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Exclusive: Evan Rachel Wood On Feminism, Westworld And Singing Happy Songs

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When celebrities bring their significant others on-set, it can go one of two ways: That person can become a de facto bodyguard, creating an impenetrable wall between the “famous” and the rest of us, or, as in the case of Evan Rachel Wood, that person can put said celeb at ease, allowing us to see him or her in a way we wouldn’t otherwise.

Wood, who arrived at the Los Angeles photo studio so unobtrusively that she’d already been in hair and makeup for 10 minutes by the time we realized she was there, brought along her new fiancé (and bandmate—more on that later), Zach Villa. Neither Wood nor Villa is a loud personality, but there was one moment, somewhere around the second look of the day, when the leather-clad Villa got pretty animated. “You…whoa. Just so cool. Rad.” He’d just had a look at Wood in the photographer’s monitor, and you could see his brain making the leap from the woman he knows and sees every day to the “star” in that photograph, and it was wonderful to see that he was in awe of and excited for her.

Of course, Wood has had many such moments in the past year or so. She’s hardly an unknown (she has been acting since she was a child and got her first Golden Globe nomination at 17 for Thirteen), and her work as an android in HBO’s Westworld as well as her new-found outspokenness around issues of sexual violence, gender fluidity and sexuality have propelled her past indie-cool status and firmly onto the A-list. All of this has also finally moved her beyond being “that girl who dated Marilyn Manson when he was 36 and she was 19.”

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Evan Rachel Wood is wearing a jacket, shorts and shirt by Jil Sander and Zara shoes. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that she spends all day dodging selfie-crazed fans of the show, which returns for a second season in 2018. “I almost never get recognized because Dolores and I look so drastically different,” says the 29-year-old with some satisfaction. And it’s true: Wrapped in a menswear-style coat, her hair short and two-toned, Wood couldn’t be further from the long-haired, Victorian-dress-wearing character she plays onscreen.

As we chat on a leather sofa while the crew clears up after the shoot, I feel like I’m finally forming an impression of Wood that’s stronger than “she changed the photographer’s electro playlist for a Bowie-heavy option from her own phone.” She wasn’t shy, exactly, throughout the day, but she wasn’t extroverted either, heading for her phone or talking quietly to Villa between takes.

And here’s the surprising thing: For someone whose public persona can sometimes read a bit “serious” (which is not a bad thing, to be clear), Wood has a lightness and a sunniness to her. It reads almost like relief, like someone taking advantage of his or her freedom and running with it. For example: Wood told me she’d been waiting for years to wear a suit to an awards show, and the time felt “right” for this year’s Golden Globes (and the SAGs just after that).

“When you’re nominated for best actress, usually every-one is like, ‘What dress is she going to wear?’ and I just kind of wanted to surprise people and completely go the other route.” For Wood, it was less an anti-dress statement than a pro-sartorial-choice move. (Also: We’re still not over that Altuzarra tux.) And as for why the timing was right….

You say you were a changed person after season one of Westworld. “Dolores’ journey was about finding her true self and facing trauma and her past. That was a catalyst in me opening up about my experiences. [Wood is a rape survivor.] Playing her got me to face a lot. Life was imitating art. By the end of that show, I did feel like I was standing on firmer ground and that I had conquered certain fears. I was owning it in a different way. I was less afraid and less ashamed.”

It sometimes feels that as a woman, especially in this political climate, you’re never going to win by playing according to any set of rules, so you may as well do your own thing. “I just felt the gloves come off and I was done. You need to be vocal and be yourself and keep fighting.”

What effect has speaking so publicly about some pretty personal stuff had on your more private relationships? “I’ve been able to talk about it in a new way—from a place of strength rather than still kind of going through it. And there are still good days and bad days. That stuff never fully goes away. Even when the response is positive, it’s still overwhelming because people start opening up to you about their experiences and that’s really heavy. But it’s kind of like how I felt when I had my son, where it was like ‘All right, now you get to take your experiences and turn them into lessons and you get to kind of be there for him instead of just wallowing in your thing.’”

Has your son’s life changed with all of this new attention? “Bless him. He’s a gypsy by proxy because his parents are. He’s only three now, but he’s starting to understand. He hears one of my songs and he knows that that’s me, and he has seen me on TV and he’s starting to put the pieces together. His parents are very different. My ex-husband [actor Jamie Bell] is lovely and very British and straightedge, and then he’s got this glam-rock weirdo for a mom.”

What do you think he thinks of it all? “He said something to me that was so profound I wanted to put it on a T-shirt. I was just poking fun at him lovingly one day and I said, ‘You’re weird,’ and he said, ‘I’m not weird. I’m playing.’ And I was like, that’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. I’m not weird, I’m just playing. That’s my motto for life from now on.”

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Evan Rachel Wood is wearing a Prabal Gurung jacket and Lanvin dress and trousers.

You’ve also recently relocated to Nashville. “L.A. is wonderful, and it has given me so many amazing things, but I’ve also got a lot of demons here. I was ready to break it up a little bit. I wanted to give my kid some grass to run around on. Again, he’s got two actor parents. I was like, ‘You don’t need to live in L.A. full-time. Let’s go somewhere a little “normal” for a bit.’”

You grew up in North Carolina, so obviously you have roots there, but I’m fascinated that you chose the South. If anywhere is deeply conformist, deeply traditional, it’s there. “That’s how I was raised too. But it’s not all like that. I am in a more progressive city. But there’s a part of me that also believes in going where you’re needed. And if I can be there, bringing something else to the table or engaging the conversation or speaking up when I need to speak up, then that’s also important. I don’t want to run scared. It’s definitely interesting at times, sure, but for the most part, it has been positive.”

When is it “interesting”? “There was one incident where I think somebody showed me a picture and he was comparing Hillary Clinton and Chelsea to Melania and Ivanka. He was like, ‘God, dodged a bullet, right?’ and laughing. I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was like, ‘Which ones would you rather have? The hot ones or the ugly ones?’ and I was like, ‘I think I would rather be valued for what’s in my mind, especially if I were in that position, but it’s cool if what is important to you is that you want to have sex with them in your mind. That’s all on you, man, and that’s super-messed-up, but I’m just going to leave this conversation now.’ I had to walk away.”

If you could rearrange the world, start it all over, what would it look like? “Honestly, I don’t even really want to change people that much. I want to make sure everyone’s got access to affordable health care and things that help people stay alive and sane and taken care of on a base level. And then, seriously, I don’t care what you believe. Just let everyone live the way that they choose to live and let’s not try to force our ideals on everybody else.”

There’s a fatigue that comes with being combative all the time. “I also don’t want to be a hypocrite. If that’s what you believe, I so strongly disagree, but I’m not going to hate you for it. I’m not getting mad at you unless you’re harming somebody against their will or taking away rights or meddling in people’s lives.”

Do you ever feel like there are people who hate you for what you represent? “Some think that feminism is about hating men, and they hate you for that. I love men. I have a son—I actually want a world where we can all be equal and I’m not held back because of my gender. It’s not a movement against men! It sucks that the word ‘feminism’ is so tainted. Also, I’m in the LGBT community [Wood identifies as bisexual], and you’re told a lot that you’re going to hell and you’re a terrible person. People think that it’s a movement and we’re trying to destroy society. It’s intense.”

Changing gears a little…you’re in a band with your fiancé called Rebel and a Basketcase. “We’re a baby band. My first love was singing and music, and it still kind of is. I love acting, and it’s a deep, deep love. But music is like my religion. If I didn’t have music, I would die.”

And David Bowie is your high priest? “For real. I’m not a religious person, but music is so transcendent for me. It’s the closest I feel to whatever God is. That’s why it took me so long to actually do because I held it close. It’s so precious that I was like, ‘If I’m not Radiohead, I’m not doing it. If it’s not the best thing ever, I can’t.’ And I was like, ‘Stop, you love doing it, there’s a place for it and you can make positive, fun music and that’s okay.’”

The public knows a lot of intense, heavy stuff about you. But what else is there? Like, what do you read on the Internet, for instance? “I’m a psychology, self-help, spirituality geek, probably because I have had so many ups and downs in my own life. It’s something I just get super-nerdy about. I love learning about the mind and how that connects to our souls.”

What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned lately? “I was just having a conversation with somebody last night about alternate dimensions and how there’s a mirror version of you in another dimension. There are many versions of you, and there’s a theory that you can pop in and out of these dimensions. It’s so amusing. I love at least having the conversation, being a bit agnostic in that way.”

So what is the mirror version of you doing? “Who knows? This could be the mirror version of me for all I know. I could be just hopping back and forth through time. [Laughs] People reading this will think I’m crazy.”

But cool. “I think there’s heavy stuff around me because I have built a career out of heavy movies and pushing
the boundaries in that way and doing things that make people go ‘Whoa, where were you when you did that scene? Do you want to talk about it?’ I guess I’m just finally in a place where I can be like, ‘Sure, what do you want to know?’ But that’s another reason the music that we make is really uplifting—because I do so much heavy stuff onscreen, if I had to also go onstage and sing about heartbreaking things and how terrible the world is, I would die.” [Laughs]

A lot of musicians say writing a happy song is way harder than writing a sad one. “It’s easier to focus on the bad stuff, you know, than to pull yourself up and sing about something nice. Our new single is called ‘Today,’ and it’s just a big battle cry about not letting the dark forces ruin your day. You make today and you make the changes, and as long as you’re here and you’re fighting, you’re going to be okay. I’m excited for people to hear that song. I think it’s a really good time for it.”

Photography by Max Abadian. Styling by Anna Katsanis.