As Old Dolio Dyne in Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire, Evan Rachel Wood is feral. The character, a Los Angeles 26-year-old who has been bred by her parents, Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), to help them carry out their small-scale scams, has never known life outside of their distorted, cold worldview.
But after the family meets the charismatic Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), Old Dolio glimpses another way of life — and possibly a way out.
Focus Features bought “Kajillionaire” out of the Sundance Film Festival in January, and released it into theaters, such as they are, on Sept. 25; it will hit premium VOD on Oct. 16. In an interview with Variety, Wood talked about creating Old Dolio with July, working with “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and the past roles she thinks about the most.
How did you and Miranda July create Old Dolio’s physicality?
We spent about a week with me just going over to Miranda’s studio and playing. And she would hand me some very baggy clothes, and she would give me certain limitations. So we’d do a scene and she said, “OK, you’re not allowed to look the other person 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.” “OK, do this one, but do it like you’re like a wild animal, like you’re a creature.”
Old Dolio is mysterious. I think gender is everything and nothing in this movie. It’s never spoken about, and none of the characters are necessarily thinking about it. And that in itself is the powerful statement — that it just is. And I think Miranda and myself believe that that’s really the future of gender. She could possibly be non-binary, had she ever been exposed to or had the language — but she doesn’t. She’s just herself.
We wanted to have that type of energy, and there were certain tells that would give me away — like my hands or my voice, or even the way I put my hair behind my ear. We found movements that were hers, and that were completely different than mine, that would fall into this very androgynous category.
Eventually, we found that the best animal to channel for Old Dolio was a proud lion. And then on set, she would constantly remind me: She’d yell out, “Voice!” or she’d yell out, “Hands!” or “Proud lion!” — these tells that we had found in the rehearsal process that we took with us on set.
I haven’t known a million proud lions in my time, so I’m interested — “lion” I can see, but why “proud”?
Old Dolio has lived her life without really any affection from her parents. Love is transactional, and love is based on performance. And how well she did cons, or how well she served her family. And she was more of a peer than a child. And so I think pride is something that is a very large part of who she is: It’s pride in what she does, it’s pride and how she serves her family. I think that’s why when Melanie comes along and throws her for such a loop, and her whole belief system is questioned, her pride is what’s threatened.
That makes sense. Miranda said that Old Dolio’s low speaking voice is actually your natural voice. Is that true?
I’m also a singer, and I started having vocal trouble. So I had to go to speech therapy, because my voice kind of naturally falls more down here [LOWERS VOICE]. And the speech therapist took me in, and said, “If you want to be a singer, you just can’t speak in that register, because it’s a strain on your vocal cords. You’ve got to bring it up.” I really didn’t want to. And 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. Which is very unfair to put on women, but it is something I’ve thought about.
It’s real, though. And how unfair that your natural register gives you nodes.
Yeah, it’s very real. I’m actually having to go back to speech therapy this year, again, because I’m having similar problems.
And I know, it bugs me. I wish I could have both, but I love singing so much, and that is how I naturally express myself. So I’d much rather be able to do that.
It’s a teeny, tiny cast, so I assume it was an intimate set. What was that like?
We did have a lot of fun making this. I think Richard Jenkins is one of the funniest men alive. I was so excited to work with Debra, obviously, she’s a Hollywood legend, and it seemed like a fun, rare opportunity to get to work with her — I also fell in love with her. Richard and Debra would come watch me sing, and come to my shows.
And I can’t say enough good things about Gina. I think she absolutely shines in this movie. She steals the show, in my opinion. She’s just so genuine, but has this incredible attitude and confidence. But she’s wicked smart and determined and a hard worker and a giving actor, and I just loved everything about it. It just felt so easy with her.
But it did feel like filming two different movies, because there was the movie that we filmed with Richard and Debra, which was darker and a bit scarier and a little unsettling. Then the days when it was just me and Gina and Miranda — oh my God, we would just laugh and cry and just create these incredible tender, complicated, beautiful moments.
It is also a queer love story. What did that mean to you?
I mean, I think Miranda looks at it as more of a heist movie, and these two characters happen to fall in love. And what I loved about the screenplay, when I read it, is it’s never discussed. It’s not what the film is about. It’s never talked about; it simply is. And that in itself meant so much to me as a queer woman.
What’s it like to be releasing a movie during these crazy times?
There’s obviously some grieving there. I feel for Miranda — because, of course, there’s so many plans, and things that we wanted to do.
It could also be a blessing; I mean, it might reach more people this way, I don’t know. It’s hard not to be disappointed.
Pivoting to “Westworld”! What’s happening?
You tell me! See, people always ask me, thinking that I know. And I always say, “I know as much as you do.” I have no idea what Season 4 is going to look like yet. And I mean, thank goodness, we had just finished Season 3 right before the pandemic. I know they were finishing editing the series during lockdown, which I don’t know how they did. So I’m assuming by the time we go back everything should be [PAUSE] — functional? I don’t know! I wish I had more information.
When my colleague Adam Vary asked Jonah Nolan if you were leaving the show, he said, “I f—ing hope not.”
All I know is Dolores, as we know it, is dead. And that is true. But as far as I know, I’m not leaving. But I don’t think I’ll be back in the same incarnation.
When did you learn that she was essentially going to die?
I mean, technically she’s died every season? But this was certainly a true death, having lost her memories. Even if she came back, she’d never be the same Dolores that we knew.
So I got the phone call — I think toward the end of the season, maybe in the middle — and Jonah broke the news. I know they always have something up their sleeve, so it’s always hard for me to take what they say at face value. But he was very clear, he said: “This is it. There’s no strings here.”
I had to go through a mourning period, because I love that character so much. And I’ve been on such a journey with her. And it’s influenced my own life, and changed me as a person. So she’s always going to hold a space very close to my heart. And again, who knows what they have up their sleeves, but it will be interesting coming back and playing yet another character. If that is in fact where we end up going!
Your co-star Thandie Newton has been outspoken about some of her frustrations with “Westworld.” Do you have any of those of your own?
Yes and no. I think we’re so invested in these characters, and helped build them from the ground up. You feel like you know them. And so when they do things that you don’t feel like they would do, it can feel wrong. But I think that’s a sign that we really care about what we’re doing, and that we’ve truly emotionally invested in the roles that we’re playing.
I think “Westworld” has never been — it’s never followed the formula. And so some things are going to feel strange, because it’s never really been done. And we’re seeing characters, especially women, do things that we do not normally get to see them do. We see them being flawed human beings. Even the so-called heroines in “Westworld” do insanely brutal and violent things, because this isn’t a black and white show. And I think that’s exactly what Jonah and Lisa are trying to show about humanity.
So, of course, there’s times when I miss the original Dolores from the first season — this very pure and hopeful person, you know — before she turned into a Terminator. And, yeah, I mean, sometimes it’s difficult, because you want to go with the formula. You want to be likable and you want to be a hero. And that’s just not the show that we’re on.
It was interesting rewatching the season finale to prep for this interview with all the rioting within it, considering the protests and uprisings of this summer.
No one is more chilled to the bone by that than the people who worked on “Westworld”! We ended the show on this finale where there was a huge riot, and everyone is wearing masks. And suddenly the season ended, and then we watched the world do exactly that almost immediately after we had filmed that. And I think it really freaked us all out. I actually texted some of the cast and crew and said, “Does anybody else feel like we were groomed for this?” But I think that speaks volumes about Jonah and Lisa, and how in tune they are with society and humanity at large.
How do you decide where to focus your own activism?
When I started being an activist, I really asked myself, where do I even start? So the place that I usually start, because I feel like I’m going to do the most good, are the places that I have direct experience. I think that’s why I’ve done so much on domestic violence, and sexual assault. And trying to own my white privilege and be more aware of it and do my work — you know, things that I have first-hand experience with is where I like to start. Not that I can’t do anything that I haven’t experienced. But 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.
Obviously, everything is so strange right now with production. Do you know what’s next for you, acting-wise?
I don’t! I take a lot of time off in between “Westworld,” purely because I have to recover. It’s so intense to film all of that in such a small time. I have my band, and I write. I’m always staying busy and doing something artistic, even if it’s not in the public eye. But I think right now I’m just taking a break and seeing what’s out there. I was enjoying this forced sabbatical. I’ve been able to spend some amazing quality time with my son, and get my house in order and catch up on normal life, which is nice.
I saw on your Instagram that were doing a live streaming performance from Hotel Cafe. Did you see that Rachel Brosnahan commented on that photo that she mistook you for her? It made me laugh!
We always get mistaken for one another. And sometimes I’ll go on social media and speak like I’m her and sometimes she’ll speak like she’s me, just to mess with people. I think after she did “SNL,” I said, “Oh, I had such a fun time hosting ‘SNL’ the other night!” So we do things like that, and we finally got to meet in person and discuss and laugh about it. We do look eerily similar. Sometimes I see photos of her and I think it’s me, and I’m like, “Ah, duped again!”
Our time is winding down, so I’m going to ask you a few random questions. Tell me about quitting Twitter!
Yeah, you know, honestly, I think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made! Really.
What made you do it?
It was like a domino effect, and it just kept getting worse. I could just tell that I was allowing too much negativity into my life. I already struggle a bit with anxiety, and I have PTSD — and there are certain things that I don’t need in my psyche.
It felt like certain things that I would bring up would be taken out of context. And then I’d see it written about, and it would be, like, “Evan Rachel Wood goes on a rant!” or “Evan Rachel Wood attacks this person!” I could see I could see the agenda of trying to make me this irrational, ranting and raving feminist. And the work that I’m doing for domestic violence and for survivors is just too important to me. I didn’t want to damage that cause anymore. And I could see that the more I was going to be outspoken, the more they were going to try to make me out as this ranting raving, like, extremist. And I just thought, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to play into this anymore.
Jealous. How has your quarantine been?
I’m privileged, so I’m fine. However, quarantining with a small child evens playing field a little bit. But it’s been a wonderful mixture of chaos and precious moments. And kids actually help, you know? Because I’m doing my best to shield him from this because he’s still so young. I’m just trying to make things fun for him.
Which of your past roles do you find yourself thinking about the most?
“Into the Forest” pops out. Female director — that was led by three queer women. And I thought it was some of the best acting Ellen Page and I have ever done. We had such an incredible experience making it. That was a really special project to work on. “Across the Universe” too.
You know, I did a really intense film called “Allure,” which I don’t know if a lot of people saw. I was incredibly proud of it. And it was different for me, because I was playing the perpetrator in that film. I killed myself doing that movie. I collapsed on the last day of shooting, because it was just such an intense headspace to be in for that long. But it was very cathartic for me, and weirdly when I was filming that film is when I came out about my own experiences — it was in the middle of shooting that. I came forward about my own abuse while I was playing an abuser in a film.
Wow, I’ll look for that. I haven’t heard of that movie.
It was a role that was originally written for a man, and they gender-swapped it and turned it into a woman. I feel like it made the film 10 times more interesting. Because I seduce a very young girl into running away with me. And essentially we develop an incredibly toxic, unhealthy abusive relationship. And I was just like, “Yes! Yes! Women can also be this.”
For my final question, Evan, what do you get out of acting that you don’t get from any other part of your life?
Ooooh! I guess this goes for acting and singing, but I have ADD, so I’m always multitasking, and thinking about a million things at once. And I talk really fast, and I’m jumping around from topic to topic. When I’m acting, I’m not thinking about anything. It is, like, the thing that makes me stop thinking. And it is the time where I am the most present. Maybe not the most present, because obviously I’m playing different characters — but the time where it all fades away. And I think I can be very socially awkward at times. And like I said, singing is really my language, and talking — sometimes I’m just not good at it.
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.
It’s like, here’s where you go to feel. To feel everything!
This interview has been edited and condensed. To read Variety’s profile of Wood, click here. To read a failed investigation into why Wood’s “Once and Again” doesn’t stream anywhere, as well as an ode to the ABC show, click here.