The Secret Life of a Reluctant Starlet

Meet Shailene Woodley, one of Hollywood’s most talked about young actresses. She prefers climbing trees to sitting inside watching films, “couldn’t care less about money or fame”, is studying herbology and dreams of one day living on an organic farm. Wow. A run-of-the-mill starlet she is not, in fact the only thing patently ‘Hollywood’ about Woodley are her fresh-faced girl-next-door good looks and killer legs, and yet this unorthodox 20 year-old actress is winning the highest accolades her industry offers (an industry that she insists she doesn’t know, or care, much about) – and making it look unreasonably easy. From teen television sensation to award-winning actress, the unguarded and unpretentious Shailene Woodley is winning Hollywood over doing it her own, refreshingly unconventional, way.

“I just found out yesterday about the Golden Globes… It’s pretty amazing,” enthuses Woodley on her ‘Best Supporting Actress’ nomination (the award went to Octavia Spencer for The Help), from her Californian home she shares with her family. And yes, it is pretty amazing (and was just one of over a dozen nominations including the coveted Independent Spirit Award) – especially given that Woodley’s breakout performance as George Clooney’s troubled adolescent daughter in The Descendants was her first, and as of yet, only feature film role. Rather, she’s been a frequent face on television, starring the last four years as the protagonist of hit US television show, ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’, a runaway success, and the highest rated series in its category among American audiences.

A self-taught actress, Woodley believes drama classes taught her, “More about myself than acting,” learning more by ‘doing’ than theorising. “I don’t do anything to get into character besides live in the moment – to respond with honesty and emotion to the given situation. I let the script, the words, get my character into place – acting is 80% you, and 20% the words – but it’s about being 100% authentic,” she states candidly. “I love the art of acting, but I couldn’t care less about film really, or the materialistic side of the industry, money or fame – I just love being on a film set.”

It’s little surprise then that the transition from television to film proved seamless for Woodley, who seems mature beyond her 20 years and genuinely unaffected by her Hollywood ‘it-girl’ status. “People seemed surprised that I didn’t find going from TV to film difficult, but I just saw it as an opportunity to try something different – regardless what medium, it’s still acting. It was an easy transition, like going from middle school to high school.” Transition aside, at the mention of finding herself in a new arena – that of a world stage, Woodley is immediately, quite endearingly, flustered. “I haven’t even thought about that!” she laughs, nervously contemplating audiences the world over seeing her in action in one of the year’s most discussed films. “Wow, it’s trippy to think about that – I guess I should! But for now I’m just taking it all day by day.”

Perhaps the move from teen television series to dramatic feature film was made easier through her recurring role on Secret Life being a particularly dramatic one. Woodley has over the last four season’s portrayed teen mum Amy Juergens, a girl pregnant at 15 who goes on to raise her infant son while living with her family and attending high school. “I really enjoy playing Amy,” explains Woodley, describing her character as a complex and, “extremely opinionated extrovert who’s kind of a snob.” The show explores family and school life, dealing with heavy themes like teen pregnancy and infidelity but, says Woodley, “handled in a relatable, comic way.”

Scouted while in a community play at age five, Woodley appeared in over 60 commercials and in small (but often lauded) television roles before taking on the lead in Secret Life, “It’s been a slow, beautiful, natural progression,” she muses. “I was never pushed into acting. My parents both work in education and didn’t know anything about the film or television industry, it all happened very organically. It was fun and something I loved to do, a real passion of mine – so I say that the day it ever becomes tedious or boring I’ll quit.” Selecting her roles is easy, says Woodley, whose career has been made by exclusively taking on work she feels “passionate about, only doing the right projects – and for me that ultimately comes down to loving the screenplay. As George Clooney says, ‘You can make a bad movie out of a good script, but you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.’”

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was The Descendants’ emotionally-driven script that won Woodley over – and thrust her into the film world. “I read the sceenplay and immediately fell in love with it, it was so raw and so honest. Being part of it literally changed my life, and it’s amazing that other people have responded so well to it. It was my first feature film – and I honestly couldn’t have had a better experience,” Woodley says enraptured, talking so fast and with such a characteristically Californian twang it’s hard to catch every word. “I became a better human being from being on the set and working with the incredible crew. The magical energy of Hawaii where we filmed was palpable, I had a spiritual awakening there. Hawaii became my home for four months and I made life-long friendships, the experience was so much more than a career-move – it shaped my young adult life.”

When the conversation turns to the film’s star, ever-charming actor and long-time bachelor George Clooney, there’s an outpouring of adjectives – Woodley genuinely erupts into compliments, unable to find enough positive words to describe him – or the effect he had on her and their coworkers. “George Clooney… He is a super-human-being. He is just the nicest guy, so generous and giving, down-to-earth, he taught me a lot about being a better person,” she enthuses. “I know to describe him as ‘giving’ sounds so simple, but it so truly embodies his spirit. There aren’t enough nice things to say about this man – he is beyond amazing.”

Her introductory film role is an outstanding, and unexpected, success – and yet, Woodley isn’t racing to take on any new projects just yet, a rarity in a business overrun by hungry ambition. “Right now nothing is set in stone, I’m being patient. I’m not going to take on another film role unless I’m really passionate about it – I don’t want to make that commitment for something that doesn’t feel perfect.” For now, other than dreaming of playing childhood favourites Beauty (from Beauty and the Beast) and Pocahontas, the remarkably balanced Woodley is entirely content with her life and career exactly as it stands – starring on Secret Life, the crew of which she describes as being like ‘family’, and studying to be an herbologist. “I love to be outdoors, I’m happy doing anything that involves being close to nature… If I have one dream for the future it is to one day own a farm and be an actress and a farmer.”