The man may be the big movie star, but the women in "The Descendants" have acquitted themselves pretty well, too.
Alongside George Clooney in Alexander Payne's deft awards contender about a Hawaiian landowner who discovers his comatose wife had been cheating on him, 20-year-old Shailene Woodley and 11-year-old Amara Miller take major roles as Clooney's daughters.
Judy Greer, meanwhile, makes the most of a handful of scenes in the second half of the film, while Patricia Hastie has won unamimous praise from Clooney for a thankless role as the wife, which required her to lay in a bed unconscious for nearly every moment of her screen time.
When it comes to the Oscar Supporting Actress race, Woodley is almost a shoo-in and Greer a longshot. But with far different amounts of screen time, both supply indelible moments in the film: Woodley in a wordless scene in which her character sinks under the water in her family's swimming pool to deal with the grief of learning about the true severity of her mother's condition, and Greer in an alternately funny and heartbreaking scene in which she comes to the hospital to see the woman with whom her husband was having an affair.
(Woodley and Greer at TheWrap Screening Series; photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
When TheWrap spoke separately to Woodley and Greer, both mentioned that at the cast's first table read, Payne told the assembled actors that he hired them for who they were and what they did in their auditions, and that he simply wanted them to be themselves and not worry about acting.
Shailene Woodley: It's Easy-Peasy
It was messy. That's what Shailene Woodley liked about the script to "The Descendants," and about Alexandra, a rebellious teen with past substance-abuse problems who has to break the news to her dad that his wife had been cheating on him.
"So often I read scripts that are beautified or glamorized or artistically licensed," said Woodley, who stars in the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." "This one was messy, and I fell in love with the realness and humanness and rawness of it."
But if you think the young actress must have been excited to work with Alexander Payne, think again. It turns out that she didn't even know who the "Sideways" and "About Schmidt" director was.
"I'm very uneducated in this industry," she said. "I don’t know directors or good films or producers, or awards for that matter. I had never even seen 'The Graduate' or heard of 'The Godfather' before I worked with Alexander."
But how do you grow up in Los Angeles, work as an actress from the age of 5, and not have more awareness of the industry and movies?
"I just never really cared about it, and I'm still kind of the same way," she said. "I love the art of acting, and that's it. A lot of actors love film, and I'm just so not interested."
A pause. "Listen, if I have to take the time to sit down and watch a movie, like 'The Graduate' or 'Annie Hall,' I adore it. But it's about getting me on a couch and popping in a DVD and sitting me down for an hour and a half. I just would rather be climbing a tree. I know that sounds weird, but I still would."
Over the years, she admitted, she has attended a variety of acting classes – but even then, she didn't exactly come out of them armed with the technique to pull off scenes like her big emotional moment underwater in "The Descendants."
"I have yet to learn anything about acting in my acting classes," she insisted. "I've learned more about myself in my acting classes than I've learned about acting."
And has she learned about acting in other ways?
"No," she said with a grin. "I know that growing up, you do the commercial class once, where you learn how to slate your name and how to do your profile. That's easy-peasy logistics.
"But for me, to be a good actor you’ve got to have a strong sense of who you are, and you've got to know yourself. You’ve got to know every part of yourself, in a way. And so going to acting classes, you learn about the vulnerable side of yourself, you learn about the dark side of yourself, you learn about the comedic side of yourself.
"It's exploring all these different colors of one's sense of self that I feel really project you into a character."
Judy Greer: A Sidekick No Longer
In less than 15 years Judy Greer has staked out a healthy career as a character actor, with roles in more than three dozen films and two dozen television shows. Often as not, she's the best friend, the ditzy pal who seems more interesting and more fun than the lead character who gets all the screen time.
And it was easy to see those characters in her when Greer sat down in a Los Angeles cafe, used phrases like "holy buckets!" and refused to eat the salad in front of her because even though she was hungry, she thought it'd be rude to talk and eat at the same time. So she took a few tiny bites, and waited until the interview was over to have her lunch.
"It's like when I bring snacks to therapy," she said. "It never really works out well."
But it turns out that the ditzy best friend is exactly what Greer has been trying to avoid in recent years. "I wasn’t so much looking for more dramatic roles, but I was trying to get away from the sidekick-y role a little bit," she said.
"I didn't think that was going to happen in big roles, so I told my agent and manager, 'Let's just go after some small independent movies and see what we can find that's different.' I didn’t want to be the best friend or the sister. Maybe the wife, maybe the girlfriend, maybe these smaller roles that would be realistic for me."
The role in "The Descendants" was small – only three scenes – but she found it "one of the most well-written characters I'd ever seen."
But the part left her with a lot of questions, particularly about the character's decision to visit the hospital room where her husband's lover lay dying.
"The question I always had, and I still sort of have, is why did she go to the hospital?" said Greer. "I would never have done that. I think, should she have done that? What's going to happen to them? Is she going to stay with her husband? I was really intrigued by that scene."
In the scene, Greer's character runs the gamut; she initially seems to be there to provide a moment of healing, but the grace notes turn awkward when she confronts the comatose woman in front of Clooney.
"She loses it a little bit," said Greer. "I don’t think she means to do that, but she becomes really overwhelmed. I think when she goes there, she thinks, I hate this bitch for doing this to me. And then she goes to this room and sees that she's dying, and sees her children who are going to lose their mom. And I wonder if in that moment she didn't feel some compassion."
But as an actress, shouldn't she have answers to all these questions she's asking about her character?
"I don’t know," she said with a smile. "It was never asked of me to know the answers to those questions. If Alexander said, 'Why did you go to the hospital?' I would say, 'Okay, let's talk about that.' But I asked him, 'What do you want me to think about to prepare for the hospital scene?' And he said, 'Just do what you did in the audition.'"
The problem, she added, was that she'd auditioned at a time when she was upset after going through the breakup of a relationship. But by the time she shot the scene, she'd fallen in love again and was happy. (She got married in December.)
"But the writing was so good that I could get back to that feeling, and I didn’t really feel that I required answers to all my questions," she said. "I think you do need to know that stuff if you don’t really have a take on the scene, but what makes that scene work is the strangeness of it. Everyone feels it's weird that she's there, and I don’t think those questions need to be answered."
She laughed. "I do think in general that when you're acting you should know that shit. But sometimes, maybe not."