In Alexander Payne’s latest film “The Descendants,” George Clooney plays Matt King, a man struggling with the truth about his wife’s infidelities. As she lays comatose in a hospital bed miles away, it’s Matt’s opportunity to re-connect with two daughters whom he has never quite been close to.
The older of the two is Alexandra, a fiery, free-spirited teen who Matt learns takes after her mother in several ways. It’s the performance of twenty-year-old Shailene Woodley that grounds this characterization, providing a touching backdrop to Matt’s coming-of-middle-age. Woodley, a young veteran of the series “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager,” is earning plaudits and even Oscar attention for her performance, a perfectly calibrated mix of youthful energy and familial warmth.
Woodley is still a newcomer to the film scene, though she found an easy transition working with Payne. “It was an organic, natural process,” she says, likening the experience to being part of a family. “[Payne] doesn’t really direct us, he’d rather just give us the freedom to express ourselves. If we’re having trouble illustrating something, sometimes he’ll politely come up and direct you.”
It was a dream situation for Woodley, working with Payne, superstar Clooney, and shooting in Hawaii. “I had never been to Hawaii before,” she says of the period before production began. But now, the L.A. native, currently on the west coast shooting 'American Teenager' says, “Hawaii is home. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my entire life.”
While there was a thrill in working with George Clooney, a heavy workload meant she was meeting a far more subdued version of the megastar. “I was excited, I had a chance to argue with one of the most professional arguers in the world,” she says, reminiscing about the many times she clashes on-screen with the Oscar-winner. “Once I met him, all the intimidation went out the window. George is just a phenomenal man. He would just joke around, bring up the fart application on his iPhone now and then. He could be silly, and then come out with this incredible retort a second later.” Known for being prankish, Woodley claims there wasn’t much wiggle room this time around for his schemes because, “It was harder to do…he’s in every scene.
While Woodley’s career is about to heat up, “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager” remains her primary acting gig for now, with schooling a close second. “I act for fun,” she says, as she’s currently independently studying European cultures to complete her education. “I refuse to let this movie define my career and my on-screen identity. In the end, it’s about the material, not because of anything else."
“Everyone is like, ride the wave a little bit,” she says of the pressure to take her career to the next level. “And I’m like, 'I don’t want to ride the wave, I want to look at the turtles, hang out with the sea urchins.' Either you’re right for a role or not right for the role.” If a few filmmakers are listening, she does have a wishlist of whom she’d like to work with. “Danny Boyle’s probably my number one pick, I would love to work with him. I think Terrence Malick is great. Sean Durkin, who made ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’ And Drake Doremus, he just made ‘Like Crazy,’ I love his style and approach to filmmaking.”
Clearly, even at a young age, Woodley has a solid barometer for talent, which promises a bright future from the actress. “The Descendants” is now playing.