“Under all these lives I’ve lived, something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new. And I have one last role to play: myself.”
Westworld fans will recognise that bit of Reckoning Day script from last Sunday's season 2 premiere of the HBO hit sci-fi show, which sees Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores finally shedding her rancher’s daughter innocence and oft-exploited obsequience. A sexually and emotionally violated AI robot, Dolores has emerged a vengeful villainess, whose newly surfaced sentience moves her to both seek emancipation and rage against her creators and the men who use and abuse her. It’s Judith slaying Holofernes with a rifle instead of a knife, in a moment perfectly matched to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
“I went to the Women’s March in Washington and someone had a sign with a photo of Dolores on it that said, ‘I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel,’” recalls Wood, who manages to give off a relaxed vibe while maintaining perfect posture. “That was the moment I realised Dolores was an icon for a revolution.”
This observation is not off base. Of all the warrior-like female characters to have captured the public imagination over the past year, Dolores taps into an energy that is particularly visceral and dark. It’s not Wonder Woman, who aims to bring hope and peace to a world of man that resists it. It’s not really Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones, who has the advantage of magic, dragons, and birth to help inspire her followers. Even hooded Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale is too caged to fight the proverbial and literal man with anything but quietly subversive acts. Perhaps because the world of technology has made AI more of a reality, Dolores exists in a not-too-distant-future playground, which has made her at once more relatable and plausible. She rides across a rural dystopia Doña Barbara-style, except on an AI horse with an all-seeing consciousness and marksman’s aim. And in episode 2 of the new season, Dolores takes that vengefulness to another level altogether.
Like Dolores, Wood herself has also awoken to a new reality — one she’s worked hard to forge. In the last few years, she’s confronted the trauma of violent sexual assaults suffered a decade ago. After two suicide attempts, she got help, including a stay at a psychiatric institution. She became a mum in 2013, welcoming a son with then-husband, actor Jamie Bell. Earlier this year, she testified before Congress to help advance legislation in support of the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights Act across all 50 states. “People say Westworld is timely right now, but to us it’s timeless, and I think we feel like people are listening in a different way now,” says Wood. “To be in a role like her at the moment, especially with my history, seemed almost fated.”
Wood and her now-5-year-old son live between homes in Tennessee and Los Angeles, which is where she is today, dressed in black and seated in front of an oversized patchwork pillow, wearing opaque-framed glasses, her hair pulled tight. Our conversation veers from trauma recovery to economic gender parity (she and Westworld costar Thandie Newton will be paid the same as their male counterparts next season), and yet laughs and smiles come easily to her. “I have a funny side...I’m the class clown!” she says.
The daughter of theatre professionals (her mother directed and acted in California for 20 years, and her father still directs and runs a theatre in North Carolina), Wood achieved Hollywood success early, first as a child star and then as a teenager in powerful, celebrated films such as Thirteen and The Wrestler. (The spotlight glowed extra bright thanks to her on-again, off-again romance and engagement to goth rockstar Marilyn Manson, which ended in 2010.) Drawing upon her life in the business, Wood immediately knew Dolores was both the role of a lifetime and a part she was born to inhabit. “[Costar] James Marsden and I were talking about this the other day,” Wood says. “People like to call me a chameleon, and Dolores, who has to go from innocent to computer analysis [mode] to villainess, is multifaceted. And I feel very similarly.”
The series has given Wood the best reviews and biggest audience of her career; she's using that platform to open up about her painful past for a greater good. When she testified before Congress in February, she recounted the violent assaults she suffered, which included rape, bondage, and mental abuse from one perpetrator and a subsequent barroom rape. “I shook for five days afterward,” Wood recalls of her testimony. “I carried a lot of shame and blamed myself for a lot of it, and I thought that other people would do the same.”
They didn’t. But before #MeToo, it was hard to anticipate how people would react. The abuse she says caused her to “lose myself and my mind, which I now know is normal.” After a second suicide attempt, she says she was so weak and frail that she could barely walk. Once she went to therapy, she was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I had been a child star my whole life, and I had this intense pressure to be perfect and to not have problems and to not burden anyone with problems and to work. It kept me from getting help for a long time,” she says of her decision to seek help. “There was something really freeing about it, and I realised that I really liked myself. And when I stripped literally everything away, I couldn’t sing, I had nodes on my vocal chords. I couldn’t walk. I was in a mental hospital. I was like, Wow how did I get here?”
Getting help “wasn’t as hard as feeling crazy,” she says. “Too often we treat women’s pain as lunacy, and I felt like that for a really long time — that somehow I was the crazy one and I had done something to deserve this. Until you get help and face these issues, we’ll be stuck in these narratives.”
Like Dolores, Wood has also gotten in touch with her anger — but she's moved on. “I think I was angry for too long, and that anger was covering up sadness,” says Wood. “I’m not a vengeful person, mainly because I feel like that brings me down to their level. And not everyone believes this, but I do believe that anybody that is treating somebody [in an abusive way] is already in a world of pain, and there’s nothing I can do to them that they aren’t already doing to themselves.”
Being a mum helps, too: “I want to be the best I can be for him. Having a near-death experience or a rock-bottom experience does change you and enlighten you and makes you see the world differently. It makes you appreciate things on a different level. I just don’t get upset over little things anymore.”
This month, Wood tackles another dark role in the film Allure, in which she plays an adult survivor of sexual and mental abuse who harms herself as well as a vulnerable teenage girl. “What’s not talked about in abuse is the aftermath of it. Because we play down the crime so much, the victim will do the same in their mind if it happens to them. This was my experience,” she says. “I didn’t realise just how much I had been conditioned until I actually started talking about it and getting help for it. If you’re not given proper education in advance about these things, you’re very susceptible to blaming yourself and staying silent and being confused about what happened to you. And for those that don’t get help, it can manifest into other coping mechanisms — like addiction or becoming an abuser yourself or self-harm.”
In that way, she hopes to help lift the cloud of shame and silence for survivors. “It’s a lifelong thing. It alters the course of somebody’s life and can spread like a virus.”
Wood credits Dolores for giving her the strength to come forward, but there was a time before Westworld that she considered quitting acting altogether. “I was discouraged by the roles I was getting offered,” she recalls. “I thought maybe I’d go back to school to study psychology or become a life coach.” It was a chance encounter with Patti Smith in Venice in 2011 that made her stay the course.
“Patti said, ‘You can’t quit. You’re a real artist. We need you.’ I thought, Well, if Patti Smith is calling me a real artist, then maybe there’s something to it.” Wood is also a musician. That night she sang Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for Smith, since the iconic video was shot there. “It was a surreal night, magical and life changing.”
If Wood’s 20s were marked by changes across every aspect of her life, what do her 30s mean? “A sanctuary, like the end of a really long race. It helps me mentally to turn the page for the next chapter and leave the past behind.
“Now is the time to be honest. The stakes are too high and they always have been.”
That she’s getting equal pay for her work is part of those stakes, too. She sees a shift in culture, and she’s glad to be a part of it.
“It gives me hope. I’m not ready to give up or quit. In fact, I think I’ll probably be fighting harder than ever.”