Shailene Woodley on The Descendants, Crying Underwater, and George Clooney’s Fart Machine

Remember the name Shailene Woodley. Not only is she beautiful (Nylon chose her as a “face of the future” in its “young Hollywood” issue), but the kid can act. She’s the emotional center of the new George Clooney tearjerker The Descendants, where she plays his moody teenage daughter, one more tenuous relationship he works on repairing after his wife is in a boating accident. Though Woodley is in tears for much of the movie, she also told us about lighter moments during the shoot, like counting chickens in Hawaii and how it wasn’t weird to call George Clooney pussy.

Do you have a crush on George?
A crush on George? He’s 50. No. [Laughs.] I mean, I guess I have a crush on him in terms of him just being a phenomenal human being. Not a crush — I’m enamored by his human being-ness, and who he is in this world. But no, he’s 50. That would be weird to say I had a crush on him. It would be … I’m just turning 20.

Did he play any pranks on you, or spare the kids?
Yeah, he’s famous for his pranks, but most of the time it’s films where there are mostly adults. Put a 10-year-old on set and we didn’t get any big pranks, but we did get practical jokes. The fart machine would come out.

The fart machine?
Like on his iPhone, he has an app that makes fart sounds. In between takes from a serious scene, he’d pull it out. He has this amazing ability to be goofy and silly, and in the blink of an eye transform into this vulnerable, serious character.

Was it really fun that one of your lines is telling George Clooney, “Don’t be a pussy”?
George Clooney sort of lost his “George Clooney-ness” the first day I met him. He’s not George Clooney in my eyes — he’s George from Kentucky with an awesome, awesome heart. So it wasn’t weird for me to say that. It was like saying it to anyone.

One of the most moving moments in the film is when he tells you something really terrible about your mother — we won’t spoil it — and you’re in the backyard pool, of all places.
I feel so fortunate for that scene. It was written in the script as, She goes underwater and distorts her face, and I saw that as, she goes underwater and loses her shit. She was able to be vulnerable for the first time without anyone seeing. Being Hawaiian, I took her to be a water baby, so the water was very comforting for her. And then being an actor, it was selfishly my own therapy session. I got to scream underwater. I just naturally cried because if you were being told that [about] your mom, you would cry in real life.

Most teenagers don’t get to spend weeks in Hawaii. How amazing was it to film there?
I’d never been before, but it’s home. My body’s from L.A., but my heart is from Hawaii. There’s a magical energy there. It’s very … I don’t want to say spiritual. But within two seconds of getting off the plane, I immediately become centered and grounded, and listen to myself, which is easy to lose sight of when you’re involved with all the materialism of Los Angeles. When we weren’t filming, we were hiking up waterfalls, jumping off things, kayaking, snorkeling, and doing things we probably shouldn’t contractually be doing, but it was amazing. We would go on these divine ten-hour hikes and you’d go, “Wow. There are more chickens than humans.”

[Director] Alexander Payne is so drawn to these stories of men in midlife crises. Was there anything you could relate to in it?
I really connected to the end scene; for me, it symbolizes that life goes on. Tragedy strikes, and you sit in it, and you kind of get lost in it for a while, and then you move on. That’s what really hit home for me.

Had you seen any of his other films?
I saw Sideways when I was, like, 14. I didn’t get it. I was like, “Why are you laughing, Mom? It’s not funny at all.” When I booked this movie, I rewatched it and I was like, “Wow. This man is brilliant. This is one of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen.”

I think you’d also like Election more than, say, About Schmidt.
I haven’t seen it. I’m really the most uneducated actor when it comes to knowing producers, directors, writers, actors — I don’t know anyone. People get offended by that, but I just don’t ever sit down to watch movies. I hadn’t even seen The Graduate or Annie Hall. But working with Alexander and George, two of the biggest film nerds there are, [now] I have an extensive list.