Shailene Woodley on The Descendants | Interview
Shailene Woodley gives a breakout performance in The Descendants.
One rite of passage of making your first big splash as an actor is going through the rituals of an endless PR blitz. The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley, who has a very L.A., health-conscious attitude, is still getting used to the food. (She opens our interview by wondering about the quality of the fruit on the hotel room’s spread.) But Woodley—sitting on a couch, her hair pulled back—has taken the media whirlwind in stride. She says she’s enjoying traveling across the country and talking about her movie. “Even if I don’t have time to explore the cities,” she notes, “I get to see them through windows.”
After starring on the ABC series The Secret Life of the American Teenager (and a childhood spent acting in TV and commercials), she’s now moving into a more prestigious realm by working with Sideways and About Schmidt director Alexander Payne (opposite George Clooney, no less, whom she refers to as a “superhuman”). It’s stranger than the familiar routine of a show, she says, “because you don’t know the people very well.”
“I’d seen Sideways when I was about 14, but when you’re 14, you don’t get it,” the Los Angeles native says during a visit to Chicago—her second ever—in late October, four weeks shy of her 20th birthday. “You look at your mom and your dad and you go, ‘Why are you laughing?’ It’s not funny.”
She’s since watched it again. But more than that film, The Descendants seems complex and off-kilter in its emotional range. The film centers on a wealthy Hawaiian lawyer (Clooney), heir to a massive swath of land, whose wife is rendered comatose in a boating accident. It’s then he discovers that she was cheating on him. In an uncommonly nuanced and lively portrayal of adolescence, Woodley plays Clooney’s rebellious teenage daughter, who’s sympathetic to her father, even while she insists on doing things her way—bringing her doofus boyfriend to a painful visit with Grandma and Grandpa,for instance.
“I really didn’t know if we were making a comedy or a drama while we were in Hawaii filming,” she says. “I didn’t really know what the tone of the movie would be until I saw it. [Payne] has that ability to take the emotional froufrou stuff out of really tragic scenarios.”
Woodley confesses to not being much of a cinephile: The idea of being “in a room with stuffy dead skin flying all over” appeals less than outdoorsy activities. She says Payne introduced her to several classic films, including Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Woodley would be eager to work with Terrence Malick—the opportunities for that seem to be growing lately—though she hasn’t seen The Tree of Life yet. “Maybe if you name some, I’ll remember which ones I’ve seen,” she says when I ask about his other films. She is, however, attracted to his mystique. “I really like his nonchalant, never-really-around, you-don’t-know-much-about-him [attitude],” she says. “I think that’s cool.”
Is that something she’d like to emulate? “I’d like to be like a hummingbird,” Woodley says. “You see them every now and then. You don’t see them everywhere.”
The Descendants opens Friday 18.