Evan Rachel Wood on Her Gritty New Psycho-Thriller, the Emmys, and Westworld Season Two

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Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t have a lot of time on her hands, what with playing both robot Dolores and robot-who-doesn’t-think-she’s-a-robot Dolores on HBO’s Westworld — and, this season, it seems from that killer season-two teaser trailer, woke-robot Dolores. So it says a lot that, on hiatus, she starred in a gritty independent psychological thriller, A Worthy Companion, from two Montreal fine-art photographers (and brothers), Carlos and Jason Sanchez, first-time movie directors. The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Wood as Laura, a 30-year-old fuckup working for her father’s (Denis O’Hare) cleaning company, as she strikes up an ill-advised and increasingly disturbing relationship with Ava (Julia Sarah Stone), the 16-year-old daughter of one of her cleaning clients. It’s a wrenching and often unlikable part that delves deep into the complex of the cycles of abuse, and how the familiar path for those in pain is to perpetuate more pain. Wood’s is a barn-burner performance, but even the Sanchez brothers are shocked she said yes pretty much right after reading the script, and met up with them to talk it over the day after Westworld premiered.

“We were flattered because she told us she wasn’t going to make another film that year,” Carlos told me. They’d seen her in 13 and The Wrestler, but Jason says the Westworld trailer is really what convinced them to cast her, because it was impressive watching her switch between her robot and human characters — which is what Laura is often doing in her manipulations as she switches from tender to enraged and back again. Wood brought so much authentic pain to the part that the Sanchez brothers rewrote the ending because they felt the original one didn’t do justice to the character she’d been building. “We were super stoked to work with her,” said Jason, “but what we got from her was just fucking mind-blowing.”

We spoke to Wood — who looked amazing in a bright-orange Altuzarra coat and sparkling Louboutin booties — about diving into this movie, what to expect from “woke Dolores” in season two, and how freaked out she was for her Westworld finale moment with Sir Anthony Hopkins.

So, the opening scene of this movie is insane. This guy walks into your apartment, blindfolds himself, and then you get so rough and violent with him during sex that he throws you off him and runs away. I was like, “What is happening?”
I know. [Laughs.] We don’t waste any time. One of the things I loved about the script is that this was the first scene, because I read it for the first time and went, “What is it?” But also, I thought, “Good for you! You’re holding nothing back!” I thought it was a great way to tell the story — usually it builds and you’re like, “Who’s good? Who’s bad? What’s going on?” but here, right away, you see the darkest side of this girl. And then the whole first half is just this crazy tension because you know already what’s lurking under there. I thought it heightened everything really well.

Why do you think she needs the guys she has sex with to have blindfolds on?
Who knows? She’s got a lot going on in there, a lot of mental disturbances. I’m assuming she’s gay and was abused at a very young age. Those two are not connected in any way, but if she has issues with men, and if she has issues with her own sexuality and shame and whatever she’s dealing with, when you’re traumatized that young, it manifests in ways that don’t make a lot of sense until it goes to the source. It manifests in everyone a little differently, and I think that’s just her thing.

The main relationship of the movie, this 30-year-old woman with a 16 year-old girl, will be pretty controversial for audiences.
It definitely is. Another thing I love about the script is that my part was originally written for a man and then they gender-swapped it, which is so cool because it brings so many different layers to that character and to the relationship. I love that it is two women, but it’s never really talked about or touched upon. It’s not what the movie’s about. It’s about a woman and a younger girl, but it’s really about abuse, the cycles of it, the psychology of it, codependency. When I saw it, I wasn’t even phased by it. There was so much other stuff going on.

And the Sanchez brothers told me it’s the only movie you shot last year?
Yes. And I didn’t want to do anything. I’d just done Westworld and I was like, “I’m taking a break,” but then I read the script and was like, “Dammit, I have to do this. And it’s going to be hard, and I’m not going to like doing it.” But I hadn’t read a script like that. Somebody compared it to Big Little Lies and how it really showed the whole picture, not excusing the perpetrator but humanizing them, giving you insight into what was going on and how they got to that point. It excited me because it wasn’t black and white: Here’s the victim, here’s the abuser, let’s focus on the victim the whole time. No. It’s a more in-depth look in how we get to this point, and how does the abused become the abuser?

There’s not really a good or bad guy; abuse is a well-rounded tragedy for everyone because normally, when people are doing that, it’s because they’ve been broken at a very young age. So it’s just as tragic watching somebody be prisoner to their own trauma, not in control of what they’re doing because their perspective is so skewed. I’m not excusing what she does in any way, and it was important to me that we didn’t let her completely off the hook. But I definitely think it’ll spark more conversations about it for sure.

You really lay everything out on the screen. Were you okay at the end of every day?
Yeah, but I needed a month afterwards, because I was messed up a little bit after that movie. I need to rest and go to my house in Tennessee and just … don’t think about bad things. It took some recalibrating.

Weren’t you supposed to do a different movie this year, your own directorial debut? It’s a road-trip movie you wrote, right?
I cowrote it. But I had to push it because it got too stacked up against the Westworld schedule, and I want to do it right, so I pushed it.

But it is going to happen?
Yes, after season two.

With the same cast of Jenny Slate, Alison Pill, and Cynthia Erivo?
Yes, as of now.

That’s great, because it’s such a good cast.
The best cast.

Jenny spilled the beans, didn’t she?
She did! I was like, “Don’t worry about it.”

I felt bad, I love Jenny and I actually wrote the article where she said it, and as soon as people started picking it up as a big news item, I was like, “Oh no.”
I know! [Laughs.] She texted me right after like, “I think I did a bad thing.” I was like, “No, it’s fine. It’s fine.” She’s great. I just saw her new movie, Landline, and she’s so incredible.

I was nervous about asking you!
No, it’s fine. I’m not nervous about it in any way.

Okay, good, so this is the part where I deluge you with Westworld questions. Where are you at in the filming of season two?
We’re at the halfway point.

Obviously feel free to stop me if I run into something you can’t say.
I mean, there are so many things I can’t say! [Laughs.]

Where are you filming?
Santa Clarita and Utah. Same as season one.

Can you give me one free-and-clear clue about season two?
It’s twice as ambitious. I’ll try to say the things the showrunners have said, so I know it’s okay. I think somebody asked Jonathan Nolan if we were going to see other worlds this season, or how many worlds we would see, and he said, “More than one?” So there’s that little tidbit. [Laughs.]

Can you talk about how Dolores has evolved? The last time we see her, she is unhinged.
I think we’re going to see a new, woke Dolores. We’re going to get to see what that looks like and how it plays out.

Like woke as in Westworld woke, not as in politically correct woke, right?
Dolores woke! It’s fun! [Laughs.]

In the trailer we see her riding that horse and shooting guns like a fucking champ.
She’s a very different, different character — with still the essence of who she was, but awake.

What is your favorite part about playing woke Dolores in season two?
The show is always a surprise. We don’t get to know exactly what happens, so we’re finding out along with the audience, and it’s just a ride. You have enough info to do your job, but you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s constantly exciting, it’s never boring, and it’s extremely difficult because it’s a very complex, challenging, technical role. But because there are endless possibilities on the show. I feel like I could do it for ten years and it would be different every year. So I don’t think I’ll ever get bored.

I think in older interviews you said you figure out the season one twist pretty early on. How are you doing sussing out the season two twist?
I figured it out again!

Because you’re a nerd!
Yeah, but it’s a lot like last season — I figure it out, but they don’t fill in the blanks for me. Usually I’m like, “Okay, I think I have an idea of where this is going,” and then the payoff is always so incredible, so much bigger than I could ever imagine. I think the same goes for the audience — you’re supposed to figure out the show, and even if you do, it’s okay because the payoff will always be way more than you could ever dream up. So I did kind of talk to one of the showrunners and say, “Okay, tell me if I’m going in the right direction. Is it this?” and they said, “Stop bugging the writers room! Don’t tell this to anyone!” I was like, “Okay! Okay!”

Did you learn any new skill sets that you could take out into the real world and be, like, a ninja? I mean, you already used shotguns and rode horses in season one.
Yes, but this is a whole other level. I mean, she’s pretty awake! [Laughs.] I’ve maybe been learning a few things here and there that are fun. But it was crazy, when we shot the scene for Comic-Con, Jonah came up to me and said, “How would you feel about riding a horse with no hands at full speed shooting a rifle?” I said, “I mean, I can do it …”

You already knew you could!
No! I’d never done it! But I’ve ridden before, and I’ve ridden bareback, and when you ride, you’re already riding no hands anyway, but this is — it was a whole other level! I remember just kind of staying calm all day, and when it was over and we did it I was like, “Great, I’m going to go have a panic attack and get on my knees and thank God I’m still here!” But they’re so safe on that show, the wranglers are incredible and the horses so well-trained that it was one of the cooler things I’ve gotten to do in my life. So much fun. And not fake. [Laughs.]

It’s funny when you talk about how much more ambitious it is. They had to halt filming in the season one to rewrite scripts. So what does that mean, just on a practical standpoint, to make it more ambitious? 
We’re approaching it differently this year. They were writing while we were filming last time, and that was too complicated, so they have everything written. Season one, we were also shooting out of order, which is weird, but it was the first season, and it is an ambitious show, so we were all figuring out how it works. Now that we know how it works, we’re all kind of surrendered to the experience — and to never really knowing what’s going on.

You choose what you submit to the Emmys, right? What did you pick?
I submitted episode ten. You know, it all comes together for Dolores in that one.

And you knew she was going to do that?
No, not until I read it. I was absolutely shocked.

You were like, “Thank you!”
It was incredible! So well-written. Jonah directed the pilot and the last episode and they’re stunning, but no, I had no idea.

What did Anthony Hopkins say to you after you shot him in the head?
I went up to him after I read it and said, “I’m so sorry, I have to kill you!” and he was like, “No, it’s wonderful! It’s such a beautiful piece of the story! It’s great!” He was all for it, but it was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my life, holding a gun to Anthony Hopkins’s face. A real gun, not loaded! I was just like, “Ahhhhhh!!!!” [makes face of being excited and terrified and overjoyed all at the same time] “Ahhhhhhh!!!” I just kind of did one of these before every take.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Evan Rachel Wood on Her Gritty New Thriller and Westworld