There’s a scene in the wonderfully eccentric Kajillionaire in which the isolated character Old Dolio, played by Evan Rachel Wood, steps through a door and literally into the light with Gina Rodriguez’s Melanie, the first person who’s ever shown her tenderness. The scene of discovery (or rediscovery) and the film speak to the current situation since lockdown more presciently than could have been imagined when it was a smash at Sundance in January.
Kajillionaire, from writer-director Miranda July, is both deeply funny and heartrending as it offers hope for a character who’s been cut off from all human interaction, save for that of her cold, grifter parents. It also delves into stories that affect LGBTQ+ lives with a queer love story, the notion of found family, and Old Dolio’s fluid gender presentation.
To inhabit the character that is like no other character that came before her, Wood, who’s long explored blurring traditional gender lines (often rocking a killer suit on the red carpet), dug deep in order to leave behind traces of femininity she didn’t realize she was presenting. Wood’s Old Dolio sports straight hair down her back that’s not a sign of traditional femininity but rather of eschewing glamour. She dons sneakers and baggy athletic wear from a bygone era, save for when she poses as a Catholic schoolgirl in an ill-fitting uniform to pull off a scam for her folks. Her voice is lowered nearly an octave from Wood’s own voice.
“The second I signed on, Miranda and I started working on Old Dolio, and she warned me up front that this is going to be a complete transformation,” Wood tells The Advocate. “We were going to have to strip away anything that would be a tell or anything that was going to be too feminine about me.”
“I consider myself somebody that's kind of androgynous. I guess I thought I was even more androgynous, but I wasn't until I started playing Old Dolio,” Wood says. “Miranda started pointing out these things — like my hands and my voice and some of my mannerisms. I thought I was much more masculine than I was.”
Old Dolio was bred to be a petty thief and a low-level scam artist by her parents, Theresa (Debra Winger ) and Robert (Richard Jenkins). Beyond the petty criminal world in which she’s been immersed, they deprived her of warmth and of touch. There’s a scene early in the film in which a masseuse holds her hands inches from Old Dolio’s skin because the gentlest of touch is too overwhelming. And it’s heartrending. It’s also what one might imagine could happen when so many people who’ve been isolating since March, deprived of human touch, are once again able to interact.
“I think it [Kajillionaire] will land so much harder. I think it already would have landed, but now that people can relate so hard to these scenes of isolation and touch and connection and communication, which the film is just crawling with...” Wood says. “I haven't seen the film since quarantine, but I can only imagine how impactful it would be since we're all sort of strange versions of Old Dolio right now. When she finally does open up and does get that chance to connect and touch, I think we'll really feel it.”
“I can't wait to hug people again,” Wood adds. “I'm an introvert and don't like socializing that much anyway. But, God, I just miss it so much.”
Old Dolio, Theresa, and Robert meet Rodriguez’s charismatic Melanie on a flight they take as part of a scam. Melanie shows Old Dolio real love and kindness, and that sense of someone starved for touch and authentic human interaction and finally receiving it is palpable while watching the story unfold.
Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Evan Rachel Wood
July burst on to the indie film scene in 2005 with the wildly original Me and You and Everyone We Know. And Kajillionaire is just as refreshing, teeming with wacky moments of impromptu choreography like when Old Dolio enters a post office where she creatively steals an envelope from a P.O. box, or as the family attempts to crouch and crawl past the place where their landlord works for fear of being seen. Another quintessential July touch is the daily ritual of the family sopping up a wall of bubbles that seeps into their home (a dilapidated office) from the business next door. Likewise, Old Dolio —the origin of the name is revealed partway through the film — is a character born purely of July’s mind and rendered exquisitely by Wood. She’s not just a new kind of role for the actress known for Westworld and True Blood but a new kind of character altogether.
“As somebody who's been completely removed from society in any kind and has rejected any kind of societal nor, and has been devoid of any physical touch, we sort of just created rules for her and built it from the ground up,” Wood says.
“I think I practiced the way I put my hair behind my ears hundreds of times. Miranda had a very specific way she wanted me to do it and a specific way to carry myself, and so we would workshop it. We would improvise scenes. She would take away my ability to communicate. She'd say, ‘OK, do the scene, but don't look at anybody in the eye. OK, now do it, but you can't say anything.'
“By the time we got to set we knew what we liked and what worked and we had a toolbox. Then she would just kind of yell out things to me and I would know what she meant. We based certain things off animals. There's so much thought and love went into Old Dolio. Then, when we found her and I had the clothes on, I was on set and she was just there. It just started happening.”
Kajillionaire dropped Friday as part of the first wave of films to screen in an actual theater since the world seemed to shutter in March. Ultimately a story of hope and of second chances, it arrives right on time. It's anchored by a love that develops between Old Dolio and Melanie, who gives her the strength to stray from her emotionally neglectful parents.
Gina Rodriguez, Wood
“I think this film will mean a lot to the queer community for a number of reasons. One is the feeling of growing up in a family you so desperately want to please but may not have ever felt real unconditional love from,” says Wood, who is bisexual and an ardent LGBTQ+ activist. “The older you get and the more it's time to define who you really are, it can be quite jarring and sometimes traumatic to look at the family you've been raised in and to realize you don't fit there or that you're not wanted there.”
“I think a lot of people are faced with the decision that Old Dolio was. Can I walk away from the only thing I've ever known to be who I really am?” Wood says.
“Her relationship with Melanie is so beautiful because she's the first person that's really seen her. It's terrifying for her at first. Her greatest hope and worst fear is to be seen. She's trying so hard to be invisible. Even though Melanie is so forward with her, I think you sort of need to be with Old Dolio. She's not going to get it [otherwise].”
A child actor on Once and Again and in the film Thirteen who went on to star in Across the Universe and Mildred Pierce, Wood has played queer roles before, but July never pointedly comments on that aspect of her film that is universally about connecting at a time when people everywhere are craving that.
“What I love about her and the film is that gender and sexuality are never spoken about,” Wood says. She's just Old Dolio. I think she probably would be gender-fluid had she ever had any kind of language or awareness of that, but she hasn't.”
Kajillionaire is in theaters now.