It’s been a year since Shailene Woodley netted an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination for her feisty breakthrough turn opposite George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” Since then, the 21-year-old has been finishing up her run on the ABC teen show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (the last episodes air this spring) and laying low on the film front. She’s finally back on the big screen in “The Spectacular Now,” a deeply affecting coming-of-age film that earned a rapturous response at its world premiere on the second day of the Sundance Film Festival Friday. (The film was recently acquired by A24 and is expected to open this summer.)
In the drama, helmed by “Smashed” co-writer-director James Ponsoldt, Woodley proves that “Descendants” was no fluke by showing great range as Aimee, a deft high school student with a bright future ahead who falls for the troubled class clown (a revelatory Miles Teller).
Indiewire sat down with Woodley in Park City to discuss her absence from the film circuit, shooting her first sex scene and taking over from Kirsten Dunst to play Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” directed by “(500) Days of Summer” helmer Mark Webb.
You were visibly choked up on stage following the first screening at the Library. What was going through your mind?
A) It was the first Q&A I’ve done in about a year, so that was a little nerve-racking. And B) I’ve never had a film in Sundance. I come here every year just to watch films. And I think that the crowd that’s attracted to this festival is really outstanding and obviously loves film, so it’s always nerve-racking to present a film to a crowd that knows what they’re talking about and knows their stuff.
Were some of your emotions tied to your own reaction to the film?
I mean, I’d seen a rough cut but I’d never seen the full thing before. I was still trying to process what I had just seen, and process whether I thought it was a good film.
So what’s your verdict then, now that you’ve had a night to sleep on it?
I’m very, very proud of it. I think it’s really exciting and different and beautiful. There aren’t a lot of films about adolescents or quote-unquote coming-of-age films that are realistic nowadays. This is a really truthful birds’-eye look at what it’s like to be in high school right now.
In many ways the film is the antithesis to shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
“Secret Life” and “Spectacular Now” couldn’t be any more different. “Secret Life” wasn’t realistic at all. I think the themes at the core had a lot of truth to them, but the way in which they were presented was not realistic or truthful. Like I said, “Spectacular Now” was a really human piece. We got to explore and really get inside these kids’ minds. I love that they weren’t dumbed down. Teenagers are extremely smart!
Going back to what you said earlier about how long it’s been since you’ve been up on stage in front of a live audience: Why haven’t we seen you in anything on the big screen since “The Descendants”?
I didn’t read anything that I liked. I didn’t read anything that I thought was real, anything that I connected to. My favorite movies are movies that I go in and I leave deeply affected. Whether I laugh really hard or whether I cry really hard, I just want to feel really affected in that moment. I went on an emotional rollercoaster reading the script for “Spectacular Now.”
That approach strikes me as really mature, especially for a 21-year-old.
I don’t do it for any other reason that I love to act. If I don’t think that I’m going to be passionate about it, then I’m not going to be good in the movie and everyone isn’t going to want me there. There won’t be an authenticity. I’m very fortunate I have two sides to my life. I have the acting side, and then I have this other side where I study herbalism.
Yeah, survival skills! Weird things… but I’m very into that world and just as dedicated to that. If I’m not working on a film for two years, then I’m doing that for two years. I’ve been acting for 16 years; I’ve never done it for money or that stupid freaking f-word: Fame. I’ve never done if for any other reason than I love being on a movie set and I love bringing truth to the screen.
So that begs the question: why did you sign on to play Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming “Amazing Spider-Man” movies?
Because I think Marc Webb is an amazing filmmaker and because I would do anything to work with Andrew Garfield. And Emma Stone obviously is incredible. And “Spider-Man” has been my childhood hero since I was about three years old. So it was kind of a no-brainer for me.
You seem so grounded talking about your involvement with the franchise. Does it feel at all surreal?
It does feel surreal, but it does feel just like, “Yeah we’re doing another movie, it’s going to be so much fun!” But then I see a billboard for something Spider-Man or walk through the mall and see a Spider-Man pajama set, and that’s when it trips me out. But yeah, it’s exciting. I just feel endlessly grateful. I’ve always been the girl who said I would never want to do big blockbuster movies. Even though “Spider-Man” is a big blockbuster, it doesn’t feel like it because everyone involved is so grounded and down to earth. It feels like we’re working on an indie film.
Circling back to “Spectacular,” the film deals with teen drinking in a refreshingly frank way. Did you drink during that stage in your life?
Alcohol is a big part of high school. I went through my little phase. I don’t know one high schooler that doesn’t. This movie isn’t about alcoholism. If any other director had taken it on, I think it maybe would have been a bigger part of it. I think it explores more the emotional turmoil that teenagers go through and the trials and tribulations of trying to figure out who you are. Miles’ character is not drinking, clearly, because he’s an alcoholic. He’s drinking because he doesn’t really know any other way to have fun and to enjoy life. That can be a budding addiction, but I think at this point it’s really just exploring the truth of what it’s like to be in high school and what you do in high school. It doesn’t glamorize the drinking.
Your character initially seems to have an aversion to alcohol, but then begins to drink…
To please him! That’s one aspect of the script that I fell in love with. In high school I had a relationship that was almost identical to the relationship she had with him in the movie. I think that it’s something that a lot of people go through – that you’re in a relationship with someone and you try to change them. But in the process you end up changing yourself so much that you have no idea who you are.
I think that’s a big learning lesson that every human being should go through. I think you should fall on your face and a little bit give yourself away to someone else, because if you don’t do that, you’ll never learn to appreciate yourself in your entirety.
Was that your first sex scene on film?
It was, yeah. I’m proud of it! It’s my favorite scene in the movie (laughs).
Why is that?
When I sat down with James before I even agreed to do the movie, I asked him about that scene and he said, “I want to make that scene so beautiful and so romantic and so lovely, and I want it to be so real, that when people leave the movie I want them to say: ‘I’ve never seen a sex scene with teenagers that real in my entire life.’” Him saying that as well as many other things is what convinced me to do the film. But it was so beautifully done. I love the fact that we were able to giggle. And I love the fact that we were able to laugh at ourselves and just have these sweet moments and painful moments. When I look at it, I don’t see myself having sex. I see this character. It makes me smile because I think even if that wasn’t everyone’s experience, there’s something so charming and so lovely about being in that sacred space together at such a young age.