Evan Rachel Wood on the Gaslighting of America

Given the recent deluge of news, from a porn star suing the president to the secretary of state getting fired via tweet, you may have missed Evan Rachel Wood’s testimony before Congress.

I urge you to watch it in its entirety.

Advocating for the implementation of the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights Act in every state, the Westworld actress recounted—in devastating detail—the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on her by malevolent men, and the trauma that followed.

The day after the election of Donald Trump, a man who’s been accused of sexual harassment or assault by at least 19 women, Wood opened up to Rolling Stone about her abuse for the first time publicly: “Yes. I’ve been raped. By a significant other while we were together. And on a separate occasion, by the owner of a bar… I don’t believe we live in a time where people can stay silent any longer. Not given the state our world is in with its blatant bigotry and sexism.”

Wood’s reveal came as she was shooting the film Allure in Canada.

Directed by Carlos and Jason Sanchez, Wood stars as Laura, a twenty-something drifting through life, haunted by her past. One day while cleaning houses she crosses paths with Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), a 16-year-old piano prodigy whose suffocatingly strict mother has crushed her spirit. Laura senses her sadness, and before long has convinced Eva to run away from home, live with her, and succumb to her sexual advances. As their illicit relationship intensifies, Laura becomes increasingly unstable, and ultimately must confront her own history of sexual abuse.  

The Daily Beast spoke to the 30-year-old Wood about her most “vulnerable” performance yet.

Before we get into the movie, I just wanted to thank you for your congressional testimony, which I thought was brave and extraordinary.

Thank you…Thank you very much. I’m glad I did it.

It seems like quite a bit was happening during the making of Allure. I read that you shot it in Canada during the U.S. presidential election, and actually had an election night party with the cast and crew.

[Laughs] Yes. I wrote about it in an essay that I did for Nylon, actually. Yes, I was in Canada when the U.S. election happened, and I thought about staying in Canada. It’s not really that funny, because it’s true! But yes, we did. Jason and Carlos came over with a bottle of champagne, and then that bottle of champagne did not get opened, let’s just say that. Everyone was sucker-punched.

What inspired you to make Allure? This doesn’t seem like an easy character to play. There are depths to her that you don’t normally see onscreen.

I was drawn to it at first because I was told that the character was originally written as a man, and that the creators had gender-swapped it. I thought, oh, I like that idea, so I read it. And I was surprised that it was their first film, because the writing was so good. It explored the subject from a different angle that I felt I hadn’t seen before, and represented abuse in a way that I felt was more honest than most because it wasn’t just from one perspective—it was multiple perspectives—and it showed the intimate nature of abuse, and how it’s a virus that spreads from person-to-person in one way or another. Laura is a casualty of abuse. Some people, you either go the dark route or sometimes you can pull yourself out of it, and she didn’t manage to pull herself out of it. Someone asked me why Laura did the things that she did, and I said, “Well, Laura is Eva. She just didn’t get away,” and I think it reframed the movie for them completely.

I thought it did an incredible job of capturing the lasting effects of abuse. The tremors. And it seems like Laura sees everything through the prism of that abuse.

I think it also shows unchecked trauma, because this is somebody who’s obviously endured a lot of hardship and trauma in her life, has never gotten help for it, lives in poverty, and it stuck. I also appreciated that they showed mental illness in a way that was an effect of trauma. I think a lot of times it’s “what came first, the chicken or the egg,” but in Laura’s case, I feel like a lot of what she’s exhibiting is from that PTSD. She’s drinking in every scene, she’s trying to push something down inside of herself that she can’t quite contain, and because she doesn’t have the language to deal with what she’s been through, it comes out in all these horrible ways.

In her mind, she doesn’t believe that she’s abusing somebody; she really believes that she’s saving somebody. That’s when abuse is really terrifying: when the person actually believes that they’re taking care of you, or that they love you, but they don’t really know what that is or how to express it. Laura is a prisoner of her own trauma. There are parts of the film where she’s displaying sings of disassociation and derealization, and you can tell that she’s in this world but not of this reality. There were things about her that I could appreciate in a way of, wow, I know how hard it is to feel things like that, and the feeling of leaving your body, so I was happy there was a film being made that shows it all. I don’t think showing the complexities of Laura makes you forgive anything she does, I think it just helps you understand it. And that’s where change is gonna come—when we start to understand it.

Yes, Laura adopts the traits of an abuser. You see it in the ways she gaslights Eva early on, telling her that she’s the only one who cares about her in the world.

One hundred percent, and that’s what happens: we do what we know. To her, that is what love is, and the only version of love that she knows. It’s tragic, but it also doesn’t make it ok. I did also respond to that type of abuse and the way it was portrayed in the movie. I thought, wow, they really captured the psychology of how this happens. If you’ve never been in an abusive situation or an abusive relationship, it’s very easy to judge and say, why don’t they leave? Why did they go back? There are many different factors that come into play in a situation like that.

If you come from any sort of abusive background where you’ve felt like you didn’t have a voice, or an identity, or you’re longing for this or that, or you feel alone, and then the big, bad wolf comes along and knows that’s your reality and knows that you’re the perfect candidate for them to be your “savior,” and says they’re going to love you and do all these things for you, and then almost uses that as an excuse to be able to abuse you, it’s just ass-backwards. It’s so backwards. But that’s how a lot of people think—they prey on the weak. And they have so many issues themselves so they can’t prey on an older, healthy grown-up because you’re not going to be able to get away with it, so unfortunately very young people, often people that don’t have good relationships with their families or have felt alone in the world, fall victim to these types of gaslighters.

I’m going to be vague so as not to give anything away, but in the film Laura’s abuser has stayed in the picture and continues to exert control over her—both financially and psychologically—which is a total mindfuck.

Exactly. It’s an abuse of power. She’s trapped and he’s been gaslighting her. You don’t really know the backstory and how they got to this point. The mom is not in the picture, she has a disabled brother, and the father seems to have replaced his absent wife with his young daughter as far as responsibilities and emotional support, so it’s like Stockholm syndrome. Some people get away, and some people don’t.

It was really important to me, too, that if we were going to empathize with Laura to still not let her off the hook, because I do believe that what she does to Eva is horrible, it’s abusive, it’s statutory rape, and it’s not ok in any sense. That was important to me in doing the role, is that I don’t want this to be a forgiveness note or something. I didn’t want it to be, now she’s better so let’s forgive her for what she did! She needs to get hers in the end as well, because she is an adult. We can be dealt really awful hands and we can turn it around—you don’t have to hurt other people, and you are an adult at some point who has a choice.

So you’re filming this up in Canada while the election’s going on, and it seems, at least from my outsider’s perspective, like this role was a profound one for you.

It was. I think a lot of artists will tell you that where they are in their lives weirdly reflects where they are in their art. To me, what art is—or can be—is an expression or a way of communicating what you’re feeling in a different medium that takes on a life of its own. I definitely think that this is one of those films that I related to, because I’ve had experiences with these kinds of people, and to be given the opportunity to play a role that wasn’t written for a woman but see it from the female perspective, and to not play the victim but play the abuser was really interesting for me. I mean, it’s no secret about my history now, so it was a complicated place for me to have to go.

You had to assume the mindset of an abuser, which must have been difficult.

Absolutely. But it’s definitely a mindset that I feel very familiar with, so I felt I could bring some real honesty to this. I knew that it was not going to be fun to do, but I knew it was important because I hadn’t seen it done this way, and the conversation was important. So I thought, ok, this is going to be reallyhard, but I’m passionate about it, and I also do believe in equal opportunities for women in film not just for heroic characters but for the flawed ones as well. And I felt very safe with Jason, Carlos and Julia. Once I saw her I was like, we’re done. She’s so good and she was also 19, so thank god. She photographs much younger in the movie, but she was of age, and so dedicated. I just kept having flashbacks to when I was a teenager doing these things and being in her role. My biggest worry in the film was that the abuse wouldn’t be believable because I would be too timid, so I was constantly checking in and making sure that everyone was ok and not being traumatized, and that we were having talks about everything we were doing. At a certain point Julia was like, “No, Evan, I’m ok!” and I was like, “Ok, well I just want to be sure!”

We also had a female cinematographer [Sara Mishara] which helped too. It made us feel safe, and like we could be vulnerable. This is the most vulnerable I’ve ever been on a set, and I’m glad I waited until I was older and strong enough to be able to handle it. I felt like I was in a good enough place in my life to go to that dark place and be ok. But it did take some time to shake her—not that I was bringing her behavior home, but I was depleted of energy and light for a moment. When we wrapped that film, I could not wait to get the wardrobe off fast enough. I was like, “Laura, I respect your journey, but I do not want to be you for one more second!” so I flung it off. I was ready to get back to me.

Embodying Laura seems to have unlocked something in you. In your Nylon essay you wrote about how you called Rolling Stonewhile you were filming this to come forward about your own abuse.

I did. I called them right after the election because they had asked me in the interview and I’d dodged the question about abuse, and about rape. So after the election, I said, “Right, well we don’t live in a world where I feel like I can do that anymore,” so I picked up the phone and I called them. And I also said, you know what? I’m going to wear suits to every awards show this year. I’d always wanted to do that but I thought, “I’m done. I’m not going to put on a dress just to be liked or because that’s what’s ‘acceptable’ or what’s going to be good for my career.” I didn’t want to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I think some women can relate to this, but it was a rebirth; a letting go of any kind of shackle or thing that was holding me back, or keeping me from being the best version of myself.

This industry is really good at scaring people—and scaring young people—into being things and doing things that they don’t want to do, but that they feel are not that big of a deal to give up because it’s for their career. But those things add up, and after a while I think you can forget who you were when you walked in, because you’ve given up pieces of yourself every day. People keep saying, “Oh, do this and it will be good for you,” and then later on you think, “Well, who the fuck am I? I broke in here because I was being my most honest self, and to sustain it I feel I have to give all that up.” I just never bought it. I wanted to be someone to try to disrupt that, because I think any sort of artistic space should be freeing and not stifling.

There’s a line from your Nylon essay that stuck with me concerning the election of Trump. You wrote, “I was going to have to face my rapist every day in the form of the President of the United States,” and that he “emits the same qualities” as an abuser, when you talk about the constant gaslighting, the manipulation of the truth, the lack of accountability…

…Yeah but almost even a step further than that, because sometimes I believe those people do tell you exactly who they are, but then they make you feel crazy for thinking about it. It’s a whole other level of messing with your head. Because our brains don’t go there automatically, we think, oh, nobody could be that evil or that manipulative, but I think people have to start believing that people are—and not only are they like that, there are how-to books written on how to break a woman’s will. And I get it: we want to believe that these things don’t exist, or that they’re too horrible and we couldn’t dream up these sorts of atrocities, or that people could just tell you who they were and no one would listen, like our president does. It’s so blatant and sickening.