Three episodes in, Todd Haynes’ five-part Mildred Pierce miniseries is already cooking with gas. But with the fourth-part arrival of Evan Rachel Wood’s grown-up Veda Pierce, the low flame turns to a blinding roar. Wood’s Veda blossoms from a precious brat into a full-blown monster, a sly seductress whose ambition and cunning are bottomless. It’s a high-wire performance, pressing up against the boundaries of Greek tragedy and campy excess, but Wood reins it in just enough to retain a sense of Veda’s twisted humanity. Notwithstanding The Wrestler or Across The Universe, it’s the best evidence yet that Wood’s full talents are still being tapped. Wood met with The A.V. Club in New York to talk about going theatrical, lip-syncing opera, and playing “the Paris Hilton of vampires.”
The A.V. Club: Mildred Pierce really hinges on making the character of Veda someone the audience can understand as well as hate. Where do you think she comes from?
Evan Rachel Wood: She’s someone whose mother never stands up to her and let her get away with anything. Mildred has this warped version of reality in her mind of who her daughter really is. I think that is one of the reasons why Veda doesn’t really respect her at all. She doesn’t. She frowns upon her whole lifestyle. I think that she is affected by the fact that it takes place in the Depression, in the ’30s, when there was such an obsession with class and money. I think that really early on she gets her mind set on it; especially after meeting Monty and experiencing that whole world, she is just obsessed. Once the piano is taken away from her, then that is the last straw. She just snaps and she is just going to do whatever she can to just get the hell out of there.
AVC: How long was your part of the shoot?
ERW: I had two months of preparation before we ever started shooting, to learn to mimic the piano and how to lip-sync [opera] in three different languages. It was really difficult. I didn’t listen to any other music for two months except those songs. And they go by so fast! It’s so, so hard to watch now, because it was so much work. It was maybe three months after that, so yeah. Five months total.
AVC: There’s a lot of range to the role of Veda. Apart from The Wrestler, it’s probably the most tortured thing you’ve done since Thirteen.
ERW: There is a lot going on. This was the hardest role I’ve ever played, no doubt about it. It’s such an actor’s piece. There is so much dialogue and there is so much going on. It’s so dramatic. The scenes are so long. We rehearsed the scenes so many times beforehand to get them down. I lived and breathed Mildred Pierce for that whole time. I had to focus so hard and leave any shred of me behind. Even the way she speaks and carries herself, it’s like I watch it and it’s weird for me, because I don’t know where it came from. It’s like a totally different person.
AVC: You really commit to the lip-syncing, even when it twists your face into some fairly ugly expressions
ERW: Oh yeah, you can’t look good when you’re singing opera. [Laughs.]
AVC: But beyond the technical challenge of making your mouth look right, did that help you understand the character at all?
ERW: Yeah, they were very specific with what songs to choose. Especially “Queen Of The Night,” I think that was a perfect for her. They actually had me singing an octave lower under it so it didn’t just look like I was mouthing the words. Just getting every “A-E-I-O-U” right and every breath, I know those songs like the back of my hand at this point. I thought that was an interesting place. Especially in the script, I don’t think it ended up in the movie, but you were supposed to be able to see Veda from afar and how she was performing, but once it got in close you could just see how she was pissed at the conductor and being such a diva.
AVC: You definitely see some anger in her performances.
ERW: I feel like she has a passion for music, but she is also just using it as a tool. She is milking it.
AVC: Had you spent any time with opera before this?
ERW: No, no. I have a whole new appreciation for it. I really got into it. I was listening to a lot of it while I was doing this. It’s funny, because when we watch a real opera singer, they look like they are lip-syncing. They are not doing anything; they barely move. So we had to play it up a little bit, because if we had actually done it like real opera singers do, then it would have looked like really, really bad lip-syncing.
AVC: Opera is considered a separate discipline from acting. There are great opera singers who are mediocre actors, and vice-versa.
ERW: It was cool figuring that out. I would get the songs and I could mouth them perfectly. But I had an opera coach and she would coach me through what it was about and how you had to act while you were doing it, too. So I got to learn the stories behind it, and that was when I got really into it, and had fun with it.
AVC: It’s extremely easy to just hate Veda, but then there’s not much of a story. How do you understand her?
ERW: There has to be a reason behind the madness. Or else it’s just a one-dimensional, mean character who you don’t care about.
AVC: If you don’t see good qualities to Veda, then Mildred is just an idiot for sticking with her. Did you talk about that balance?
ERW: Todd and I talked about that a lot. It was really important to find moments. I think you see that a couple times, like when [the piano teacher she’s auditioning for] closes the piano on her. I think that’s when you feel for her the first time. Because Mildred really had pushed her. If you tell a child that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread their whole life, and then somebody is going to tell them that they are not, they are going to freak out and their whole world will come crashing down. I feel like that’s when she was passionate about something, and music, that was her escape. And now she is really just stuck and she has nothing. She is just completely heartbroken, and I think that’s when you really feel for her. When her teacher dies, she just fades away completely.
AVC: You started out doing quite a lot of TV, on Profiler and Once And Again, and then went away for eight or nine years. Now you’ve done Mildred Pierce and True Blood. I know it’s not TV, it’s HBO, but does it seem like a different industry now?
ERW: TV is amazing now. It’s doesn’t seem like TV at all. I’ve never worked on anything of this scale. I think Kate said it pretty perfectly when she said, “It’s funny that people call this a miniseries because it’s not mini at all.” It’s incredible, especially with the recession; TV is really where it’s at right now. That’s where everyone is going. It’s really cool.
AVC: Veda’s a bit of a larger-than-life character, but did you talk with Todd Haynes about scaling your performance for the small screen?
ERW: I think it would have been hard. It’s good for the story that if you want to tell it properly it should be in a miniseries. Especially when you’re adapting something from a book, people are always disappointed because you have to condense it so much. This way we could just take our time with it and get to know the characters, and it really was a character piece and an actor’s piece. I think it makes a big difference.
AVC: The book isn’t especially well-known, but the movie of Mildred Pierce is something of a milestone. You obviously know you’re in different territory when the series opens with Mildred making pies instead of someone getting shot.
ERW: I know. There’s not even a murder. [Laughs.]
AVC: Mildred is very different from True Blood in terms of the register you’re acting in. How different is the process for you?
ERW: True Blood was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I was such a fan of the show that I think I got ahead of myself. I was so excited, but I probably needed to spend more time on it, because I got there and I was like, “Crap, what would a vampire do? I mean, she is 300 years old. Oh my God, there is a lot going on here.” I can’t just show up and put in the fangs and it’s done. There is a real art to playing a vampire. You have to think about really weird stuff, like, “Should I be breathing right now? Should I be heaving—no, I can’t do that. How should I walk? Should I be doing the vamp speed for this? Will my fangs be out?” All this weird supernatural stuff suddenly comes into play that you’ve never experienced.
AVC: You’ve done some guest spots here and there, but most of your TV work has been as a series regular. What’s it like to come into a show that’s been up and running for two seasons?
ERW: It’s weird, it’s really weird. You have to play catch-up. But I feel like I’m at a good place with the character, I like where she is at and I really like where she went in the third season. She is hilarious. It wasn’t what people were expecting. She’s not the Magister, she’s not Eric. She’s an annoying, spoiled-brat vampire. She is the Paris Hilton of vampires. That is how Alan Ball described her to me. And I was like, “Really, we’re going there? All right.” But it makes sense. If someone has been rich like that for 300 years, and they have superhuman powers, yeah, one of them has got to be a total bitch.
AVC: You’re in the spoiled-brat phase of your career.
ERW: She’s a brat, but she’s really funny. There is some weird charm to that.
AVC: There’s not a ton of common ground between True Blood and Mildred Pierce, but they are both very stylized performances, and Across The Universe is as well. Is that something you’re moving toward as an actress? Is it a function of feeling more confident, or wanting to try something different?
ERW: Yeah, it’s just trying new things. It’s weird that they came at the same time. I wasn’t really looking for that. Usually my stuff is kind of gritty and real and just some version of myself, so it has been a huge challenge to take this leap into full-blown [stylization], building a character from the ground up.
AVC: On the other hand, Mildred Pierce is stylized, but it’s not Far From Heaven. Veda’s much more theatrical than the people around her. She’s an actor in a world of people who aren’t acting.
ERW: That’s the one thing. Todd and I would sort of sit there and shake our heads and look at each other and be like, “She is an incredible actress.” She is so convincing. It really made us go, “Wow, she is even crazier than we thought.” The fact that she is going to these lengths, it was crazy. We shot the scenes back-to-back when I tell her that I’m pregnant and then she finds out that I’m not, and I was just like, “Oh my God.” The switch, it just blew our minds. There is something really wrong there.