On her second day at work at American Apparel, actress Shailene Woodley got a call from her manager asking her to catch a flight to L.A. to meet director Alexander Payne for coffee. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker was casting his next project, an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, The Descendants. Months before, Woodley had auditioned for the role of Alex, a combative teenager who helps her father (George Clooney) cope in the wake of a family tragedy. Three months later, she was in Hawaii, where the film is set, meeting Clooney at the first table read. Here is the actress, who also stars in the ABC Family soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, on The Descendants, eating clay to fight radiation, and her group of super humans.
When you were auditioning for the role did you know who was going to be playing your father at that point?
No, Alexander wasn’t even attached when I first read the script. The first time I read the script it was an adaption of the book from different writers than Alexander, so the script we ended up using was completely different. However, the story was the same so it fueled something inside of me. I don’t remember the last time I was so passionate about something in my life. And then, eventually, six months later, I got to audition for Alexander. And then after I auditioned for him, I found out George was attached and it was kind of an organic process.
By now it’s well known that you were working at American Apparel when you got the gig.
Yeah, I was working at American Apparel down on Orchard and Houston, and I got a call early January from my manager, and he said, Shai you need to fly to L.A. tomorrow, Alexander wants to have coffee with you. And I was like, I can’t do that, it’s my second day at work at American Apparel, I have a commitment, I can’t let them down. And he was like, Shai you need to. And I was like, Can we Skype or something? But he was like, Shailene, I never tell you to do anything, and I really believe you need to do this. So I flew to L.A.
What was your excuse?
I told them I had the flu. So I flew to L.A., had coffee with him, and then went straight back to the airport and flew home that night so that I could work the next day at American Apparel. But when I had coffee with him, he told me I was his number one choice. He was going to Hawaii though, and he was going to audition every girl in Hawaii, and if there was one that was better suited for the role than me, he would call me and tell me personally that I did not book it. And that to me was enough. People were like, He shouldn’t have done that. But I thought it was so respectful and honest of him to do that. And then a month later, he called and said I did book it. Then I bawled.
You’ve been acting for a long time, but does this feel like a new stage in your career?
The only thing that feels new is the politics of this industry. But I work with such an amazing team, and luckily they specialize in the politics, and I specialize in getting on set and doing it on set. We have this really great collaboration where I don’t have to learn about it, because they’ll just guide me along the way. So often when someone gets a movie that is bigger than what they’ve done before, it becomes strategy all of a sudden. It becomes what magazine you’re in and what your portfolio is like, and who you talk to, and who you suck up to, and who you go meet with, and what outfit you wear. And that to me is all bullshit. I refuse to buy into that. I am into this for the art of it. Granted, Fox Searchlight is my boss, or whatever studio you’re working with on a specific project is your employer. And magazines are great to do as long as you have integrity in your interviews. As long as a project fuels my soul I’m happy.
How does a project fuel your soul?
It’s that unspoken feeling in your stomach. I’m a firm believer in listening to our bodies, so when something’s not working in life, you get that feeling in your stomach, this guttural pain. So often in relationships, when someone hurts you, it’s that pain in your stomach. That feeling when you read something or see a piece of art or you write, or whatever your artistic expression is, and inside your stomach, you get butterflies, and you get this intense passion, that’s what I mean by fueling your soul. It’s all physical.
What are you passionate about?
Acting is a big passion of mine and the other—I don’t’ want to say bigger, but it brings tears to my eyes because that’s the amount of passion I have—is teaching humans to be human again and reminding people to wake up. Ultimately, it’s about re-wilding yourself. And I don’t mean going out and actually foraging for food, although I do preach that because I do that.
Yeah! And drink spring water from the mountain. I think it’s important to be human, and also I feel very fortunate to have been put in a position where I can talk to more people than I necessarily would have been able to talk to about big issues like Monsanto and genetic modification, and sweatshops and genocides that are occurring in Africa at this very moment. I realize that I’ve been given this really fortunate position to talk about issues that I think need to be addressed. I’m also on the extreme spectrum when it comes to sustainability and eating healthy and all that.
Are you a vegetarian?
I’m not a vegetarian. but I only eat humanely raised meats. I would rather actually kill my meat than buy it in plastic wrap. I don’t buy meat from Whole Foods, I order it direct from a farm. I mean, I’m like extremist.
When did this mindset take over?
I was fourteen, and my grandma is a naturopath, and she took my blood—she does live blood and cell analysis. She was like, You should probably eat more vegetables, and microwaves are not great for you. And so I started doing research, and I haven’t used a microwave since. And that kind of kicked off eating vegetables. But I still liked processed foods. And then, at around sixteen, I got really really big into the environment and the importance of realizing that we are nature, which a lot of people have forgotten. We’re not part of nature, we are nature. So that kind of hit home.
You spent time in Hawaii shooting The Descendants. How did that affect you?
I had never been to Hawaii before, and the second I landed there I was like, This is home, this is me. My body’s from L.A., but my heart is from Hawaii. I’ve been there so many times since filming and established such phenomenal friends there, and the islands have this incredible energy that’s not really tangible.
Does radiation from your cell phone freak you out?
Oh my God. Radiation is one of the biggest things. Actually, there’s this awesome speaker, his name is Daniel Vitalis, we’ve become great friends, you should look him up, he’s a super human. George Clooney, Alexander Payne, Daniel Vitalis—super humans. He talks about protecting yourself from radiation, and how every indigenous creature on this planet eats clay. And when you eat clay, it combines with radioactive isotopes and heavy metals and takes them through your system.
Do you eat clay?
I eat clay every morning.
Let’s talk about The Descendants. What kind of pointers did Alexander give you?
Absolutely. The best direction he ever gave me was he came up to me and said, You’re not being Shai, and he walked away. I was like, Oh, duh, thank you. Thanks for bringing me back down to earth.
Your character is a bitch at the beginning of the film. Is there any of that in you?
Absolutely. I think everyone has a pain and a bitch in them. I don’t often use that side of myself because I really don’t have reason to, but the reason I don’t get bummed when I don’t book a role is because every character is written for a certain person, and you never know who that person is until they show up. For Alex, there wasn’t a lot of acting to be done, it was more about me being present in the moment. I’m not her. I didn’t do drugs in high school and I didn’t drink, and I’m not bitchy like she is, and I don’t say words like ‘twat’ on a daily basis. But, I somehow connected to her.