When Evan Rachel Wood needs a jolt of confidence, she puts on a certain playlist, a compendium of feminist anthems and feisty classics – I Will Survive, These Boots Are Made for Walking, Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, some head-whipping grunge and hip-hop. It was piping through her Nashville house one chilly afternoon last month. Wood, the actress and musician, had just put herself through an emotional wringer: she testified before Congress, in unflinching terms, about being a survivor of sexual violence, then jetted to Los Angeles to perform songs by David Bowie, her musical idol, with his bandmates.
It was a cross-country head-snap. Now she is welding herself back together.
“My life is definitely going places I did not foresee,” she says, leaning over her kitchen counter, as Sia’s Unstoppable plays in the background. “But I’m going with it. It doesn’t feel like a choice at this point. This is just what I need to do.”
Her trajectory is even more remarkable when you consider how much it overlaps, thematically, with the storyline of Dolores, her character on the HBO series Westworld. On that sci-fi drama, set in a Western theme park where visitors can act out their most depraved fantasies with humanlike robot “hosts,” Dolores is an innocent and much-abused host who slowly awakens to the darkness of what has befallen her, and then fights her way out.
A critical darling when it aired in 2016, Westworld had the most-watched debut season of any HBO series, and anticipation for its new season, which begins on Sunday on Sky Atlantic, is high. In a starry ensemble that includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Jeffrey Wright, it was the women, like Wood and Thandie Newton, as a host madam who’s newly conscious of her reality, that were riveting, in part for how they endured – and inflicted– violence.
The show, Wood says, “completely transformed my entire life,” not because it catapulted her career – although it did – but because playing Dolores forced her to drill into her own struggles. “Her journey mirrored so much of what I had been through and what I was going through,” she says. “It gave me a strength that I did not know I had.”
For Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the married co-creators of Westworld, Wood was first an exceedingly “protean” actor, as Nolan says in a joint interview. Wood, 30, has been in front of the camera since childhood, graduating from volatile adolescents in movies like Thirteen to a vampire queen on True Blood. They cast her knowing she could pull off the lightning shifts that Dolores makes in season two, which finds her exacting sweet revenge even as she weighs its costs.
“With Evan’s character, I wanted to explore a hero who has flaws and had a history that was trauma and sadness, but who could overcome that,” says Joy, a writer, producer and director of the series with her husband. “To me, that’s an inspiring story, and a story that can teach. And Evan, because she is so strong and she is that person, was able to unleash even more of that strength than I imagined. Even the aspects of her performance where she’s vulnerable, or when she makes a mistake, you’re internalising that even heroes falter. It’s the kind of hero I wish I had had growing up.”
Wood did not necessarily feel heroic when she travelled to Washington – her second time there, after the 2017 Women’s March – to testify before a House judiciary committee in February. “I shook for days,” beforehand, she says. She feared she would be judged for what happened to her.
“I couldn’t even believe I was about to say these words aloud, that I probably have only said out loud to three people.”
That somebody with her background – “I’ve had practice baring my soul in intense, surreal situations; it’s like what I do for a living” – was still terrified made her even more determined to go, to represent those who couldn’t.
She was invited to appear by Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, an advocacy organisation for rape survivors. They were endorsing the Survivor’s Bill of Rights, 2016 legislation that amended the federal criminal code to give survivors of sexual assault the right to a free medical examination and to have rape kits be preserved for as long as 20 years, among other changes. (The hearing examined the law; its supporters are hoping to get a version passed in each state, because most rape cases are tried on the state level.)
Wood calls herself a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, and described being raped twice, about a decade ago, first by an abusive partner, then by a man in the storage cupboard of a bar. “Being abused and raped previously made it easier for me to raped again, not the other way around,” she says. She has aligned herself with these causes before, but never in such personal terms.
She spoke of suffering from “depression, addiction, agoraphobia, night terrors” and attempting suicide; eventually, she was given a diagnosis of long-term PTSD. The assaults left her with “a mental scar that I feel, every day,” she says. She delivered her testimony in a gripping voice and broke down in tears afterward.
She moved to Nashville a few years ago, seeking a quieter place to raise her son, now four-years-old, she had with her ex-husband, actor Jamie Bell. Save for an old friend turned writing partner, she knew few people there, and gets around without much fanfare, helped by a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and a choppy bob. (Her long Westworld hair is a wig.)
Would she have been able to testify without the show?
“I hadn’t even cried about my experiences until after Westworld,” she says. Her defence mechanism was to go numb and power through. “And I didn’t even realise that until I’d done Westworld.”
When she finally gave herself permission to cry, “it was like the floodgates opened,” she adds. “It just felt like an exorcism; it was so painful but so healing.”
Revealing her ordeal, she felt freer, she says, comparing it to coming out as bisexual in 2011. “Everyone was like, ‘Don’t do it!’” she mock-yells. “And I was like, I have to, it’s me, and it’s unhealthy if I live in a way that’s not authentic.”
Wood’s testimony, coupled with the personal revelations and shifts of the #MeToo movement, made a difference, says Nguyen, who helped draft the original bill. “Storytelling is so important in convincing people about policy change,” she says. “I know that that hearing moved the needle for progress.”
In between seasons one and two of Westworld, Wood filmed an indie drama, Allure, out now, in which she plays the gaslighting abuser of a teenage girl. It was not fun to play, she says, but a painful story she felt needed to be told. “If you’re going to be famous, for me it has to mean something, or be used for something, because otherwise it just freaks me out,” she says.
The playlist we have been listening to all day – her soundtrack for the revolution – is called Invincible, she says. In a flannel shirt, dark jeans and cowboy boots embossed with stars, she is unguarded and casual, peppering the conversation with “Dude!” and the click, every now and then, of a fidget cube, to channel her energy. Her house is cosy but feels half-lived in – she’s still in Los Angeles often. Westworld shoots in the Utah desert; to lighten the mood on set, she and her co-star James Marsden, as a “host” gunfighter, run their lines as Veronica Corningstone and Ron Burgundy, from Anchorman. (She puts on her coaching voice; he’s dense. It works.)
But Dolores’ transformation, in season two, left Wood unnerved.
“I’ve worked for a very long time to not be angry and vengeful,” she says, “so it was hard to take pleasure in that, even though I knew that the character had definitely earned it.”
Wood’s mission is always to turn her trauma into some other force. Before she went to Congress, she had her aura read at a Nashville shop. It told her some of her energy was blocked, that she needed to get something out. Now, a week afterward, we go back, to see if anything has changed.
She is still glowing lavender – “wonderful storytellers, writers and artists,” the description says. “They have the talent to visualise and describe magical, mystical worlds.” But where before her emotional chart looked like a jagged mountain range, now it is flat, calm. “Speaking your truth!” she says.
Her hope is that – especially post #MeToo – Westworld will do for others what Dolores did for her: help them to feel powerful, and be heard.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” she says.
© NYT 2018
Season two of Westworld begins on Sky Atlantic on Sunday at 9pm.