The Awakening Of Evan Rachel Wood

by Carina Chocano
Evan Rachel Wood for Bustle's Holiday Issue 2019.
Harper Smith

Evan Rachel Wood had no idea when she took a part playing an artificially intelligent robot trapped in a twisted theme park that her character’s awakening would trigger her own. In part, it’s because the actors on Westworld weren’t privy to the story, so she had no idea what her character was in for. Westworld, which is about to enter its third season, is a story about stories — specifically, about how they can be used as instruments of control by trapping us in deceptive and disempowering narratives.

It’s heavy, but Wood dives right in. “Every time I do a season,” she says, “there’s a moment where I have a genuine existential crisis, because it’s opened my eyes to something else that I hadn’t thought of.”

The show centers on a Wild West theme park populated by robot “hosts” who provide the “violent delights” (the Shakespeare quote is a frequent refrain) of their human “guests.” No matter how much harm the guests inflict on the hosts, the hosts are programmed never to question their lot, or fight back, and their memories are wiped clean after each “violent end.”

Wood’s character, Dolores Abernathy, is a rancher’s daughter stuck in a traumatic loop that includes her rape and the murder of her father and lover. In order for Dolores to end the cycle, she needs to realize that she is part of a system of degradation and abuse. You can’t escape the cage if you’ve been told it’s the home where you belong. The arc of Westworld, Wood says, “is showing you the cage so that you can be free of it a bit more.” Wood calls playing a Dolores a “transformative experience.”

“I had no idea it would open my eyes to my own life and my own loops and stories and trauma,” she says.

Alice + Olivia jumpsuit, Anna Sheffield earrings, Nancy Newberg ring, Gucci shoes.

The home-schooled daughter of actors, Wood seemed to arrive in Hollywood a fully formed talent in a child’s body. In the mid-aughts, she attracted critical praise for playing troubled teenagers in indie films (Thirteen, Pretty Persuasion, Down in the Valley) and was quickly cast by industry heavyweights like Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler). Wood sometimes did “young Hollywood” things — starring in a provocative music video for her then-boyfriend Marilyn Manson — but you didn’t worry about her. Maybe you should have. Since the 2016 election, Wood has devoted herself to advocating for legislation that will make it easier for survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse to seek justice — to being the person Evan Rachel Wood needed when she was younger.

We live in a time of contested realities, convincing simulations, and reductive narratives that order the world into familiar patterns and console us by confirming what we already believe, despite evidence to the contrary. (This is also the plot of Westworld, or one of them.) Once you start looking, you can’t stop seeing them everywhere — even in actor profiles, like this one. For example, I could tell you about how we met late on a gloomy weekday afternoon, in a raw, loft-like photo studio in the Arts District in Downtown LA, where Wood was just wrapping a photo shoot. The neighborhood is part-industrial wasteland, part-hipster fantasy land. I could make something of it all — how moody and evocative of Blade Runner, how perfect a backdrop for Wood’s tailored looks and sleek pulled-back hair — but the reality is that we’re meeting here because it’s convenient, and this conversation is part of our job. I could turn it into a familiar story, a recognizable version of reality, but the truth is that these things — the scene-setting, rapport-establishing, the instant insights — are conventions meant to evoke intimacy. They’re bullsh*t, in other words.

It seems important to acknowledge this, given the themes of the show and the nature of Wood’s activism, both of which work hard to dismantle false narratives and make people conscious of horrors hidden in plain sight. Wood is friendly and open and thoughtful and down-to-earth, and so lovely she can be credibly cast as the platonic ideal of feminine beauty. But she’s also been frank about her struggles with trauma and PTSD, which have at times made it difficult for her to function. Her Westworld character, Dolores, starts off as damsel in permanent, recurrent, unprocessed distress — that is, until she is merged with a psychopath’s character, and she goes on a season-long rampage.

I had no idea Westworld would open my eyes to my own life and my own loops and stories and trauma.

This ability to jump between light and darkness is something that Wood has always displayed in her work. “The thing that’s quite amazing about Evan,” says Catherine Hardwicke, who directed her in her first lead role, in the movie Thirteen, when she was just 14, “is that even at that moment she was almost from another planet, she was so damn good. She was able to access her emotions in an instant, and at a very deep level. I remember almost the first day of shooting, it was a very intense scene, and we did a rehearsal and she was just really light and goofy, just goofing around. And I said, ‘Evan, this scene is super intense. This just happened to you. This just happened.’ And she looked at me — a 14-year-old! — and goes, ‘Just say action.’ And I’m like, OK. I said action and she went, like, zero to 60 into the darkest, heaviest, most intense place. I almost fainted in shock.”

Far from losing her teenage intensity, Wood, 32, seems to find new avenues for empathy in the accumulation of life experience. In Westworld Season 1, a character known as “The Man in Black” — whom we come to learn was once, years earlier, Dolores’ lover — becomes her abuser.

“I would see him in the scenes,” she says. “And it just took me back to a place.”

Lisa Joy, co-creator with Jonathan Nolan of Westworld, likens Wood to a chameleon, “not in that she switches her skin for every role, but in that all of those colors and all of those feelings are within her.”

“Evan is fiercely intelligent, fiercely strong, and fiercely loving — and she’s lived through difficult things,” says Joy. “I think all the experiences that Evan has... have become transmuted and distilled in her into something powerful, and thoughtful, empathetic, and profound.”

Anna Sheffield earrings.

Promoting the first season of Westworld in 2016, Wood was interviewed for an article in Rolling Stone, when the reporter asked her if she had ever been raped. “I had no idea how to respond to it,” she says. As it turned out, Wood was a survivor of both sexual assault and domestic abuse. “I had also simulated sexual assault in films, and I think my answers to a lot of the questions [about these roles] made people kind of wonder, only I’d shoved it down,” she says.

Wood dodged the question. But then things happened in the world that began to break through her conditioned silence. The Access Hollywood tape leaked, kickstarting the sexual misconduct reckoning that would a year later become #MeToo. Suddenly, it was hard not to see the parallels to her own life, especially as someone who’d grown up inside the entertainment industry, and as someone who was being profiled like a steely Lolita ingenue — the kind of girl who can handle anything — while enmeshed in relationships she would later describe as abusive. As Dolores became more aware and more conscious, so did Wood.

Wood had been in a years-long relationship during which she says she was starved, isolated, and raped and bound. She was emotionally abused and threatened with death. It took years for her to acknowledge the severity of her suffering.

I would see him in the scenes, and it just took me back to a place.

“I repressed my trauma for so many years,” she says, “to the point where I really barely even discussed it with my husband at the time [actor Jamie Bell]. ... It was hard for me to even talk about with even my most intimate partners because I hadn’t processed it. I hadn’t made sense of it in my own head. So, how could I really even begin to talk about it?”

Then Trump won in spite of the Access Hollywood tape, which “stirred up a lot of other stuff.” She emailed the reporter the day after the 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.”

Wood simply felt that enough was enough, and so did a lot of other women. #MeToo began to snowball, which was “the most amazing thing to witness, but so re-traumatizing, as well,” Woods says. “I think I was just in bed for like a month. I think I’m still recovering.”

Alice + Olivia jumpsuit, Anna Sheffield earrings.
Anna Sheffield earrings.
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As a result of the interview, Wood was approached by Amanda Nguyen, the founder of Rise, a civil rights organization to help survivors of rape and abuse. Nguyen asked Wood to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault and domestic abuse in an effort to promote the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, which, despite having passed on a federal level, has yet to be implemented in every state. The law extends the preservation of rape kits.

Wood’s testimony was wrenching and powerful. She described toxic mental, physical, and sexual abuse that started slow but escalated over time. She went into graphic detail about what happened to her, stuff she was “really ashamed of,” for the first time. “It was just the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “I knew that I had no protection, and I knew that my abuser was going to hear it — and that's just so scary, especially when you still live in the same city.” But, at the same time, speaking out “felt involuntary, because there's only so much you can carry before you just can't do it anymore.”

Testifying about my abuse was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. I knew that I had no protection, and I knew that my abuser was going to hear it.

Afterward, Wood says she learned that her abuser — whom she has never named publicly — had abused a number of other women. She spoke to a lawyer who told her she couldn’t press charges, as the statute of limitations on the crimes had passed. And so she became aware of a new cage and began another chapter in her activism.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is so much worse than I thought it was,’” she says. “It was like being in a nightmare. It was a horrifying moment, but it was also validating, because I knew that I wasn't crazy, and I wasn't the only one, and it wasn’t my fault. Because even to this day, it’s part of the brainwashing that happens when you are in an abusive relationship like that. You just blame yourself for everything.”

Among the things that Wood wants to bring awareness to is new language that is being used to better define and expand our understanding of domestic violence. One such term is coercive control, which refers to nonviolent crimes. “It’s so important,” Wood says, “because right now we just measure [abuse] by ‘Is your arm broken?’ or, ‘Let’s measure this bruise you have. How deep is the bruise?’ We’re not really acknowledging the scars on the psyche, which most survivors will tell you are significantly worse.”

Akris suit, Wolford bodysuit, Eriness earrings.

Wood’s next move was to change state laws in California to help more domestic abuse victims get justice. Working with local lawmakers and other survivors, she wrote The Phoenix Act, which extends the statute of limitations and gives people more time to come to terms with their abuse. It became law on Oct. 7, an experience Wood describes as a lesson in tenacity.

“I remember sitting in a senator’s office being told no, and I just sat there with one of the other survivors, who was starting to cry, and I said, ‘We're not giving up.’” she says. “And she went, ‘I’m sure you aren’t.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. We are not giving up. We will be back, and we are getting this passed.’ Then we just stayed in the Capitol all day just banging on doors until someone took the bill. We just refused to give up.”

The process changed Wood’s conception of power, and who has it. “Who are these [state legislators] whose names we’ll never really know that are making these huge decisions that affect millions of people?” she says. “This is why small elections are so important. I know everybody keeps saying that, but really, holy crap!”

Learning more about the existing domestic abuse laws depressed Wood. In particular, it struck her that while men and women are victims of abuse, it’s never been legal to beat your husband, and it has been legal to beat your wife. “That’s where we’re coming from,” she says. “It was legal to rape your spouse in '92 or '93. It hasn't been that long [since] women were considered property and whatever happened behind closed doors, it was none of our business. It was just this culture of silence and that really needs to stop.”

Am I allowed to feel good? Can I be powerful? That’s something I still struggle with.

The problem — it’s always the same problem — was the narrative. “We just accepted story,” she says. “Women aren't allowed to be angry. I still struggle with this. I have such a hard time getting angry, because every time I do, I feel like I'm reprimanded or punished for it. I have definitely felt this walking on eggshells, I have to be controlled and contained, but strong and clear, but not too emotional, not too angry, not too this, and not too that. It is exhausting. I'm so exhausted.”

Later this month, Wood will voice Elsa’s mother in Frozen 2, which also follows a young woman’s recursive journey to consciousness as she tries to understand her present through her past. I mention I have a fixation with Elsa’s relationship to power. She’s the legitimate, uncontested heir to a prosperous kingdom and she has superpowers. What’s the problem? Why does she run away? It’s hard to imagine a male version of Elsa doing the same.

“Makes you think,” Wood says, smiling. The question reminds her of a moment shortly after the Phoenix Act passed. Sure, there was the gratification of passing the final, unanimous committee vote, a feeling so powerful she cried. But after the legislation was signed, sitting alone in her house, Wood felt “really insecure.”

“I thought, ‘Dude, you just did this huge, amazing thing. Why are you feeling bad about yourself? What is this?’” she says.

“This” is a real thing — something related to taking power you’ve always been told you don’t have, aren’t allowed to have. Wood Googled it, and found that a lot of people talk about feeling insecurity after a major accomplishment. “It’s like, ‘Oh, is that OK? Am I allowed to feel good? Can I be powerful?’ That’s something I still struggle with,” she says. “It's the programming. It’s all that residual stuff that tells you you're not allowed to be that powerful. You're making people uncomfortable.”

Akris suit, Eriness earrings.
Akris suit; Wolford bodysuit; Eriness earrings, ring.
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“The theme in Westworld is to grow we all need to suffer,” she says, “and I don’t know if that necessarily means physically or what, but I think there are moments of clarity when you have lived through something terrible. It teaches you about yourself in a completely different way and about the world around you. I’m very happy with my life and well adjusted, but I’ll never really look at the world the same way, because you know what's there now. ... Everything just looks a little different after that.”

Wood’s experience has left her highly attuned to the power structures that surround her, something that recently got her in trouble on Twitter. She joked that we needed to get money out of politics and out of the Academy Awards. It was a fair point — costly Oscar campaigns are one of the ways Harvey Weinstein consolidated power in Hollywood — if a somewhat dramatic comparison. And, unsurprisingly, tabloids treated Wood’s small observation like a declaration of war. What would she would do if she were nominated? Boycott?

“Of course I would go!” Wood says. “And of course it would feel good, and I would be gracious and grateful. But like I said, it's good to see the cage to be free of it.”

Top image credit: Akris suit, Eriness earrings

Photographer: Harper Smith

Stylist: Samantha McMillen at The Wall Group

Hair: Charles Dujic using Goldwell at TMG-LA.com

Makeup: Toby Fleischman using Charlotte Tilbury at TMG-LA.com