Sporting a short coiffure, a leather cuff, and distinctive ear jewelry, Evan Rachel Wood's character in the new film Allure appears as the perennially cool girl who doles out attention so rarely that it feels special to receive it. When Laura casually leans into the room of the 16-year-old girl's house she cleans to compliment her Nirvana poster, it seems like a validation of sorts for the awkward, quiet teen. When Laura encroaches on the girl's bedroom under the pretense of demonstrating the "goose bumps" Nirvana gives her, the scene is likely to set viewers' hair on end, just like the hair on her arm she insists the girl, Eva, feel. In that moment there's no mistaking that Laura is a predator about to wreak havoc on another life.
What makes Laura's predation so hard to watch and yet impossible to turn away from is witnessing her layers of damage as she unleashes her trauma on the young girl, played by excellent newcomer Julia Sarah Stone. But it's also knowing that Wood -- a former child star who regularly produces important, affecting work in projects including Thirteen, The Wrestler, HBO's Mildred Pierce, and currently on Westworld -- recently gave unflinching testimony on Capitol Hill about the sexual abuse she survived in order to help get the federal Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights Act implemented in all 50 states.
Evan Rachel Wood as Laura
"I think I drew a lot from my experiences. I reframed them to be on the other side of it. I related to her feeling trapped by her own trauma," Wood tells The Advocate. "It was a roller coaster to be on the other side of it, to think about the people that I knew -- the gaslighters, the abusers -- and try to put that into play. Trying to not let people off of the hook but to humanize them, which I think was important. And it was important for me to not make Laura too sympathetic because what she does is wrong and she should be in jail. It's statutory rape. It's abuse."
The narrative of Allure, from first-time feature directors Carlos and Jason Sanchez -- whom Wood credits for their sensitivity, insightfulness, and keen writing -- ramps up quickly. By day, Laura desultorily cleans houses for her father (Denis O'Hare), but in her free time she works overtime to dull her pain with cheap vodka, weed, and rough sex. So when Eva exhibits fairly typical teen angst over being forced to move to a new home with her controlling mother and her mother's new boyfriend, Laura, who's been waiting for an opening, swoops in to "rescue" the girl and offers her a place to live. Before long, the two play out what a relationship might look like to someone whose idea of love was twisted long ago by another abuser -- in Laura's case, her father.
One of the aspects of the film that appealed to Wood -- who in addition to speaking out about sexual assault has been an invaluable bisexual activist -- was the idea of depicting, examining, and breaking cycles of abuse that do so much damage.
"Laura has had no healthy examples of love, unconditional love, and I think that is the only version of love that she knows is control and fear. Really, we just kind of do what's been done to us most of the time," Wood says. "In Laura's case, I think she's dealing with so many mental disturbances from years of her own trauma. If something like that goes unchecked or untreated, you certainly take the risk of ending up like Laura."
Julia Sarah Stone and Wood
Laura fluctuates wildly from the fun 30-something with arrested development to a rage-filled woman capable of violence. Her one consistency is that she's continually teetering on the edge of an emotional meltdown. Early on in the film, she locks a passed-out (from booze) Eva in a boiler room while she goes to work for the day, and still, Eva places her trust in the older woman. The arrangement becomes sexual. And by the time the filmmakers depict the sex, it's jarring to the viewer to realize that it's been going on for some time -- that Laura has already groomed the teen.
A few news outlets covering Allure have written off the insidiousness of the film's sexual abuse, pithily referring to it as a "tense lesbian thriller" or a "terrifying dark lesbian drama," but there's no mistaking that no matter how much trauma Laura carries with her, she is a predator.
"Her sexuality is certainly not the culprit, which I also appreciated about the movie. It just happens to be two women. That's not really what the film is about," Wood says of the role, originally written for a man.
Allure is never easy to watch, especially with the new awareness around sexual harassment and abuse that the #MeToo movement has unleashed, but there are devastating moments when Eva, given the opportunity to leave, stays with her abuser.
"I've had Lauras in my life, so I understand that people are capable of things like that, of being that calculated, of manipulation and of preying of upon somebody much more vulnerable than them," Wood says of Eva's inability to break free from her chains. "That is something that I think we don't want to believe happens, and when it's happening to you, you really don't want to believe that it's happening and your brain doesn't go there. You lie to yourself. You make every kind of excuse. It's almost too horrible to accept that people could be so cruel."
Wood, whose cyborg Delores on Westworld endured multiple rapes as if in a Groundhog Day sort of loop, has never shied away from brutal roles, but she says that Laura was a whole new level of difficulty.
"I did not like playing Laura at all. I appreciated her story and I wanted it to be told. I respected her story, but I could not get the wardrobe off fast enough. I wanted to leave her so far behind," Wood says, adding that it didn't help that she shot the film during the 2016 presidential election (when the country elected an admitted sexual predator). "We had to alter one of the shots because I just collapsed on the last day of shooting. I actually couldn't get up. My head was just pounding and I just thought, I think I'm done. I don't think my body can actually take any more."
Still, Wood can not emphasize enough the importance of telling Laura's and Eva's stories.
Wood and Denis O'Hare
"We don't know where Laura is going in the end, but I think we definitely know that she's not just going to be OK. But there is hope because she is making steps in the right direction and Eva [eventually] did get away," Wood says. She adds that when she's been asked why her character rained down so much trauma on another person, she says, "Laura is Eva. She just didn't get away."
While portraying Laura took Wood to new dark and emotionally exhausting places, she says too that she was able to explore coping mechanisms survivors use to deal with memories of their abuse.
"It was therapeutic in a way because I feel like I got to explore disassociation," Wood says. "That's a real thing that happens. I think there are a lot of things that come with trauma that I feel I was, not excited, but grateful that I had the opportunity to show in detail because I feel that you don't get to see that very often in film."
If climbing into and then shedding Laura's skin was palliative for Wood, then her recent testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, in which she fearlessly recounted her own experience with rape and abuse, was "freeing," she says.
"I think one of the reasons I did it was because I was so afraid and I was ashamed, so ashamed. And really worried that people were going to judge me and make it mean that I was broken or I was damaged and fucked up," Wood says. "I thought, Well, that's exactly why you have to do it, because somebody else is feeling like that."
Allure is out in theaters and available on VOD March 16.