This summer’s most authentic coming-of-age drama arrives courtesy of Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, Footloose), who radiate as unlikely teenage love interests in The Spectacular Now, out in theaters today. In the James Ponsoldt film—which was adapted from Tim Tharp’s bittersweet novel by (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—Teller stars as a charismatic high-school senior more concerned with the omnipresence of his flask than his academics or future. His trajectory is altered, ever so slightly, when he wakes up on the lawn of an unassuming classmate, Aimee (Woodley)—who is more sci-fi than socially oriented—and draws her into his orbit.
In advance of the film’s release, Woodley phoned VF.com last week to discuss how her high-school relationship informed her performance, why she loved her first sex scene so much, and why Miles Teller is stuck with her for the next four years.
You and Miles have great chemistry and are so convincing as a guy and girl who have a loving but complicated relationship. How did you first meet and build that rapport?
We met right before we began filming. We ate lunch together and then talked for about two or three hours and then went straight to Georgia. We just naturally became friends and he became my brother for life. I want to do a movie a year with him.
Aimee is a sweet, quiet girl in the movie—less of the traditional “nerdy” type of character that we see in the book. Did you have a lot of input with her evolution?
In the book, Aimee is a nerd, a geek, mousy, in a corner with her head down. That was one of the biggest things [I discussed] when I sat down with James [Ponsoldt]. I really wanted to do this movie but said, “If you want this girl to be written the way she is now, I’m not the choice. Because I don’t see her as a nerd. I see her as a really strong, independent, beautiful young woman who is wise beyond her years.” That’s not to mean that she is not naive or innocent. Luckily, James completely agreed with me.
Did you have any relationships similar to Aimee and Sutter’s when you were that age?
In high school, I was kind of that A.P. kid with a 4.0 and in choir. I was most popular. I was very social and a big extrovert in a way that Aimee was not. But my first boyfriend in high school was kind of the cool stoner kid. And I was the innocent girl. Our relationship was very sweet, because I remember being caught off guard with him calling me cute all of the time. So I was trying to channel that—when you’re so young and kind of don’t know how to react when a guy compliments you. His palms are sweaty. It’s that first real spark that you have with someone physically and how that affects you.
I give you a lot of credit for not wearing makeup. That seems like something many actresses might have a problem with. Were you hesitant about that at all?
It was my decision. For me, it was kind of like, if I have to wear makeup I don’t want to do it. I didn’t see Aimee as a girl who valued vanity. I saw her more as a girl who thought, Maybe when I go to college I’ll put some makeup on and care then, because now I don’t give a shit. Like, why would I get up an extra 20 or 30 minutes to put a face on that doesn’t represent who I am? That’s kind of how I was in the later years of high school. I wanted to channel that she represented how most girls go to school. In the prom scene, I did have some makeup on but that was it. And I cannot tell you how nice it was. I never want to wear makeup in any film. There was no hairspray. No gel. No foundation. It kind of took out the materialistic side of this industry that has infiltrated it.
Your love scene was so natural and sweet. Was that a difficult balance to strike, especially when filming in front of crew members?
Aww. It’s my favorite scene in the whole movie! [Laughs] I think we only did three or four takes. It was both of our first times having an onscreen [sex] scene. It was such a safe, comfortable environment and I am so grateful that it was with Miles, because he was such a gentleman and made me feel very comfortable and nurtured. And I think I made him feel very comfortable and nurtured. It was really sweet. We wanted it to just feel natural. Just the way that it was filmed, with just James and a camera, and the way it was lit, it was really easy to forget that anyone was in the room aside from Miles and I.
So you didn’t have a problem watching it on the big screen?
I don’t even see that as me. That is like the 16- or 17-year-old version of me that I never really was. I never had that sweet, tender moment with a guy when I was that young, so it makes me smile because I only wish that a lot more women could have first experiences like that.
I appreciate how the movie deals with drinking. The teenagers drink—Miles Teller’s character almost constantly—but the director never tries to make a lesson out of it.
He didn’t want to make alcohol a character, like other directors might. He wanted it to be something that was under the covers. When I was in high school, I drank and everyone around me drank. It was kind of the natural culture of being that age. He wanted to show that without exploiting it.
You already re-teamed with Miles on your next film, Divergent, and will again for any sequels. How was it reuniting so soon?
It was so nice. Miles is my bro for life. When I found out that he was up for Divergent, I told him, “Bitch, if you don’t do this movie I will fuck you up.” So unfortunately for him, he is stuck with me for the next four years.