Shailene Woodley on The Descendants, Positive Thinking, and Her Future in Film

The roster of actors in the world who could reduce megastar George Clooney to rubble with a single withering look is short, but add newcomer Shailene Woodley to the top of the list. As Alex, the acerbic 17-year-old daughter of Clooney’s Hawaiian landowner and family man in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Woodley (of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) makes an auspicious film debut that could land her in the Oscar race — not that Woodley, perhaps the most well-adjusted young star on the rise in Hollywood, would take awards razzle-dazzle too seriously.

Movieline met Woodley in Los Angeles last week on her 20th birthday to discuss The Descendants, in which Clooney’s Matt King comes to a crisis point in middle age: His newly comatose wife has been cheating on him, he must wrangle his two estranged daughters into something resembling a family, and he has to make a decision to sell his inheritance, a wealth of vast and untouched Hawaiian land. Woodley’s Alex is Matt’s toughest nut to crack, sardonic and rebellious for her own reasons until she becomes her father’s partner in crime.

Alex could use some Woodley-style wisdom herself. Read on for Movieline’s chat with the grounded up and comer about The Descendants, the tragic sweetness of Alexander Payne, her outlook on the cutthroat industry (and how not to fret over lost roles), and what it’s like to be thrown into the spotlight with other young Hollywood types as award season rolls on.

You’re making quite the splash these days. Obviously you’ve been on TV for a while now, but making your first foray into film work, in an awards season hopeful, brings a different kind of attention.
I don’t know! I don’t really think about it, to be honest. For me, acting is about the art of it and it’s about being on a film set and doing your thing, painting a blank canvas. So that, to me, is the fun part. And then all of this extra stuff is fun as well, but this is definitely more of the work part. And then everyone talking about things, and asking me how it feels to be talked about… the four months in Hawaii exceeded any expectations I created for myself, and so now going to all these different festivals and meeting these interesting people and talking about a film I’m passionate about is, like, beyond the icing on the cake. Beyond the cherry on top. To think about what’s going to happen in the future and all of that, it’s silly. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

And you should enjoy the moment right now.
Exactly. I’m already the most fortunate girl in the world, so I have zero expectations for what the future will bring. I’m just excited to be here right now.

By the way, happy birthday!
Thank you!

Is this a strange way to spend a birthday? At a press junket?
It’s wonderful, actually. It’s wonderful.

How did The Descendants first come to you, and did you feel there was a lot of importance in deciding what project to make your feature debut?
I didn’t think about any of that. You don’t really think about, “Oh, this is going to be my first feature — it’s got to be the right one.” For me, my rule in this industry is I’ve got to listen to my butterflies. So if I got butterflies, then those are the scripts I go after. I got, like, beyond butterflies for this movie. I got dragons! I read the script, and it was so real and human, and raw and messy, and it’s so rare that you get a good script nowadays. So often, especially for my age range, I feel like they’re beautified and glamorized and “artistically-licensed” — and they’re not human. So reading a script like this was really refreshing. It reminded me, in completely different ways, of Little Miss Sunshine. When I watched that movie, I laughed and I cried, and some of the ways in which they handled situations seemed absurd but still practical, you know? And this movie, even though the tone and some other things are very different, some of the scenes are absurd but practical, and it’s funny but it’s sad.

And that’s what makes the story and characters feel more real.
It totally makes it feel more real, and it feels like good cinema instead of just action, crazy, CGI entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because entertaining movies are great too.

You’re right — The Descendants fits into an atypical category of film, and one of the things it does well is find the humor in the saddest of situations.
I think the reason it does that is because Alexander [Payne] sees that we take our lives so seriously. We give importance to the craziest things. He kind of approaches his films from a birds’ eye-point of view, where he sees that this really dysfunctional, sad, tragic moment is actually quite hilarious and over-the-top. When you’re removed from it, when you’re outside of the situation, you see the humor in life. It’s when you’re in this cycle that you kind of get lost in it. He’s got that unique ability to make you laugh, cry, and laugh again in a two-minute scene.

So the script came to you and you connected to it. When it came time to audition or meet with Alexander, was it a role that meant more to you than most?
Yes — I actually read the script in April 2009, and I didn’t audition for Alexander until November of 2009. I never do this, ever, but every single week I emailed my agent saying, “What’s going on with The Descendants?” They were like, “Still don’t have funding,” or “Still don’t have a director,” “Still don’t have a lead actor,” “Still don’t have a studio…” So there was always a reason why they weren’t casting. I was always passionate about it from Day One, before I knew Alexander or George were attached. Then when I finally got to audition, it was so exciting.

What was the audition like?
When Alexander was in L.A. I was working on [The Secret Life of the American Teenager], so scheduling-wise it conflicted and I couldn’t see him. When he was in New York I happened to be in Toronto, so I flew down for a day to audition for him in New York. It was kind of standard; I went in and did my thing. I left feeling confident because I knew I did everything I could do. A lot of times you leave auditions and think, “Ahhhh, why did I do that? I could’ve done better.” But this one I really did do what I knew was humanly possible for Shailene to do. I think that was because I had so many months of build-up that I was so excited to just do it. But I’m very aware that in this industry, 500 out of 501 times you do not book something, and I’m a firm believer that you’re right for a role, or you’re not right for a role, so if you don’t book it there’s no sense in wallowing over why you didn’t book it. You didn’t book it because that girl was either A) better than you for the role, or B) had the right look, or C) knew someone you didn’t know. There are so many different components. Me, I’m really good about letting go once I audition.

How did you amass all this wisdom, at your young age?
[Laughs] I don’t know! I think it’s like everything in life; if you wallow in it, then you’ll get stuck in it and that’s kind of when things manifest, or don’t manifest. So when I left the audition, obviously I still wanted it. But I wasn’t worried about whether I would get it or not because I knew that I did everything I could do, and if someone else did it better, then good for them. That’s great.

I like this outlook on life. It’s so positive.
[Smiles] I like my life, and I think that’s probably why.

So you prepared yourself to potentially not get the Descendants gig. But once you did…
In January of 2010, I got a call from him saying that I booked it. [Pause] I started crying.

How did you and George develop your daughter-father bond? When we first meet the both of you, there’s a painful, muddled history there and a huge divide. Was it tricky to strike that familiar yet distanced dynamic?
No. I mean, George is one of the most down to earth, if not the most down to earth guy I’ve ever met in my entire life — in this industry or outside this industry. He’s just a super human. There was no intimidation factor in working with “George Clooney,” it was just like working with an amazing actor and phenomenal human being. As far as the history of the characters, we really as actors had it so easy and are lucky to have had Alexander Payne, because the words were so easy that I really didn’t have to do a lot of thinking or research on my character. Everything I could have ever asked was there on the page.

Hawaiian culture and history is ingrained in the story, sort of in the background of this character study. How much did you consider your character’s haole heritage? She’s got Hawaiian blood, many generations removed, and that is an important element.
Yeah, totally. I had never been to Hawaii, and now I say that my body is from L.A. but my heart is from Hawaii, because I’m in love with it and it’s home on every level, from a spiritual, soulful place. But it was really interesting. I learned a lot about it; I learned that, obviously, America took it over illegally, as we did all of America. But it’s a very new colony to America and there’s still a lot of indigenous culture that is present in Hawaii today. There are true descendants, so when we did this film I met with actual descendants of Hawaiian royalty, of land. That was really interesting, to hear their stories and how the land was passed onto them. The scene where they’re in Kauai and Alex is looking over the land, I thought that was a very powerful moment because even though that scene is more about George making his decision based on the land, for me – for Alex’s standpoint — it was beautiful because she was thinking in her mind, “Wow, one day I’m going to own this if my dad doesn’t sell. I’m going to own this land.” That was powerful in itself, for a 17-year-old to have that wisdom and that knowledge of inheriting that land.

Especially because in the beginning, she’s so contained and consumed within herself.
Totally. She definitely breaks down her walls and becomes a citizen of the world.

The Hawaiian aspect and the King family’s connection to their own heritage adds a lot more to the conversation, especially when it comes to the topic of developing Hawaii. Does that make it more complex, from your point of view, to play Alex?
On a personal level, I definitely take the indigenous Hawaiian side over the industrialist, business-minded side. There was a sense of her being a haole but also being a Hawaiian, of her inheriting this land but doing nothing to inherit it. I think the movie talks a lot about that through Matt King’s words and through his world. But it was very interesting to get to know Hawaii as a local, and that was priceless. I’m so fortunate to have been there for four months and to have met such interesting people. I got to meet people who were 100 percent full-blooded Hawaiian, which is rare to none nowadays. And I got to meet people who were “haole as shit,” as Matt King says, who had never even surfed in their life but still had Hawaiian blood in them. So it was interesting, the different people who live on the island and the way they all look at it. A lot of Hawaiians are bitter toward America because of the way that we took over their islands.

As The Descendants picks up steam, we’re seeing you on more and more of these “Young Hollywood” — type panels. What has it been like to be thrust into the spotlight with other up and coming actors, poised for some big collective moment?
It’s interesting because you do get thrust into a panel of a certain amount of people and you’re like, “Hi.” And they’re like, “Hey.” And you see them everywhere. Anton Yelchin, I met him at the Hamptons Film Festival and my best friend knows him so that was a connection that we made, and so now every event we go to I just latch onto him because I’m like, you’re a familiar face and I know you’re cool and down to earth and normal, so let’s just be friends and do this together. But everyone I’ve met so far has been awesome.

And all of you come to it from such different places.
Yeah, such different paths! We talk a little bit about that, but for the most part you show up to something for the press and you do it, then you go back to your own lives. So you really only see them when you’re answering questions about your own films, and you don’t get to talk about your personal life.

I’m curious about the way you see your career; you seem just detached enough that you have a very healthy outlook on this business.
Yeah, I’m very detached.

As you move more into film work and continue your work on Secret Life, what is your approach to those two paths, film and TV?
I’m so lucky to work on Secret Life. It’s been four years and we’re like a family, and it’s nice to have that routine of going to work every day with the same people. And we’re so lucky, because ABC Family and the showrunner, Brenda Hampton, give us time off to do films. No studio, no network, no showrunners do that. I mean, they let me go for four months to do this movie, and they sent my character to New York. Another actress on the show, she has two movies coming out at the beginning of next year and they let her off to go and do that, so it’s not like they just do it for me. They do it for everyone. And that’s a rarity, to find a network that’ll let you do films while you’re also doing a TV show. So we’re lucky, because I’m looking forward to being able to balance both.

You have two more seasons left on the show. After that, what are you thinking you’ll do?
Then, I would love to only do film. I love TV work, but film is where my heart is.

You began acting at a young age; when you started out, what did you want out of it all?
As a kid, I never wanted to be in magazines. I never wanted to be that stupid “F” word, famous. I never wanted to be an “S” word, star. For me it was all about the art of acting. I remember being an 8-year-old and saying, “I’m going to be a third-grade teacher and on the side, I’ll act.” [Laughs] I don’t want to be a third-grade teacher anymore, but I do want to always acting be my hobby and it be fun. The day it becomes tedious or the day it becomes something I feel I have to do for money, or because of the industry, or because of some silly image, is the day I quit. If it’s not fueling something, why would I do it?