ARIA: Evan Rachel Wood plays a spoiled opera singer in "Mildred Pierce." (Andrew Schwartz / HBO )
Evan Rachel Wood faced a double challenge in tackling the role of eldest daughter, Veda, in the HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce": She not only had to portray the unsympathetic partner in a famous pas de deux, she also had to be believable as a coloratura soprano. While it isn't her voice heard performing the arias — that belongs to Seoul-born opera star Sumi Jo — Wood still had a lot of work to do. "For two months, I listened to that music and only that music, and worked with an opera coach to learn the breathing and posture. I was actually singing the music, but an octave lower. It was intense."
Then there was the other fulcrum of the role — the scene in which Veda is discovered in bed with Mildred's husband, Monty. Rather than apologize, she saunters across the room, fully naked, and sits down at the vanity to primp in front of her horrified mother. "She's a snake slithering past Mildred at that moment — every façade is down, and it's all completely raw and bare and evil," says Wood. "There's no hiding."
Even for an actor of Wood's experience — at 23, she's already had a full career — a scene like that is intimidating. "I knew from the start it was in the script, but I was kind of hoping there would be some way around it," she says, laughing. "It was challenging and terrifying, but I'm actually really glad I did it, because it's such a powerful moment in the film." Plus: "When I'm old, I can say, hey, I looked like that."
Born in North Carolina to a family active in the arts — her father is executive director of Raleigh's regional theater — Wood grew up in front of the camera, appearing in such movies as "Thirteen" and "The Wrestler" and as a series regular on TV's "Once and Again" and "True Blood."
In "Mildred," she had light duty compared with Kate Winslet. Wood appears only in the final two hours (the younger Veda is played by Morgan Turner), but she immersed herself in the full character arc to better understand the relationship between the two women.
"It's like a drawn-out lovers' quarrel," she says. "There's jealousy and a strange competition. Veda is a truly spoiled child in every sense of the word, but nobody starts out as evil. I just think that, once her opera career takes off and people are kissing her … 24/7, any kind of innocence or heart that she has is gone."