In the new Miranda July film, “Kajillionaire” — which Focus Features bought after the Sundance Film Festival this year, seemingly a lifetime ago, and which will hit theaters Sept. 25 — Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio, the third in a trifecta of scam artists. Her partners are Robert and Theresa Dyne, played darkly and comically in equal measure by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. Robert and Theresa incidentally (very incidentally, as they see it) are Old Dolio’s parents, and have raised her to be a grifter in the small-scale deceptions that keep them semi-housed and fed. Wood learned of the role through a mutual friend she and July share, and the two of them had dinner together in December 2017 after Wood had read the script. It’s not often that Miranda July makes a movie, after all — “Kajillionaire” is only her third feature, including her 2005 debut, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” — so Wood “shot to the moon” in excitement, she says.
July was a “fan” of Wood’s, but thought she was “mysterious,” and wanted to learn more about her. “I knew she was a very good actress, but she’s such a shape-shifter that I remember looking at different things online and being like, Who is she?” July says. “So I remember when we met over dinner, I was still really looking for clues as to her soul. Like, of course she could play any part, but with her soul, is there an Old Dolio in there?” During their discussion, Wood compared Old Dolio to Edward Scissorhands — and bingo, July says: “That to me was, like, ‘OK, this is just a matter of us doing this very enjoyable work together,’ to sculpt it. But absolutely — the soul is there.”
Wood, 33, has been acting since she was a child: Her first credited role was when she was 7, in the 1994 CBS miniseries “In the Best of Families: Money, Pride and Madness.” Throughout her career, she’s starred in indie films (“Thirteen”) and mainstream ones (“Frozen II”), as well as leading Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical “Across the Universe” (2007), which underperformed at the box office but became a cult classic on cable — particularly with stoners drawn to the psychedelic montages. Wood has successfully toggled between movies and television, and currently stars on HBO’s “Westworld,” though … yes, her character, Dolores, did die in the show’s May finale. (“All I know is Dolores, as we know it, is dead,” she says. “And that is true. But as far as I know, I’m not leaving.”)
She is also an established singer in the band Evan + Zane (with guitarist/singer-songwriter Zane Carney) — “Some people call us a cover band, but I call us a themed cabaret band,” she says with a laugh, emphasizing each word. Singing and acting: Wood knows she needs them both. “I can be very socially awkward at times,” she says. “But when there’s a script and the words are there, and you know where the conversation is going to go, it gives me such freedom to feel and to let my emotions out in a safe way. I can’t say the wrong thing. My whole life — I mean, God, I’ve been doing this since I was 5, Jesus — so my whole life it’s been this really therapeutic thing.”
Wood is an activist as well, and in 2019 created the Phoenix Act, which extends the statute of limitations on domestic violence to five years (from three). California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law in October, and it took effect in January. The causes Wood focuses on stem from her personal experiences — with domestic violence and sexual assault — which she has revealed publicly over time. “I do feel like if I’m going to be speaking and representing something, it’s best that I know what I’m talking about,” she says.
If former child actors can be guarded, or opaque, Wood does not seem to be. In fact, she quit Twitter a few months ago because by freely expressing her opinions, she would accidentally make headlines. “And it would be, like, ‘Evan Rachel Wood goes on a rant!’ or ‘Evan Rachel Wood attacks this person!’” she says. Not wanting to detract from the work she is doing, she deactivated her account.
“Honestly, I think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made!” she says, laughing again. “Really.”
In “Kajillionaire,” Wood shape-shifts, to borrow July’s term, into Old Dolio: a neglected, barely verbal person who has been conscripted by her delusional parents into a life of petty crimes that satisfy her father’s anger while he waits for, as he ominously calls it, “the Big One” to hit. Old Dolio has grown up in a cult of three. And when the Dynes meet the charismatic and utterly winning Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) — who has problems of her own, sure, but normal ones — Old Dolio and Melanie enter into a relationship that just might free Old Dolio from the cult, and introduce her to the joys of the world as well.
Usually, Wood says, she doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal. “I like getting messy; I like trying a million things,” she says. But she was in July’s world, she knew, so the two of them created Old Dolio at July’s studio before the movie began shooting in the summer of 2018. July would dress Wood in the baggy clothes Old Dolio hides in, and they would improvise, focusing on the character’s “limitations.” July wouldn’t let Wood express herself with her hands, for instance, nor could she look her in the eye.
“And then we’d do it again, and she’d say, ‘You’re actually not allowed to use words this time; you have to communicate through movements or sounds or your eyes.’ Or ‘OK, do this one, but do this like you’re like a wild animal, like you’re a creature,’” Wood remembers. “Eventually, we found that the best animal to channel for Old Dolio was a proud lion. And so occasionally on set when the camera was on me, she would shout out, ‘Proud lion!’ and I would know what she meant.”
For July, it was about finding Old Dolio through physicality. “Really, it’s about, what does is it feel like intellectually? What is the speed of that mind?” July says. “And I think by the time she was in that kind of animal, knocking-books-off-the-shelf place, it was like, ‘OK, keep that feeling. And now you have these lines,’ you know?”
Old Dolio’s voice is a deep, monotonous alto, and seems put on for the role. Yet it turns out that is, in fact, Wood’s natural register — she’s just been trained out of it by a speech therapist after developing nodes on her vocal cords. She had to learn to speak in a higher voice (to Wood’s dismay) so she can continue to sing. “I had to get over this idea that the higher my voice was, the less people were going to take me seriously, or think I was smart,” she says. “Which is very unfair to put on women, but it is something I’ve thought about.”
Wood’s Old Dolio is a cipher who has lived on the margins of Los Angeles — something that fascinates Melanie, and attracts her too. “Kajillionaire” is, among other things, a queer love story, which is important to Wood, who came out as bisexual in 2011. But it’s complicated: “I think gender is everything and nothing in this movie,” she says. “It’s never spoken about, and none of the characters are necessarily thinking about it.”
As for the romance itself, Wood continues, “It’s never talked about; it simply is. And that in itself meant so much to me as a queer woman.”
Of course, the world has changed dramatically since “Kajillionaire” had its celebratory premiere in January at Sundance. And with movie theaters having become contested spaces during the coronavirus shutdowns, there is a mournful aspect to releasing a movie these days. Indeed, “Kajillionaire” will get a shortened theatrical release, and will hit premium VOD on Oct. 16. “I was so proud that Focus bought it, and so excited for everything they could do with that theatrical release,” July says with a sigh. And Wood adds: “There’s obviously some grieving there. I feel for Miranda — because, of course, there are so many plans and things that we wanted to do.”
If there is a bright side, it’s that some of the thematic power of “Kajillionaire” has accidentally deepened because of the current circumstances. The idea of touch is fraught in the film, and Old Dolio’s yearning for affection will now feel more resonant than it would have pre-pandemic. When they filmed the scene in which Old Dolio and Melanie first touch one another, July recalls thinking, “This feels so intense to me. But it’s also just nothing — like, we’re used to fucking in movies. Will this register as anything?”
If it wouldn’t have before, it certainly will now. Plus, July adds, using the doomsday language she gave Robert in “Kajillionaire,” “I’m pretty sure we’re in the Big One!”
Wood was already taking time off, as she does between seasons of “Westworld” (“to recover,” she says), when the stay-at-home orders happened. So, as one asks these days, how has her quarantine been? “I’m privileged, so I’m fine,” she says. “However, quarantining with a small child evens the playing field a little bit.” (Her son, to whom she gave birth during her marriage to Jamie Bell, is 7.)
“It’s been a wonderful mixture of chaos and precious moments,” Wood says.
She plans to return to “Westworld” when it begins production again. But given that the show took its sweet time between seasons even before there was a global pandemic, she has no idea when that will be. “I’m assuming by the time we go back, everything should be” — she pauses for a long beat, and switches to upspeak — “functional?”
Wood will be playing another character on the show — she thinks. Anyone who’s watched the befuddling “Westworld” knows that anything is possible. She will certainly miss Dolores though: “I’ve been on such a journey with her. And it’s influenced my own life, and changed me as a person.”
It all goes back to why Wood loves acting in the first place. When asked what she gets out of her profession, she has an eloquent answer.
“It just has taught me tremendous empathy, because I have to imagine myself as someone else,” Wood says. “And it’s given me a greater understanding of people and psychology, and what makes people do the things that they do. And honestly, I think it’s made me — I hope it’s made me — a better person.”