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The Natural

Shailene Woodley discusses her breakout role in 'The Descendants'

By Jason Gargano · November 30th, 2011 · Movies
film1_the_descendants_george_clooney_shailene_woodley_photo_fox_searchlightGeorge Clooney and Shailene Woodley in 'The Descendants' - Photo: Fox Searchlight
The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s long-anticipated return to the filmmaking scene, is another slanted, deadpan comedy about the ways in which a relatively ordinary man’s life can go terribly off course (see Payne’s previously troubled male protagonists in Election, About Schmidt and Sideways). George Clooney is Matt King, a workaholic lawyer and land baron in Hawaii with a wife and two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). King’s situation changes radically when his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident, forcing him to interact with his daughters, which leads to a surprising revelation and more than a few awkward situations. 

Payne, who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel for the screen, generates unexpected emotional depth via a bevy of flawed characters. Much of the credit goes to Clooney, who gives a subtle, thoroughly convincing performance as a guy trying to hold it all together, and Woodley, whose equally convincing turn as the petulant Alexandra is in many ways the film’s emotional core.

Woodley, best known for her lead role in TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, arrives seemingly readymade for stardom — her lithe body, expressive face and naturalistic delivery unite in an undeniably magnetic screen presence. CityBeat recently phoned the 20-year-old actress — whose exuberant speaking voice and unaffected attitude were palpable (and refreshing) as she drove through downtown Phoenix on her way to shoot a publicity spot for the film — to discuss the experience of making The Descendants.

[Read tt stern-enzi's review of The Descendants here.]

CityBeat: Hi, Shailene.
Shailene Woodley:
Good morning!

CB: So I guess the publicity blitz has begun. Are you excited to talk about the film?
I’m excited. I’m really passionate about the film. It was such a beautiful experience for me personally, but it’s exciting to talk about if I can sort of share what I got from it with others.

CB: How did you get the role? Did you have to audition for Alexander?
It was really the standard auditioning process. I just went on an audition for him and, um, I guess I did a good job (laughs). A month later we met for coffee, and he said I was his No. 1 choice but he’s going to go to Hawaii and interview and audition every single girl in Hawaii between the ages of 17 and 20, and if there was someone better for the role than me that he would personally call me and tell me. That to me was enough. I didn’t need to book it at that point. Just hearing those words were satisfying, and I was just so grateful that he would even tell me that. And then a month later he called me and told me that I did book it. So that was very exciting.  

CB: Were you familiar with his films prior to the audition?

I am very uneducated when it comes to this industry. I don’t know directors, actors or films for anything. I had seen Sideways when I was 14, but at 14 years old you’re looking at your mom and you’re like, “This is not funny at all. Why are you laughing?” And then I re-watched it, obviously, after I’d booked the film and saw his brilliance. I loved meeting him without being jaded about who he was and the kind of the art that he makes and how acclaimed he is in the industry. I got to know him as a human being before I got to know him as a phenomenal director. 

CB: His films have a very specific voice and tone that balances comedy with more dramatic elements. Were you worried about getting that right?
We, as actors, can take no credit for that in this movie. It was all him. He’s got this unique ability to make you laugh, cry … oh, no, sorry I just spilled some coffee on me. I’m so sorry. Hold on. (Twenty seconds later) So, yeah, he has this amazing ability to make you laugh, cry and laugh again in two seconds. It’s very rare thing without it going cheesy or without it going too sappy. And in editing he kind of fine-tunes it. When we were filming I had no idea whether we were filming a comedy or a drama because it was so … (laughs) We would do a scene one way, and then we would do it a complete different way a second later. 

CB: I was impressed with the chemistry between you, George and Amara. You seemed like a real family, which is obviously essential in a film like this. I even began to see Clooney, maybe for the first time ever, as character beyond his own persona. Did you rehearse before shooting?
We really didn’t do a lot of rehearsing. We did little mini field trips around Hawaii to kind of get to know the culture and feel out the vibe of the island, because it does vibrate on such a different level from so many places on the mainland. It was an organic process in the way we got to know each other. You spend four months together, and by the end you’re very comfortable with each other. Even in the beginning — George is such a down-to-earth, normal human being — there was no intimidation factor, there was no, “So, I’m working with one of the greatest actors.” It was like working with a friend you’ve known forever. He’s just such a brilliant, phenomenal man. 

And as far as like the performance that he (Clooney) gave, he is so professional and he showed up at the set every single day on time, as people should, but, as we all know, a lot of people don’t. He was there for us whether he was on camera or off camera. As a fellow coworker, he was so present and in the moment and giving to all of us other actors. I could just go on for hours about him. 

CB: This is your first film, right? How was this experience compared to your TV work?
The main difference between TV and this was that on TV you do maybe eight or nine things a day, and on a film you do one scene a day — maybe two. You have more time to explore and be more creative. And with Alexander, what makes him such a spectacular human being is that he makes the set happy and fun, which most people don’t (do). He’s just a happy human being. He’s positive, and that kind of emanates from him to everyone else. He creates such a positive, creative environment. 

He allows you to be who you want to be within that character and do whatever you want to do kind of within his unspoken guidelines, and if it’s not working he comes up and leads you back onto the right path. If it is working, he comes up and tells you it’s working, which, in any profession, nobody tells you when things are going good, they just point out when things are going bad. Again, he’s just a great human, like George. They’re just such phenomenal men. Alexander really did give us the creativity and freedom to express (ourselves) as artists. 

CB: Alexander often talks about the fact that he’s always striving for naturalism in his films. How does that manifest itself while you are shooting?
He doesn’t do anything; he just tells us to be ourselves. I think that’s why a lot of actors want to work with him, because he doesn’t require any acting; he just requires that you be present in the moment. I just show up on time and have my lines memorized, hit the set and professionally listen to what the other actors saying. Because the screenplay was so beautifully written, the emotions would naturally be evoked, so our biggest responsibility in this film, especially because we had Alexander as a director and because we had such a brilliant screenplay, was to be present in the moment and just let the emotions come out naturally.

CB: Hawaii is such an important and unique element of this film. How did filming there impact your experience?
My body might have been born in L.A., but my heart is from Hawaii. It’s such a magical place on this planet. I could go on for hours again about this. This was just a dream job that really shaped my young adult life. But, yeah, it’s the first time that you’ve seen Hawaii in a film, the real Hawaii. And it’s the first time you’ve seen Honolulu in film. So often when you see Hawaii you see the beautiful and tropical paradise aspects of it, but you don’t see the industrialization, you don’t see the freeways, you don’t see the few people who are sick and dying, and Alexander really wanted to show that because he makes his movies for the environment in which they take place. Sideways was for the people of Southern California wine country, and The Descendants is for the Hawaiians — though I’m sure he’ll be happy if anyone else relates to it.

CB: No doubt you’re going to get a lot more film roles going forward. Was working as a film actress always your ambition?
Film is where my heart has always been. I love the aspect of inhabiting a character for a few months, and then going back to your normal life, and then kind of going on to a different project. I would love to act for the rest of my life as my hobby, as my fun, artistic passion. But the day it becomes boring, or the day it becomes something I have to do for any reason other than the fact that it fuels my soul, is the day I quit. ©



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