Sitting on the terrace of an expensive Venice hotel, the 24-year-old actress Evan Rachel Wood cuts a distinctive figure. In spite of the blazing sun, she is in black. Wood collects vintage sunglasses and today is wearing a Prada pair with such large lenses that they make her resemble a character from some fantastical Tim Burton film. "This isn't vintage. This is now but I like it because it looks vintage. It is very Sixties or Seventies," she says, twiddling with the frames.
It would be unfair to say that Wood specialises in playing brats, vamps and renegades... but she is certainly good at it. You can see her in the new George Clooney movie The Ides of March as a political intern/femme fatale who very rapidly beds political spin doctor Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who is running the campaign for would-be president Clooney.
Her character, Molly Stearns, flirts outrageously with Gosling, coming on in the early scenes like a modern-day version of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She has a flair for double entendre and knows just how to flutter her eyelashes in a way that teases and tantalises the hapless Meyers. Only slowly do we realise just how young and vulnerable Molly is.
She is tremendous, too, in Todd Haynes' HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce as the headstrong, spoilt and promiscuous daughter who wreaks misery in her mum Kate Winslet's life. As befits someone who plays Sophie-Anne Leclerq, the vampire queen of Louisiana, in True Blood, her skin is preternaturally pale. (She herself puts this down to her Celtic roots and her links, which she doesn't fully explain, to the Macleod clan. "I am Scottish and so sunscreen is really important... I have really sensitive skin.") She is a tiny, elfin presence, even if she does claim that she can't resist loading up on the carbs: "potatoes and bread and pasta and all of that". Not that she is much of a cook. "Right now, I can defrost," is her own summation of her skills in the kitchen.
Wood has a sense of humour that you don't always find in Hollywood stars. Her Goth rocker ex-boyfriend, Marilyn Manson, testified that it was her enthusiasm for the 'director's commentary' version of Paul Verhoeven's cult movie/prize turkey Showgirls (along with her Lolita-like sunglasses) that first attracted him to her.
Wood has been acting since she was a child. She grew up in the business, appearing in plays at the age of four, auditioning for Neil Jordan's Interview With a Vampire (she lost out to Kirsten Dunst) but subsequently winning roles in a host of TV movies. Her father, Ira David Wood III, runs a community theatre company in North Carolina. Her mother, Sara Lynn Moore, is an actress. Her parents separated in the mid-1990s. Having spent her childhood in North Carolina, Wood moved to California with her mother to pursue her acting career.
British audiences will probably first have noticed her as the nice suburban teenager who turns into a hormone-crazed, Britney Spears-like tearaway with a pierced tongue and a navel ring in Thirteen (2003), Catherine Hardwicke's cautionary tale about the perils of female adolescence. They may have seen her, too, as frontier woman Cate Blanchett's daughter, kidnapped to be sold into prostitution in Ron Howard's western The Missing (2003) and as Mickey Rourke's estranged daughter in Venice Golden Lion winner, The Wrestler (2008). Thanks to her recently announced bisexuality and her on-off relationship with Manson, she is a regular fixture in celebrity gossip columns. At the same time, leading directors clamour to work with her and take her very seriously as an actress. Darren Aronofsky, Todd Haynes, George Clooney, Julie Taymor, Woody Allen and Robert Redford have all cast her in prominent roles. Her regular appearances in HBO dramas on the small screen are likewise a stamp of quality on her career.
Glance through Wood's filmography (which already stretches to well over 30 titles) and you'll find very few bland, cookie-cutter style movies. "I do independent films," she declares, as if that is a matter of principle as well as of fact. "I feel like it has worked out for me just choosing roles I connect with and the material I love, and not doing it for money."
The actress is a disarming interviewee, frank, funny – able to discuss her career in earnest fashion one moment and her beauty routine the next. (For the record, she likes products that "are very gentle, things that are really pure, with no fragrances".)
What is clear is that she approaches her roles with a Method-like intensity. To play Veda in Mildred Pierce, which she calls the hardest role she has ever done, she had to convince audiences she was a top soprano singer. "Before we even began filming, we had two months of preparation for mimicking piano, which I can still do in the air," she wiggles her fingers to illustrate her point. "I had to learn to lip-synch opera in three different languages. I almost wish I had really been singing because that would have been easier than having to nail down somebody's every breath and move." She says that she didn't listen to anything but opera the entire time she was working on Mildred Pierce. "I even played the songs in my sleep so that it was subconsciously just engrained."
The young actress was also faced with one of her first nude scenes. This caused no end of prurient speculation about 'merkins' in the US press. These are the wigs used to simulate female pubic hair. Wood reportedly had to use one in the name of authenticity because women in the 1930s didn't bikini-wax.
"I feel like I've avoided that as long as possible," Wood reflects on the scene. "No matter what, everybody has got fears and insecurities. For me, when I am really afraid of something, I have to do it. I have to face that fear... and now I am so happy that I did it!"
Her terror at the nude scene was mitigated (at least to an extent) by the presence of her co-star, the redoubtable Kate Winslet. "Kate was the main person who really put everything in perspective for me..."
Wood adds that the scene wasn't titillating in the slightest. "It's not a sexy moment at all. It is one of the most unsettling, disturbing uses of nudity I've seen on TV in quite some time... I am not in a hurry to do it again. It was not as if it's some quick shot. It's one long shot, slowly walking past the camera. There is no hiding anything. It was terrifying, but afterwards Kate and I had a drink and Kate said, 'Here's to your first full-frontal!'." Wood mimics Winslet's accent, making her sound strangely like Joyce Grenfell.
What did her own mum make of her turn in Mildred Pierce as the daughter from hell? "She loved it... the performance, not the character." Wood watched Mildred Pierce alongside her parents and was "proud" that they didn't flinch, even when Veda was at her most mischievous and destructive.
The young actress took a conscious decision at the age of 18 that she wanted to explore the "wild side". She had been acting since she was a kid and has been ruthlessly disciplined in her approach to the craft. However, right from the outset, she had been hankering after independence. She may not have been as wilful as Veda in Mildred Pierce but she shares her character's spirit. "I have to experience something to learn from it. I won't just take people's word for something. I can't have somebody telling me, 'Don't do this, do that'. I feel like every child is supposed to go through a period where you have to separate yourself from your parents and push away..."
So she was a bit of a handful? "The funny thing is I was a really good kid because I was raised extremely strict and I was working a lot. My mother wanted to be really, really careful because in this business, it's easy to go off the deep end, but I think that it worked against her because when I turned 18, I had been so sheltered for so long that I just exploded! I am glad I did because it teaches you a lot about yourself. Now, I've got it out of my system and I am ready to settle down."
How did her explosion manifest itself? "I hopped on a tour bus and I got engaged to a rock star," she laughs with just a hint of embarrassment about her own antics. "It doesn't get much crazier."
Her relationship with the rock star in question, Marilyn Manson, clearly helped as she tried to explore a radically different side of her personality. Aged 19, Wood appeared in Manson's macabre and sexually suggestive music video "Heart-Shaped Glasses", which the rock singer acknowledged Wood had partly inspired. Her affair with Manson was seized upon by celebrity websites, many of which suggested that it had hastened the break-up of his marriage to burlesque model Dita Von Teese.
"Just because a relationship ends, it doesn't mean that it failed," she reflects on her own break-up with her former fiancé. (Wood is since rumoured to have rekindled her romance with British actor – and Billy Elliot star – Jamie Bell.) "I don't think I would be the person I am today without him [Manson]. He is inspiring. The timing was right and I felt a door was open to me to really explore, express myself and take risks."
Manson was a performer who captured the spirit of a time (which we're still in) when vampire stories moved from the margins firmly into the mainstream. The first Twilight film was directed by Wood's old mentor, Catherine Hardwicke, in 2008. Wood herself started appearing in HBO's vampire series True Blood in 2009. "People are fascinated by it and it's a very romantic idea," she says of the fad for vampires. "It's something that is very dangerous but also very sexy ... I think people crave that." As for her own role as vampire queen, that, she says, was a hoot. "It's a great job. You're surrounded by blood and extremely attractive naked people every day."
For all her rebelliousness, Wood retains at least vestiges of the Pippi Longstocking persona she once had, before the Manson years. She speaks earnestly about the opportunities that a career in acting affords her. "For someone who really feels like they're an artist at heart, to be given an opportunity to have a platform and a voice and a way to reach people is so many people's dream. I never take that for granted anymore. I've always tried to stay grounded and humble. I don't ever want to get used to luxury." When she is not working or travelling, she likes to stay home at her apartment on the beach in Venice, Los Angeles, with her cat, "blasting music and singing. We have friends come over and we push all the furniture against the wall and go crazy".
Most Hollywood starlets are circumspect about their sexuality. Wood has no qualms about discussing her recent decision to come out as bisexual. "It's funny when you suddenly realise you've bought into a certain idea for so long. You're just raised with a certain idea of what a girl is supposed to be and what a boy is supposed to be. That is not necessarily real. It's just what you've been taught," she reflects. "I've always felt that way [bisexual] for as long as I can remember. I truly feel like you're just born a certain way [and] I feel the more people are honest about something as human as sexuality, the more it will stop being a big deal."
Her coming out as bisexual doesn't seem to have damaged her career. As she says, "I've had a great reaction. Something like bisexuality throws people off slightly more because you're not saying you're one way or the other... I look back on my career and I see how many lesbians I've played, I'm like 'How did they know!'."
Wood laughs uproariously but suggests there is still a layer of homophobia in Hollywood. Whereas women can come out as lesbian or bisexual ("a lot of people think it's whatever – that it's not even real sex and doesn't count"), men who come out as gay are likely to face more of a struggle.
As for the future, Wood is staying coy. "I like not planning too far ahead and so I am always surprised and not too disappointed."
'Mildred Pierce' has its UK Blu-Ray & DVD release on 28 Nov (HBO Home Ent). 'The Ides of March' is in cinemas now