April 2011

Evan Rachel Wood Nobody’s Baby

With roles as a scheming daughter, a vampire queen and the Lincoln assassination’s collateral damage, the former child star defies expectations every time
by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by MARK SEGAL / styling by JOANNE BLADES / produced by KIM POLLOCK

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At 23, Evan Rachel Wood has skirted most of the career checkpoints expected of Hollywood’s pretty young things: the treacly coming-of-age rom-com, the OMG-so-cute handbag line, the Auto-Tuned vanity album.

Alas, some pigeonholes are tighter than others. “‘You’re such a bayyyyyybeee,’” Wood says, reciting the vaguely dismissive label she hears after nearly two decades in front of a camera. “I still get that a lot. But I’ve been working since I was five! I’ve seen things and lived 50 lifetimes already.”

Wood’s frustrations are as ancient as she is young. Hollywood just hates its ingenues to grow up. Mary Pickford was still pouting in ringlets at 29. Judy Garland was ordered to tape down her breasts for The Wizard of Oz. And despite being old enough to buy booze, High School Musical survivor Vanessa Hudgens continues to toil in the ghetto of tweendom.

Yet even before she mastered her multiplication tables, Wood was defying Hollywood expectations. Her big-screen debut came at nine, as the runaway daughter of an alcoholic mom in Digging to China. She landed a slew of noms for 2003’s Thirteen, channeling a gamine who huffs aerosol, shoplifts, pleasures teenage boys and, tying the bow on at-risk behavior, cuts herself. Two years later, she starred in Pretty Persuasion, packing tinderbox sexuality and Mamet-level scheming into a salmon pink school uniform. And in 2008, as Mickey Rourke’s estranged daughter in The Wrestler, she went off on daddy big time, delivering a kiss-off tirade as bruising as any pile driver.

Nor has Wood followed the well-trod tween-through-teen trajectory in her personal life. There were no flings with boybanders. Wood’s single tabloid moment was typically much more interesting—a three-year romance with goth rocker Marilyn Manson, an on-again, off-again affair that culminated in an engagement before ending last year.

If 2011 doesn’t free Wood from the bayyyyyybeee track, nothing will. She’s currently starring opposite Kate Winslet in HBO’s Mildred Pierce, a five-parter based on James M. Cain’s Depression-era weeper. Nominally, it’s Winslet’s gig, at least for the first three installments. Then Wood steps in as Pierce’s daughter, Veda, easily one of the most memorable—and malicious—sylphs the fictional Southland has ever suffered. Wood dominates her scenes, and the camera seems to know it, lingering on her angelic face even as she plots her mother’s social and professional annihilation.

This month, Wood unleashes more live ammo, on the big screen. Robert Redford recruited her for The Conspirator, a drama about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination. Wood plays Anna, the daughter of accused co-conspirator Mary Suratt (Robin Wright Penn). When a tenderfoot defense lawyer (James McAvoy) comes calling, Anna is picking up the pieces of a shattered window. Her expression, brimming with resentment and repressed anger, is as sharp and fragile as the glass.

“She can split atoms,” Redford says.“She can really rip into someone...There’s something in her that enjoys going to that darker edge, but she’s capable of going right back into the light again.”

And of course, Wood returns to the bite club this summer. For two seasons, she has chewed—if not sucked—the deep southern scenery as Sophie-Anne, the mercurial undead queen of Louisiana, in HBO’s True Blood. She won’t reveal what’s in store for Sophie-Anne, but between the vampire-on-vampire sex and the blood, you can bet it won’t be humdrum.

“I like a very strong female character,” Wood insists. “Something different, something edgier, something challenging and, basically, something that moves me. I just imagine myself being an audience member and thinking, What would I get out of this?”

What audiences get is a pro so savvy seasoned directors praise her as talented beyond her years. Ditto with the world-weary critics—the Guardian has crowned her “one of the best actresses of her generation.” Maybe that’s because Wood grew up in theater. Her father, Ira David Wood III, still heads a regional-theater troupe in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her parents divorced, and at nine, she moved to Los Angeles with her mom, Sara Lynn Elins, an actress, director and acting coach.

Series work followed and, with it, a rejection of kiddie-actor convention. As 12-year-old Jessie on the ABC series Once and Again, Wood wrestled with an eating disorder, depression and a same-sex attraction. The depth of that work was not lost on filmmakers.

“I was immediately riveted by her work on the show—I would tune in just to watch that kid,” says Mildred Pierce director Todd Haynes. “Now she has just an amazing body of work for someone her age. She just seems older.”

As Wood graduated to film, directors were surprised to note just how little hand-holding she needed. Her approach is described across the board as fearless and fiercely independent. She’ll meet perhaps once with the filmmaker before stealing away to prepare on her own. And when cameras roll, Wood is often the lowest-maintenance talent on set, no matter how explosive the material. “She came fully loaded,” says Redford, who chose Wood over such up-and-comers as Mia Wasikowska. “I didn’t have to say much to her. I had a talk with her about the arc of her character and the nature of who she was, and she just got it.”

That consummate poise is paired with an almost uncanny range. As Veda—easily the vilest daughter in literature this side of The Bad Seed—Wood imparts a subtle depth born of insecurity and abandonment, who manages to rack up the sympathy points even while hurling a shoe at a careworn Winslet. As Anna, her spit and vinegar washes away to reveal a young woman simply terrified of losing her mother.

“She can split atoms,” Redford says. “I mean, she can rip into someone—create a really hot existence for a character. She has a kind of bite to her work, but if you look at it carefully, it’s never overplayed. There’s something in her that enjoys going to that darker edge, but she’s capable of going right back into the light again.”

Perhaps the finest manifestation of that light lies in another of Wood’s talents: singing. Every person interviewed for this article volunteered unsolicited praise for her voice. Wood has sung in some of her movie roles, most notably Across the Universe, a Beatles-inspired musical that remains one of Redford’s favorites of the actress’ work. Though Wood does lip-synch a mean aria as Veda, there are no power ballads in The Conspirator or Mildred Pierce. Still, she loves to seek out a mike once shooting wraps for the day.

“She is a very good karaoke singer,” McAvoy says. “She and one of the producers, Brian Peter Falk, got into a moving duet one night during production.”

Wood also has a secret stash of her own recordings, created on her home computer. “Oh, I sing every day,” she says. But don’t expect that Hollywood Records dance album anytime soon. For this actress, a move like that would be entirely too predictable.

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