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Sometimes it’s hard to peg what will catch my interest.
Sometimes I don’t respond well to whatever the flavor of the hour is, I don’t like generic press releases telling me what’s the latest and greatest and I generally despise being pitched from someone who doesn’t know me. That’s why when I was asked to talk to the star of ABC Family’s THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER I was intrigued but not necessarily on board. I’ve been fanatical about my love for AMERICAN TEEN, my appreciation for the television series HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and, as I stare down the raising of two young women I have a certain vested interest in keeping my finger on the pulse of the American teenager. To boot, the series co-stars Molly Ringwald and has the most peculiar tag on it which says “Viewer Discretion Advised.”
Say no more, I was down for the 15 minute interview.
Now, talking with Shailene Woodley, a woman nearly half my age (Man, am I getting old…), I got to know something that I’ve never been able to tackle before: the life of the budding actress. I’ve learned that the closer you get to those who are finding their way and finding their footing in this business the more interesting the conversation. Shailene has that kind of eagerness and excitability that many times gets snuffed out by the time many other actors reach that sort of cranky, jaded stage. One can hope that this woman can retain that same sense of wonder at appreciating those she’s been able to work with and who will see every job as a chance to actually learn something.
She was fun to talk to about what it is that this series hopes, and wants, to be and it’s also a series which could use a few supportive fans who can see what she expresses below. From sex, to pregnancy to the process of filtering what it does mean to be a teen in America today, Shailene talks eloquently on it all.
THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER is on every Tuesday night 8/7c on ABC Family.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Fill me in on what the series revolves around.
SHAILENE WOODLEY: It revolves around teenage conflict with sex. It is very controversial in the fact that it talks about things that television has never talked about before as far as in teenage language. It explores these tough decisions to have sex or not have sex and the consequences in the end for that. I think it has so many good morals and standards for teenagers to live by and for their parents to realize what they’re teenagers are doing because a lot of times parents don’t realize what teenagers are doing when they are not in the home. I think it’s going to be very good for parents and teenagers alike to learn from and also to enjoy.
CS: And which network is this on?
WOODLEY: ABC Family.
CS: And that’s what I have in my notes but there’s one of the sticking points. I can only imagine with a network like this there is a fine line between family entertainment and whether it’s appropriate for everyone to watch. Was there any hesitation on the studio’s behalf to not make this a “Viewer Discretion Advised” kind of program?
WOODLEY: I know that ABC Family is expanding their horizons just in the fact that they are launching, not launching, that’s not the right word but more intricate adult like themes into their network and our show definitely mentions a lot of things that ABC Family has never mentioned before but I think it’s good because it mentions it in a way that is good for families. It doesn’t try to urge you to go one way or another or think one thing and not the other it’s very positive. Of course it’s a TV show drama so it’s going to suck a lot of teenagers in who love drama but it does have a lot of good messages and ABC Family is very respectful of that.
CS: Was there any hesitation on your part? Did you read the script first and say this was a flat out good series or was there things about this series which might have caused some second thoughts?
WOODLEY: Absolutely not. I read the script and fell in love with it. Brenda Hampton wrote it. She was with 7th Heaven which ran for 11 years and she is so good at what she does. She asks about what teenagers go through everyday. Everyday in America teenagers deal with divorce and deal with the pressure to have sex in high school or not have sex. The storyline in the script evolves around decisions. And it’s really important for teenagers to understand that what they do now will effect them in the long run. Not that they will regret it – it has nothing to do with regret. It just has to do with decisions made in the present.
CS: Molly Ringwald. She plays your mother…
WOODLEY: Yes. She plays my mom.
CS: Man, that makes me feel old. I remember 16 CANDLES, BREAKFAST CLUB and scads of others. She’s playing a mom.
WOODLEY: I know. She’s amazing. She’s so beautiful and so down to earth and such a great actress – I learn from her all the time. I am so, so fortunate to be able to work with her.
CS: When a series starts they usually have a premise where they want there characters to go. Is there a long term vision? I assume that you are in high school. Is it one year, two years and then you’re off to college?
WOODLEY: We are all Freshmen in high school except for 2 leads that are sophomores. Brenda Hampton did 7th Heaven for 11 years so I think in the long run she has ideas for 10 years from now. It’s hard to assume and hard to think that far into the future because we don’t know if the show is going to be picked up. We don’t want to jinx it or get our hopes up. Whatever. We try to just live in the now.
CS: As you go through the script process and the characters in the series, do you look at it and say, “I’m kind of this age, I wouldn’t talk like this. ” Is it real in your own reality?
WOODLEY: A lot of things are real for me and a lot of things are real for a high school. There are so many characters and each character has a different conflict. This one girl Adrianne who’s mom is never home – she’s home once every two weeks. So Adrianne resorts to getting attention from guys. And there’s another character, Grace, who is very religiously stuck to her religion, Christianity, and believes in abstinence. So every character right now in the script is being defined as to who they are. It’s very relatable to a normal high school - very relatable.
CS: The message – you’ve talked about the writing pedigree, 7th Heaven a really solid show that ran for many years and had a lot of good things to say, is this going to be the same way, always sort of a message based drama?
WOODLEY: It definitely has lots of messages but I don’t think that when a teenager watches the show they’ll come out of it saying I got that message. They are more hidden messages. It’s more like if you’re going to have sex, you’re going to get pregnant. That’s the way it goes. Brenda Hampton is able to take real life situations and put them into the show. I think a lot of the real neat things about the show – like my character, her parents are going through a divorce. All the millions of teenagers out there who’s parents are going through a divorce or have gone through a divorce can look at my character and say oh, this is the way she handled it. It’s gives them something to compare and contrast with and I think everybody needs that.
CS: Just the touchy subject of young kids and promiscuity – young kids having sex – is a touchy notion to a lot of people in this country today – did Brenda ever say, “This might be a lightning rod…We’re in an election season…They might point out that this is exactly what’s wrong with America?” That sort of thing?
WOODLEY: Who is to say it’s wrong or right first of all? You know what I mean?
WOODLEY: I think it’s all opinions but definitely a lot of controversy. I think it’s good for mothers and fathers to watch the show because they actually can see exactly what they’re teenagers are thinking and what they’re teenagers do when they are not necessarily looking. And I think there a lot of parents out there who are clueless. They judge before they know what the actual situation is. And I think this show will help that. And, teenagers as well. They judge their parents without knowing the full situation. So, there’s definitely a lot of controversy but Brenda writes it in a way that doesn’t provoke arguments. Does that make sense? It’s controversial but not provoking arguments.
CS: Looking at your resume and what you’ve done since ’99 – with the exception of the OC around 6 episodes – I shouldn’t say it’s hard – you would probably welcome the notion of being front and center by now – But being the lead, is this something that feels comfortable to you, being such a pivotal character in a series?
WOODLEY: I did a movie 3 years ago and I was in actually every scene in that movie and that role was bigger than this role. It’s definitely weird being a lead in a TV show – I’m not acting it’s my hobby and I do it because I love it. It’s so trippy and it’s humbling in a way to be in that position to inspire others and all that kind of stuff but then again it’s kind of weird. I’m doing phone interviews! I’m not used to that.
CS: On that same idea, is it odd growing up in Hollywood? You’ve done this since you were 8 – so now all these years later, is there such a thing as a child star turning into an adult? Is there like that problem area that some people can’t get over that hump or deal with things when they are so young?
WOODLEY: I’ve grown up in this industry knowing it’s a hobby. I’ve gone to public school my whole entire life. I’ve gotten straight A’s and stayed the person my parents know I am and I don’t have very many friends at all in the industry because I don’t really like to take part in “young Hollywood” I guess. Just because there are so many kids that really do get wrapped up in that but then again there are a lot of teenagers who are really down to earth and want a future in something other than acting as well and that is really neat to experience both sides of that. But, I definitely think that growing up in Hollywood has matured me faster than if I hadn’t because it shows me you definitely have to figure out who you are and stick with it. And that can be very difficult to do but I’ve found it very easy. I have such amazing parents and amazing family and friends that I really have a base that keep me going – keep me Shailene.
CS: This whole series is based on the American teenager. Has Brenda asked you about whether teens are really doing this or that or is she consulting with teens themselves to find out what is really going on?
WOODLEY: I’m not sure if she’s consulting with other teens but she definitely asks me and other people in the cast where would teenagers get in a fight or “Where would this happen if you were in high school?” or “Where would this happen if you were in high school?” or “How would you react to this situation?” and she definitely takes your input and it’s really neat because you feel like you are adding something to the show to make it more authentic and make it more like everyday life.
CS: And, I’m sure you hope the series keeps going and you can keep doing it for as longs as you can – Is it important but intrinsically when you take a script is it because you really want to do it or because right now you can’t be as choosy as you’d like and sometimes these things happen because you have to?
WOODLEY: It’s always because I want to all the time. I never do anything I don’t want to do and there are some many scripts out there and so amazing roles and so many roles that I don’t necessarily I wouldn’t want to do. It’s all about keeping your integrity and saying yes and no without hurting another’s feelings.
CS: And based on that, when I’ve talked to working actors in their 30’s they tell me that this is what they do to help provide for their families. How do you see your life in the next 5 years as you progress into adulthood to try to stay out of those things where push comes to shove you have to do something because you have to pay the rent this month?
WOODLEY: I want to go to college and I want to get a degree in psychology and interior design because I want to always have options. Acting is my passion, I find myself in it and I love it do death but I’m kind of a person that wants to try it all. And if that ever happened to me in my 30’s I would want to be a psychologist or …. I’m all about being about options and doing what you love and not sticking to one thing because of the money. Money isn’t happiness – happiness is doing what you love and then get your money from that.
CS: Where does that come from? You’ve probably worked on so many projects and seen the glitz and what people aspire to be and never make it at all. How do you keep it in check at such a young age?
WOODLEY: A lot has to do with my family. My parents are amazing people. My dad is a principal of an elementary school and my mom is a counselor at a middle school so education is something I have grown up to respect and enjoy. I have such amazing friends who are so down to earth. Everyone I surround myself with is very positive and very into nature and the environment and I guess just being able to be myself and go on a hike realize that we are just walking this earth with the same everything except the only thing that separates everyone is our mentality and if you can keep your mentality in line then everything just falls into place. It’s all about being positive and staying down to earth. Because really, what makes one person better than the other? Know what I mean?
CS: If I have one more question for you, when this series premiers, and people start talking about it, what’s the one thing you hope people talk about?
WOODLEY: I hope it pulls teenagers in to watch it. Anything that has the word sex in it or anything like that teenagers are going to watch it .and I hope they will be able to enjoy the drama and enjoy the laughs but also enjoy the messages that go along with it without thinking that we’re trying to preach.
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