Shailene Woodley shows wisdom beyond years

AUSTIN, Texas — Shailene Woodley huddles with a friend over a laptop as they search online for a place to eat lunch. Her one stipulation: She prefers a restaurant that doesn't serve genetically modified food.

Just days before her 20th birthday, as other girls her age are preparing for college classes or venturing into the real world of low-paying jobs, the tall and elegant Woodley is traveling the country promoting her new film, "The Descendants." The Alexander Payne film will surely put the actress best known for her role on ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" on a list of rising young female stars.

Her ascent up the fame ladder doesn't seem to occupy much of Woodley's head space.

''It's weird to be recognized for doing something that you love," she says.

She might not be enrolled at a university, but the quick-talking Woodley says she has been devising her own informal education, learning about the way our consumer decisions affect the environment.


For the California native who fell in love with trees and became passionate about protecting the environment in her early teens, it would be hard to top Hawaii in terms of idyllic places to shoot a film.

''It's home," she said of where "The Descendants" was shot. "I'm obsessed with it. I don't know how to explain it other than 'home.' It's magical."

Woodley arrived in Hawaii with co-stars George Clooney and Nick Krause three weeks before filming and immersed herself in the natural beauty, snorkeling, taking field trips and kayaking expeditions.

In the film, Woodley plays the tempestuous teenage daughter of Clooney's Matt King. Alexandra reveals to her father a festering resentment she holds against her mother, who rests in a coma following a boat accident. King slowly earns the trust and sympathies of his daughter and relies on her strength to shepherd the family through the difficult time.

The young actress, whose character unblinkingly stands up to her father and makes him face some difficult truths, says she never felt intimidated playing opposite the famous actor, whom she describes as gracious and humble.

''He really is one of the most phenomenal men I've met in my life," Woodley said. "Everyone was an equal to him. He was never in his trailer. He was always on the set. It didn't feel like I was working with George Clooney, this amazing star, I felt like I was working with George Clooney, my friend, the guy from Kentucky."

Woodley delivers a powerful performance, exhibiting the blend of fear and exaggerated callousness that often comes with being a teenager. The young actress, who still lives at home with her mother, says she loved the raw and messy core of the film, which she credits to the writing and direction of Payne.

''It was so brilliantly written that all we really had to do was show up with our lines memorized and professionally listen to what the other actors were saying, and through Alexander's words the emotions were naturally evoked," Woodley said. "It's nice to have someone who's organized and who's confident in themselves and in their work because a lot of times when you don't have that at the head of a project, then things can kind of get chaotic."


For a woman her age, Woodley displays a keen understanding of the industry. She realizes that some people see career choices in Hollywood as catalysts in a carefully manipulated strategy. The confident actress says she plans to continue to follow her instincts and work solely on projects and scripts about which she is passionate.

Her time spent working on "The Descendants" seems to have honed Woodley's eye for the kind of material she wants to pursue, and her experiences with Payne and Clooney have deepened her appreciation for things more noble and permanent than the ephemeral rewards of fame.

''I'm so fortunate," Woodley said. "Alexander Payne and George Clooney, every time I'm around them, I'm constantly observing how to be a better person."

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