The Imminent Rise of Shailene Woodley

At first she seems too good to be true. Shailene Woodley, the lovely and willowy young actress who gave an astonishing and emotionally wrenching performance as daughter Alexandra King in The Descendants opposite George Clooney, is driving to an acting class in Hollywood while answering interview questions. She’s only 20 but seems completely composed. That’s not so surprising, since she’s been acting since she was 5 (she says she thinks her first gig was a Kellogg’s commercial). And while Hollywood may just now be paying special attention, Woodley’s gotten plenty of time in the television spotlight for her starring role as Amy in ABC Family’s popular The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

What’s more striking than her preternatural maturity is that every other comment Woodley makes in the first 10 minutes of the conversation seems to be about how fortunate she is, how lucky she is, how grateful she is. The humility seems at odds with all the red carpet glamour of awards season and easy, at first, to write off as playing to the press. But as the dialogue continues, it’s clear that Woodley is absolutely sincere about her good fortune and just a sweet kid. The Southern California native (she grew up in Simi Valley), who spends her days off volunteering at an organic farm in exchange for vegetables, says she’d love to become a certified yoga instructor and talks more about staying true to herself and “human” than about what dress she’ll wear to the next awards show.

But that doesn’t mean she’s all rainbows and unicorns. Asked what she’d like to change about the industry, she launches into a long list of things she finds unsavory about society’s culture of celebrity and then adds notes for studio bosses. Her outlook also extends well beyond the orbit of Hollywood. Quizzed about her fears for the future at this charmed moment in her life, she brings up the multinational agricultural biotech company Monsanto.

As for her craft, New York Times critic A.O. Scott called her work in The Descendants “one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers said, “Dynamite is the word for Woodley, who deserves to join Clooney and the movie on the march to awards glory.” She was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award, and won several critics and film festival awards for her performance.

Woodley will start shooting Secret Life again in June and is under contract to the show for two more years. She says that the network and showrunner Brenda Hampton are very generous about letting the cast take on other projects, but this talented young actress is not rushing into anything until she finds work she’s passionate about. There is a role she dreams about though. The choice is a bit surprising but, like Woodley, it’s also straight from the heart.

Some people might be surprised to hear that you’re taking an acting class.
I think a lot of people still go to acting classes. I go for my own benefit. I feel like I become a stronger person from acting class. When you do improv exercises, it helps your brain function quicker. When you do scenes, you learn a different color of yourself and you get to explore different emotions. I’m really lucky, too; the class I go to, everybody’s very close. It’s like a family. It’s a very safe environment in order to dive into some crazy scenes and be vulnerable.

[Our teacher] doesn’t believe in a particular method. For him, it’s just really about committing ourselves to the scene. So, I don’t even know what scene I’m doing tonight. We do all of our scenes [as a] cold read, and just dive into it and commit.

Have you been overwhelmed by the awards show circuit? (The interview was two days after the SAG Awards, which followed the Golden Globes and DGA Awards.)
No, it hasn’t been overwhelming. I’m so fortunate to be with Fox Searchlight and George, who have been through this — and Judy Greer and everyone else on the cast. They’ve been through this before, and they handle it with such grace, and everybody has become sort of like a family, so it’s a really comfortable, fun environment to be in.

Do you love dressing up? Are you kind of a girlie girl that way?
No, I’m not a girlie girl at all. I never wear dresses. I’m always in either long, baggy skirts that I can still do “crisscross applesauce” in, or blue jeans. I’m very lucky to work with a stylist who cares about fashion, because I don’t at all. And I’m very lucky to have a makeup artist and hair guy who are really good at what they do, because I would go to events with no makeup and no hair and in pajamas if I could.

For me, it’s really exciting, the awards season, the festivals, it’s all so exciting. I don’t find it nerve-racking; I don’t find it overwhelming, I think, because I’ve chosen to be myself within the process. Obviously, I’m going to wear a dress to go to the Golden Globes; I’m going to be respectful. But I’m not going to let my life revolve around it, because I have other things in life that I’m passionate about, too.

You’ve told other interviewers that your time on location for The Descendants really changed who you were. Can you explain that?
That’s definitely true. Being around such positive, beautiful people for four months can do a lot for one’s soul. I was surrounded by the most positive, happy, at-ease human beings.

How did you spend downtime on the set?
We all went on a hike when we weren’t filming, or snorkeling, or we’d all go karoke-ing after work, like the entire crew — like 100 of us — even George. It was so family-based that sometimes I would forget we were filming a movie, and I would just think that we were hanging out with friends. The day after we wrapped, Nick Krause, who played Sid, the executive producer and I went skydiving. That was pretty fun.

What did your mom have to say about that? (Woodley mentioned earlier that her mom is “my friend, my mentor, my teacher, my helper, my extra set of hands. She plays kind of all the roles.”)
Oh, she came, too.

Did she actually go skydiving? Did she jump?
Yeah. (Laughs.)

What was the biggest challenge for you in playing Alexandra King?
Honestly, I was given such beautiful words to speak. This screenplay was so brilliantly written. You know, a lot of times you read a screenplay and you change a few of the words so that they sound more natural, but this one already sounded natural; there was no work to be done as far as changing the words and the dialogue. For me, it was really about just submitting myself to the moment and allowing the truth of the words to come through.

There was a scene that got deleted — it’s on the DVD, but it did get deleted — where my character smokes a cigarette, and I had no prior experience smoking cigarettes before The Descendants, so that was probably my most challenging scene. I was nervous about whether I was going to do it right.

You had some pretty raw scenes, though. How did you summon that level of angst and upset?
For me, like I said, it’s really submitting myself to the moment. … I don’t think too much about character. A lot of actors will listen to a song before they need to cry or will think about their character’s history and will break down the script and figure out where their character came from and why this scene is hard on them. For me, my approach is memorizing my lines and not practicing it too much on my own, having a small idea of what I think the scene should be like and then going in and completely surrendering myself to the moment — because you never know what a scene is going to be like until you’re there and the other actors are there.

Is there any sort of advice or something you learned from director Alexander Payne that you know you’ll take to every other performance that you do?
Yes. It’s remaining human. I mean, I learned so much from him as a human being. I learned a lot from him as a director — what it’s like to have confidence on the set and how important it is to stay natural and to stay happy — but as a human being … this project just awakened my consciousness for being happy.

I guess it’s not fair to ask you to compare film with your television work?
There’s no comparison. Film and TV are very different. Secret Life is like a high school family that I’ve grown up with for the past five years: We know everything about each other. We’ve been there for each other through some big life experiences [during] some pretty poignant five years in individuals’ lives. It’s special to me for different reasons than The Descendants is.

People always kind of imagine that they know you based on the roles that you play and that there’s something of you in that. This is a sappy question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: Do you think you’re more like Alexandra or Amy?
Umm … I think I’m like both of them. If I wasn’t like both of them then I wouldn’t have been able to play them. I think all acting is discovering a new color of yourself, and each character is a different color. So, Amy is my yellow and Alexandra is my purple. They’re both still me.

Is there anything that’s totally out of character for you in those two people?
Totally. Amy complains about everything in her life, and that’s completely opposite from how I am. And Alexandra is a smart-ass, which I am, but she’s a smart-ass in a weird way, instead of being a gracious smart-ass.

(Woodley has stopped to grab a bite before class and is apologizing without end for the unscheduled break. She’s at Café Gratitude on Melrose and starts raving about the local, organic menu. “I love it here. I kind of live here. I should invest.”)

I’ve heard you’ve got a real interest in organic farming.
I do. I farm a lot in Malibu. There’s a farm in Malibu, right near Kanan, right at Point Dume called Vital Zuman. It’s a family-owned farm that’s been around for a few generations, and I go volunteer there when I have days off. It’s amazing. It’s 100 percent organic, and it’s an incredible property. They have a farm stand. I go, and they tell me what they need done, and I farm. And in exchange I get free vegetables.

Are you a vegan then?
I’m not a vegan, but I never eat anything genetically modified, so I’m 100 percent non-GMO. And if I eat meat, it’s only organic, but beyond organic — like only 20 chickens on the farm instead of 900. And I actually go to the farmers and order directly from them.

How are you dealing with other film projects?
My rule for myself is that I’m not going to do another project until I’m passionate about it. I don’t want to do something because people are hearing my name right now from The Descendants.

Is there anything that’s sort of a dream project for you?
I would do anything. I would pay my entire savings account to be Patti Smith in a movie. I would love to play Patti Smith, that’s my dream role.

Have you ever met her?
I’ve never met her, but I think she’s incredible, and I love her book [Just Kids].

It feels like you’re still too young to be particularly jaded about this, but is there one thing that you wish you could change about this sort of nutty business that you’re in?
I would change a lot — not only about this business but the way most businesses, or most industries, are run. I don’t like how we position particular people in the media and how we tend to have a strong sense of what beauty means or what materialism means. I don’t like how a lot of people give up their own integrity in order to be a spokesperson for something. I don’t like how you’ll see a magazine and everything’s Photoshopped, and it gives people a false image of who we actually are as human beings. I don’t like how there are a lot of magazines that lie about the personal lives of artists. There’s a lot of things.

That’s the social aspect, but as far as the actual film industry, I miss good films. I feel like so many big blockbusters are being made right now, and I miss directors and studios that take risks on new people. If Alexander hadn’t taken a risk on me, then a studio would never have hired me for that role because I didn’t have a name. And a lot of this industry is about names. And I know that there are hundreds of brilliant actors out there who can’t get a job because there are too many films that are going to actors who already have a name. So, I would change that. I would change the types of films the studios are making. There’s a lot that I would change.

Do you watch your own films?
Yeah, it’s like my own personal report card. A lot of people don’t watch their own work, but for me, it’s my only way to critique myself.

How would the people who know you best describe you?
(Woodley turns to a friend sitting nearby and asks him to come up with three words. Pausing thoughtfully between each adjective, he offers, “peaceful, loving, adventurous.” That sounds like an outstanding review, but Woodley has something to add. “I’m gonna throw in ‘weird’ too,” she says. “I’m really weird.”)

But in a good way.