You’ve heard it a million times before. An up-and-comer is cast in a big project, touted as the next best thing and then they fail to leave a lasting impression. We’re happy to report relative unknown Shailene Woodley doesn’t fit that bill. In Alexander Payne’s alternately heartbreaking and hilarious “The Descendants,” Woodley shares the screen with George Clooney as a wayward daughter, forced to deal with the sudden passing of her mom in Hawaii. This is undeniably Clooney’s film, but Woodley more than holds her own, delivering a comic, wrenching and amazingly vivid performance, sure to make her a hot commodity.
Woodley isn’t new to the game; she’s been acting since she was a child. Prior to “The Descendants,” her highest profile role to date’s been on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” where she plays the lead girl Amy. Other credits include stints on the TV shows “Cold Case,” “My Name is Earl” and “CSI:NY.”
Being pretty young, did you know who Payne was prior to taking this on?
I like to think of myself as a fairly educated human being, but I’m a very uneducated actor when it comes to movies, directors, producers, actors for that matter. So I had seen “Sideways,” I thought it was a great movie. When I auditioned, my friend was like, “Oh my god, you auditioned for Alexander Payne.” I didn’t see the big deal. After we started filming, I watched a few of his other movies. He’s just (sigh), a magical human being.
He’s just profound. He’s one of those people that creates such a calm energy on set and such a positive environment. You go to work everyday and everyone’s equal. No one takes precedence over the other. You’re hanging out with the crafts service, the gaffer, the dollies…Everyone was happy. I know that sounds bizarre. But whether you sell insurance, you work at a car dealership, or on a movie set; when you’re thrown together with 200 people, generally you’re going to have a few disputes. Not one. Everyone got along flawlessly. That never happens.
You talk as if you’re an old pro at the game, but how old are you?
When did you start acting?
I was 5.
So this is in your blood by now.
I guess, it’s really bizarre. My dad’s a school principal and my mom’s a middle school counselor. Acting was never in their mind. It’s acting! I was five, taking local theater classes just because I loved performing at home. It was like taking gymnastics or soccer. Nothing we thought would go anywhere. An agent later called my mom, said she was interested in me. She asked if I wanted to try this, and I said “sure.” So growing up, I had rules: stay the person I knew I was, do good in school, and have fun. If I continued to abide by those rules I could act. And I suppose I did.
What was that journey like, growing up as a working actor?
I went to public school my whole life, graduated high school with my class. Growing up, I’d go to an audition, my friends would go to soccer practice and we’d all reconvene and hang out in our neighborhood. When I would book something, I would never tell my friends. Acting was just fun. I was a kid, I wasn’t jaded. I didn’t know the other side of acting, the business side.
When I booked “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” press started happening, there was publicity. That was a complete new learning experience. Every single journey that I’ve embarked on, I’ve learned something knew. I’m so lucky to have a grounded, well balanced family.
How did you prepare yourself mentally for the experience of promoting this movie? The film’s being touted as an Oscar front-runner and there’s tons of buzz surrounding you.
I’m not overwhelmed at all. The four months filming in Hawaii, that was the icing on the cake (the audition was the cake). So this is like the happy birthday writing in blue ink. I just wake up every day and take it day by day. I’m grateful for whatever experiences I get to embark on, and whatever happens, happens.
You’re in no way intimated by the journey ahead?
All of those things (the awards), I just look at as the materialistic side of this industry. I know that sounds bizarre to say.
I’m guessing you must have been a little intimidated by the project itself initially. You share most of your screen time opposite George Clooney.
When I first booked the role, I didn’t think of it as, “Wow, I get to work with ‘star’ George Clooney.” I looked at it as, “Wow, I get to work with an incredible actor.” And then the first time I met him at the table read, I got nervous. My heart started pounding, I started sweating. But then he walked in and said something like, “Hey sweetie,” and immediately my nerve factor went away. It was just about enjoying every moment.
People always ask what you learned from him as an actor. I didn’t really learn much. During that period of my life, I learned how to be a better human being from the both of them [Clooney and Payne]. I empowered myself through their amazing traits.
What did you most take away from George?
People call him a ‘star.’ I think he’s a super human. He’s been given so much power and he has used it in the most positive of ways. He’s one of those guys that would help you walk across the street, if you are 95 or 2 years old. On the set, if someone was doing a hard time, he was the first to offer assistance. He’s just the most generous person I’ve ever encountered in my life. I could go on and on about him.
He’s known for playing pranks on set.
We heard about all his infamous pranks. He would tell us about what he did to Brad Pitt, or Matt Damon. But as far as to us, we didn’t really get any infamous George Clooney pranks. I think it was due to the fact that this was more of an intimate atmosphere and more of a serious role for him, than most of his roles where he gets to be the suave, sexy man.
But there still were jokes. The fart machine application on his phone would come up all the time. When the DOP was adjusting the camera, he’d bend his legs so the camera would get adjusted wrong. He’s go back and forth for minutes.
What’s next for you? You must have a slew of offers.
Not really. For me acting is a passion and an art, and always will only be that. I don’t have any rules when it comes to acting. I’ll do anything. But it depends on the script. Either I’ll have passion for the project or I won’t. It’s got to fuel me.