!”

On the scene in which she gives some bad news: “To cry wasn’t hard — I’m very in touch with my emotional side; I don’t know why. But to cry wasn’t hard because the words evoked the emotion. What was fun about that scene was to not cry, to try and hold it in. I know that sounds weird, but that’s almost more difficult sometimes than actually crying… It was a beautiful moment for me because I really got to express her in the way I wanted without the feeling of being rushed, or annoying, or anyone judging me.”

On the scene in which she speaks up for her father: “That was a great moment because, in the beginning of the film, Alexandra is very estranged from her family, and Matt is, too, in a different way. I’d like to think that, when she was younger, they had a very close relationship, and, through a series of events in her life, they, kind of, became detached… I think that scene at the end — when she stands up for him, and when Nick Krause’s character Sid stands up for him — is so beautiful because it’s the final arc of the story… It’s the first time, I think, she recognizes her father, or at least shows anyone else that she sees him as a human being. It was full circle.”