Shailene Woodley on ‘The Descendants,’ George Clooney, Oscars, and More

The roster of George Clooney’s leading ladies is formidable: Julia Roberts, Vera Farmiga, Julianna Margulies, to name a few. But in Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, he faces perhaps his toughest challenge: a teenager with a chip on her shoulder.

Teen TV star Shailene Woodley plays Alex, a disgruntled, drunk 17-year-old who returns from boarding school after a water-skiing accident lands her mother in a coma. She’s forced to guide her emotionally inept father (Clooney) and counsel her younger sister through the crisis. While Clooney is getting some of the greatest reviews of his career, it’s Woodley, 19, who steals the show. (In a standout scene, her character gets a dose of bad news and bawls underwater.)

She’s had plenty of experience playing an angsty teen. For four seasons, the California native has portrayed French-horn player Amy Juergens, an adolescent mom with never-ending baby-daddy drama on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She sports turtlenecks, flips her famously thick side-swept bangs, and tosses off the show’s PG-13 dialogue about safe sex, all while holding a baby on her hip. Despite stellar ratings, the show is often mocked as a soap-opera parody, which makes her leap to the big screen unexpected.

But a year after Secret Life broke the record for the highest-rated debut on the teen-friendly network, Woodley found herself reading the script for The Descendants. “What stood out to me was how messy and raw and human the script was,” Woodley says. Director Payne, dealing with a divorce and more of life’s stresses, took seven years to produce a follow-up to Sideways, his 2004 award winner about middle-aged men who love pinot noir. Now he’s turning his lens toward a broader family story. Every actor in The Descendants, including those with just one line, auditioned against hundreds of other prospects. Although Woodley says Payne never saw her ABC Family role, he’s said she “knocked [his] socks off.”

Woodley ditched the heavily fringed hair and high-school melodrama to star in the film, which hits theaters Friday. “I just thought there was a lot that I could do with [Alex] on a real level, and even though I’ve never had what’s happened in her life happen to me personally, everybody’s families are somewhat dysfunctional,” she says. “It’s all relative.”

Woodley is part of a trio of talented young women breaking out on screen this year, including Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen and Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones. Woodley is earning rave reviews and even garnering Oscar buzz for The Descendants. IndieWire, noted Woodley “could very well be a fixture in the supporting actress category, which loves to reward newcomers.”

But the modest star is quick to attribute any acclaim to her director and costar, even though she admits that she didn’t know who Payne was before The Descendants. “On a personal level, he’s one of my top five favorite human beings. He’s just such a dynamite man,” Woodley says of Payne. “Being on set with him, he makes you feel so comfortable and he gives you the freedom to do whatever you want within his unspoken words and guidelines. And that’s a beautiful thing for an actor. That’s why everyone wants to work with him because he does give you the freedom that a lot of movie sets don’t allow.”

As for her onscreen dad Clooney, Woodley is equally gushing. “He’s such a phenomenal superhuman, and I know it probably sounds weird, but he’s one of the greatest men. He has so much to offer, not only in his performances, but as a human being,” Woodley says. “He’s so generous and humble and passionate and grateful and appreciative and brilliant, and I just think the world of him. Every time I see him, I’m constantly absorbing and soaking in new information; just learning more about life and how to be a better human being because of him … I think gratitude is a big thing that a lot of people lose sight of and that man, he fully encompasses it.”

Clooney’s influence could be part of why the environmentalist and aspiring herbalist, who prefers to call herself an “artist” as opposed to an “actress,” seems to have her feet firmly planted on the ground. Woodley isn’t an overnight success—she’s actually been working in show business for three quarters of her life. She started taking classes and auditioning for commercials at the age of 5, merely as “something to do.” Not long after, she was landing guest stints on popular shows, including a recurring role as Mischa Barton’s bratty younger sister, Kaitlin Cooper, on The O.C. Though her résumé is getting longer, Woodley still lives with her mother (her parents are divorced), meets with the same friends she’s had for years, and won’t be expecting a congratulatory phone call at 5 a.m. when awards season begins next month.

“When you’re on a film set, you’re not thinking about what other people are going to think—you’re not thinking about magazines, you’re not thinking about interviews, and you’re definitely not thinking about Oscars,” Woodley explains. “At least for me. I’m just thinking about how grateful I am to be on the set and to work with such phenomenal people and to have the opportunity.”

With the growing buzz out of her mind, Woodley is wrapping up filming the fourth season of the surprise and somewhat controversial hit Secret Life, set to air in spring 2012. As in The Descendants, Woodley deals with plenty of onscreen drama. But because Secret Life comes from 7th Heaven creator Brenda Hampton, the disgruntled teen trope goes a different route. Comparing her two projects, Woodley says, “The Descendants is very, very human and very, very real. And [Secret Life] … well, it’s on ABC Family. You can’t be as real as you would want to be with the issues that we deal with because it reaches a certain demographic.”

That demographic loves Secret Life for its soap-opera tendencies. When viewers last left the cast in September, Woodley’s character, Amy, and her boyfriend, Ricky, were ready to walk down the aisle. “I think a lot of different people can relate to it,” Woodley says of the show—but its popularity hadn’t reached The Descendants cast and crew. She says with a laugh that Clooney, like Payne, has never seen the series and, as far as she knows, they don’t intend to.

Woodley says Secret Life is the only project on her plate at the moment, denying reports she’s attached to A Thousand Words or Less, by Easy A scribe Bert Royal. “We’ll see,” she says. “Nothing’s set in stone yet. But whatever happens is meant to be, and I’m totally excited for it.” Sometimes growing up actually isn’t hard to do.