RALEIGH — In the 12 years since Evan Rachel Wood left Raleigh, the city has changed a great deal. But certain quadrants of it remain blissfully, comfortingly familiar. Like Theatre in the Park, where Wood has returned to perform with her father and brother in a production of "Romeo and Juliet."
"Coming back in the spring, getting back into the same routine, seeing a lot of the same people -- it really feels like nothing has changed," she says, seated in an easy chair backstage. "I thought it might be weird, but I just fell right back into everything like no time had gone by at all. Living here was always warm and cozy and safe and fun. My brother and I grew up in the prop room. That was the playroom where we'd hang out."
Of course, Wood has changed over the past dozen years even if her old hangouts haven't. Since her breakout role as a restless adolescent in 2003's "Thirteen," Wood has become one of Hollywood's leading young actresses. She recently played Mickey Rourke's estranged daughter in "The Wrestler" and muse-to-a-generation Lucy in the 2007 Beatles musical "Across the Universe."
Wood's next big-screen role will be opposite Larry David in the Woody Allen comedy "Whatever Works," opening this summer. She's also set to play Mary Jane in the Broadway musical version of "Spiderman" this year -- "hanging off buildings as the damsel in distress," she cracks.
First, though, is a weekend run of "Romeo and Juliet," which sold out long ago. It's a fundraiser for Theatre in the Park to finance a trip to take "A Christmas Carol" to France in November. Everyone in the production (including Wood, who typically commands enormous salaries for her movie roles) is working for free.
It's quite the family affair. Wood stars as Juliet while her real-life father, Ira David Wood III, plays Juliet's father, Lord Capulet. And her brother, Ira David Wood IV, directs and plays the supporting part of Mercutio.
"The first production I ever saw of it was right here, in 1995," Wood, 21, says. "A lot of the same cast is still here now, which makes it special to come back to. My brother and I had always dreamed of doing it together. Finally, at Thanksgiving I said, 'We should go ahead and do this. We're all old enough. And if we wait too long, I'm going to be too old.'
"I always wanted to play Juliet in the way I've read her, but never seen her played. Usually she's very innocent and sweet and cries all the way through the second act. But she's really rebellious -- she's sneaking around, getting married on the sly; she kills herself. She's tough, too."
Wood took her first steps toward acting at Theatre in the Park, where her father has held forth as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" for more than 30 years. She was appearing onstage in productions as a toddler and had her first speaking role as the Ghost of Christmas Past in "A Christmas Carol" -- a star turn in which she brought down the house by scolding, "Ebenezer Scrooge, you sound just like my dad!"
Even as a child, her father says, Evan emitted star power.
"I remember once when Evvy was young, I walked in while they were setting up lights," says the elder Wood, "and she was sitting on the bench onstage totally entertaining herself with this monologue. She was in the zone. I could tell she was born with the magic."
"I do not remember that," Evan interjects with a laugh. "But I did do that a lot."
"Yes, I'd see you doing the same thing with dolls in your room," Ira tells her. "Before you could even read, you'd be holding a book upside down and talking to the dolls in a language you were making up. And I imagined forward a few years to the dolls being people in a theater, watching you on a stage or a screen."
Evan has mostly fond memories of those childhood days in Raleigh, with one large exception: school. Because she came from a family of actors and acted herself, Wood says, she was branded as "different" from her public school classmates. And she says that she and her brother were bullied relentlessly.
"The teachers were almost worse than the students," she says. "They had this idea of me, because I acted and would miss school, as spoiled and thinking I was better than everybody else. They seemed to think I needed to be put in my place, and it just made me hate school. I once got beaten up by boys because my [Screen Actors Guild] card fell out of my backpack. At that point, the basketball we'd been playing with was thrown at my head. I'd come home covered in spit. It was awful."
Given that, Wood's subsequent success has been gratifying and vindicating. And she and her father seem to be enjoying this homecoming and the chance to work together.
"At home at night, I like to sit quietly after everyone else is asleep and just put sharp edges on all the memories," Ira says. "I don't know if this will ever happen again."
"Oh, I hope it's not the last time," Evan says. "I hope it's the beginning. It's so great that this theater family here is the same. The woman I saw play Juliet in 1995 is playing my nurse now. My father played Mercutio before, now he's playing Capulet -- and my brother is Mercutio. So we pass it on. Maybe I'll come back and play the nurse someday."
She and her father laugh. It could happen, sure. But given how fast her career has taken off, it's hard to imagine Wood having time to come back for a supporting role.
"But there's a lot to be said for treating it like it will be the last time," Ira says, "so you can guard and cherish the memories. And Thomas Wolfe was not right. You can go home again."
"Yeah," Evan says. "You can."