The Secret Life of Shailene Woodley

Back in 2010, while on hiatus from her ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Shailene Woodley and her boyfriend traveled from California to New York in search of a more ordinary lifestyle. “We lived on the Lower East Side,” recalls the just-turned 20-year-old. “Halfway through, we ended up breaking up. He moved back to California and I stayed for the rest of the time by myself. I worked full time at American Apparel and had a ball.”

But after appearing on the red carpet last month as the leggy brunette with her arm swung around George Clooney — not as his new tabloid-ready gal pal, but as his widely-buzzed-about young costar in Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Descendants — her days of flying under the radar selling DayGlo leotards are over.

The Descendants follows a middle-aged man, Matt King (Clooney), a successful lawyer who finds out his wife (lying comatose in the hospital, after a boating accident) had been cheating on him. And it’s his surly, headstrong 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra, played by Woodley — in what The New York Times calls “one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory” — who breaks the news to her father.

It’s a believable, emotional moment between father and daughter that is certainly a step up from the melodramatics she employs as Amy Juergens, the high school student who got knocked up at 15 by the sleazy drummer at band camp on the after-school special/teenaged soap opera that is Secret Life. During a break from filming the fourth season of the series, she explains that although coming to the ABC set everyday in L.A. is like “high school again” (getting up at a certain time of day, hanging out with the same people in a “fun and amazing family atmosphere”), artistically, it’s lacking. “Time and money are of the essence and there’s very little creativity that’s involved,” Woodley says. Basically, the opposite of working with Oscar-winner Payne, who gives the actors time to breathe and try new things. Woodley compares filming The Descendants to being on a playground — “where you can try the slide for a few minutes, then you play on the swings. He gives you the chance to explore yourself and to be yourself. He told us, ‘I hired you to be you.'”

Payne treats his films’ settings like they’re actual characters; his expansive shots captured the crispness of California’s wine country in his 2004 film Sideways and emphasized the gray blandness of Nebraska in 2002’s About Schmidt. Much of the Descendants takes place on Hawaii’s fourth largest island, Kauai, where on top of dealing with his sick wife, King must decide whether or not to sell off his family’s many acres of pristine, untouched land to resort developers. If they haven’t done so already, the Hawaiian tourism board should hire Payne as their new spokesperson. Shots of the lush green landscapes and the perfectly-hazy sun setting over the beach are almost painful to watch from a dark theater on a cold, dreary day in New York.

Woodley, a slightly kooky SoCal native who does yoga in the shower every morning (“There’s something about that primal state of being naked in a yoga pose…”) explains that she had a “spiritual awakening” during the four months spent shooting in Hawaii. “I came into my own there,” she says. “It was the one experience in my young adult life that grounded and centered me.” She returns to the island when she’s not filming Secret Life to go hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, deep-sea diving and spear fishing with friends she made there. And one day she hopes to own a farm on Kauai where she’ll grow organic foods and medicinal plants. “I can’t see myself raising little naked babies anywhere else — picking avocados from trees.” She plans to commute back to L.A. when need be, which will probably be quite often after awards season is done with her.

As Hollywood-followers know, a Clooney movie in December almost guarantees an Oscar nod, and there’s talk that the young Woodley may be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. But she has no interest in becoming famous; “I’m fine with saying the normal ‘F’ and ‘C’ words, but famous and celebrity are off-limits in my book, I just think they are nasty words,” she says, adding quickly, “unless you’re George Clooney or a few other select people.”

Still, she’s excited about all the “craziness that’s going to happen,” and if given the chance at one of the many awards-related events she will most likely attend, wouldn’t mind chatting up Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman or James Franco. “I think as human beings and artists, they are three of the most incredible people in this industry. I would love to meet them under the right circumstance so I could tell them how great they all are.” Chance meetings or not, traveling around and talking about a movie as well as a period in her life that she’s passionate about, is the cherry on top. “I used to say, ‘the maraschino cherry on top,'” she says. Then like a real Hawaiian, adds, “but I don’t want to be endorsing toxins, so now it’s a Bing cherry.”