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Shailene Woodley says she‘s grateful to director Alexander Payne for giving her the trust and support to navigate the bumpy terrain of merging outrageous situations with intensely real feelings in the oscar-nominated ‘The Descendants’. “Alexander is up there with a few of the favorite people I‘ve ever met in my life.
He‘s got such heart and I‘ve learned from him as a director and as a person. When he gets excited, he doesn‘t hold it in. He literally jumps up and down and talks in this funky voice and goes up and hugs people. You can‘t help but feel excited about life when you‘re around him. He possesses a great energy and definitely shows it to other people. As a director, he helped me find things about myself that I never thought I could find.”
Woodley says Payne always pushed for one bottom line; naturalism. “He might say, ‘Oh, Shai, I don‘t think that‘s natural, you would never do that in real life,’” she recalls. “That‘s how he brings out the best in people.” That kind of naturalism turned out to be easier than expected when Woodley began performing alongside George Clooney, who obliterated the intimidation factor right away.
“He turned out to be completely down-to-earth,” she explains. “He‘s kind of a goofball, always doing something silly, which kept the set light. I felt privileged not only to work with him, but to get to know him.”
Even though Matt King is trying to re-establish a connection with his kids, he finds youngest daughter Scottie a complete mystery, almost an alien life form, with whom communication of any kind is an iffy prospect. To find a young actress who could handle the humor and heartache of playing a preadolescent eccentric, Payne saw more than 300 girls from around the country.
He still hadn‘t found the right candidate with shooting about to start. That‘s when he encountered Amara Miller, a promising nine year-old newcomer from Pacific Grove, California.
He received an e-mail with her videotaped audition and recalls that “about a minute into it I just said, ‘oh that‘s her.‘ I don‘t need to see her. I knew that she was the one. I just knew she would show up. And like many things in life, she did, but in the most unpredictable way.” Adds producer Jim Burke: “Amara walked on the set like an old pro. She‘s a natural.
She‘d never been in a movie before but she was amazing.” Although she had no previous acting experience (she was once in an elementary school play but she had no lines), Miller seemed to have an instinctual feel for Scottie‘s quirkiness and uniquely uninformed role in their family adventure.
“Scottie is the one who doesn‘t know what‘s happening in the family,” she describes. “She doesn‘t know her mom is dying or that she had an affair with another man. She thinks that when they go to Kauai to find the guy that they‘re going on vacation. She‘s just running around being herself, doing what she wants, in the middle of all this stuff.”
Without much guidance from her family, Scottie has developed an almost feral quality of independence. “She‘s a trouble-maker,” laughs Miller. “She‘s one of those little girls who doesn‘t really care if she gets in trouble. She‘s still going to do fun, wild things even if she does. She has a sassy attitude.
She goes after what she needs. What Scottie needs might be time and attention, but she‘ll do anything to get it, which led to some of Miller‘s most intriguing scenes.”
“I do get to flip off George Clooney,” she laughs. “He was like ‘what?‘ His facial expression was so funny.”
For Payne, working with Miller — his first time directing a child in a major role — was no different from the adult cast. “The great thing about working with Amara is that I didn‘t have to treat her like a little girl. I could just tell she was an instinctive actress. I could just say, ‘No, do it more like this.‘ Or, ‘Please put a small pause between these two lines.‘ The way to treat people in general, and actors in particular, is to tell them the truth,” he sums up. “I was always able to do that with Amara.”