At Evan Rachel Wood’s first meeting with Robert Redford, who was looking to cast her as a Confederate daughter in his Lincoln-assassination drama, The Conspirator (out April 15), the actress fixed her gaze on him intently enough that Redford later told her, “ ‘You were so intimidating, I had no idea what you were thinking.’ ” Wood exults at the memory. “I was, like, Yeeessss!” she says, performing a reverse elbow-jack to the torso. “I got Redford.”
The director had been following Wood’s career since her scalding 2003 breakout in Thirteen, in which she played a Southern California high-schooler on the fast track to oblivion. Most actresses, given an angry scene, deliver a single bleat on the self-pity blowhorn, but Wood—loosing arias of rage upon the head of her mother (Holly Hunter)—uncovered all manner of fear and heartbreak and doubt. “She has this music inside of her that allows her to hit different variants on a note,” says Redford. “It’s almost like she’s willing herself to go further but at the same time be on guard. It creates a great tension and gives everything she does bite.”
Eight years after her public debut, Wood remains unsettling. As she sits in a penthouse suite at the London hotel in midtown, a hair-and-makeup team flits around her in preparation for the red-carpet premiere of the HBO series Mildred Pierce, in which she also stars. She exudes an enameled poise, dressed in a mauve Gucci dress and boots, her azure eyes staring you down with coltish defiance. As a kid, she used to delight in freaking out her parents’ theater friends in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her unblinking impersonations of Liz Taylor and Katharine Hepburn (“I just loved watching the look on people’s faces. They would be, like, ‘What just happened?’ ”), and now, at 23, she’s already gone head-to-head with Hunter, Kate Winslet (Pierce), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). Her first rule of acting: Show no fear.
It’s her backstory as much as her stare that throws people, of course. As every tabloid reader knows, Wood—having led the already peculiar life of a child actor—spent nearly four years, off and on, involved with the bucket-of-blood rocker Marilyn Manson, starting when she was 19 and he was 38. Their relationship sent the media into classic clucking-hen mode, airing all manner of speculation that he was controlling her, choosing her clothes and her film roles and forcing her into assorted acts of necromancy. Early last year, they announced their engagement; late last year, they ended it.
The morning after that breakup, Wood went in to work on Mildred Pierce, then shooting on Long Island. She immediately broke the news to her director, Todd Haynes, who could see that she was having a tough time. “I know that they had really tried to make a go of that relationship,” he says, “and yet she brought this incredible calmness and focus to the set regardless of what was happening. Ed Lachman—the D.P.—and I would sit back in awe at how she photographs. There’s something beyond just her physical presence that the camera just adores. It’s incandescent.”
That particular day, she had to perform a scene in which her character, Veda Pierce, has her dreams of piano-prodigy stardom smashed; she then throws what Haynes calls “a classic teenage tantrum” at her mother, played by Winslet. “It was really hard,” says Wood. “Being in her head space that whole time messes with you. Kate helped with that. She said, ‘You’ve got to rise above it, you’ve got to rise above it.’ Luckily Veda’s a pretty dark character, so I didn’t have to come in and shine.” Maybe not shine, but glint, for Veda is a dark ruby of a part: all of her mother’s hopes and dreams smelted into one ferocious snob who is ultimately the engine of her destruction. In the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth, Veda was portrayed, much to author James M. Cain’s horror, as a “cheap little tart.” Haynes, who has called the drama an unrequited love story between mother and daughter, has restored the character to full luster as a coloratura soprano. “It’s the hardest role I’ve ever had to do, ever, absolutely,” says Wood, who—even though she wasn’t doing her own singing—trained for months with an opera coach, just to get the breathing and gestures right. Guy Pearce, who shared a trailer with Wood, could hear her practicing her vocals daily. “All I wanted to do was stick my head in and say, Do you mind if I watch?” he says. When they reviewed footage, he says, “Kate and I were looking at each other, and Todd and Kate were looking at one another, going, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”