Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood does nothing by the book
Written by CHRISTINE LENNON
Photography by AMANDA DEMME
Styling by ALISON EDMOND
Evan Rachel Wood can ride a horse and shoot a rifle at the same time. She can’t tell you why she knows how to do that—while wearing a prairie dress, playing a character that is a robot, and galloping through the Utah desert for the HBO series Westworld, now in its second season. She just does it.
It’s the same with acting, in general, which the 30-year-old has been doing since she was 5. She can’t explain it. She does it.
“It’s an energetic thing, I don’t know. My senses are different,” Wood says over a lunch of scrambled eggs at a bar in Silver Lake. “I have terrible fine motor skills, but I can shoot a scene on a horse with a gun in one take. I have synesthesia, which means that I can hear color and feel sound. I thought everyone experienced the world that way. I’m fascinated by the way our brains work, and I was reading about psychology and learned about what synesthesia was, and I thought, ‘Wait. Other people don’t feel that?’”
Even if you haven’t seen her eerie performance as Westworld’s Dolores (which earned her both Golden Globe and Emmy nods), living a preprogrammed life in a sort of alternate-reality game where wealthy players get to act out twisted Old West fantasies among androids, chances are Wood has left a lasting impression on you from a different role. Starting with a few dramas on television (among them Once and Again and the original American Gothic) and her breakout role as a troubled teen in Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 film Thirteen, Wood has had an intense, often smoldering and mature on-screen presence for two decades. She played Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler, a promiscuous intern in George Clooney’s The Ides of March and the vampire queen of Louisiana in True Blood. In person, Wood does not present as a boldly provocative movie star. Wearing wide-leg faded jeans, a striped T-shirt, tortoiseshell glasses and Vans, her hair in a reddish bob, you might guess that she is a manager at Urban Outfitters. She looks younger than she is, which she credits to sunscreen (La Roche-Posay). And though she spent her adolescent years living and attending acting classes in the San Fernando Valley, she now prefers the vibe on the east side of Los Angeles, where she spends time with her friends, mostly fellow musicians (she’s a singer) and actors. And when she isn’t working here in town, or on the Westworld set near Moab, she calls Nashville, Tenn., home.
“Los Angeles can be too intense for me,” she says, explaining that she wants her son, who is 4 (his father is Wood’s ex, actor Jamie Bell), to have some space to be a kid, both literally and figuratively. “I feel like I’m always working here, even just walking down the street. Nashville is great because there are so many creative people there who are working and doing cool things, but nobody cares what you do. Or if they do, they’re lovely about it. I didn’t buy a farm or anything, but I have a yard and a guesthouse. There’s nature and a community. I wanted all of that for my son. I was just a couple of years older than he is when [my career] really started. And it’s weird to think about how short his life has been, and that is the only amount of time I had before I became an actor. I really like my life, the good and the bad of it, but I wouldn’t let my son do it.”
When you watch performers grow up on screen, you can see how their choices shape them, and see who they are becoming based on the roles they take. Wood was raised in a North Carolina theater that her father ran surrounded by a “melting pot” of cultures, personalities and sexualities, and she has been working steadily for 25 years. At first, with her long, straw-blond hair and fair skin, she was cast as a thoughtful, serious daughter. Then, as she matured, she understood that her tastes were more eccentric. (You may remember that she was in a long-term relationship with Marilyn Manson.)
“I’ve never wanted to go down the road everyone else was going down,” she says. “I wanted to go down the alleys and learn about the people who were different, talk to the weirdos and know their stories. I don’t always play dark characters. I mean, I’ve done comedies. But the darker roles are what people tend to remember.”
Her latest big-screen role is Laura, a psychologically complicated cleaning woman who has a tangled family life and intense sexual encounters with strangers, in a film called Allure. Laura is a woman who is hard to like, who manipulates, traps and tortures a 16-year-old piano prodigy with a difficult home life of her own. Originally, the role was written for a man, by Canadian writer-director team Carlos and Jason Sanchez.
“Then they gender-swapped it, which is when they approached me,” Wood says. “That was intriguing to me, that this role was now female, which you don’t really see, and it did explore these kinds of situations in a way that I hadn’t quite seen before—from the eyes of two women. My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to be a believable abuser, because I didn’t want to traumatize anyone. I think because I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager, I become very protective of younger actors.”
Since Wood publicly came out as bisexual in 2011, she has embraced her voice as an advocate for LGBT civil and women’s rights. She writes essays for Nylon magazine and speaks frankly about changing social mores surrounding sexual identity in our culture. Wood received the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award at the 2017 North Carolina Gala, where she gave a candid speech about the importance of “representing the underrepresented.” Recently, she testified before Congress about her own history with sexual assault, detailing some truly horrific experiences but refusing to name her assailants, to protect herself from potentially draining court battles.
She experiments with androgyny in her personal style, gravitating more toward sleek, tailored suits and what she calls a “futuristic,” modern aesthetic with stylist Samantha McMillen. She has also written a couple of screenplays and started exploring paths behind the camera, mainly as a director. In the meantime, Westworld is more than enough to keep an active brain like Wood’s occupied. (And, as of season three, she is receiving equal pay to her male co-stars.)
“You can watch the show and go along with it, or you can put your detective hat on and try to figure it out. That’s what I love to do. I have a pretty good idea what it’s about. But there’s no way to really figure out this season. I read the final script and I said, ‘I have a couple of questions. First, what exactly is this?’”
The questions the show’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, ask about the origin of consciousness, and the potential for artificial intelligence to outpace its human creators, are interesting enough to keep the cast (which includes Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins) and the audience on their toes. It doesn’t hurt that there’s plenty of nudity.
“It’s not even weird anymore,” laughs Wood. “We’ve all been naked so often that it’s just normal. I show up to work and say, ‘OK, I’m naked in a lab. And Anthony Hopkins is here.’ It’s so surreal there isn’t even time to be stressed.”
And now that Wood is 30, she’s no longer the “baby” in the group and there is less pressure for her to prove herself time and again. She has experience, but still feels like she has a lot to learn.
“People listen to me differently now,” says Wood, and she understands what her older colleagues have been trying to tell her all of these years.
“Growing up as a child actor, I heard about regrets a lot,” she says. “I had a lot of people telling me not to live with regret. They drilled into my head how short and precious life is, so I made sure I didn’t care what anyone else thought.”
And, like everything else Wood does with convincing ease, when she says this, you believe her.
This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of C magazine.