Friday, January 13, 2012

Shai Shines In The Descendants

See in Theaters

Shai Shines In The Descendants

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I'm not sure if one of those weird cable award shows has the category "Most Emotional Moment By An Actress in a Movie," but for 2011 I would certainly cast my ballot for Shailene Woodley. In her breakthrough role as the troubled, older daughter of George Clooney in The Descendants, the supremely talented teenager jolts our senses in a scene in which her father tells her that her mother won't ever come out of a coma caused by a boating accident. She's treading water in a pool when she hears the bad news and it isn't until she descends under the water that her emotions erupt--and we see that she isn't as tough as she acts. "She feels trapped," Woodley explains in the film's production notes, "so she submerges herself into the water, the one place where she can scream at the top of her lungs and not feel vulnerable. It was such an emotional release to go down there and scream and cry hysterically. It was heartbreaking for me to do, but also empowering." It's a brief screen moment, but it will stay with you for, well, forever.
I confess I never heard of Woodley before seeing her brave performance in Alexander Payne's long-awaited follow-up to Sideways, which opens in New York this Wednesday, but after watching her more than hold her own with Clooney in both dramatic and whimsical scenes, I took a look at her popular ABC Family Network show, The Secret Life of an American Teenager. I discovered a star-in-waiting. Oddly Payne hadn't seen her on television before he cast her. My guess is that he was thrilled with her talent, maturity, intellect, and charm. "She auditioned very well," Payne told me and five other journalists during a roundtable at the time of the New York Film Festival. "The main direction I had to give her was 'Slower," which is unusual because usually I have to tell actors 'Faster.' She is the first actor I had to constantly slow down. Young people speak quickly now, but she's also on a television show where they do six or eight pages a day and the result can be what I'd call mumble-talkie. So she wasn't allowing the emotions to have their fullest day in court by speaking so quickly. So my main help to her--and it's very little because she's the Real McCoy--was just to have her speak slower so the emotions could rise." Fortunately, when Woodley spoke to us journalists during her own roundtable she spoke slow enough for everyone to jot down her words and--she's a sweet young woman--for her emotions to rise!
Q: How did you get into acting?
SW: I was five. It was a complete accident. Both my parents are educators--my dad's a principal and my mom's a school counselor. I was taking theater classes and an agent called my mom and said, "I'm interested in Shai." My mom asked me if I wanted to do it and at five you want to do everything, you don't care what it is. It wasn't that my parents wanted me to do it, it was that I wanted to do it. So my mother would drive me to auditions.
I had three rules growing up: stay the person they knew I was, do good in school, and have fun. If I constantly completed those then I could continue to act.
Q: Do you have other actors in your family?
SW: No, I'm the first one. My younger brother tried when he was eight and at auditions he'd be rejected and say, "Hey, wait, you're telling me no? I don't like this very much."
Q: Are you based in L.A.?
SW: Yes. When I was on hiatus from Secret Life I moved to New York for a few months and happened to be here when I got this film. So I went from New York to Hawaii and back to L.A.
Q: Have you been in other films?
SW: I've done TV work and some TV films but this is my first feature film.
Q: What was the process getting to play Alexandra King for Alexander Payne?
SW: Alexander was seeing girls in L.A., so because of a scheduling conflict, I wasn't able to see him. When he was in New York, I flew down from Toronto and was able to audition for him.
Danny Peary: What was the audition?
SW: One of the two scenes at the audition was cut out of the film. I heard it will be included among the deleted scenes on the DVD. The other scene is the one my character is told by her father that her mom is passing away. In the movie, I cry and go underwater, but at the audition I just closed my eyes and screamed and pretended I was underwater.
DP: THAT was your audition scene?
SW: Yeah, that all way through the couch scene. I guess I did a good job and he gave me the role. That was in October. I moved to New York after that. And in January, I got a call and was told Alexander wanted to meet me for coffee in L.A. So I went to L.A. and we had coffee. And he said, "You're my number one choice, Shai, and I want to hire you, but I'm going to go to Hawaii for the next month and interview every girl your age there, and if there's not a girl who is better for this role than you, then it's yours and I'll call you personally and tell you." That for me was enough. I didn't need to book it, just to hear it I was really proud of myself for doing good at the audition. And a month later he called and said I had the role.
Q: How old were you when you shot this film?
SW: I was eighteen when I auditioned and when we filmed it, and I'll be twenty when it comes out.
Q: Did you, George Clooney, and Amara Miller, who plays your younger sister Scottie, do anything before filming started to bond as a family?
SW: There was already conceived bonding going on, so to say, but we arrived a month early, except for Amara, who came two weeks early, and we'd just hang out. We'd go to Alexander's place and rehearse a little bit and talk for a long time. Nick Krause, who plays Alex's stoner friend Sid, and I bonded together quickly. We had lunch and made dinner together and were together all the time. So it wasn't anything that was set up, it just organically happened.
Q: Alexander Payne is an award-winning screenwriter, but as a teenager playing a teenager did you ever feel you should say something different from what was in the script?
SW: Alexander is super big on collaboration. He has his storyline and his point of view but ultimately he's not a teenager and he's not George Clooney's character Matt King and he's not Alexandra or all these characters. So my favorite way to describe him is: he gives you rules and boundaries but they are all unspoken--he never actually says what they are, you just kind of figure it out. But then you get to color in the lines. As far as character development...me, Nick, and George went to Hawaii a month before filming to really get in touch with the Hawaiian vibe and the authenticity of being Hawaiian. So I went to Hawaiian high schools and talked to girls and to malls and surf spots just to kind of feel it out. So I'd go to Alexander and say, "Oh, I heard some girls saying this," and whether we added it to the film or not, he always appreciated it because it would add another layer to the Hawaiian spirit.
Q: Did you adlib?
SW: I didn't actually adlib any dialogue. When you have a screenplay as brilliantly written as his, it's hard to ad lib because no words you come up with are going to come close to what he's already written. He spent months deciphering the script and choosing the right words. Granted, that if there were a line that was something like "Oh, these are great headphones," and I wanted to say, "God, these headphones are so cool," that would be fine because the context is the same. But when it came to the really emotional scenes where the lines in the script are poignant you don't want to adlib because what he wrote evokes such emotion naturally.
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DP: In typical films there will be a scene in which the father will tell his daughter that he doesn't want her to go back to private school. This film works without a scene like that, but did you every film one?
SW: No. In the novel, Alex tells her dad that she doesn't want to go back to private school but Alexander omitted that from the screenplay because he didn't think it was necessary.
DP: Do you think it's necessary?
SW: I don't because the scene when they're all on the couch together kind of ties everything together and lets you know that they will be okay and life does move on, even after a tragedy.
Q: Your character bonds with her father while searching for the man her mother was sleeping with, but her feelings toward her mother are complicated. So can you talk about how she feels about her mother from the beginning to the end of the film?
SW: The way I interpret it from reading the novel is that when Alex was growing up she wanted her mother to be her best friend. As young child she put walls around herself so she could be her own protector. She never took her mom superseriously, but of course she's still her mother so there is that distinctive bond with her, right? You can hate a person and have awful feelings about her but ultimately love counteracts all of that and you feel comfortable and vulnerable around that one person. When she found out her mom was cheating on her dad, that's a huge secret for a 17-year-old to have. I can't imagine having that at my age or any age. She has all this anger toward her mom but still loves her, and I think she feels pity for her dad because he was so naive to the whole situation. Of course, she is hoping for her mom to wake up from the coma and when she realizes that she isn't going to wake up, I think that's when the secret gets too much for her to handle and she has to spill the beans. The scene that was so touching for me is when she goes into the hospital and sees her mom on the bed for the first time. It was the first time she saw her so deteriorated and hooked up to the machines and, as angry as she wants to be and as much as she has told herself she hates her mom, she sees the woman who nurtured her in her life lying their helpless. I think it's the juxtaposition of life and anger and stillness and quietness that kind of teaches Alex to forgive and move on.
DP: Her father calms her down.
SW: He totally calms her down. I think that's a big part of their relationship, her and her dad's. He is the one who shows her that it's okay to be vulnerable and it's okay not to be this tough, angry human being all the time.
DP: I watched clips of Secret Life and saw your character arguing with her father and in The Descendants Alex blows up at her father. I've never asked this of a young actress, but is it hard for a young actress to argue with an adult in front of a camera?
SW: No, I think it's fun! Especially in this movie when I got to say fun, messy words that I'd never say on TV. And working with such great actors, I'm so fortunate to have this awesome sparring game. I enjoy arguing when I'm told to!
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Q: What's the most important thing you've learned from this whole experience?
SW: I learned how to be a great human being from Alexander Payne. That has been my great learning lesson. He is such a phenomenal human being in very shape and form. I get inspired just by looking at him and the way he takes his time to answer questions and his brilliance and softness and quirkiness. And George as well. That man is the most brilliant, down-to-earth, generous person. I could go on for hours about him. So it was just standing back and not necessarily learning things from them in a directorial or acting way but from them as human beings and the way they approach life. I was beyond inspired.
DP: Did you have philosophical conversations with the two of them?
SW: Absolutely. George taught me a lot about the United Nations and what they were all about. I didn't know much about that. He taught me a lot about what's going on in Africa and also about this industry. He taught me about the politics of the industry and the business side, which is great because I never paid any attention to that. Alexander and I talked about spiritual things and surface things. I'd see him in the morning and ask how he was and he'd bounce up and down and say, "I'm happy! How are you?" What better response could there be, when you're at work at six in the morning and everyone is just waking up?
Q: George Clooney has the reputation for playing jokes on people on the set. Did that happen on this movie?
SW: George is known for his pranks but most of the movies he's been on have been adult-based. On this set we had Amara, a 10-year-old, and it was very family oriented. It wasn't like an Ocean's Eleven set, to say the least. But there were a few practical jokes. He'd bring out his fart application every now and then and press it when he was behind someone. He'd spray people with his water bottle, though he never did it to me. He has such a quick wit and quick mind.
Q: Talk about the relationship between Alex and Sid. What does she feel Sid is to her besides being a friend she can confide in--although he tells her father that they don't really talk about deep things?
SW: I think that especially in high school you have a lot of surface friends instead of deeper friends. You talk about the gossip in school, you talk about the materialism in life; you don't really address the things that are going on at home because of all the insecurities and all these walls that have been built. In the book, they're not dating but are hooking up, whatever. Alexander asked us if we wanted the relationship to be more girlfriend--boyfriend or best-friend based. I agreed that it should be more best-friend based because that's what they're chemistry is. We talked a lot about what they'd actually talk about. That line of his about not talking about deep stuff--does he say it because he doesn't want her father to know the truth or because it is true? I don't think teenagers ever really talk about deep things. I think it's more of a comfort thing to have their friends around. You feel you're with someone who knows you but isn't judging you for anything you say or do. Also Alex likes control and Sid is easily controlled. He's a stoner kid who says some pretty abrupt things but at the end she can tell him anything and he'll listen to her and it's comforting to have that one bit of control in her life when everything else is falling apart.
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Q: You're the star of Secret Life, but are you prepared to be a break-out star?
SW: It's a bizarre question because it's hard to analyze your own life when you're in the situation. I just try to wake up every morning in gratitude. You just never know what the next day will bring in any situation. You could be told something today and tomorrow be let down by a different person and then told something again. I'm just trying to stay centered and enjoy the ride.
Q: Do you have any passions besides acting?
SW: I have many passions. One huge one is sustainability; I don't like to say "health concerns" because that's so Americanized but really I want to educate the public on what's in the food we eat.
Q: But is acting something you want to continue doing?
SW: For sure. To me, it's beautiful because you get to dive into a character and explore it for a few months and meet a bunch of people; and then you get to leave and return to your own life. Then you go again. TV is great and I'm so grateful for everything I've been able to do, but film is definitely where my heart is. For me, it's fun. The day I'm not passionate about it, I'll move on and become an herbalist or something else.

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