‘The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley on Clooney and celebrity

The tall young woman who greets a reporter and photographer at a downtown Toronto hotel is poised and warm.

“Hi, I’m Shai,” she says with a big smile and an extended hand.

This is Shailene Woodley, a relaxed, sunny 20-year-old television actress from California who stands on the cusp of Hollywood stardom. She currently appears in ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but her role opposite George Clooney in The Descendants, which opens Friday, has already garnered Oscar buzz. Mention these things to her and she is matter-of-fact.

“The ‘C’ word is celebrity. The ‘F’ word is famous and the ‘S’ word is star. Don’t say those words unless you are the calibre of George Clooney, who cannot go anywhere without being mobbed by a crowd. Those words are non-existent in my brain,” she says.

“A lot of people have a skewed vision of Hollywood and the industry because of magazines that portray it as being glamourous. What people don’t realize is, yes, there is a …” she drops her voice to mutter the next word, “ ‘star’ person on television or in a magazine and she looks beautiful holding her cute little puppy next to her Porsche filling up gas with her makeup and sunglasses. But she’s been Photoshopped, she’s been airbrushed. Half of the time, people go where they know paparazzi will be to have their picture taken.”

Woodley has had her picture taken by television cameras since she was a little girl, appearing in TV movies and series such as The O.C. and Crossing Jordan. When she was 18, while The Secret Life of the American Teenager was on hiatus, she moved to New York and worked at an American Apparel for a summer.

“Being famous was never a goal. The goal for me was continuing pursuing my passion which is acting. I’m not an artist who can write or paint or play guitar. I’m an artist who can act and that’s all it is for me — an artistic expression.”

Suffice to say, Woodley does not get starstruck, even though the prospect of working with Clooney on Alexander Payne’s film was a little intimidating. Cast from hundreds of young women to play the actor’s rebellious, surly eldest daughter, Woodley first met Clooney at a table read in L.A.

“My heart started pounding: ‘Wow, that’s George Clooney.’ Then he came up to me and gave me a big hug. From then on, it wasn’t star George Clooney. It was human George Clooney,” she says. “After we went through the script, he leaned over and said, ‘Well, they won’t be bringing you back after that.’ My heart stopped. He got up and walked away. Then he turned around and smiled and winked.”

She calls “George” a “super human” who would “whip out his fart machine application on his phone” to crack everyone up on set. She is also full of praise for Payne — “He’s such a brilliant writer; there wasn’t a ton of acting to be done. It was all about the listening” — and for the family atmosphere on the Hawaii set.

“We had a second annual wrap party for goodness sakes. A year after we finished the movie, everyone who was in L.A. who could make it came to one person’s house,” she says. “Then they had a sister party in Hawaii for all of the locals who worked on the movie and we Skyped between the two parties.”

In The Descendants, Woodley plays Alexandra King, whose mother is in hospital with a serious brain injury and whose father is trying to reconnect with his daughters. In The Secret Life of the American Teenager, she plays Amy Juergens, a high school student who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand at band camp. Her tendency to play dramatic roles is now an ongoing joke with her family.

“Drama is never even close to the reality of my life,” she says. Instead, Woodley likes to garden. She wants to study psychology and herbology. And she wants to take on more film projects, ideally “bare-bones, raw” roles such as Natalie Portman’s unstable ballerina in Black Swan.

“I’m such a happy, optimistic person in real life for some reason, I have a great time taking out my alter-ego, dark side on screen,” she says. “I don’t draw from real life. I go into every role as Shai through the restrictions and the rules of a particular character. That’s what works for me because that allows me to remain truthful.”