“Thirteen”, now playing in limited release across the country, is the disturbing cautionary tale of Tracy(Evan Rachel Wood), a good kid who goes bad once a lethal friendship with Evie(Nikki Reed) begins. I interviewed both actresses, now 15, about all of the controversy surrounding their film a week before its New York and LA release.
Nikki Reed’s a Hollywood veteran at the age of 15. Having co-written the new indie smash, “Thirteen” at said age, then going on to star in it a year later, not to mention spending her summer this year selling it, you’d think she’d already be a jaded industry pro. So it’s maybe a little weird to see her bounce into the room, eye the candy bars and sodas and exclaim, “mmmâ€¦snackies”, like, well, a 15 year old girl. Outgoing and humorous, the charming Reed seems a lot like Evie, her cinematic alter-ego. Aside from the whole evil, self-destructive qualities her character possesses, of course.
By contrast, Evan Rachel Wood is quieter and more shy, rarely looking up when answering questions. Wood, of course, is more polished and has more experience with the whole press thing; a star of the short-lived “Once and Again” on ABC, she’s also dabbled in film with the Nicole Kidman comedy “Practical Magic”. She doesn’t appear jaded either, but she’s certainly got a darker edge than her costar. One could even say she resembles her on-screen character as well. Wood has made a habit of playing the sad, introverted teen, a choice she seems to acknowledge. “It’s just a type I enjoy playing”, she says, smiling. “But I don’t want to be typecast as the misery chick for the rest of my career. I guess I have to watch out for that.” Whether she likes it or not, though, Wood might want to stick to the misery chick thing a little longer; she plays it better than any other young actress working, and has turned more than a few heads with her brilliant portrayal of Tracy in “Thirteen”.
No slouch herself, Reed follows Wood’s lead and creates a realistic but effective portrait of Evie, a secretly tortured girl growing up too fast. Even more impressive than her acting, however, is the credit she shares behind the scenes with director and longtime family friend Catherine Hardwicke. Together, the two wrote the film’s first draft. Hardwicke was able to add a mature perspective to Reed’s visceral, realistic dialogue to craft a film fair to both teens and their parents. “There were points when it was frustrating”, Reed says of the writing process. “She’d say ‘you don’t see that you’re mother’s a really great person’. I wasn’t able to step away and look at things from her perspective.” Early on in the film’s development, Reed realized she wanted to take things one step further and act in it, but doing so meant she had to give up further writing privileges. “It’s every actor’s dream to write their own lines, so I had to step back a little” she says.
Reed originally wanted to play Tracy herself, but was instead cast as Evie when agents set their sights on Wood, who was intrigued when handed her copy of the script, but more than a little cautious. “This kind of material could be disgusting if handled the wrong way” says Wood, “but after meeting with Catherine, I was completely sold. She was so passionate.” The girls held a unique sleepover session for rehearsals in Hardwicke’s home with Holly Hunter, who plays Tracy’s mom. The unorthodox preproduction then gave way to an unorthodox production, as cameras shot the girls at all hours of the day, exceeding union rules. “At lunch, Catherine told me to always stay in character, because you never know when they’ll be shooting some far away stuff to fill in a gap here or there.”, Reed recalls. The whirlwind nature of the shoot made getting into such an intense character even tougher for Wood, who explains, “”One minute of the day I could be the bad girl, and one I could be in pig-tails. It was all out of order. So I kept a notebook saying where Tracy was all the time, so that every scene I could go back and get where I needed to be.”
In addition to the typical stress involved in an independent production, the cast also had to contend with nonstop nitpicking from industry-mandated watch-owls. One scene in particular, involving a three way make out session between the 14 year old girls and the 27 year old Kip Pardue(“Rules of Attraction”), was tough to produce under the pressure. “There was a welfare worker there the whole time behind the couch, making sure no one touched nipple or anything” confirms Reed. “So it was awkward. Then a crew guy pulled me aside after one take and told me I looked like I’d be a really good kisser, before going back to filming me, so that was really awkward.”
Braving rule-breaking, an impossible filming schedule and lecherous crew men, the girls managed to put “Thirteen” in the can, just in time for Hardwicke to win the Director’s Award at the 2003 Sundance film festival. Since then, reaction to the film has been sensational, to say the least. “The public reaction we’ve all gotten so far from people has been great; it’s made all the risks worth it” says Wood, though the personal reaction from her family is obviously a greater priority. Recalling a Sundance screening with her mom next to her, she says, “She was trying to be cool, but I could tell that it was still hard for her to watch. The kissing and everything, no mom should see that. The first time she saw the film was the first time she saw a lot of the graphic scenes, since I had to send her away from the set on those days, or else I never could have acted them.” But the overall reaction was glowing, an experience the girls hope translates to mothers and daughters across the country. “I don’t know if 13 year olds should see this without someone there” says Reed. “Because I know 13 year old girls who are just like me, and I know some that are still playing with Barbies. I think it’s a good film to see with your parents. Obviously, kids are gonna be tempted to see an R-rated film like this and sneak in, but hopefully if families go together, it could create a safe zone to talk about a lot of important stuff.”
While much of Thirteen‘s reaction has indeed been positive, not all of its viewers have left fans. Reed confesses, “some people say that I’m full of it and say ‘I think you’re horrible. I never went through that, must just be because you’re from LA.’ I say you must have been out of the loop, because I don’t know anyone my age who hasn’t at least seen this stuff going on.” Adds Wood, “we’re not lying about anything. In fact, we could have gone farther, but some people still refuse to believe it.” Whether it opens viewers’ eyes or not, “Thirteen” still stands as a wake-up call to the Boomers and even Generation X to a new way of life for today’s teenagers; one steeped in sex, drugs, masochism and eating disorders. Both girls hope their efforts will help parents of troubled children understand the world in which their daughters live, and believe the final product goes beyond the exploitation typical of the teen junkie genre. While they’re hopeful kids across the country will get the right message from the gritty material, there’s still room for a few doubts. “I was telling one friend about the computer dust-off scene” says Wood, referring to a snorting session the two main characters share with a household cleaner, “and she just paused and said ‘you should try that!’. So yeah, I don’t talk to her anymore.”