Few actors have weathered childhood fame as gracefully as Evan Rachel Wood. From an early lead role on ABC’s “Once and Again” to a star-making turn in Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen,” Wood came of age in the public eye and lived to tell the tale. Unlike many who peak young, she sustained a career spanning critical hits like “Across the Universe” and “The Wrestler” to prestige television such as “True Blood,” “Doll & Em,” and now, “Westworld.” Wood hasn’t come out entirely unscathed; in 2016 she revealed that she had been sexually assaulted multiple times in her life. In February, she testified in Congress about surviving sexual abuse.
“I never did what I did to be famous, and it’s something that can cause great anxiety in me,” Wood said in a phone interview last month. “But, I had to use it for a purpose. Otherwise, it was going to be too much. And so, if there’s a purpose behind having to go out there, put myself out there at the mercy of other people, then I’m going to do it my way. And I’m going to do it in a way that’s authentic.”
It’s one reason why she’s so outspoken about her trauma, and why she’s been out as bisexual since 2011. Wood stayed mum on whether her “Westworld” character, Dolores, might have similar leanings, but did promise some queer moments in season 2 of the HBO hit.
“I don’t know about any storylines, but I was not disappointed,” she said. “That’s all I can say. We’ll give you something. As a queer person, I’m like, ‘More.’ We will not leave you high and dry. That’s what I’m going to say.”
She and Dolores share a history of sexual abuse. Based on a cult thriller from 1973, “Westworld” revolves around a theme park manned by robots, known as hosts, where visitors can live out their wildest Western fantasies. And, do they mean wild. As a host, Dolores plays the role of innocent prairie girl and caters to the whims of male customers. Mercifully, her memory is wiped every night, so she won’t remember the multiple horrors visited upon her. Of course, as cracks in the mainframe appear, Dolores learns to stand in her power.
John P. Johnson/HBO
“Playing that role changed my life,” said Wood. “It made me really face a lot of my trauma and give me a newfound strength and a way to be seen. And for it to not be my fault. Working on that show … and taking back the power … completely changed it. And made me want to rise. It feels fated in a weird way. Sometimes we’re just unconsciously drawn to the things that matter to us.”
The original film stars Yul Brynner as Gunslinger, a host programmed to initiate gun fights. The film hasn’t aged too well, but if you look beyond its outsized bloodbaths and the racial implications of casting Brynner as an evil robot, the concept is undeniably appealing. Wanting to have a “fresh take,” Wood said she only watched the film after shooting Season 1.
“Everyone to this day thinks that Ed [Harris] is playing the Yul Brynner character just because he’s a man and he’s dressed in black. And I’m like, ‘Um. He’s not a host. Hi. Yul Brynner’s right here.’ That’s why Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa Joy are geniuses. Because they made the innocent prairie girl the Yul Brynner character, which no one would ever expect.”
Wood is no stranger to gender-swapping roles. In her latest movie, “Allure,” she plays an emotionally disturbed woman who seduces and eventually abuses a 16-year-old girl. The role was originally written for a man, a detail that appealed to Wood, who identifies as a tomboy.
“I heard Jodie Foster say she reads scripts for men and women now, and if she really likes it she’ll approach them to see if they’ll gender swap,” said Wood. “It’s just been a life goal of mine ever since. I’ve been like, ‘Oh, my God. I want to get a place in my career where I can do that.’ Because so often it’s always the men’s roles. And I’m like, I could have, I would have loved to have done that. Why do people think women can’t do this?”
Wood brings a frightening intensity to the film, which becomes a meditation on the cycle of abuse. “I have a history with abuse, so to be in the position where I had to play the abuser was a real switch… It was therapeutic in a way.”
It’s not simply therapeutic, however; it makes her performance better. “I pick roles that are relevant to me in my life, so that I know that I’ll give the most honest version of that to the performance … Of course, I’m going to look for something that I’m going to be able to be as raw and as vulnerable and honest as possible.”