Evan Rachel Wood: "You've got to be you."

Showbiz history is littered with tales of child actors who failed to translate early promise into adult success. Evan Rachel Wood, though, has not only made the transition appear easy but after almost two decades in the business is, at 24, being hailed as one of the leading actors of her generation.

You might have seen Wood in a film and not even known it was her – at least not until the end credits – such is her ability to disappear into a character. “I like changing and being different in everything,” she asserts when we meet during the London Film Festival. “People call me a shapeshifter.”

The transformation that proved to be her breakthrough was as the clean-cut teen Tracy Freeland, who spirals into a life of sex and drugs, in Catherine Hardwicke's gritty, parent-scaring drama, Thirteen.  Her committed performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination, and put her firmly on filmmakers' and the public's radars. “That movie changed my life, forever,” she enthuses. “It showed me what I could do. I really feel like I truly bared my soul in that movie for the first time, and I got in touch with sides of myself I didn't know were there.”

Since then, a string of A-list directors, including Ron Howard (The Missing), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Woody Allen (Whatever Works), Julie Taymor (Across Universe), and Robert Redford (The Conspirator) have employed Wood's services. She has made her mark on television, too, as the lesbian vampire queen, Sophie-Anne Leclerq, in True Blood – a role she may yet reprise - and, most memorably, with her chilling, Emmy-nominated portrayal of the cruel and manipulative Veda, in Todd Haynes' masterly miniseries, Mildred Pierce.

Veda, without a hint of warmth to latch on to, “was the hardest role I have ever done,” says Wood. "I couldn't relate to her in any way. There's no shred of me in that role. It was just pure psychology. I had to think, what makes somebody this way? What turns her?”

The part was made more difficult by a weird and disturbing scene requiring the actress to appear fully naked, as Veda parades herself triumphantly in front of her mother, Mildred (Kate Winslet), after bedding her husband (Guy Pearce).

On a purely practical level, it meant having to conceal her eight tattoos – each, including one on the inside of her lower lip that no one is allowed to see, a memento of something close to her heart, like a relationship or a meaningful piece of poetry. 

“I just felt bad for the make-up artist,” Wood laughs. “She's my best friend now, man. We are bonded big time.” On another level, it meant overcoming her nerves. “It was terrifying. I almost chickened out but Kate really put it into perspective for me and helped me do that scene. It's not sexy at all. It's unsettling, it's dark, and one of the most powerful moments in the series.”

While in no hurry to do it again, Wood admits that putting herself in such a “vulnerable position and sharing it with the world” was hugely liberating. “Once you do that, you kind of feel you can do anything. You just feel no shame. You're like, 'I don't have anything to hide anymore.'”

Her character in her latest film, George Clooney's bitter political thriller The Ides of March, does have something to hide, however. Contacted by Clooney personally while she was shooting Mildred Pierce, Wood didn't hesitate to jump on board as the young intern, Molly Stearns, whose actions during a closely contested Ohio presidential primary lay the ground for a potential political sex scandal. It inevitably brings to mind Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and I ask Wood if she thinks politicians caught with their pants down should face public opprobrium.

“No one should have any say or judge anyone on what they do in their own bedroom,” she says emphatically. “I just don't think that's the important issue. I want to know what this guy's going to do for the country, not about the fun he's having under his desk.” 

Perhaps Americans should be more, say, French about these matters, I joke. “Oh, oh, yeah!" she says, bursting into laughter. "Like I'm going to fall into the trap of being the American to say we should be more like the French. No way am I doing that. I'd be crucified.”

Wood's role makes her one of a few women in a cast that boasts male heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Clooney, and Ryan Gosling, whom she describes as “this generation's Warren Beatty or James Dean. He's genuine, he's serious about what he does, and he's got this amazing confidence."

Some actresses might have been intimidated by the testosterone-heavy atmosphere on set, but Wood felt “really comfortable”. “I grew up with brothers,” she says, “my friends are guys, and I'm a tomboy, so I always felt like one of the guys, anyway.”

In one scene, her sexually forward intern goes toe-to-toe with Gosling's idealistic junior campaign manager. Molly, like Wood, is confident and knows what she wants. Ultimately, though, she is destroyed by the two things Wood says should console her: politics and religion. In what is perhaps a wider comment about present-day America, the things that “are supposed to make you feel safe and loved and protected are the things that kill.”

Ironically, for someone who has just appeared in a political movie - or at least a movie with a political context - Wood doesn't like talking about politics. “I get really emotional about it and I get very frustrated,” she says. The film explores the compromises that people have to make for political survival, and how difficult the system makes it to effect real change. Though informed by Seventies political thrillers, The Ides of March is very much a film for today's America, when the euphoria of Obama's election has well and truly worn off and been replaced by disillusionment and mistrust. 

“What I loved about the film is there are no heroes and villains," says Wood. "Everyone sets out with good intentions but because of the way the game works, it's like no one can win. It's like a cautionary tale not to get into the world of politics.”

The actress has lived her own life trying not to compromise herself, and admits it hasn't always been easy. From an early age, she says, “I was always kind of marching to my own drum, and I was always the black sheep. People think when you're an actress and you're beautiful that you must have had it so easy and, if anything, it made me feel more of an outcast.” In fact, she was bullied so badly at school that from the age of around 11, she was educated at home.

Growing up on screen meant that she went through every awkward phase in the public eye, and with everyone feeling free to pass judgement on her online. 

“It's hard because if you could read any note that's been passed about you, or hear any bad thing anyone's ever said, if I wanted to, I could hear it all. When you're happy with yourself, it doesn't matter what people say about you, and I think that was my problem: it will get to you if you have some issue you haven't dealt with.”

A few months ago, she had told me while discussing Veda that she believed the secret to happiness was to learn to love yourself - something she had only achieved recently. She now reveals that it happened in the past year, during a period of reflection away from films and outside of a relationship (she had been engaged to shock rocker Marilyn Manson).

Wood candidly confirms that a widely reported interview she gave to Esquire magazine earlier this year, in which she came out as bisexual, was a consequence of this period. “I knew there was this side of me that I had my whole life and I hadn't explored it, and I wanted to do that. Because I want to know myself and I wanted to be confident in that area of my life. And I certainly did that,” she smiles, “and it was great. And then I felt confident enough to come out with it, because I'd explored it, and I knew that it was real and me, and that there was nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.”

Had she been unhappy keeping it a secret? “Yeah, because you're unsure and it's terrifying. When you're in the public eye it makes it scarier because you don't know how people are going to react. But that's why you have to be you. You've got to be you.”

The Ides of March is out now, Mildred Pierce is released on DVD on 28 November

This article first appeared in The Scotsman, 27 October, 2011

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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