Shailene Woodley didn’t really know what to expect when she packed her bags to go to Hawaii to shoot Alexander Payne’s emotionally complicated drama “The Descendants.”
Woodley had never worked on a feature film, and the majority of her acting experience has come on the TV side, starring in ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
“I’m not very educated when it comes to cinema,” Woodley confides. “Alexander gave me ‘The Graduate’ to watch, not really saying anything. ‘Just give it a look.’ The way it combined the laughter and the drama, I think he wanted me to give me an idea that that’s what he would be going for and what he would be asking me to do.”
Woodley captures many fine, true moments portraying the combative adolescent daughter in “The Descendants,” though the one that everyone seems to mention first is the scene where she dives underwater and weeps after learning that her comatose mother will never regain consciousness.
“She’s just unbelievable there,” says George Clooney, who plays Woodley’s father in the film.
Woodley deflects such praise with a refreshing modesty.
“There wasn’t a lot of acting for me to do in this movie,” she says. “Alexander’s words are so brilliant and every actor in the film was so brilliant that all I had to do was show up every day well-rested, happy, be present in the moment and listen, and the emotions were evoked.”
But where Woodley’s character in “The Descendants” fights through feelings of victim-hood and vulnerability, the 20-year-old Simi Valley native seems more blissed-out than someone her age has a right to be. Woodley had never been to Hawaii before shooting “The Descendants,” but now calls it “her home,” digging its “magical energy” and appreciating its inherent ability to minimize wardrobe choices.
“When I read the script, I’m thinking, ‘OK, I love everything about this except for maybe the fact that I have to spend the whole movie wearing a bikini,’?” Woodley says, laughing. “But that’s just how it is in Hawaii. You go to the market, you go to the gas station and everyone’s wearing a bikini. You feel overdressed if you aren’t.”