With her critically hailed performance as George Clooney's daughter in “The Descendants,” next-generation Hollywood star Shailene Woodley comes into her own
Author JAMI ATTENBERG
A LITTLE MORE THAN a decade ago, director Alexander Payne cast a young Reese Witherspoon as feisty, ambitious Tracy Flick in Election, a role that netted her a Golden Globe nomination and put her on the track to stardom. With his latest film, The Descendants, Payne created yet another breakout opportunity in the character of wry, raw and resilient Alexandra King, which 20-year-old actress Shailene Woodley proved more than equal to. Going head to head with George Clooney, who plays Alexandra’s father, Woodley turned in an astonishingly authentic performance that nearly makes off with the movie.
Before Woodley’s big film moment—which, like her predecessor’s, earned a Golden Globe nomination—the California native had done most of her acting on the small screen, beginning with the 1999 TV movie “Replacing Dad.” She’s appeared on shows ranging from “The O.C.” to “The District,” but may be best known for starring as teen mom Amy Juergens on the popular ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (whose fourth season resumes March 26).
By all accounts, Woodley has managed to keep her head on straight—”I don’t know how you keep your head on not straight,” she laughs—despite her rising profile in Hollywood. Just days after hitting the red carpet for the Golden Globes, she made time to chat with Play about her breakthrough role, along with her newfound obsession with the Aloha State, the importance of comfy footwear and the font of positivity that is George Clooney.
You’ve been working professionally for years and you’ve certainly had success with “Secret Life,” but now it feels like you’re making a leap to the next level. Do things seem to be changing all at once? The only thing I feel has really changed is that I’m a lot busier. And I’m getting recognized by a different demographic than those who watch “Secret Life.” Other than that, my life hasn’t changed because I haven’t changed—I’m still living my life in the same way.
When you first read the script for The Descendants, did you sense it was going to be something special? Absolutely. When I do a movie, I don’t normally think about who’s going to see it or whether it’s going to win an award or be nominated or anything. I want to make movies that I’d want to see. And when I read The Descendants, it was so raw and full of life and yet didn’t take itself too seriously—I loved that. It was a very special situation, because [the studio] allowed the script to be what it was. They kept the language in there, they kept the disgruntled tone, and I fell in love with how real it was.
Given the father-daughter tensions in The Descendants and the “teen mom” drama of “Secret Life,” you seem to be drawn to stories of dysfunctional families. Well, for me, as an actor, it’s my job to be as authentically myself as possible through the restrictions of a particular character. I don’t really relate to any of these characters in terms of my personal life. I kind of go into it being me and taking on their story and weaving that into my life.
Director Alexander Payne has a knack for making critically acclaimed films, from Election to About Schmidt to Sideways. What was he like on the set of The Descendants? As a director he approaches his screenplays with a very strong point of view, so knowing what he wanted on-set created this remarkable environment. But he’s such an incredible human being, too. I learned a lot from him on a personal level.
And it must have been a thrill to work with George Clooney. I’ve never met a more generous man in my life. He shows such compassion and kindness and love and gratitude—pretty big words that a lot of people don’t necessarily live by. The amount of positivity he emits on a daily basis is overwhelmingly exciting.
Sounds like The Descendants was a dream job. Would you ever do a sequel? I would only do it so I could film in Hawaii again with that same group of people. Hawaii’s been my favorite location so far. I’d never been there before filming The Descendants, and now I’m obsessed with it. I’m going to move there one day and have little naked babies running around!
You recently attended your first Golden Globes ceremony, where your apparel got almost as much attention as your acting. In deciding to change into a pair of “five-fingered” running shoes for the afterparties, did you expect to cause such a ruckus? I put on those shoes because they were more comfortable! Obviously, as a sign of respect I would never wear them to the actual Golden Globes ceremony. But for afterparties, where we’re celebrating a night of success and excitement, I didn’t see that there was anything wrong with it. And I think it’s kind of cool to show that you don’t have to look like a princess to go to these events, that you can be more relaxed and you can take a form of who you are and mix it with who you’re supposed to be on the red carpet. That’s kind of what I was going for.
I bet people were pretty jealous that you got to wear something more comfortable than everyone else. I inspired a lot of people to take off their heels, actually!
You’ve been in showbiz almost all your life. What’s it like to have another former child actor, Molly Ringwald, play your mom on “Secret Life”? I feel connected with her because she’s a big sister to me. She took me under her wing, and we get along. She’s an amazing mother and actress, and we talk a little bit about her past. But for the most part, we just talk about her present and my present. She’s helped me through a lot of things in the past four years of my life, which have been pretty important ones.
One of the more unusual credits on your résumé is the TV movie “Felicity: An American Girl Adventure,” in which you play a character based on the iconic line of dolls. My 6-year-old niece would bow in your presence. I was 13 when we filmed it, and it was amazing! We were in Toronto, Canada, for three months. I got to learn how to ride a horse. I got to dye my hair orange. I was a kid, and when you’re a kid, adventures like that are super-fun. And I got to meet the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, who played my mom. I think the world of her—if I could grow up to be anyone besides my own mom, it would be Marcia.
Something else most of your fans might not know: You’re an avowed environmentalist and you’ve even been studying herbalism. Where did that focus come from? I started recognizing the importance of recycling when I was a freshman in high school, and from there my passion just grew. I’ve been learning from a lot of different teachers. A friend of mine, for instance, has started a website to encourage people to gather their own springwater. I just think it’s important for us to learn how to survive, because a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do if they were in the wild for a day.
Are you doing any college studies along those lines? Because of “Secret Life,” I work full time and I’m not able to go to college right now. But I’m doing home study and taking online courses.
So … you’re a little bit nerdy. Totally nerdy!