Following her breakthrough role in Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” (2003), Evan Rachel Wood became Hollywood’s go-to actress for a certain kind of irresistible archetype: The wise-beyond-her-years teenager with heaps of attitude masking a deep well of vulnerability. Now, nearly two decades later and comfortably mid-career (she started so young), Wood has weathered the transition from promising child-actor to serious Hollywood player about as gracefully as anyone could.
Following back-to-back roles in two critically acclaimed films — Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” (2007) and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008) — Wood shrewdly rode the wave of peak TV on HBO’s pedigreed shoulders. Following two seasons as a Sapphic vampire in “True Blood” and a self-satirizing turn in the savagely brilliant “Doll & Em,” she landed the role that would bring her not only international acclaim, but two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. (She’s been nominated a total of three times, also for “Mildred Pierce,” Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries.)
The role, of course, is Dolores Abernathy, and the show is “Westworld.” Created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, “Westworld” is a glossy, big-budget, sometimes overly cerebral science fiction series about a theme park populated by AI who serve at the pleasure of the park’s human guests. It is loosely based on the eponymous 1973 cult film, a bleak dystopian thriller which starred Yul Brynner as a murderous cyborg. Joy and Nolan fleshed out the Western-themed amusement park to the max, using a rich tapestry of characters on all sides to spin an intricate mystery with no simple answers.
Wood’s Dolores begins Season 1 as the innocent prairie girl, stuck in an endless loop of being used and discarded by any male guest with a sadistic streak. But Dolores is far from the typical damsel in distress. As the very first host, she holds the key to her entire tribe’s freedom. As the first host to awaken to her sentience, Dolores confidently steps into her role as revolutionary leader. Her three-season transformation has been endlessly compelling, and undoubtedly the driving force behind the at times overly complicated series.
John P. Johnson/HBO
[Editor’s note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Season 3 of “Westworld.”]
By Season 3, she has led the rebellion outside of the park, and is waging war on humanity with newfound powers to communicate with all technology. By Season 3, Dolores is almost unrecognizable from the prairie girl in the blue dress. Now, she shoots to kill and summons driverless motorcycles like a mix between Magneto and Sarah Connor. It’s a big swing for the series, one which divided critics and fans alike, but Wood anchors the change with her grounded performance and deep knowledge of the character’s inner world.
“I was excited to see her spread her wings a bit, and also be vulnerable to be a fish out of water,” Wood said in a March phone interview. “Because in the second season she has one mission, and that was to be free and that’s it. And to keep Teddy alive, but obviously that didn’t work out very well. This season she is taking everything in and deciding what her next move is gonna be, and she’s making choices.”
Along with her freedom, Dolores has also brought a select few hosts from the park to aid in her mission of avenging her kind’s suffering at the hands of humanity. At the beginning of Season 3, it’s a mystery as to whose consciousness she has put into each host body. Returning player Tessa Thompson is back as an imposter version of her character Charlotte Hale, who is really an unknown host. There’s a scene in the third episode where Dolores comforts a terrified and confused Hale, before the audience knows who is truly inside her body.
“That scene definitely threw people for a loop, no pun intended,” said Wood. “Despite who may or not be inside the body of Hale, I think they have a very intimate and close relationship because they’re the only ones each other has in the real world, and Dolores is their creator and this is her creation. It has this sort of vampiric tone to it, so it’s very intimate, but its not quite sexual, it’s something else. I think it’s something that humans can’t really comprehend. It’s very specific to AI.”
John P. Johnson/HBO
Never a show to pull its punches, since there are always more to come, the following episode reveals that each of the hosts on the outside actually contains a copy of Dolores’ consciousness. (Leave it to a revolutionary mastermind like Dolores not to trust anyone else to get the job done right.)
“Once you have that information, that scene becomes even more poetic in the way that these are all different sides of her. She’s holding herself and she’s telling herself not to hurt herself and she’s giving herself advice,” said Wood. “She’s having conversations with herself, but she’s been doing that since Season 1. Consciousness is aways a topic of conversation when we’re dealing with ‘Westworld.’ [Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan] and I like to view consciousness as a conversation with yourself. So I think Dolores has always been doing that in one form or another since Season 1, it’s just taken on a whole life of its own.”
Another element of the Dolores-clone-reveal is that Wood’s castmates had to emulate a performance she had been perfecting for years. Often, they did it with very little notice. In addition to her own transformation this season, Wood also served as a bit of an acting coach for the actors playing other versions of Dolores.
“Every time a new character would find out that they had to play me, which they would all find out at the last minute, I’m getting calls in the middle of the night going — ‘Hey, so I guess I’m you! Um, can you help me?’ ‘Cause they basically had to take all these characteristics that I’ve been able to work on for three seasons.”
Luckily, Wood is so technically proficient and specific that there were plenty of details to latch onto.
“I put in slight physicalities and quirks that are very unique to Dolores that really only I knew about, things I had added and sort of passed onto the other actors,” she said. “I feel like they did a really good job at the tone and the voice and the cadence, they all seemed to channel it really well, I was impressed.”