"After ‘The Descendants,’ " says filmmaker James Ponsoldt, "about the best thing a director could hope to hear is that ‘Shailene Woodley is interested in your movie,’ or loves the book it was based on."
The 21-year-old actress is a lot more than "Hollywood’s next big thing," adds director Josh Boone. "She can project this vulnerable sort of self-confidence, which is magical. Off screen, she’s self-assured, sweet and quite kind. That shows up in her performances, too."
Woodley, star of TV’s "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," is just now dropping into the eye of the showbiz hurricane, a serious young woman "who makes your movie serious, the moment she shows up," says Ponsoldt, who directed Woodley and Miles Teller in "The Spectacular Now," the most critically acclaimed coming-of-age tale in a summer packed with such movies.
Woodley plays Aimee, the smart, makeup-shunning, working-class plain Jane who falls under the spell of the popular, charismatic and often-tipsy Sutter (Teller) in this serious and seriously offbeat teen romance.
"I’ve always been the extroverted girl, very outgoing, you know?" Woodley -- "Shai" to her friends -- says. "That’s my nature -- sitting at the front of the class, right in front of the teacher. And Aimee isn’t that way and seemed like a new acting challenge. Shy, not confident. None of the characters I’ve played have been like her."
Woodley was interested in the script based on Tim Tharp’s novel, and in the previous work of director Ponsoldt, who has made alcoholism his specialty through such films as "Off the Black" and "Smashed." And she liked the story’s take on teens and booze.
"Spectacular Now" has teens drinking, living "in the now," and struggling with it. The life of the party falls for the smart girl and "they DON’T reform each other," laughs Ponsoldt. "It’s like a hundred other teen partying movies, but kind of their opposite."
Woodley says "I don’t struggle with those issues -- alcohol, partying, -- myself. It was something that, when I was in high school, it was easier for me to be the serious, studious one than being the girl who sort of ignored responsibility and went out and had fun all the time.
"At Aimee’s age [the character is 18], I dated somebody who introduced fun into my life. In a way. And even though that relationship was fun, it turned quite toxic. But after that and through that I was able to go out and kind of find myself. I took stock and discovered my self-worth. That age is when I discovered who I am, and I guess that’s true of a lot of kids at 17, 18."
In Woodley’s hands, Aimee is "a tender, moving creation," raves Alan Scherstuhl in The Village Voice, and Woodley "radiates an eager uncertainty" in the part, a view echoed in many of the film’s reviews.
She’s making canny choices, too, taking her time moving from supporting roles to leads. Woodley says she stills gets advice from her "Descendants" pals, director Alexander Payne and co-star George Clooney. "They’re the best. But I’m getting comfortable taking my own advice about which movies to make.
Boone is prepping to direct Woodley on "The Fault in Our Stars," which Woodley calls "my favorite book," whose "messages are too important to NOT be talked about -- important on a giant level." The director sees "a spectacular career ahead of Shailene."
And Ponsoldt, a serious student of film who references classic movies and famous directors as the touchstones of his work, is more specific.
"She’s got this grounded reality about her that the camera picks up on. I see her having this wonderful Barbara Hershey, Sissy Spacek sort of career. And what do they have in common? Very long careers."