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One on One: Shailene Woodley on 'Descendants,' 'Secret Life of the American Teenager'

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Nov 15, 2011 | 5:52am EST

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ALT

Shailene Woodley first hit my radar in the later seasons of The O.C., as the troubled sister of Mischa Barton's equally troubled Marissa Cooper. Little did I realize that for the past few years, she's been carving herself out a nice little career, starring in ABC Family's hit show The Secret Life of an American Teenager and landing a co-starring role in the George Clooney-starrer The Descendants. Not too shabby for the beginning of what looks to be a fruitful career.

Woodley shines in the movie, playing an angsty teen that manges to be ruthless and empathetic all at once. Even in her roughest moments, she's never grating (as so many "troubled teens" can be in movies) and she stands up to Clooney with all the composure of an actress twice her age. It's a great performance.

I had a chance to talk to Woodley about The Descendants, working in Hawaii and what to expect from the next season of Secret Life

What was the transition between the show and stepping up and doing this movie like?

Shailene Woodley:There really wasn’t any transition to be talked about. Just kind of a different job and different atmosphere. The movie was life-altering.

In what way?

SW: I got to work in Hawaii for four months. The most magical island on this planet. I got to meet my top favorite human being in the world, Alexander Payne. I got to work with the most spectacular man I’ve ever met, George Clooney.

A lot of things going for it.

SW: So many things. So many things.

From talking to Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard, it sounded like Alexander casts actors who he remind him of the part. Your character Alexandra does a lot of wild partying on the beach and drinking. Connection?

SW: Yeah, no. Not at all. I never went down the whole drug and alcohol path.

Good!

SW: It’s funny. I’m a very optimistic human being in real life, and I’m very in touch with my demonstrative, cynical side. I never practice it, obviously. I never even think it. But I’m able to access it really quickly. Alexander, I think he saw the vulnerable…I don’t know what he saw.

Conversing with him about the character, what were you able to discover about the character?

SW: We never really actually discussed much about the character. I’m sure we did, actually. I don’t remember much about the discussion. I do remember his insights on the script. I never went to acting school or theater school. I took acting classes, but when it comes to semantics of breaking down the screenplay, I’m awful. I read it and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is just a great script. Moving on…’ And then he’ll be like, ‘Oh, so the reason why we say this is because it ties into this.’ And it’s a very poignant part of the storyline. He would blow my mind. ‘Oh, that’s what that means! Great! Thank you!’ So he kind of opened my eyes to a lot of different parts of filmmaking that I wasn’t exposed to.

You play George Clooney’s daughter in the movie and share almost every scene together—but the encounters aren’t always friendly. What was it like being on the attack against George Clooney?

SW: Sparring with him? It was amazing! It was phenomenal!

When you get to spar with anyone, I think it’s fun. I love to argue when you’re told to. And when feelings aren’t involved. And then to argue with a professional arguer like George Clooney—I mean professional as in professional actor—it was fun! It was the best time I’ve ever had on a movie set. George is a superhuman. He really is. He’s one of the most spectacular, down-to-earth, phenomenal, brilliant men I’ve ever met in my entire life. Humble. And I didn’t learn so much from him as an actor, he never really gave me advice, or preached things upon me. It was more of me observing him and his ways, as a human being, and taking more than I could have ever expected to take away from that.

ALTIn what kind of way? Is there something specific he did or said that fascinated you?

SW: In his generous way. In his professional way. In his grat…atouille? Wrong choice of words. In the way he approaches everything with gratitude.

He’s really grateful—he’s just as grateful to be on that movie set as I would be or as a transportation guy would be. And I think a lot of people lose sight of gratitude in life. And I think that’s why a lot of people are unhappy. ‘Cause they’re always searching for something more instead of realizing what they have. And he mastered the art of gratitude.

How do three strangers learn to interact like a family? I imagine you’re hanging out a lot on a movie set, but did you guys go off and try and do things? Hang out?

SW: Yeah. I think that’s a big thing with Alexander. I think he’s really big on authenticity. And he wanted us to know each other before he filmed, obviously to open up communication. So it wasn’t like we were thrown on a movie set, and, ‘Oh, hi, I’m your daughter. You’re my dad.’

George and I got there about a month ahead of time. Nick [Krause] came in two weeks ahead of time, and then Amara [Miller] came in one week ahead of time. And we all got to know each other really well, but in a very casual setting. It was never forced. ‘You go have lunch together so you can get to know one another! Bond!’ [laughs]. It was casual tours around the island, and getting to know the culture of being Hawaiian, and the indigenous parts of it. And that’s kind of how we bonded, just over time.

SW: Awesome. But as the movie teaches us, living on Hawaii is not a big vacation.

SW: People die in Hawaii. Shocking, right? It happens.

Do you feel like you’ve learned about Hawaii. Uncovered differences in how Hawaiians live then how you may have perceived life on the islands?

SW: I had never been to Hawaii, and I had never known anything about it. My body may have been born in LA. I might live in LA, still, but my heart is from Hawaii. My heart was born there. It’s one of the most phenomenal places on this planet. There’s an energy there that’s not tangible. It kind of grasps you. And it centers you as a human being, and it grounds you. And it moves you from the materialistic bubble that we so often get lost in.

And there are still indigenous thriving…I don’t want to say tribes, because they’re not tribes. But indigenous peoples living on the island. They were so recently colonized by America in a very illegal way, which is I guess how America took over everything. Or how the French and British colonies took over America to even begin with—the Indians. But yeah, there’s so much culture, and it’s all very indigenous still, when you get away from Waikiki. You start to feel the real vibe of Hawaii.

ALTWhat are you moving onto next? I’m sure another season of your show on the horizon?

SW: Yeah. I mean, right now, who knows if another season will go? We never find out ‘til a week beforehand.

You mean it’s like, ‘Oh, we decided to make another season of the show! Just come by, if you don’t mind…’

SW: Yeah exactly! Be back in LA next week! Okay! I just cut my hair off! Yeah, but we finished the fourth season Thanksgiving weekend.

Awesome. That’s something you’ve been doing for four seasons. That’s a long time. Do you feel a real investment in it? Is it something that you still see growing? Are there places for it to go from your perspective?

SW: Yeah. I’m really grateful for it, and the writers are incredible…we are all getting a lot older. I’m the youngest one and I’m almost twenty. Everyone else is in their mid to late twenties, if not early thirties. So, there definitely has to be growing up.

Nature takes its call on the show’s direction.

SW: Totally. Those wrinkles are new.

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