It’s raining something biblical in Nashville, coming down like vengeance between the roadway signs for chicken wings and Jesus and Donald Trump. And here, inside a farm-fresh joint called Butcher and Bee, at a table spread with pickled okra and fried chicken and kale, Evan Rachel Wood is questioning the nature of our reality, the cogs and wheels that have created this very scene, up to and possibly including the guy posted up at the bar who looks like an older Elvis, if Elvis were crazy tall and wearing vintage tweed.
“What if this is all bullshit?” Wood asks. “What if this is just conditioning? What if all this is learned and not true? Who am I really, without my programming?”
Decent questions, all, and not necessarily rhetorical. In fact, they’re the very questions that drew her to Westworld, the latest HBO stab at epicness, in which Wood plays Dolores, an android in a life-size game for the rich and (often) sadistic who comes to realise that the Wild West around her may not be quite what it seems. When Wood first met with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, she wasn’t told much of what would happen to her character, but she was told a lot about the world in which it would happen and the existential questions Dolores would pose – both to herself and the viewers. Wood signed on.
Which means that today, wearing inconspicuous black in a town where she recently moved knowing almost no one, the single mum is currently the highest-ranked star on IMDb, even if she still might best be known for dating Marilyn Manson a decade ago. This is because Westworld has been, by most accounts, a breakout success. “The showrunners and HBO warned me, ‘You know, your life’s probably going to change after this’,” she says. Strange advice to give someone who has been in the business for more than 20 years, but correct nonetheless. “I couldn’t handle all the attention when I was younger, but I feel like I’m in a place where I’m not going to collapse under the pressure.”
Dolores, a heroine who seems poised to drop her damsel-in-distress trappings and be actually heroic (or as Wood puts it, “badass”), is a different type of role for an actor whose career has largely trafficked in shock factor or subversiveness or both. Forget the baby-blue eyes or the long-limbed gracefulness that seems very Old Hollywood and hearken instead back to 2003, when Wood’s portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen led the better part of a generation to question whether it was a good idea to participate in the propagation of the human race. Then there was the estranged, wounded daughter in The Wrestler and the estranged, vindictive daughter in Mildred Pierce. About the lightest it got was shacking up with a curmudgeonly Larry David in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works. When a director once asked her to shed a single tear out of a single eye, Wood obliged.
Some of her talent for trauma Wood came by honestly. Her dad ran a regional theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her mum and her three brothers frequently took to the stage. At age five, she was cast in a movie of the week, which led to an audition for Interview With a Vampire. “I just remember really wanting fangs,” she says. A few years later, starring with her mum in a production of The Miracle Worker that was directed by her father was “the equivalent of being given a pony”, but Wood’s parents divorced when she was nine, giving her plenty of grief to pull from professionally (“Any divorce is always horrible”). She moved with her mum to L.A. to be home-schooled and take five acting classes a week. At 14, she booked Thirteen, ushering in fame and its ways of messing with a young mind. “I was shy and insecure,” she says. “Any child actor will tell you that you don’t have a lot of the tools or the experience to combat a lot of the criticism or very adult situations being thrown at you.”
So Wood did what made sense at the time: At 18, she went to the Chateau Marmont, met Marilyn Manson (then 36 and married to Dita Von Teese), started dating him, and subsequently appeared, Lolita-like, in a video for “Heart-Shaped Glasses”, groping her nether region and then making out with Manson as fake blood rains upon them in a video so graphic that the sex was rumoured to have been real (she says it wasn’t). “I met somebody that promised freedom and expression and no judgments,” she says. “And I was craving danger and excitement. I looked at my mother one day and said, ‘Mum, I’m gonna get on this tour bus for eight months and see the world and have a crazy journey and find myself, and if people aren’t OK with that, I’m sorry, but I can’t live my life for other people.'”
Turns out people weren’t really OK with that, mostly because of the colossal mindfuck that was just looking at Wood and Manson together. But for Wood it was a learning experience of the highest order. “Most teenagers are searching for identity, and I was thrown into a situation where I was supposed to have that already figured out,” she says. “Then you’re demonised for figuring it out and getting messy. People would call me a whore when I walked down the street, and you can’t not be hurt by that.”
What the public didn’t know at the time was that Wood was attracted not just to Manson’s in-your-face liberation but also to his androgyny. She has since referred to herself as gender-fluid, and in 2011 came out publicly as bisexual. In June, two days before the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, she woke up with “some weird premonitions, an aching in my heart to reach out to the LGBT community and share my story”, which she did in a 19-minute video she posted online. “Nearly half of bisexual women have considered or attempted suicide, they have higher rates of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, one in two bisexual women has experienced severe violence by an intimate partner,” she said, rocking back and forth and peering at the camera. These are all things, she says, that she has experienced since she realised at age four or five she was attracted to women. Her suicide attempt at 22 “was, weirdly, the best-worst thing that ever happened to me. ‘Cause it did not work.” She’s more circumspect about the abuse, but admits it was “physical, psychological, sexual”. (She was less circumspect when she e-mailed me the day after the presidential election. “Yes,” she wrote. “I’ve been raped. By a significant other while we were together. And on a separate occasion, by the owner of a bar… I don’t believe we live in a time where people can stay silent any longer. Not given the state our world is in with its blatant bigotry and sexism.”)
When she’s tried to break this down, she’s kept coming back to her bisexuality. “It was always talked about like a phase or something stupid, or something you were doing for attention,” she says. “You know, bisexuality is worthy of eye rolls. And I didn’t realise how damaging that was until I tried to have healthy relationships as an adult and realised that there was still all this shame and conditioning and stigma around my sexuality that was really affecting the way I related to people. I think I was taken advantage of because someone knew there was something about me that they could exploit.”
Wood began dating Marilyn Manson when she was just 18: “He promised freedom.”
Coming out publicly has helped, though Wood believes that it would have been a more celebratory process – that she would have been more fully embraced by the LGBT community – if she’d come out as a lesbian. What helped most, she says, was the 2013 birth of her son with actor Jamie Bell, whom she married in 2012 and divorced in 2014 (remember: “Any divorce is always horrible”). “I had my son, and that changed everything,” she tells me. “It got me out of my own shit. I just couldn’t be what I was not.” Since then, she’s tried to find comfort in the grey areas, to feel at home floating in the middle of the spectrum rather than moored safely at either end. “We are conditioned in certain ways, and it’s a journey to break that conditioning, and I think that’s been a lot of my journey, honestly.”
It also happens to be Dolores’ journey, which means that the horror and chaos the character faces, the realisations she has, and the fight to escape her circumstances – which happens in her head as much as anywhere else – feel very much like Wood’s. “I think every great actor brings their life experiences,” says showrunner Jonathan Nolan. “And she had such a precise level of control of what she was doing. It was astonishing to us.” Showrunner Lisa Joy agrees: “And this is kind of not just one role, it’s many roles and personas at the same time. She can flip it on a dime.” Certainly, it’s safe to say that Wood’s talents would be lost on playing someone rosy and uncomplicated. But it’s also safe to say that her sweet spot may be playing a character who is playing at being rosy and uncomplicated while actually being anything but. Kind of like Wood herself, who had arrived at the restaurant slightly late, explaining it was her son’s first day at a new preschool and she’d wanted to feed him and get him down for his nap, etc., etc., before waxing dark and philosophical in a rosy sort of way.
“I mean, your demons never fully leave,” Wood says. “But when you’re using them to create something else, it almost gives them a purpose and feels like none of it was in vain. I think that’s how I make peace with it. Westworld? Good God. I left so much in that first season and never looked back.”
‘I have a soccer-mum car you can totally hang out in,” she says as we leave the restaurant and she leads the way to a Toyota Highlander with a toddler car seat in back. “You know,” she continues, “I’m actually considering getting a minivan. I rented one the other day, and I loved it.” We’re heading to a bar called Two Bits because Wood had talked up its awesomeness – “old video games, a karaoke room, shuffleboard, and everything’s free!” – once it became clear that her original plan for the day, going zip-lining, was cursed by the rain.
She says she was up most of last night obsessively making a schedule on a chalkboard wall for her son, and that when it comes to dating, having a kid “is a great bullshit filter”. In addition to being a fresh start, her move to Nashville, just after wrapping the first season of Westworld, was a bid to give him “grass to run around on and some Southern roots and some kind of normalcy” in a town where she could ostensibly fly under the radar.
In fact, she seems so grounded that I can’t help but later ask if, considering her own history, it has been hard to play a character who is abused and brutalised. “The thing about Westworld is we don’t actually show any act of rape,” she replies. But that’s not to say it isn’t the clear fate of many women on the show, or that Wood doesn’t understand the criticism. “It’s the initial knee-jerk reaction – which I totally get because it is a problem and valid. You know,” she goes on, “I was affected by things being written off as locker-room talk – I had a very, very visceral reaction to it. But the show is definitely a commentary on that.”
Once at Two Bits, we order vodka-sodas (“One time somebody said I look just like Evan Rachel Wood but hotter,” she says with a laugh when the bartender clocks the name on her ID. “Like, is that a compliment?”), then head to the back room and take charge of the sound system. Well, sort of: Like, the machines in Westworld, it seems to have a mind of its own. “It’s the Russian roulette of karaoke!” Wood says as songs magically populate the lineup. It doesn’t matter. Wood can sing pretty much anything. Still, she is kind enough to wave her lighter during my rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” that’s best left to memory, or not even.
Music, she says, has helped her feel that it was OK to be androgynous and different, and she spent much of our car ride here fan-girling on Bowie, Donovan and Radiohead. Her band, Rebel and a Basketcase, which she formed with singer-songwriter Zach Villa after they performed together at a charity John Hughes Cabaret (the name is from two Breakfast Club characters), is releasing its first album shortly.
In the coming months, she’ll be touring with the band. She plans to direct her first feature, “which I can’t really talk about yet, but I co-wrote because I got tired of not seeing this specific movie get made. Imagine Now and Then, but mid-twenties and a bit more alternative.” Then there will be Season Two of Westworld to do. Right now, though, she’s up on a tiny plywood stage, clutching a microphone, throwing her head back, and singing her heart out to Mika, which she’d managed to get into the lineup before the machine went rogue:
“I try to be like Grace Kelly
But all her looks were too sad
So I try a little Freddie
I’ve gone identity-mad.”
Her voice is clear and steady and full of some emotion that’s hard to read. A guy wanders in and looks at her with wonder. “Don’t stop,” he pleads as the music comes to an end. He looks a little rough around the edges, a little worse for wear, but who knows what his reality may be. Wood turns to him and smiles.
From issue #783 (February 2017), available now. Top photo: Dan Martensen.