Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ acclaimed debut novel, “The Descendants” sees Matt King (George Clooney), a husband and father of two girls, who must re-examine his past and navigate his future when his wife is in a boating accident off Waikiki. He awkwardly attempts to repair his relationship with his daughters - 10 year-old precocious Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) - while wrestling with a decision to sell his family’s land.
Finding 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 is key to the film’s emotional core. For Alexandra, director Payne ultimately chose Shailene Woodley, best known for the television series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
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.”
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 pre-adolescent 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.”
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.”