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Evan Rachel Wood Faced Her Fear

“I just couldn’t bear living my life like that for one more second or the thought of it happening to anybody else.”

Jennifer Fisher earrings. Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, and trousers. Photo: Amanda Demme
Jennifer Fisher earrings. Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, and trousers. Photo: Amanda Demme
Jennifer Fisher earrings. Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, and trousers. Photo: Amanda Demme

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“Hello, mister man,” Evan Rachel Wood sings in a twangy falsetto, staring up at the penthouse balcony of the Chateau Marmont. She laughs self-consciously before diving back into the Alanis Morrisette song. “You didn’t think I’d come back.” More laughter. “You didn’t think I’d show up with my army and this ammunition on my back.” Then suddenly, in the same breath, she is somber, looking at the ground as the setting sun burns an outline around the Gothic-style hotel that crowns L.A.’s Sunset Strip. “That is one thing I know that he did not bank on,” she says. “I think he really thought he had me.”

He, as you may suspect, is Marilyn Manson. And for Wood, being back here brings up complicated feelings. On the one hand, the Chateau Marmont is a notorious celebrity refuge, a place she has come many times to hide out among the lush greenery, tasseled furniture, and extremely discreet staff. But it’s also where Wood first met Manson, back when she was an 18-year-old starlet known for playing troubled Lolita types and he was every parent’s worst nightmare, the world-famous shock rocker 20 years her elder. Standing near the hotel pool, she points up to the corner of the ornate, wraparound balcony where she was huddled that night in 2006, wearing polka dots and avoiding small talk with adults. She remembers Manson walking by in a sparkly gold blazer and saying, “Don’t fall.” After, she wrote in her journal, “I made a new friend.”

Since she left him more than a decade ago, Wood has been terrified to name Manson as the person who she says brutalized her over the course of their four-year relationship. What would happen to her career? Would she be putting her family in danger? Would someone come after her? But now that she has done it, first on Instagram in early 2021 and most recently in Phoenix Rising, an HBO documentary that premieres March 15, her greatest fear has turned out to be her greatest source of protection. In the documentary, Wood is at times panicked, dressed in loose clothes as she stares into the distance or literally jumps at loud noises. But the Wood that shows up at the Chateau Marmont, her creamsicle-colored hair falling down a bomber jacket embroidered with a phoenix, is calm and deliberate. The day after she dropped her social-media grenade, Wood remembers, her now-8-year-old son asked, “Why are you acting so weird?” “Because I’m free,” she replied. “You’ve just never seen me not have this on my back.”

Alexander McQueen coat, shirt, and trousers. By Far boots. Jennifer Fisher earrings. Photo: Amanda Demme

For his part, Manson is still out in the world, eating sashimi alongside the rich and famous and collaborating with Kanye West. Since Wood came forward, a total of 16 women have accused Manson of emotional or physical abuse; four of them have sued him for sexual assault. Manson “vehemently denies any and all claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone,” his legal team says. After I meet with Wood, and about a week before the documentary’s release, Manson will file a defamation lawsuit accusing her of using fraud and conspiracy to ruin his reputation. In response to the allegations in Phoenix Rising, his lawyer, Howard King, will say that nothing the actor or her “hand-picked co-conspirators have said on this matter can be trusted.”

Wood has long expected some form of recrimination. “When the thing you’re afraid of starts happening, you kind of aren’t afraid of it anymore,” she later tells me by phone. “I just have to face it.”

Wood teared up with relief on the way to the Chateau Marmont. As we settle at a long wooden table in one of the hotel rooms, outfitted with pale-blue velvet chairs and an antique Philco fridge, she’s pensive-faced and steady, at times leaning on clichés, like feeling a “giant weight on your shoulders” or “steady in the center of the storm,” to avoid getting too personal. She frequently looks down toward her black combat boots and punctuates the hard stuff with bursts of incredulous laughter and hand gestures. Being back at the hotel, specifically talking about Manson, is both strange and “very full circle, honestly.” “I still remember that night so clearly,” she says. “It was just one of those sliding-door moments.”

When Wood and Manson went public with their relationship in 2007, the media ate it up. Like when he talked in interviews about wanting to smash Wood’s skull in, cutting himself with a razorblade when she didn’t pick up the phone, or the fact that he wrote a song about her titled “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies.” (Manson’s PR team has chalked these statements up to his edgy stage persona.) A cherub-faced teen was dating America’s vampire, and that was especially irresistible to certain male writers, who seized on Wood’s reputation for playing the rebellious, hypersexualized love interests of older men (Thirteen, Pretty Persuasion, Running With Scissors, Down in the Valley). They asked her overtly horny questions like, “So you wouldn’t be opposed to exploring your Lolita freaky side?” and wrote tongue-wagging ledes such as, “Just before sitting down to interview the 19-year-old actress you see on these pages, I watched a video of her having sex. On the Internet. With her boyfriend. Marilyn Manson.”

That video, for Manson’s song “Heart-Shaped Glasses,” was the first time Wood says she was physically abused by the singer, who “essentially raped” her in what was supposed to be a simulated sex scene. In Phoenix Rising, the actor says that while she was slut-shamed in the media, Manson toyed with the press, refusing to tell them whether the sex was real or not. Manson’s lawyer, Howard King, has called Wood’s account an “imaginative retelling,” claiming in a statement that she was “heavily involved” in weeks of pre-planning and editing of the video. “Brian did not have sex with Evan on that set,” he wrote in the statement, “and she knows that is the truth.”

Christopher John Rogers suit jacket. Jennifer Fisher earrings. Photo: Amanda Demme

Wood instantly lied to herself about what really happened on the shoot, trying to bury the memory. “It’s embarrassing,” she says, playing nervously with her hair. “You don’t want it to be your story, and when you tell people, it becomes real.” Speaking out about the video brought up heavy emotions she hadn’t expected, especially since this particular incident is readily accessible to anyone with an internet connection and “morbid curiosities.” “You can’t just Google all the other things that happened to me and watch them on YouTube,” she says (so far, more than 30 million people have). “There’s a humiliation that comes with it.”

Phoenix Rising is Wood’s chance to reframe a story that has been seized upon by tabloids and social-media trolls intent on painting her as “Marilyn Manson’s jailbait crazy girlfriend” or his jilted, lying ex. She first approached Amy Berg, the Academy Award–nominated director best known for her investigations into child sexual abuse in Hollywood and the Catholic Church, from “a place of desperation” in 2018. Wood had recently been contacted by other accusers, and the “soul-crushing” realization that she wasn’t alone made her feel a “massive responsibility” to speak up. A long-form documentary in the vein of Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland, about the Michael Jackson allegations, felt like the only way to make sure people weren’t “just reading headlines and getting bits and pieces of the facts.” While Berg told me she “really did not want to make a film about Marilyn Manson,” she realized that to highlight larger themes about domestic violence, she’d need to include his backstory, his cultural impact, and his relationship with Wood. “At the end of the day, this is how Amy has chosen to tell the story,” says Wood, looking down. “And that was a little daunting.”

Making the documentary has been cathartic, but it’s also been hard to have her most private moments on full display. It’s the first time her parents, who appear throughout Phoenix Rising, have heard about their daughter’s experience in detail. Wood watched the finished version with her mom, whom she expected to have intense emotions, but who instead seemed paralyzed by all the information (she told Wood she had already imagined the worst scenarios in her head). While Wood had mostly moved past feelings of shame, watching her parents learn everything dredged some of it back up. “It’s like escaping a cult. I’m really not proud of what I did while I was in the cult,” she says with a sharp laugh.

Berg had deep access to Wood’s personal life, excavating the volatile childhood and precocious celebrity that made her easy prey. “I’m a real mom,” she says. “I wasn’t going to go through glam every day. I wanted people to see me struggle and to see the pain.” This was also important to Berg. She didn’t want the doc to feel like a “celebrity exposé” and was relieved when HBO told her an early cut felt like an intimate conversation between best friends. Though not all of Wood’s friends “showed up” to support her throughout the process — which was perhaps the toughest thing of all to stomach. She doesn’t want to get specific, instead saying, “I noticed that as a survivor, you can get attacked for being able to own your truth in that way. And if somebody else isn’t ready to do that they can project that onto you.”

Eleven years ago, Wood looked back at Manson before getting into a car and leaving him for the last time. She’s still amazed she got out alive, and when she thinks about all of the survivors who don’t, she becomes impassioned and wide-eyed. “It could have easily been me,” she says, her hands flailing out to either side. “I could have killed myself and my story never would have been told.” In fact, she tried to back in 2010 and describes in Phoenix Rising how Manson’s abuse ramped up to include rape while she was unconscious, torture with an electric wand, and drugging her with meth. “I still have scars” from the relationship, she says, crossing her arms around her waist. “That was the darkest time of my life, honestly.” I reached out to multiple people who were around both Wood and Manson during this period. A couple said they couldn’t speak with me, as Manson’s legal team had gotten to them first, and even threatened his former assistant with “retaliatory legal action” ahead of her appearance in the documentary.

In 2018 Wood first spoke publicly about her experience in an abusive relationship, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing about strengthening the rights of sexual-assault survivors. The next year, after realizing she could no longer press criminal charges in her own case, she co-created the Phoenix Act, a bill that would extend the statute of limitations in California, and advocated for it in front of the state senate. At both appearances, she was too terrified to name Manson. But people had their suspicions. His fans started to send her threats and she feared the singer himself might retaliate. Wood says she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security (“I love when people think you do this for the money”). A court document she filed last year as part of a custody battle with her ex Jamie Bell details how she installed bulletproof-glass windows, a steel door, and a security fence around her Los Angeles home; in 2016, she moved to Tennessee part time to try and keep her child safe. (Bell claimed Wood was withholding their kid from him and questioned the severity of these threats. Wood says Bell has been one of “the least supportive” people throughout her process of coming forward and that “family court is one of the worst places to put a domestic-violence survivor.”)

Photo: Amanda Demme

“Whenever I have to testify or come forward in any way, not only do I think Well, this could be the end of my career,” she says, nervously rubbing her hands together. “I think, This could be the time somebody snaps and shows up at my house.” But when the death threats ramped up after Manson released an album in 2020, she suddenly felt like naming him was the best way to keep everyone safe and pressure law enforcement to act. “When you haven’t said anything, you’re more vulnerable to somebody getting rid of you” and passing it off as “an accident,” she says. And while no accident involving someone with her level of fame would go unnoticed, Berg says Wood was “really in fear of her life at that point.”

On February 1, 2021, a Navy SEAL officer stood outside a rented home while Wood posted a statement to Instagram that began, “The name of my abuser is Brian Warner, also known to the world as Marilyn Manson.” While people called her brave and strong, it didn’t feel like much of a choice. “I just couldn’t bear living my life like that for one more second or the thought of it happening to anybody else,” she says, looking down at her lap and picking at her black-and-white-polka-dot dress. “It was just the only way to keep going and change things.”

In his lawsuit, Manson alleges that around this time, Wood and Illma Gore, an activist who appears in the film, galvanized an army of women to take him down, by giving them scripts to recite and forging an FBI letter in an attempt to shore up Wood’s allegations. His lawsuit claims this material also duped “HBO into distributing a one-sided ‘documentary’ premised on the existence of an entirely fictitious federal investigation.” The platform is still airing Phoenix Rising as planned. “I have the truth on my side,” Wood tells me, saying she can’t talk about specific details since the litigation is ongoing. (Gore, who Wood says “is no longer affiliated with the Phoenix Act and hasn’t been for some time now,” tweeted a less diplomatic response: “Bring it the fuck on you rapist pedophile motherfucker.”) Berg says she stands behind all the allegations in the film, which were thoroughly vetted by lawyers, and that her team shot Wood going to an FBI interview last April.(The FBI says it can neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is ongoing, and last year the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department said it was looking into allegations of domestic violence against Manson.)

Interior blazer and pants. Jennifer Fisher earrings. Photo: Amanda Demme

After naming him, Wood noticed an instant transformation. She suddenly had more energy and says that some chronic pain disappeared, including stomach issues often triggered by mental distress. Most of all, she has felt herself becoming more present and remembers how coming forward was like a “release of shame.” “There’s so much power in that,” she says. “If you’re a woman who can’t be shamed, you’re pretty much unstoppable.”

While Wood is committed to her ongoing advocacy, a topic she’d much rather focus on than her personal story, her relationship with Manson has been all-consuming. “Domestic violence trickles into so many aspects of your life,” she says. “You kind of see your peers start to pass you by.” It might seem absurd for the star of HBO’s Westworld to feel insecure about her career, but Wood was forced to ditch two projects while working on the Phoenix Act, which was signed into law in 2019. (She has a tattoo of the bill’s number, SB-273, on her left wrist.) She has had to walk off a few photo shoots that triggered memories of the pictures she says Manson used to take of her. “Whenever a camera came out, I just knew that that meant I’m not going to sleep, I’m going to get yelled at and abused, possibly for days,” she says. Wood would often miss work meetings back when they were still together because she wasn’t allowed to leave the house, she says, and she worried about being labeled “unreliable.” “I think I got a lot of blame and a lot of ‘Well, she’s just crazy,’” she says with a biting laugh. “And that only kept me silent and made me feel like I deserved the abuse.”

The same struggles have shown up in her personal life. Though she has had a string of relationships since splitting up with Bell and spoken out many times about her bisexuality, intimacy of any kind is still hard. She’s fiercely protective of her independence (“I’m still trying to decide if it’s to a healthy degree or not,” she says with a smile) but doesn’t want to scare anybody off. “I’m not so knee-jerky that you can’t go on a date with me. I don’t want people to be worried about it. It’s cool,” she says with a hearty laugh, bringing both hands up to rest on an imaginary surface as if to level with me. “It’s fine.”

Most of Wood’s free time is spent with her kid. She shows me a video of a recent laser-tag session where she’s crouched behind a wall in her home wearing a protective vest while the Terminator soundtrack plays in the background. “I like to score our make believe sometimes,” she says, “I think because of the acting.” She tries to spend as little time as possible in L.A., a place that feels like a topography of her darkest memories. “I can function in L.A.,” she says, “but I have to work twice as hard.” She’s in the process of removing a black-heart tattoo on her left thigh that she and Manson got one Valentine’s Day because “the connotations are just too dark.” But Wood’s keeping the “15” tattoo behind her right ear (Manson has a matching one), a reference to a song of his that she still listens to as a reminder of what happened.

She’s finished up season four of Westworld, a show about a western theme park gone awry that has become a vessel for her own trauma since she was cast in 2016. Playing Dolores, a sentient android who endures constant abuse before seeking revenge, allowed Wood to process her feelings for the first time, and her journey has in ways mirrored Dolores’s mission to dismantle the systems that hurt her. While she feels deeply bonded to the character, she’s ready for roles that tap into other sides of her personality. “I don’t want to play the girl who’s in trouble anymore,” she said. “I want a woman in power, a wise woman, a mother, a teacher. Somebody who is on the other side of that pain.” She has most recently been cast as an ’80s-era Madonna in an upcoming movie about Weird Al Yankovic (he turned “Like a Virgin” into “Like a Surgeon”) starring Daniel Radcliffe and directed a soon-to-be-released short film.

Wood’s desire to move on from her experience with Manson might seem in conflict with making a documentary on that very subject. But Phoenix Rising is a deliverance, a way to leave that story behind by putting it all out there one final time. She looks forward to “not having to speak about any of this anymore.” “Once the documentary is out,” she says, “I don’t know what else there will be to say.”

That day may be closer, but it isn’t here yet. When I call Wood to talk about Manson’s lawsuit, she’s disheartened, her voice low and tired as she talks about another hurdle that puts her “back in the ring with the person who hurt” her. The effect is tangible. Wood is looking over her shoulder again and has hired security guards to follow her around as an extra precaution. All the worry is exhausting, and some days she wants to ditch her fame entirely, maybe to start a bee farm and an Etsy shop, a fantasy she says is “honestly not really a joke anymore.” But while Wood has spent more than a decade fearing this moment, now that it has arrived, she doesn’t feel nearly as scared as she did before she named Manson. “There is a freedom that comes with ripping off the Band-Aid,” she says, “and doing the thing you’re most afraid of.”

Evan Rachel Wood Faced Her Fear