MoviesOnline had the pleasure of sitting down with Woodley at a roundtable interview to talk about what it was like being directed by Payne and having to hold her own against George Clooney in her role as his character’s willful and defiant daughter. She described the audition process, the experience of meeting Clooney for the first time, and handling some of the most emotionally challenging scenes in the film. She also discussed her hit series and its positive impact on teenagers and their families, her involvement with Children’s Foundation and other charities, and why she is confident scoliosis will never be an obstacle to her leading a full and active life.
Q: Talk about having a big role in a big film with a very well respected American director which is exciting enough, but then you’re shooting in Hawaii which has to feel pretty nice?
Q: How did you get the role?
SW: I auditioned for it. I read the script before Alexander or George were attached, and then in November of 2009, I auditioned for Alexander, and in January of 2010, we had coffee, and then late January 2010, he called me and told me I had booked it and I started bawling.
Q: On the phone, right then?
SW: (laughs) Yeah, I was like “Thank you!”
Q: There were a lot of very adult situations for a teenager to be put in as the character. Was George open to however far you wanted to push as Alex?
SW: Honestly, I don’t think it had anything to do with George. It had everything to do with Alexander. He’s your director. For me, my approach is go all the way, and if it’s too much, they’ll tell you it’s too much and you can bring it down. I got to argue with one of the best arguers in the world, George Clooney, and I got to act with one of the best actors in the world. That was so exciting. I got to rise to this awesome occasion and raise the stakes, and I had to be on top of my game and be so incredibly professional and ready and ready to be there. So that was really exciting for me to do, to take on this crazy role, and to be able to act opposite George Clooney because he does raise the stakes. You know that if you give it to him, he’s dang sure going to give it back to you which means you’ve got to be even more ready to give it right back to him. It was this fun kind of build up together and I’m just so lucky that I got to experience it with him.
Q: When her father tells her that her mother is going to die, and it really hits her and you’re swimming and you go under water and then you just let it all hang out, did you have to do that many times? I think that would be such a release.
SW: Yes, we did it four times and it was a release. I thought it was so beautifully written that upon hearing such tragic news she would recede into the water. I know Alexander didn’t write it because of this but I find it a beautiful correlation. In Hawaii, there’s a saying that Hawaiians learn to swim before they learn to walk, and so I thought it was rather beautiful that upon hearing such tragic news she would recede into the water into her comfort zone to be vulnerable for the first time, kind of like a baby going back into the womb. I don’t know, I just thought it was very beautiful and beautifully written. I’m just so grateful I got to bring that to life.
Q: That lovely expression also seems to shed some light on your character because your wardrobe looks like it would fit into one tiny little suitcase. There’s not that much material there.
SW: That is how the Hawaiians are. I remember reading the script and thinking to my friend “Oh my God, I have to be in a bikini for this entire movie. What am I going to do, Megan? I’m freaking out!” She was like “Once you get there, it won’t be bad” because I’d never been there before. And then, once you’re there, everyone is in a bikini. You go to a gas station and they’re filling up their cars in bikinis. You go to Foodland and they’re walking around barefoot in bikinis and swim trunks. You feel weird when you have clothes on there.
Q: Nick Krause is a fun supporting character that provides us with a nice set of notes under the themes and tones of the material. When you read the script, did you think they’d have to get somebody really great for Sid and were you gratified when Nick showed up?
SW: Yes, I did know that they had to get the right person for Sid, and when I read that character, I was like I don’t know how somebody is going to do this because it was so specific to a certain person and I didn’t really know what that person was supposed to be so I was excited to see who he cast. I had envisioned someone very different from Nick just as far as physicalities go, like someone really tall and awkward. Nick in real life is not awkward at all, but I think he made himself awkward in the movie. He’s brilliant. That kid is so incredibly brilliant. In real life, he has got an IQ off the charts, and this is a true story, he pulled a laptop out of the trash can one day and fixed it. I mean, he’s like an incredible genius but you would never know that because in the movie he acts like a really good stoner.
Q: Like when he gets slugged in the face?
SW: Yeah, totally. He’s great. He’s so funny. When we were filming, I didn’t find it funny I guess because when you’re in the moment, you’re in the moment, so you don’t really realize what’s going on. I remember the first time I saw the film I was blown away by Nick’s genius. And that scene in the hotel room when he reveals to George things about his own family and his own father, and then smiles at the end of the scene, that to me is my favorite scene in the entire film. I thought Nick blew it out of the park.
Q: As an actor, what did you like about working with Alexander Payne?
SW: Alexander is one of my top five favorite human beings on this planet. I just think he’s a profound individual. As a director, every actor wants to work with him for a reason. I mean, he gives you the freedom – I always use this analogy – but he lets you go on the slide for a while and then you can go on the swings and then you can go up the jungle gym bars. You’re like a little kid on a playground. You’re given the freedom to do and express in any way that you want, and that’s so rare. Another thing about him is he approaches his movies with a very strong point of view. He knows what the tone is going to be and he knows what the movie is going to be and he hired you for you. He hired you for a reason. So, his confidence instills a very strong sense of confidence in yourself, because if the head of your movie is confident, then it ripples down from there. A lot of times, directors figure it out in the editing room, so on set you’re wondering if “A” the movie is going to be good and “B” if you’re doing a good job, or if you’re doing a bad job if the director will notice you’re doing a bad job. With Alexander, there is no fear in that sense. If you’re doing something that he doesn’t necessarily love, he’ll come up and he’ll politely tune you back on the right track. And if you’re doing something he loves, he’ll actually give you accolades which are rare in life. No one ever tells you when you’re doing good. Generally, they just point out when you’re doing not so great.
Q: He acknowledged to us that the ashes scattering scene was a little more challenging than he anticipated.
SW: It was very challenging.
Q: So you weren’t in a tank or somewhere close to shore? You were actually far out from shore in an outrigger?
SW: We were in a canoe for 12 hours. (laughs) I loved it though. Yes, logistically, it was kind of a pain in the butt, but how could we complain even if it wasn’t going the way that we wanted it to? We were in the middle of the Hawaiian ocean for hours and having great conversations with great people. I’m sure it’s very different for an actor to be in that position than it is for a director. I’m sure he was stressing out a lot more than I was. But yes, those were fun scenes. Those were a fun two days.
Q: You weren’t intimidated that you were with George Clooney, the super sexy star?
SW: George Clooney, the sexiest man alive?
Q: Yes, did you have all those thoughts before you went in and first met him?
SW: No, I wasn’t nervous to work with him at all. I was excited because as an actor, if you get the opportunity to work with one of the best actors, that’s so exciting. Like I said, the bars have been raised and the stakes have been raised. You’ve got to rise to the occasion. To me, it was exciting. It’d be like an artist going to meet Picasso. That’s cool. Right? You get to meet someone you look up to. That being said, I wasn’t nervous until we were at the Four Seasons here in L.A. for the table read and he walked in, and then I got really nervous and I started sweating. I was like “Oh my God, that’s George Clooney!” And he came up to me and he gave me a big hug and said “Welcome sweetie!” Immediately, the intimidation went away. I mean, how can you be intimidated by a guy who gives you a hug the first time you meet him?
Q: When you’re doing these really painful scenes, whether it’s with your mom in the hospital or with your grandmother who doesn’t know who anybody is anymore, what do you use to help you get a better performance out of yourself?
SW: I’m not that kind of actor who approaches [it that way]. I don’t do any research unless it’s a time period piece or a mock interpretation of a person who actually existed. Then you’ve got to do research. Right? But, for a film like this, I don’t do any research on the back history of the family. I got to know the physical aspects of what it was like to be Hawaiian and the culture there. If a scene says to cry, I don’t think about when my dog died or when something sad in my life happened. I’d be as present as humanly possible to that moment and I’d surrender to that moment. The word ‘actor’ is a word. I think that better than saying I’m a good actor, it’s better to say I’m a professional listener because that’s really ultimately what acting is about – professionally listening to what the other actors have to say and then just being really truthful and honest in your emotional response. And granted, with a screenplay like this, there wasn’t anything for us to do but professionally listen and the emotion was evoked because the words were so truthful. A lot of times you get scripts where the words aren’t so truthful and it’ll say you’re supposed to cry and you look at the dialogue and you think “This would never make me cry in real life.” Then, you’ve got to implement some other things. But, for this movie, there was no acting to be done. It was really just about surrendering to the moments.
Q: This role could completely alter your career and your life in many ways. How do you feel about the awards season buzz this film and your performance have generated so far?
SW: I don’t think about it, honestly. For me, the four months in Hawaii exceeded any expectation I created for myself and for the experience. And now, going to all these festivals and getting to travel and talk to interesting people about a film I’m so passionate for and about is beyond the cherry on top. I don’t even know what this is. So, for me, to create expectations for the future is just so silly. I have zero expectations. Every single day something new and exciting happens and how could I ask for anything more? I’m so grateful for what I’ve been given up to this point. If nothing happens, then that’s amazing. And, if something happens, then that’s amazing because I really have zero expectations.
Q: There’s that beautiful final shot, just this single lengthy take as the family is watching “March of the Penguins” listening to the voice of Morgan Freeman.
SW: Yay, Morgan Freeman!!
Q: How many takes did you do of that?
SW: I don’t remember actually. That was the third or fourth day of filming when we filmed that scene. We didn’t do too many. I think we probably did four or five. Alexander is not a big take person. If he gets it, he got it. Maybe he’ll do one extra for good measure, but he doesn’t do an obscene amount of takes unless it takes an obscene amount of takes. If it takes you fifty takes to get that one good one, then he’ll do fifty takes. But if it takes you one take to get that good one, then he’ll do one take.
Q: In “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” you’ve played Amy Juergens for four years. Is it different playing a role when you know that her life is going to be continuing, that you don’t have to abandon her at the end of each episode?
SW: Yes. I mean, on the show there really aren’t any big arcs because the arcs happen over a year. So, you’re not thinking about the arc. You’re just playing each episode, and then through the words, they are created. It’s been such an awesome experience to be on a show for such a long time, because you do get to know the characters so well and you know every single thing about them, so when you’re memorizing your lines it takes you two seconds because you know exactly how your character is going to say them and you know exactly how the other characters are going to respond. It is beautiful to watch these characters grow up.
Q: Do you hear from kids that can really identify with the situations?
SW: Yes, every now and then we hear. Honestly, we don’t get a lot of great feedback from teenagers. We do. They say they love the show and that they think the guys are cute. But we get the best feedback from their parents who say that the show has opened up a lot of communication avenues within their home because we do talk a lot about … an obscene amount about sex and we talk about relationships and high schools and different cravings and different urges and a lot of parents have said thank you for the show because it’s opened up avenues in our home for us to talk about sex, whereas before I would have never talked to my teenager about it and now we do talk about it. I think it’s important for teens to talk about it because the more educated you are about something, the more your decisions become educated decisions and not just reckless decisions.
Q: You do a lot of charitable work with Children’s Foundation, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS and others. When you’re volunteering or visiting a hospital, does it come up? Are there kids who say I’m glad you’re showing this?
SW: Yes, totally. I mean, because it’s been four years now, and it’s on ABC Family so it’s artistically licensed. Even though the themes are very strong and very pure, we have to cover them in a way that is appropriate to have it on ABC Family, and I think a lot of teens respond to that. I do get a lot of teenagers saying how the themes of the show have helped them through their lives, whether it be through gossip or through relationships or anything like that.
Q: How did your acting relationship with Amara Miller develop? You’re playing siblings who are hurled into each other’s company by fate, was it easy to get up and running with her as a fellow actor?
SW: Oh my gosh! Amara had never been in a school play. She had never even thought about acting. She was living up north and knew nothing about this industry. Her mom was a friend of a friend of Alexander’s sister so she was very far from it. She knew nothing about it. She did an audition tape and was flown to Hawaii for four months. Amara, who you see on screen, is just so authentically her. There is no acting to be done. She is that character to the T. That’s what was so beautiful about working with her. She wasn’t jaded. We’d be doing a scene and she’d start swinging her arms around, and at first I’d go “Oh my gosh, we’re filming a scene. Stop doing that!” Sometimes it would work. There’s a scene we have in the hotel room when we’re on Kauai and she goes to look at the porn on television and she starts lying down on the couch and rolling around like this. No one told her to do that. She just did it and it’s brilliant in the film because she looks like a 10-year-old talking about kind of a gross subject. But sometimes you’d be like “Okay, Amara, you can’t do that. We need to take it down a notch.” It was lovely to work with her. Our relationship was instantaneous. We met a week and a half before we started filming and she became a little sister. Nick became a big brother and I became the big sister. Nick and I would sometimes have to say “Scram, kid. We need our space.” And then other times, we would throw her in the pool for hours and do flips with her and all sorts of fun things. We became like a total little family. She would address us as her best friends. We were doing an interview in Toronto and she goes “Yeah, Nick, Shailene and I, we’re all best friends.” It was really funny.
Q: One of the tools in an actor’s kit is the physicality. You have to know what to do with your body. You had an experience in high school where there was some question about whether you’d be able to be physically active?
SW: Yes, I still have scoliosis but it was never a question of whether I could be active or not. Never. Actually I have pretty severe scoliosis but it’s not something that will ever affect [my life]. You can still get pregnant, you can still live your life the way anyone else can live their life. You can bungee jump. You can skydive. It does not hold you back from anything. Every now and then you get a little bit of pain, but everyone has their stuff to deal with. Everyone has their own pains and obstacles to battle with. But it’s never been physically limiting at all.
Q: Did it give you an awareness of your physicality?
SW: No, not at all. It gave me an awareness of being grateful for it. I am so grateful I have scoliosis over something else.
Q: How old are you now?
SW: I’m actually 20 years old today.
Q: Happy Birthday!
SW: Thank you!
“The Descendants” opened in theaters on November 18th.