It’s something of a miracle that a film like Across The Universe exists in the first place. Set to 34 classic Beatles compositions with limited dialogue, it tells the story of the blossoming romance between an American girl and a Liverpudlian artist, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and other counterculture movements of the ‘60s. Featuring trippy set pieces, a largely unknown cast, and Bono in a handlebar mustache, Across The Universe is something of a Trojan horse: an audacious arthouse musical disguised as a glossy blockbuster.
That might explain why the $70 million production opened to a polarized response, and made back only $29 million when it was finally released in 2007, after numerous delays and battles between the studio and director Julie Taymor over its final cut. The film was derided as a box office dud and career setback for its cast of up-and-comers, which included Evan Rachel Wood as an all-American college girl who dreams of changing the world. But in the 11 years since its release, it has grown to become a beloved cult classic — especially among millennials, who have come to discover the Beatles’ music through Taymor’s technicolor fantasy world of 1960s New York.
This Sunday, Fathom Events is re-releasing Across The Universe in theaters across the country. And if the film felt of-the-moment in 2007, its focus on activism, protests, queer identity, and art as a means of dismantling government corruption feel particularly resonant in 2018. Wood certainly agrees; since the film’s release, she’s gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most outspoken superstars. Fresh off her recent Emmy nomination for the second season of Westworld, Wood chatted with them. about the legacy of Across The Universe, the rise of #MeToo, and the need for more bi visibility in Hollywood.
Across The Universe has cultivated such a devoted fanbase over the years, but it’s fair to say that its initial reception wasn’t too positive. Do you think the film was misunderstood upon its original release?
I think it didn’t get the power behind it that it needed. There was some turmoil because the studio wanted to make a lot of changes and we all felt like it wasn’t the movie that we made. I think the trade-off is that we got the movie we wanted released, but we didn’t get the backing, and it suffered because of that. And I think it was ahead of its time. Even while making it we knew it was something that was gonna build over time and become a cult classic. It had that potential, so I don’t think we were worried. But we were disappointed that other people couldn’t see that. I think we all knew that this fanbase would find its way and stick with the film the way it did us.
Do you think the reception to the film would’ve been different if it’d been released in 2018?
I think so, yeah. I think people were afraid of the politics in it as it came out right when we had gone to war. When we were filming the Fifth Avenue protest scenes, it was so relevant to the point that we had posters up saying “War Is Over” and “Peace Now” and everyone wanted us to leave them up. A lot of people thought it was a real protest. It was when I feel like the country started to change, at least in my eyes, and the future was still very unknown. Right now we’re all embracing this revolution and it’s undeniable that there’s this shift happening. Things are still unknown but I feel like people are more energized and involved.
Julie Taymor’s battle against the studio for final cut on the film was made pretty public. Did you ever see that back-and-forth struggle?
I didn’t, but I heard about it, and from what I heard it was a bit horrifying. I mean, they didn’t wanna make Prudence gay, they wanted to take the riot out of “Let It Be,” and take some of the politics out of it. They wanted to play it safe and keep it in “fluffy musical land” as a pill that’s easy to swallow. But that’s not what The Beatles were about. This film was made by Beatles fans and that’s not the Beatles musical I wanted to see. We wanted to deliver what we felt was right. People were like “You don’t even wanna see this cut…” Just hearing about it was enough for us to go "Oh no…” That’s the reason we all put our foot down in that way, because that’s just what we believed in.
Was Prudence’s storyline, which focused on her coming into her queer identity, important for you to see through in the finished film?
Absolutely. I thought it was an amazing idea that Julie had to make “I Want To Hold Your Hand” a girl singing it to another girl. I thought it was an amazing reveal when you’re watching the scene and think she’s singing to the football player and realize she’s singing to the cheerleader. I thought it was brilliant! And it’s a testament to Julie and her ideas and how she’ll go off the beaten path, which I think we all appreciated.
The film’s found a particularly passionate audience within the queer community. Prudence’s storyline aside, what do you think it is about the film that LGBTQ+ audiences find so comforting?
I think because it’s about youth and free love and finding yourself and pushing boundaries and revolution and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about this group of outcasts who move to New York and find each other and form their own kind of family and community during a really tumultuous time. It’s a fight for love in a time of war. It seems like those themes are something that the queer community could relate to in some way.
In a lot of ways it’s a sort of miracle that a film like Across The Universe was made in the first place.
I agree! It’s a big-budget arthouse movie basically, and Julie is one of the only people who can really pull that off. It’s what happens when arthouse films get the budget, which never happens.
Why do you think movies like that aren’t being made today?
Because there’s this constant battle between creatives and people with money, and both need each other to get the job done. At the end of the day, the people with the money are in control of what gets made and what doesn’t. Arthouse movies are a bit more off-the-wall and for people who are non-creatives, a weird idea seems like a risky idea. But I think they’re not giving weirdos enough credit. We’ve started to play it really safe. I mean, that’s why you’re just seeing kind of franchises and remakes with a built-in audience instead of coming up with new ideas that are gonna ignite something in somebody. Make films for the hipsters, the alternatives, the weirdos, the black sheeps. They’re there, they love movies, and they wanna see them but we’ve been neglecting that and we’re not seeing these movies getting made.
You were only 18 when Across The Universe was made. How do you look back on that particular moment in your life?
I really related to Lucy and her journey and that’s something Julie saw in me. I moved out of my mother’s house while we were filming. I turned 18 and moved to New York, so I consider Across The Universe my college experience because I didn’t go to college. That was the first time I was on my own living with this group of artists and creatives doing this Beatles musical for almost a year and it was completely transformative and life-changing and beautiful. I look back at that time as one of the most special times in my life as something that was completely transformative that I carry with me all the time.
You recently tweeted about a directing project you’ve been trying to pitch for two years and the sexism you faced in business meetings among other struggles. Have there been any developments since you made those struggles public?
What’s funny is after I announced on Twitter that I was trying to make this and having trouble, a lot of great people reached out. The point of that wasn’t to be like ‘It’s been two years and why isn’t my movie being made!’ It wasn’t an entitlement kind of thing. I know it can take much, much longer to get a movie made. It takes time. But I’ve heard people say ‘why aren’t there more female directors, why aren’t there more female-driven movies, why aren’t these being made?’ I wanted to show ‘Look, we are trying, just so you know. I’ve been trying to get this movie made for two years.’ And I’m established and it’s difficult, so imagine how hard it is for someone just stepping into this with an amazing idea who can’t even get in the door. But I am still plugging away at it and there’s definitely progress. It’s a female-driven film with queer characters and women of color. I tried to make it a diverse and inclusive story and cast. I’m planning on directing it, it’s written by me and another woman, and I’m gonna be in it as well. I basically wrote a character I’ve always wanted to play that girls don’t normally get asked to play. I started writing it three years ago, so it was before a lot of what we’re seeing in the entertainment industry now, which tells me I’m not the only one feeling that way and that it’s a perfect time for this movie. But I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.
You’ve been acting for over two decades and constantly outspoken about the rampant sexism and homophobia in the entertainment industry. Post-#MeToo, have you noticed a positive shift in the industry at all?
I think we’re definitely seeing a shift. People are listening in a different way, but just like when they abolished slavery, racism didn’t go away. Now we’re aware of the issues, and now we have to actually put things into action and change things. The fight has just begun and now it’s gonna take a lot of people backing it up and really doing the footwork to move things. Now the door’s open and we have to go in and start shifting things around.
You’ve spoken about how important it was for your development as a young queer woman to hear an actress tell you what “bisexuality” was. In the context of LGBTQ+ youth, how important do you think it is for queer public figures to be open about their sexuality?
I think everyone’s gotta do it on their own time because it’s a very personal process and you can’t force or guilt anybody into doing it. I think when you’re ready it’s important because it helps normalize things. If you’re carrying shame or frustration, those are feelings that are really damaging to someone’s psyche and self-esteem. It’s unnecessary pain. I can only speak from my experience, but it still means a lot to me when someone comes out. Bisexuality really gets the shaft a lot and is something that isn’t really taken seriously so people don’t know enough about struggles that come with it. I mean it’s hard for me to even think of bisexual film characters. I just watched Call Me By Your Name and I freaked out, like, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this was a bisexual movie? Why did I hear nothing about this?’ That could’ve been a great opportunity.
Do you ever get sick of feeling like you have to be the one to educate others about these kinds of issues, though?
I don’t get like annoyed or sick but I do get tired. But especially just being a woman in any kind of position of power, I feel a massive responsibility to say things and get out and fight, because that’s just where we are. But there’s a lot of emotion and pressure that comes with that and while I am out doing things and fighting for things I believe in, it does take an emotional toll and sometimes I do have to take a step back to recharge because it can be really upsetting. It’s also something that I feel is kind of involuntary that I have to do or I can’t rest.
Some performers have said that they don’t like being referred to as a “bi actor” and having their sexuality hashed out in interviews. In the face of mainstream Hollywood, do you ever worry about being boxed in a “bi actress”?
I mean if it’s for fodder like “bisexual actress does blah blah blah,” it’s like you’re just using that for a story, which is just exploiting it. But otherwise I don’t mind. I always kind of felt that whatever I did would stand on its own and I wouldn’t be defined by that. And even if I was it’s like, well, whatever. I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing. It’s more annoying when it’s exploited or only used when it’s convenient to make a story juicier or used as an excuse like ‘well obviously this person has crazy behavior or is slutty and is bisexual.’ I don’t use that word but I’m saying other people do. And it’s like ‘no no no that person’s going through whatever they’re going through, it has nothing to do with them being bisexual. Don’t use that as an excuse for someone’s behavior.’ I see that sometimes where I’m like ‘you never talk about this person being bisexual but now that’s it’s a story you’re using it to perpetuate this idea that they’re somehow off the wall’ and that’s not cool.
When LGBTQ+ youth don’t have a supportive environment in their everyday lives, artists they admire often take the role of emotional support. Did you experience this as a youth becoming more aware of their identity?
Absolutely. Musicians and artists and actors would become these sort of beacons of hope. The more I heard about their journeys and what goes on in their heads and their flaws, it carried me through a lot of those experiences. So 100 percent, I believe that to be true. I grew up with an open-minded, artistic family but I still had shame and was scared to tell my family. I still feel elements of shame and things that are hard-wired into your brain, that’s how we’re programmed. It’s a process of de-learning. Even when you intellectually know something, sometimes the feeling remains because it’s just imprinted on you. That’s why I’d have Bowie or Kurt Cobain over my wall, these that I feel stood for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time! There were so many women that I remember being like “Oh man I wanna be them!” and in retrospect I’m like “Hmm did you wanna be them or did you love them?” Like man I loved Melissa Etheridge and KD Lang, I couldn’t have been more cliche as a child.
That’s the way I feel about Across The Universe, and I’m assuming so many others who connected to it so deeply at a young age without maybe understanding why.
Exactly! Sometimes those people and things are in your life and you don’t know why until later.