Evan Rachel Wood and I are seated on a couch in the corner of a cavernous L.A. photography studio, each of us curled up in pretzel-like ways: me, one knee pulled up to my chest and leaning sharply to the side; Wood, one leg tucked snugly under her, the other loose over the edge of the couch.
“Have you seen the bi chair?” she asks me excitedly. We are deep in conversation about her recent obsession with internet memes about bisexuality. Like Wood, I’m also bi. So yes, I’ve absolutely seen the bi chair.
If you’re unfamiliar with the joke, at some point the internet decided that “not sitting properly” is part of bisexual culture. The bi chair is a chair that went viral because it appears to perfectly accommodate our slouching, dangling, leg-crossing, and otherwise crookedly sitting ways. And in this moment, Wood and I, each curled up and twisted in our respective seats, are basically poster children for the bi chair itself.
“That’s why it made me laugh so hard,” she says. “Because I didn’t even realize it was a thing until I started looking back at pictures of myself. I thought, ‘We can’t sit!’”
Here’s where I confess that, leading up to our conversation, I’d hoped that we might spend a chunk of our time together laughing about bisexual inside jokes (I even crowdsourced people’s go-to definitions of “disaster bi” for the ocassion). Wood has made fans—particularly of the queer women variety—through her affinity for talking frankly about bisexuality and, if I had to guess, wearing a not-insignificant number of suits over the years. You might even say she’s reached Bicon status (Bi Icon, for the straights). So I wasn’t about to roll into an interview with her without diving into the type of stuff you can only talk to other bi people about.
But there’s also the fact that I’d known going into the interview that the conversation was going to focus on significantly darker, harder topics, like domestic violence, sexual assault, and recovery from trauma. So for me, at least, as we sit there laughing, these small joyful moments feel like a welcome respite—bits of comic relief and mutual recognition punctuating an otherwise broiling stew of frustration and rage. Because there are a lot of things to be mad about, and we don’t waste our time getting into all of it.
Wood has worked in the entertainment industry since she was five years old, when she auditioned for the lead role in Interview With the Vampire and lost out to Kirsten Dunst. Her highlight reel is multidimensional and varied, from her breakthrough role as a teen rebel in Thirteen to the Vampire Queen of Louisiana in True Blood. She’ll reprise her role as ex-damsel in distress Dolores next year in Westworld’s third season. And next month she’ll make her Disney animation debut in Frozen II, voicing Queen Iduna, Elsa and Anna’s mother.
But beyond the normal day-to-day of her busy career, Wood has spent a lot of time recently doing a different kind of work: advocating on behalf of domestic violence survivors, like herself.
In February 2018, she testified in front of a subcommittee of the United States Congress about the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. And in April 2019, Wood testified in front of the California Senate Public Safety Committee. In her testimony, Wood went into excruciating detail about her own experiences with intimate partner violence, sharing that her abuser once tied her up and shocked her on sensitive parts of her body; that he made threats on her life; that he raped her. That she is, to this day, still terrified, traumatized, and very much in the process of working through it all.
She was advocating for passage of the Phoenix Act, a bill that she drafted with a team of domestic violence survivors, and which creates exceptions to the statute of limitations for domestic violence crimes. The Phoenix Act passed unanimously in California after her testimony (and was subsequently approved by the governor on October 7). Now Wood wants to bring the Phoenix Act to other states.
The day we meet, she’s wearing a jacket emblazoned with a phoenix—a gift, she tells me, and the way I see it, also a testament to her commitment to the cause. She became motivated to develop and advocate for the Phoenix Act because of her own experiences trying to bring her abuser to justice. She says that, years after the relationship ended, she gathered up all the evidence she had (of which she says there was an enormous amount, including photographs and video) and went to her lawyer—but it didn’t matter. The statute of limitations was up and all of the evidence was obsolete in the eyes of the law.
“It just seemed wrong to me that you could walk into a police station with a video of somebody committing a violent offense against you, and there’s nothing that could be done,” she tells me. “That just didn’t compute in my brain. I wanted to try to create a law that will catch the survivors that are slipping through the cracks.”
Wood hasn’t named her abuser. It’s not to make a point that the system is fucked up—although it is, she points out, extremely fucked up. It’s because, quite simply, she still doesn’t feel safe or protected enough to name him. When someone on Twitter asked why she kept him anonymous, Wood replied, “They threatened to kill me or have me killed.”
“I’m so scared,” she tells me. “People are like, ‘Why don’t you name your abuser?’ And I’m like, I tried, I tried; I did all the things that I was supposed to do and I was told there’s nothing I could do. It was too late,” she says.
Meanwhile, she tells me that testifying brought on a variety of emotions—anxiety, shame, validation, and relief, to name a few—but beneath all that was a simple truth: Wood is pissed that she has to do this at all.
“I don’t want this to be my story,” she says. “I hate that this is my story. I hate having to talk about it. I hate having to relive it. But that’s why I have to do it. If it’s not me, it’s going to be some other survivor.”
One of Wood’s goals is to shine a spotlight on domestic violence specifically. Among other things, she wants to shatter the narrative of, “Why don’t you just leave?”
Wood rattles off answers to that question, one by one: A victim is more likely to be killed by their intimate partner when they try to leave the relationship. Nearby shelters could be full. Someone’s abuser might have control over their finances or their car. Or they know who and where a victim’s friends and family are, and they might threaten violence on them, too. She speaks quickly, and it’s obvious to me that she knows this material very well, presumably a consequence of the work she’s been doing.
“It’s not always that easy to leave,” Wood says. “They take away your privacy or take away your freedoms. And it happens slowly and steadily until one day you look around, you go, ‘Oh, my God, I’m trapped here. I am trapped.’ ”
If someone doesn’t know the statistics or hasn’t spoken to a survivor, often their only perception of abuse is what they see in the media, which is frequently misleading. “They assume that if they were in that situation they would act differently,” she says. “And that just shows you that we are not talking about this enough and people don’t understand the complexities behind it.”
And so her advocacy work continues.
For a long time, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been an umbrella diagnosis for the symptoms that develop in the aftermath of a terrifying event, like flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. Most people associate the disorder with war veterans, but anyone who has experienced or witnessed trauma can develop it. But despite a singular diagnosis, experts are starting to look into how symptoms of PTSD can differ depending on the trauma that caused it.
In fact, some are even pushing for two separate diagnoses: PTSD, which results from one-time traumas like natural disasters, mass violence, accidents, and rape, and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), which comes at the hands of prolonged, repeated trauma such as going to war, domestic violence, childhood physical and sexual abuse, and concentration camps. Though CPTSD is not yet officially recognized as a separate condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), some doctors will diagnose it and many people with PTSD are embracing it as a label that accurately describes their experience. Evan Rachel Wood is one such person.
Wood says that symptoms of CPTSD regularly affect her life. She experiences disassociation, panic attacks, night terrors, agoraphobia, impulse control, and chronic pain, just to name a few. For a long time, it was hard for her to cry about what had happened to her because, she says, her body protected her from it.
There’s a book, The Body Keeps the Score, that is something close to gospel for many survivors of trauma. An exploration of how trauma leaves its mark on someone’s mind, emotions, and body, many find comfort and even healing in its pages. I ask if Wood has read it. She has, and it’s the first book she recommends for anyone with PTSD.
“Sometimes I’m afraid to be alone in my house,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t even go out of my front door to get a package. I’m that scared. And that’s when I get really pissed off, because you can sit there and intellectualize it all day and go, ‘There’s nobody out there waiting to kill you. Go out your front door.’ But your body is paralyzed. It just won’t do it, because the memory is still in your body.”
Which is partially why she finds it so galling when people dismiss survivors, telling them to just get over it already. “All we want to do is get over it,” Wood says. “I would love to not talk about this and never think about it again. But that’s not possible.”
It’s particularly hard to “just get over it” given the current political and social climate, which nearly demands that people lay bare their most vulnerable and even traumatic truths in the hope of bringing about change, as Wood has done. With the surge of attention on the Me Too movement in 2017 came a near-constant deluge of stories about sexual assault and abuse on social media and in the news, and it hasn’t always been easy for many survivors like Wood to witness. The outpouring of stories certainly spread awareness about the astonishing prevalence of sexual violence, but it also retraumatized a lot of people. “It was like an avalanche when Me Too hit,” Wood says. “It was difficult to get out of bed sometimes.”
But she also can see the value in it. For example, she says that testifying publicly made her feel validated in a way she hadn’t anticipated. “To have members of Congress look at me and say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t your fault,’ I just broke down in the middle of the hearing room,” she says. “That was like the first time I really just like let it go. I knew I had been heard and then I realized, ‘Holy shit, that’s all I wanted.’ Which was for someone to acknowledge this did happen and to hear me. It was just such a powerful thing.”
“Powerful” and “empowering” are words that gets tossed around a lot when people fight for basic rights, bodily autonomy, respect, and justice, but there’s no denying that this dam breaking open has been a reckoning. “There’s no way to lie to yourself about where we are,” Wood says. “Here it is right in your face.”
Given everything she’s been through, it’s no surprise that she takes the work of healing and tending to her mental health very seriously. A big part of that is in building and nurturing friendships with people who support her.
“I have friends that understand my past and my trauma,” she says. “They understand my PTSD. It doesn’t matter what time of night it is. I can call them at three in the morning and say, ‘I need you right now.’ And they will show up and they will hold my hand until I fall asleep.”
Her people are a big part of her self-care, alongside a pretty solid mental health toolkit she’s cultivated over the years. In it, she has coping mechanisms galore, thanks, in part, to being a self-help obsessive. She’s also a huge believer in therapy and getting mental health treatment from a medical professional. “I just really think everyone should just have a therapist, like they have a regular doctor,” she says. And crying helps a lot, too. “I cry all the time now,” she says. “I love it because I fought against crying for so long, but now I really welcome it with open arms.”
Of course, just because Wood has the tools doesn’t mean it’s always easy to use them, an annoying reality anyone who’s been to therapy likely knows. “One thing that I had to be okay with was that therapy was not going to fix everything,” she says. “And it’s not a be-all end-all solution. I think a lot of people think they’re going to go to therapy and they’re just going to tell you what to do. No, it’s their job to lead you to water, but you’re doing the work.”
Asking for help hasn’t always come naturally to her. She was 22 the first time she allowed herself that life jacket, when she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. Before that moment—a time she refers to as her rock bottom—she says her anger made it hard for her to reach out when she needed support. “By the time I had reached that point where people wanted to give me help […] I was mad at them for not helping me sooner,” she says.
That’s not to say Wood doesn’t think anger can be healing sometimes. “Some days I just have to be mad,” she says. “I am definitely guilty of just sitting in my house alone and screaming at the top of my lungs because you just gotta get it out.” She also recognizes the cathartic value of just…destroying shit. To that end, Wood says she sometimes goes to rage rooms. There’s one in downtown L.A., she tells me: a haven for being destructive, where you can don protective gear and choose from a well-stocked arsenal of tools like pipes, bats, sledgehammers, and mallets. Then you’re free to wreak havoc in a way women are rarely allowed, demolishing anything from plates to mirrors to TVs.
Last year, Wood rallied some friends to go to the rage room after the Kavanaugh hearings. “We were like, ‘Okay, we’re going,’” she recalls with a laugh. Wood does this a lot—laugh, I mean, in a wonderful and unfettered way totally at odds with the subject matter at hand. It bubbles up throughout our conversation, no matter if we’re talking about the effects of PTSD or bi chairs. Frankly, it’s a familiar 2019 mood. When everything is going to shit, what else can you do but laugh and rage? “There was no other way to deal with it in that moment,” she says. (I wonder, in this moment, why we chose to meet at Milk Studios when we could’ve bashed some fax machines up while talking, instead. Maybe next time.)
Still, even with all the tools at her disposal and her years of practice at it, taking time to care for herself sometimes isn’t so simple, especially when she has others relying on her to show up no matter what. As the mother of a six-year-old son, Wood understands this well. She says that mixing motherhood with tending to her own mental health comes with a bit of a learning curve. “It’s a really delicate balance of self-care and needing to be there all the time for this other life, and not having to feel guilty about taking the time to take care of yourself,” she says. “Because I know that if I don’t do that, I’m not going to be the best mom for my kid.”
There is a silver lining, though: She’s using what she’s learned from her own experiences to give her son the necessary tools of self-preservation. Some of the advice she has passed on to him is about how to cope if he’s having a terrible day, feeling overwhelmed, spinning out, or just angry and can’t feel better. “There are three things that I want you to do first,” she tells him in those instances: “Get a good night’s sleep, drink a bunch of water, and listen to music.”
Wood is modelling behavior for her son in other ways too. Given that so many of the complicated conversations our culture is currently entrenched in revolve around violence and trauma at the hands of men, it’s an interesting time to be raising a young boy, to say the least.
“I can only hope that I am raising a good man,” she says. Part of that, she knows, will be about navigating this culture of sexual assault and how so many consequences of toxic masculinity involve learned behavior. “It’s just as much a conversation about boys. I feel like we’re failing them by not addressing the fact that there is this culture of violence. I hope one day men are outraged of the shitty stereotypes that we’re pushing in their name, because I get outraged for my son.”
Wood took her son into consideration when deciding whether to come forward with her domestic violence story. She knew that one day he might read her testimonies, or discover other artifacts of her past. So she sat him down and explained to him what had happened to her in a way that a child could understand. And he was sad about it, she says, but he was also okay. More than anything, he was just happy that his mom was okay.
“I think it inspired him to want to be a better person,” she says. She recalls times when her son has noticed the culture around him, picking up on things like subtle sexism and pushing back against stereotypes. “Kids are actually more understanding than adults most of the time,” Wood says. “They can actually handle a lot if you’re just really honest with them and give them a chance. They have such open hearts and are so willing to learn and have these conversations.”
I ask Wood if she ever feels pressure as someone who talks so openly about her mental health to appear more healed or more okay than she actually feels to set a strong example.
She shakes her head no. “I used to think being strong was not being affected,” she says. “And now, to me, being strong is letting it affect you but being able to move past it, and seeing the pain, walking through it, letting it flow through you, and then letting it leave. You can break and still be strong.”
All told, Wood recognizes that the work of healing might never be done—not completely.
“Now that I’m older, I have moments where I’m like, ‘No, I’ve worked on this already! I got past this!’” she says, gesturing as though to curse the heavens, a frustration anyone who is working through trauma would recognize. “And now I’m starting to realize that even stuff that you’ve worked on and felt like you’ve gotten past sometimes comes back. You’ve got to work on it again. It’s an ongoing process.”
Wood’s son has accompanied her to the shoot and at one point pops into our conversation to check in on his mom. “We were actually talking about you,” Wood tells him. Pleased with that answer, he bounces off again in a blur of blond hair, and we laugh as we watch him go. I use the moment to ask her if she’s talked to him about her sexuality. “Oh yeah,” she replies, adding that when she asked him what he’d think if she started dating a woman, he responded enthusiastically. “He was like, ‘I think that would be amazing. That would be so cool!’” she recalls.
And in case you were wondering, yep, Wood currently has a partner, who she says is nonbinary. And despite what some people might think, dating someone who isn’t a cis dude is hardly a unique occurrence for her. “A lot of people are like, ‘Why do you not have any public relationships with women?’ I’m like, I have not hidden any of my relationships with women. We’ve been photographed together. We’d been out and about. We held hands. Everyone just always assumed we were friends.”
You know, just gals being pals.
Wood has some other bisexual grievances, while she’s at it. To name a few: people saying bisexuality enforces a binary and excludes trans and nonbinary people (“When I identify as bi, to me that means everyone”); the tired “bisexuals are just confused” myth (“I always say: Bisexuals aren’t confused about who they are; they’re confused about where they fit in the world.”); and various disaster bi shenanigans (“The number of times I’ve hung out with people one-on-one and had to be like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m bi. I just have to know: Is this a date?’”).
And then there’s the fact that she never felt she could be open about her sexuality growing up. Which, relatable. We volley memories of our experiences as baby queers back and forth: dismissive of our own feelings, unable to differentiate between life goals and wife goals, and stumbling to find our way. For Wood, being bisexual in high school meant feeling like there was something wrong with her or being minimized into a stereotype, never able to fully express her feelings.
Now, she says she notices a difference, especially when talking to her son and also with her younger sister, who’s in high school. “I was like, so kids are out in school now. And she said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s tons of kids out,’” Wood says. “That just blows my mind. I can’t even imagine how different my life would’ve been if I could have just been who I was,” she tells me.
Speaking of growing up, if Wood is raising her son with foundational forms of self-care and cultural awareness, I want to know what formative values shaped her as a young person. “I had astrology, music, and Disney,” she says. “That was it. That was the Holy Trinity.”
She is unsurprisingly thrilled to be in Frozen II. “Disney taught me how to sing,” she says. “It taught me about death and taught me about love and taught me about bravery, about what real what true strength was, what true friendship was. All of that’s in Frozen II. It’s a real coming-of-age story about finding out who you really are and embracing yourself.”
I had to ask: Did she know that some people were rooting for Elsa to be gay? And oh, she knows. “I remember going into work one day and saying, ‘I feel like people are going to be bummed when they find out I’m not Elsa’s girlfriend.’”
And even though she’s all for a gay Disney princess, she’s more than happy with her role as Elsa and Anna’s mother—a character who died in the first movie. “I thought, Wow, the only thing as cool as being a Disney princess is being a Disney mom that dies,” she says.
Voicing a Disney character has actually been a secret goal of hers for a while now—emphasis on the secret. “I have secret goals that I don’t tell anybody about,” she says. “I don’t like disappointing myself, I don’t like disappointing people in general, so I keep it to myself. I like to set completely unrealistic standards for myself and matching them.”
Because Wood listed astrology as the third part of her Holy Trinity, I am obligated as a fellow Virgo to point out to her that this is a very Virgo point of view. Whether you believe in astrology or not, it tracks for Wood, who identifies as a perfectionist, a trait typically associated with our shared sign. “I can be really hard on myself,” she says. “I have to be okay with something not being perfect, which is hard. But I know at this point that I’ll feel worse if I didn’t try.”
After a long detour into the contours of Wood’s natal chart (Pisces moon, Sagittarius rising!), I only get her to tell me one more of her secret goals: “Finally hosting SNL. I’m manifesting it. I’m saying it right now,” she says. The rest she keeps to herself, presumably until she undoubtedly accomplishes them.
Nearing the end of our conversation, I keep thinking of something I had recently discussed with my own therapist: She told me—and I’m paraphrasing here—that when you’re someone who is typically very open about things others consider taboo topics (like, say, PTSD and sexual assault and trauma), people often assume you’re open about everything. But that very often isn’t the case. So I ask: What are the things that are truly difficult for Wood to talk about?
She has to think about that one. “Goodbyes,” she says. “I’ve got a real problem with endings and accepting the end of things sometimes. That’s probably the thing that if you really probed me about it, I’d be like, no, I don’t want to talk about it.”
I don’t push it. When you’re someone who regularly puts your heart and pain on full display to help other people feel less alone, you deserve some vulnerabilities that are just for you. Because we all have our shit: from bad coping mechanisms to traumas we’re still working through to mental health struggles to simply living day to day in the tumultuous world around us.
We’re all, we agree, a little fucked up.
“Is anyone okay right now?” I ask as we prepare to part ways.
“I don’t know,” Wood says. “But the good news about that is none of us are alone in it.”