It was 20 years ago today, or close to it, that Evan Rachel Wood was born, and the actress does not remember a time when the Beatles were not part of her life.
Her parents lived through the 1960s when the Beatles redefined pop music. Wood grew up with the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Yellow Submarine” albums.
She found a home movie of her first Christmas. The Beatles’ “White Album” was playing in the background.
So Wood was well-steeped in the tunes when she won the lead in “Across the Universe,” a musical romance set to Beatles songs that opens Friday, a week after Wood turned 20.
“Nobody can touch the Beatles, and there’s never going to be another band like them,” Wood said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Across the Universe” — and three other films featuring Wood — were playing.
“They came along at just the right time, and they really did change the world. To this day, they just seem so untouched and pure, like kids are before they’re taught all these rules. They’re just kind of open and open-minded and full of love, and that’s just what the Beatles seemed like.”
On the same day “Across the Universe” opens, Wood stars in “King of California,” playing the wise-beyond-her-years teen daughter of a crackpot musician (Michael Douglas) on a quest to find lost treasure buried in the ’burbs of the nation’s biggest state.
Both films played the Toronto festival along with the animated “Terra,” in which Wood provides the voice of an alien girl whose world is threatened by an invasion of Earthlings, and “In Bloom,” with Wood and Uma Thurman in a drama centered around a guilt-ridden survivor of a Columbine-like school shooting.
‘She’s the best young actress out there’The rush of films follows an impressive transition toward adult roles for Wood, who started performing in stage musicals at age 4, co-starred in the family TV drama “Once and Again” and had a scorching breakthrough on the big-screen with the independent teen tale “thirteen.”
The latter film earned raves at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, with Wood playing a teen whose rock-solid relationship with her mom (Holly Hunter) crumbles as the girl is introduced to sex, drugs and crime through a black-sheep friend (Nikki Reed).
Wood went on to co-star in a string of mostly low-budget, dark-tinged films such as “The Upside of Anger,” “Down in the Valley” and “Running With Scissors,” holding her own opposite such performers as Joan Allen, Annette Bening and Edward Norton.
“I think she’s the best young actress out there,” “Across the Universe” director Julie Taymor said. “Starting from ‘thirteen’ and moving on, everything she’s done, she’s been extraordinary in. Then to open up her mouth and sing. She sang ‘If I Fell’ in the audition, and you fell into her eyes. You fell into those extraordinary eyes.”
Wood recalled that audition as one of the most nerve-racking moments of her life. With her early roots in musical theater, Wood had dreamed of doing a movie musical and had been following the progress of “Across the Universe” as the film was in development.
When auditions came up, she learned two Beatles’ songs, “If I Fell” and “It Won’t Be Long” and tried to stay calm as she sang them for Taymor and her casting crew.
“I never even sweat when I’m working out or anything, let alone when I’m nervous, but after that, my whole back was soaked, because I wanted it so bad and I knew I could do it if I could just keep my nerves under control,” Wood said. “I left going, ‘That either went really, really great or awful, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Two weeks later, I got the phone call and just cried.”
Wood wound up singing both her audition songs in “Across the Universe,” in which she plays Lucy, an American teen who falls for her brother’s British buddy, Jude (Jim Sturgess), amid the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Most of the story is told through Beatles songs, with the film featuring only half an hour of spoken dialogue. The cast includes U2 singer Bono as Dr. Robert, a psychedelic guru who sings “I Am the Walrus,” Joe Cocker doing “Come Together,” and Salma Hayek, the star of Taymor’s “Frida,” in a wild production number set to “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
‘I was always performing and singing’Wood’s father runs a theater in North Carolina and her mother is a stage actress, so going into show business seemed inevitable.
“I was at the theater more than my house. It’s all I knew, so it was just normal for me being at the theater all the time. On stage, off stage, it was kind of all the same to me,” Wood said. “I was always performing and singing. Never on demand, though. I would have to do it on my own. If somebody asked me to sing, I would run and hide.”
Wood has found a musical partner in her private life in boyfriend Marilyn Manson. She clams up a bit when asked about him and his interest in the film.
“He’s a big Julie Taymor fan, so he’s just excited about the whole thing,” Wood said. “He’s been very supportive.”
At the time, Manson had not seen “Across the Universe,” but Wood seemed unconcerned over how he would react to her musical chops.
It was a different story for Wood and her cast mates as they shot the film and contemplated that eventually, their performances would come under scrutiny of surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s wife, and the family of George Harrison.
Wood and co-star Sturgess finally sat through a screening in the company of Starr.
“That was our dream, watching it with a Beatle, because at the end of the day, that’s who we cared about the most,” Wood said. “Hardcore fans of the Beatles can say what they want, but if we had the Beatles’ approval, we kind of felt safe. And Ringo loved it, and Yoko’s seen it, and she supports it.
“But the final one was Paul. He was the one we were waiting on, and there was a kind of hesitancy about the whole thing. But he saw the movie with Julie. Julie asked him at the end if there was anything he didn’t like, and he said, ‘What’s not to like?’ The clouds parted and the angels sang. That’s what we needed. That’s what meant the most to us.”