The Ingenue

If you still can't match the name to the face, by year's end you will. Wood, who was as hard to miss as she was to watch in 2003's gritty coming-of-age drama "Thirteen," played one of Joan Allen's daughters in this spring's "The Upside of Anger." Next week, she'll star alongside James Woods in the independent film "Pretty Persuasion." Then she teams up with Edward Norton as his much younger girlfriend in "Down in the Valley" before appearing with Annette Bening in "Running with Scissors." "There are plenty of movies about teens and proms," she says, sporting black heels and a raspy voice from a cold she caught rehearsing. "That's what I want to shy away from, to show there's many more levels."

Mission accomplished. Wood got her start on the heartbreakingly good and short-lived TV series "Once and Again." As Jessie, an anorexic teen from a broken family, she hit notes of angst that we hadn't seen since Claire Danes in "My So-Called Life." (Both shows were coproduced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick for ABC). "I remember the first episode I directed after the pilot," Herskovitz says. "There was a scene where she had to break down and cry. I'm sitting there watching her in the monitor, and I started to cry. That was the first time in 25 years of directing that I cried on the set."

"We began to write these things that demanded more," Zwick says. "There was nothing that we could write that she couldn't inhabit." The high point of the series--and Wood's performance--arrived in the third season, when Jessie began questioning her sexuality and fell in love with a future star of "The O.C." "It's funny telling people that my first on screen kiss was with Mischa Barton," Wood says. The performance went on to land her movie roles. Ron Howard, for instance, cast her as Cate Blanchett's--you guessed it--daughter in 2003's "The Missing."

But the North Carolina native finally found her breakout role in a small buzzworthy indie film about a 13-year-old who falls in with the wrong crowd and begins dabbling in drugs. "There was never a bad take," says director Catherine Hardwicke. She says that Wood improvised the movie's intense final scene, where her character completely breaks down. "In the middle of that first shot, there was this beautiful child on the ground. I was like, 'You don't have to do this again. We've got it'." Wood doesn't mind that she's still identified with the role. "I'm so proud of that," she says during an interview at her trendy New York hotel. "I still feel like it's getting bigger every day. We couldn't ask for anything more."

Except for maybe another dark role. In "Pretty Persuasion" Wood goes for broke again as a detached high-school student who plots against a teacher by accusing him of rape. "She's kind of a freak of nature," says Marcos Siega, the film's director, of the actress--although the same could be said of the character she plays. "When you spend time with her, you can see she's a young girl. But the second the camera turns on, she becomes this other person. She just understands what the movie was supposed to be."

The film, which tries to come off as a modern "Heathers," isn't always successful. (The middle tries too hard to be edgy and the end doesn't quite come together.) But Wood never misses a beat--from a raw opening monologue about racial prejudice to a scene where she seduces a female television reporter. For a difficult sex scene, Siega says he used a directing trick to get a more realistic performance. "You're not really going to have a conversation with her about, 'Have you had an orgasm?'" the director says, who instead asked the crew--big men in work belts--to do their best imitation of having one. "By the time we got to Evan, she was trying to one-up them."

One-upsmanship has, in a way, been Wood's modus operandi throughout her inchoate career--only, usually it's her last performance she's improving upon. "I think she'll grow into one of America's great actresses," Taymor says. Hardwicke adds, "She has a beautiful face, but she can also look really different--her instincts are so strong that I feel like there's nothing she can't do." Wood, for one, wants you to know that she's modeling her career after Jodie Foster (smart move) and she's not as dark as the characters she plays. "That's were I get it out," she says, "like therapy." We'll be waiting for the next session.

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