Even with a cast that includes Robert Forster, Judy Greer, and let's not forget George Clooney, a lot of people have walked out of The Descendants talking about a lesser-known teenager named Shailene Woodley. The 19-year-old (well, she turned 20 yesterday-- happy birthday!) has spent the last three years on TV's Secret Life of the American Teenager, but in The Descendants she breaks out big time, playing the profane, rebellious, deeply unhappy teenage daughter of Clooney's character, a man dealing with the fact that his wife isn't just in a coma, but was cheating on him before her accident.
All of this is happening in Hawaii, a state that Woodley told me is a deeply spiritual place, but also one where real people are living their day-to-day, sometimes hurtful lives. When I talked to Woodley at the Toronto Film Festival in September her life was anything but day-to-day; The Descendants had premiered a week earlier at the Telluride Film Festival, and now in Toronto Woodley was being flooded with congratulations and attention from people who might have never seen her work before. But with a lot of talk about what George Clooney taught her, how she learned about director Alexander Payne's previous work, and how to constantly express gratitude for her life, Woodley seemed to be handling the attention just fine.
The Descendants opens in limited release today, November 16. Check out my conversation with her below.
You've been going nonstop since Telluride, and now you're at Toronto. Have you had time to process any of that?
Yeah, it's crazy. I always say the movie is the icing on the cake. I don't know what this is. The festival rounds, this is the "happy birthday" writing in blue frosting on the top.
Has it just been this explosion of people congratulating you on the movie?
Yeah, people really liked the film. For me, I really enjoyed the film because I enjoy films that tell true stories and that don't hide the messiness of life. And I love Alexander Payne and his films. I hoped other people liked it how I did, and it seems like they did.
Had you seen Alexander Payne's movies before making this?
I had seen Sideways, but that was it. I didn't know much about him.
But Sideways is kind of different from this. Did that make you expect something different out of this movie?
Not at all. I enjoyed Sideways because I liked how Alexander always takes a crow's eye point of view, and looks at how hilarious life is. We're so wrapped up in our own little worlds that we miss the comedic moments, and he finds them. I knew that Descendants would be similar to that. When we were filming I didn't know if we were filming a comedy or a drama or what. He would have us do one scene emotional, and then he would be like "OK, now smile" and we would be like "What? That doesn't make sense." And afterwards you're like, wow, that was brilliant.
Is it more or less of a comedy than you thought it would be?
Is it a comedy? I was laughing a lot more than I thought I would, but I wouldn't consider it a comedy. Many things that don't seem funny when you're filming because you're wrapped up in the emotion are funny, because emotion is funny in the right time and place.
You're 19, about to turn 20. As you get older does it become harder to play a teenager, or more fun because you're further away from it?
It is more fun because I see the comedy in being a teenager. When you're in a moment of any part of your life, you don't see the funny parts or the sad parts. Now I feel like it would be fun to do a comedy about teenagers, because they're so funny in their own angsty ways. On a personal level, I definitely more connect to university-age, young to mid 20s. I don't look like I'm that age, but all of my friends are older, so I feel like I have the vibe and understanding of what it's like to be a teenager but also what it's like to be a 25-year-old.
Were you like the rest of us just thinking of Hawaii being resorts and hotels and wilderness, and then went there to discover what it's like to live there?
I had never been to Hawaii, so I was really excited to explore it. Upon arriving, there's an energy there that's not tangible, but at least I experienced it. You can't help but become centered and grounded. I feel very fortunate to have done this movie. I see Hawaii in a completely different light than I would have.
With this movie a lot of people are seeing your work who hadn't seen you before. Is that also starting to change your life?
Acting has always been an art for me, a passion, the way I artistically express myself. I don't ever see it as, oh no, what do I need to prepare for, what's going to happen. If it's meant to happen, it'll happen. I don't mean to say that I"m not going to work for it. I work hard, take acting classes, go to auditions. But I never wanted to be famous, I never wanted to be in magazine. I just want to paint the canvas, which is to be on set and work with other people and a good screenplay.
You say that George Clooney has taught you many many things. What are those big things?
Gratitude. It has everything to do with acting in my opinion. if you're not grateful for the opportunities you've been given-- for me to be on The Descendants, I am beyond grateful for it. That whole experience, meeting George and Alexander, filming in Hawaii. It was such a beautiful experience that if I wasn't grateful to be there, I wouldn't have had the same experience. I think gratitude humbles you and grounds you, and George Clooney is the most grateful person I've ever met. George was as grateful to be on that set, working with all of us, as I was to be on that set working with him. So he taught me gratitude.
How can you tell that? How does he express that?
I mean George has told me straight up how grateful he is for his life, many times in small little conversations. And George is never in his trailer, he is never in hair and makeup, he is always on set. Hanging out with craft services and transportation and dolly grips and lightning dudes. And that says so much about your character. When you're George Clooney and you have all the fame and success that he has, for him to want to come and deal with the pressures of someone else wanting an autograph or picture, he has to be grateful for where he is.