Share & Connect
When Kaui Hart Hemmings was first creating the character of Matt King — shell-shocked husband, inexpert father and reluctant Hawaiian land baron — she dared to dream of who might play him on the screen. The person that came to her back then was George Clooney, the Academy Award winning actor and filmmaker renowned for performances that are often as darkly funny as they are palpably human.
Clooney has established himself as one of today‘s leading men, but the chance to play a husband and father in ‘The Descendants’ is a notable departure from his usual roles. He was the smooth-talking convict in the Coen Brothers‘ screwball musical comedy ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, the heist pro in the blockbuster Ocean’s Eleven series, the CIA agent in an Oscar winning performance in Stephen Gaghan‘s ‘Syriana’.
He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performances as the law firm fixer in Tony Gilroy‘s thriller ‘Michael Clayton’ and the workaholic, airline miles collector in Jason Reitman‘s ‘Up In The Air’.
Clooney has also made his mark as a writer/director, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay for ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’, and directing and co-writing this fall‘s ‘The Ides of March’. Co-producer George Parra notes that the pairing of Payne and Clooney for the first time on this project was an intriguing match. “They‘re both incredibly talented and, after this movie, I think they will forever be friends.
They got along from day one. Alexander is the ultimate professional, very serious and polite and can be fun at times. But he‘s very serious when he‘s at work. George, on the other hand, is the ultimate prankster. He loves to laugh a lot and he‘s hysterical, so between their two personalities, the set had terrific energy.”
They were both open to great creativity and just letting the film happen. Once Clooney was cast in the central role, the challenge was to build the rest of the King family around him. Payne soon began an exhaustive series of auditions to find that tricky family chemistry made up of equal parts love, fury and miscomprehension, working closely with casting director John Jackson, who has collaborated with him since his first film, ‘Citizen Ruth’.
The director considers the auditions a significant part of the creative process. “We auditioned a ton of people for every part, even one line parts. I think auditions are good. I like to have actors come in and read the words,” Payne says. It was especially key to find two young actresses who were capable of holding their own against Clooney in the roles of his two willful and defiant daughters Alexandra and Scottie, who resent Matt for never having been an involved parent until now.
“I’m the back-up parent. The understudy.”– Matt King
For Alexandra, a feisty free spirit who worries that she takes after the mother she is angry with, Payne ultimately chose Shailene Woodley, best known for the television series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Woodley, in her first major film role, struck Payne right away as ready to take on the emotional rigors of a role that would take her from a boarding school bad girl to a young woman trying to stitch her family back together.
“Like the rest of the cast, she gave the best audition,” recalls Payne. “It was as simple as that.” Woodley was thrilled because, by the time she auditioned, she was already in love with the story. “It‘s a heart-wrenching journey about growth,” she comments. “I love how everybody in the story grows in their ability to love, grows in maturity, in figuring out their individuality and who they are as a family.”
As for Alexandra, Woodley enjoyed the idea of taking her from a wild rebel with a chip on her shoulder to a young woman ready to battle for her loved ones. “She starts out as a teenager who feels like a victim — to her, the reason why her life is horrible is because her dad did this and her mom did that,” she observes.
“But during the course of the movie, she starts to realize that she‘s responsible for her own happiness and it isn‘t up to her parents. It‘s fun to watch her grow up in the moment. She‘s always been a bit manipulative but now she‘s doing it to help her dad fight his demons.”
Alexandra‘s relationship with Matt is one that Woodley believes a lot of kids will relate to from their own experiences. “I think she loves her dad but she kind of looks at him as the childish one in their relationship and she‘s always felt like she needed to take on a parenting role with him,” Woodley describes. “It‘s only later that she learns to give him his own power as a father.”
Another big challenge for Woodley was finding all the multi-colored shadings of Alexandra‘s barrage of mixed feelings around her mother that are at once incredulous, angry, worried, sad and freaked out. Woodley had to literally dive deep, as this storm of emotions begins in a pivotal scene when her father tells her that her mother is not going to recover while she‘s taking a dip in the family pool. “She‘s in the pool, treading water and she has no idea how to react to this news,” explains Woodley.
“She feels trapped, 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.” Later, when Alexandra sees her once wildly vibrant mother unresponsive in a hospital bed, her raw emotions come to the surface.
“In that scene, I think part of Alexandra hates her mom and part of her just wants to be held and cry in her mother‘s arms for hours. It is very emotional,” says Woodley. “I think the little girl in Alexandra just yearns for the mother she always wanted but never had, but the young woman in Alexandra is starting to accept that it will never happen.”