Shailene Woodley likes to say “fuck.” Unfortunately, as the star of the ABC Family series ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager,’ she isn’t often afforded the chance to do so. That changed during the filming of Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants,’ an R-rated George Clooney vehicle that has thrust Woodley into the Oscar discussion. Just don’t ask her about the Oscar discussion.
In ‘The Descendants,’ Woodley plays Alexandra King — the often surly teenage daughter of Matt King (Clooney) — who must not only cope with the fact that her mother is in a coma after a boating accident, but that her mother had been cheating on her father. Moviefone spoke to Woodley about her much “buzzed-about” performance (a term she hates), her somewhat mixed feelings about the two years she has left on her television contract, and why her late puberty cost her the role of Kaitlin Cooper (a role she already had) on ‘The O.C.’
(This was one of Woodley’s last interviews of the day. As this interview starts, we were joking about the amount of times that she has to answer the same questions.)
“You’re in a movie. What’s that like?”
“What is it like to work with George Clooney?”
How many times have you been asked that?
Many. [Laughs] Many, many, many, many. And I don’t mind answering because he’s a good one to talk about.
Right. It’s not like asking what it was like working with Gaddafi.
It might be weirder, yeah.
I feel like a lot of people in your position, with the television show that you’re on, get cast in teen comedy movies or the shitty horror movie, but you got George Clooney’s potential Oscar movie.
For me it’s always been about truth, and for being on a show for as long as I’ve been on it – and being in a contract for another two years – I’ve learned a lot about making commitments and really paying attention to the material that you work on. And I’m so grateful for the show, oh my gosh, it’s been such a fun ride.
But when you mentioned being in a contract for another two years, you made a distressed face. What did that mean? Do you not want to do the show for another two years?
No, no, no. I would love to do it for another two years. I made a commitment for another two years. But it definitely.. I mean, I think doing anything in life you learn things. And the biggest learning lesson from that was actually paying attention to what you do. Because when you do sign a contract, you do sign – I don’t want to say a portion of your life – but you make a commitment. And you stick to that commitment. And I think with this movie, or in every movie – I’ve been acting since I was five – it’s always just been really fun and never anything that I had to do or have been pushed to do. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing, so if I read a script and it’s cheesy – I mean, everyone depicts cheesy differently – but if I don’t feel anything inside me, then I’m obviously not meant to do that movie. And when I read this script, I got the biggest guttural feeling of immense passion. And that was the signal that I want to work for this.
And, to be fair, when you signed that contract, you weren’t in ‘The Descendants’ yet.
Yeah, but that’s the whole strategy part of acting and I refuse to ever take part in that because I think it’s all BS.
Can you screw yourself up by doing that?
Not necessarily. I know a lot of people who have done it and they’re very successful with it. But, for me, acting isn’t my only passion in life, so I refuse to give it more than it is. And all that it is is fun. And I’m passionate about it and I have a good time doing it. And if I have to strategize how I do this in order to do that, it’s boring! And it’s stressful and it makes me anxious and that’s not fun at all and it would make me want to quit. So, I refuse to take part in the politics. I did the show because I thought it would be fun, not because I thought it would take me anywhere. When I booked the movie, everyone was, “Oh, you booked the movie because you did this show — that’s why you got this movie.” And Alexander [Payne] told me, when I first booked it, “I wish you hadn’t done the show because I wanted someone who hadn’t done anything.”
You’re angry a lot in this movie. I know, it’s acting, but it has to come from somewhere.
Yeah, you know, it was fun. It was really fun to argue and spar with George. Because, first of all, he’s not George Clooney, quote, famous man, end quote, to me anymore. He’s George Clooney, guy from Kentucky. Just a good guy. So to be able to spar with him and argue — and be in a movie where you’re allowed to say words like “fuck” and the “t-word” — I don’t even know if I should say it right now…
It’s the Internet. All words are allowed.
It’s fun! In most movies they’re like, “Oh, no, no. We need it PG-13 We can’t say that.” And to be able to say them to an actor like George Clooney, who can spit right back at you — it was fun. I love arguing. I always say that I’ll never win a physical battle, but I can always win a mental battle. I mean, not really, because I never really argue with anyone.
Is he still a prankster? That’s always the story, “George Clooney is a prankster!”
We didn’t get any infamous “George Clooney pranks,’ because it was a very family based environment because we had a 10-year-old. But we did get a lot of practical jokes, like the fart application on the phone would come out.
That sounds like a very lame George Clooney joke, actually. Usually they’re elaborate. A fart application sounds quite disappointing.
We didn’t get any typical George Clooney pranks. Listen, he does all of those good pranks on like ‘Oceans Eleven’ and movie like that — where it’s him and all of his buddies.
How would you describe your character, Alexandra? Ornery?
I think she’s obtuse.
Do you like her?
Yeah. I mean, I think she’s a normal 17-year-old going through the dysfunction of what it’s like to have a family. Every family is dysfunctional, whether you want to admit it or not.
Do you think about awards season?
Um … no. I mean, yes and … I don’t know. It’s weird. Everyone today is like, “Shailene, you’re getting so much buzz. How does the feel?” It’s the most odd question because it’s like asking a kid who got into Cornell how it feels to be the top of your class at one of the Ivy League schools. How do you answer that? You just go, “I don’t know.” I used to say that this is just the maraschino cherry on top, but decided maraschino cherries are awful. So I’m going to start now preaching the Bing cherry on top.
Maraschino cherries are delicious.
They’re so full of artificial chemicals!
I know they’re not good for you, but the chemicals are what’s delicious.
OK, they may be delicious, but they’re so bad for the environment.
If you had a sundae, would you rather have a real cherry over a maraschino cherry?
Oh, a real cherry. For sure. But, yeah, I’m just endlessly grateful and taking it all in stride.
You should just go all in, “Goddammit, I want an award.”
[Laughs] Honestly, it’s flattering. When it comes down to it, I’m just a girl who wears those five-finger weird toe shoes.
You were on ‘The O.C.’ as Kaitlin Cooper. You were replaced by Willa Holland. Did you consider that a setback?
No. I was 11 and I was on as a guest, recurring character, or whatever. My character went to boarding school and when they decided to bring her back, they actually re-auditioned me to bring her back. But I didn’t go through puberty until late: I was the 15-year-old who had no boobs. So, at 11, I was like a little mouse-child. I looked like an 8-year-old. That same year, I filmed a movie in which I was playing a 9-year-old. So, there was no weirdness when Willa Holland got it because she was so obviously right for the role… and I was so obviously not [laughs].