It’s pretty difficult to steal the show from George Clooney, but 20-year old SHAILENE WOODLEY does just that in The Descendants. We get up close and personal.

You know from the minute Shailene Woodley appears on screen in The Descendants that she’s going to be a big star.

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s utterly convincing as George Clooney’s rebellious teenage daughter who, on the surface, really doesn’t care about the fact that mum has fallen into a coma. Or maybe it’s because she looks like the lovechild of Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart. Or the fact that Shailene Woodley pretty much acts our George off the screen. Which would explain her Golden Globe nomination.

Whatever the reason, 2012 is clearly going to be the 20-year old Californian’s year.

“I’m trying not to think about any of the awards stuff, or the crazy press coverage,” Woodley tells me when I caught up with her in a London hotel. “It’s just not something that I can fully comprehend. Not yet, anyway.

“So, the politics… I’m learning so much more about the politics of this industry now that this movie has happened.”

As is so very often the case with truly talented young artists, Shailene Woodley seems wise well beyond her years. Having made her screen debut 12 years ago, and starring in TV dramas such as Without A Trace and The District, Woodley nabbed an MTV Best Performance nomination for the 2004 TV movie A Place Called Home before – after popping up in the likes of The O.C., CSI: NY and My Name Is Earl – finding fame of sorts with the lead role in The Secret Life Of The American Teenager – currently playing on a loop-driven TV station near you.

With The Descendants though, Woodley is now beginning to taste true fame.

“Working alongside someone like George Clooney gives you a lesson in how to handle yourself in this business,” offers Woodley. “So, you know, if fame does actually arrive on my door – and it’s gotten just a little bit crazy in the last few months – I’ll just have to think to myself, ‘Hmm, what would George do?’.

“He’s such a centred, happy guy, and he makes everyone around him feel that way too. That’s something I’ve got to aim for…”

The plot of The Descendants sees George Clooney’s Hawaii-based lawyer Matt King having to connect with his 10-year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his 17-year old daughter Alexandra (Woodley) when their mother ends up in a coma following a waterskiing accident. The sole trustee of 25,000 acres of unspoilt Hawiain land that now, thanks to a change in the law, must be sold (and thus reaping millions for his relatives), Matt has a lot on his mind. And then Alex tells him that mum was having an affair.

So, what was it that grabbed Shailene Woodley to the role of Alexandra King? Was it Kaui Hart Hemmings’ fine 2007 novel? Director Alexander Payne? Payne’s script, co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash?

Or maybe it was simply the chance to run around Hawaii with George Clooney for four months?

“Yes and no,” she laughs. “The reason I wanted to do this movie was because the script was so truthful, and brilliantly written. And then, obviously, the opportunity – or the chance – to work with George Clooney and Alexander Payne. It was off the charts exciting, but it really came down to the script.”

When it came to the auditions, Nick Krause – who plays Alex’s dumb but deep boyfriend, Sid – brought a packet of Cheetos to Payne and co., guessing that they might just be hungry after their long day. How did Shailene Woodley swing it? And when did she know the role was hers?

“I left the audition feeling very confident,” she says, “because I knew I’d done everything I could. And for me, you’re either right for a part or you’re not. I was just hoping that I was right for it. I suppose I was…”

Woodley allows herself another laugh. In the movie, we’re first introduced to Alex as her father picks her up from boarding school. Drunk and playing golf in the dark, the teenager’s response to the devastating news is a simple “F**k mum”. Plainly, there are mother/daughter issues afoot. Did Woodley decide early on how dark and angry to play Alex? How much sympathy for this little devil that she should aim for?

“I really didn’t have to make any decisions,” she answers. “Alexander’s screenplay was so brilliantly written that it kinda guided us through the whole film.

“As actors, we just had to show up every day, professional and on time – obviously – with our lines memorized. And then from there, the words kinda led the way, and naturally evoked the emotion. So, it was exciting. I got to be as messy as I wanted to be, and Alexander loved it. Because so many films today aren’t human, and they cover up the messiness. So, it was fun to be raw for a change.”

The mix of comedy and tragedy that makes The Descendants one of the finest films you’re going to see at your local multiplex this year is a neat balancing act its writer/director has pulled off before, with Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). Did it take long for Woodley to find that balance in her performance? Being happy/sad isn’t always easy. Unless you’re a clown with cancer, of course.

“Yeah, I really didn’t know if we were filming a comedy or a drama when we were on set,” she smiles, “and I still don’t really know what genre this film should be categorized under. Again, I just put all my trust in that screenplay, and Alexander.

“I’m not good at deciphering scripts and breaking them down, so, I didn’t necessarily see the really funny parts or the really sad parts, I just tried to stay as truthful as possible to the character, and her arc and storyline.”

Woodley nabbed a Golden Globe nod for her work here, but, sadly, the Oscar Academy didn’t follow suit. Which is lucky, I guess, given that Shailene doesn’t seem all that bothered by such trinkets…

“As I said, I just can’t think about them. It’s the kind of thing where all of this is the icing on the cake. Even going to the festivals is enough for me. I’m just so grateful for the experience of making this film. The four months in Hawaii shaped me as a human being, and that’s all I could ask for.”

There goes that laugh again. Having recently won a Gracie Award for The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, Woodley has been a busy young lady ever since she made her debut in the 1999 TV movie, Little Girl. And the whole thing started by accident. Kinda.

“It was a complete accident,” insists Woodley. “We don’t have any actors in the family. I was five, and I saw there was a theatre class, I joined, and it kind of organically evolved from there. I had three rules growing up – just stay the person that I am, do good at school, and have fun. As long as I completed those rules constantly, then I could continue to act.

“And it was a very normal childhood. I’d go to an audition and my friends would go to soccer practice, and we’d all reconvene afterwards and fling mud at each other…”

Finally, talent, charming, beautiful… there’s got to be some Oirish blood in there, right?

“Well, I’m wearing a lot of make-up,” says Woodley, “so, that would explain the beauty. As for the Irish blood, I’m sure there is. I’m from California, so, we’re all mutts over there…”

Interview by Paul Byrne 

The Descendants hits Irish cinemas Friday 27th Jan