When she was just 8 years old, Evan Rachel Wood got in trouble for pretending to be sick so she could stay home from school and spend the day dancing and lip-synching to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Twenty-five years later, when the creators of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story asked her to play the inimitable Material Girl in their movie, it felt like “kismet.”
“She was one of the first musical artists that I loved. I have memories of being 4 years old dancing to The Immaculate Collection in my living room. So it was like, ‘Oh right, yes, of course this is happening,’” Wood tells MTV News.
Like so many young women, Wood grew up listening to Madonna’s music and soaking up the artist’s pop culture-shifting, singular brand of female empowerment. Wood had a favorite Madonna song — 1989’s self-actualization anthem “Express Yourself” — and ate up the singer’s “utterly perfect” Marie Antoinette-themed performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. Madonna was an omnipresent force in her life.
“She’s just completely unashamed in her confidence and how she views herself; how she carries herself in the world and in conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more confident human being,” Wood says of Madonna. “She had the perfect balance of sexuality while also being very empowered and in control. She was somehow able to be so overt and sensual while maintaining this air of a queen. That’s a hard line to straddle. I think there’s art in that. Nobody else is like her. There really is only one.”
As soon as she got the role in the farcical biopic, which hits the Roku Channel today (November 4), Wood began watching some of the music icon’s early ’80s interviews on YouTube. “I needed to know how she was conversationally and the cadence of her voice, especially in that time period because she evolves and changes so much. There’s been so many iterations of Madonna,” Wood says.
Twisting the camp knob all the way up, Wood’s Madonna is as over-the-top a villain as they come. This alternate-universe version of the “Lucky Star” singer slithers into Yankovic’s life with one sole motive: to get him to parody her new single “Like a Virgin,” bumping up her sales in the process.
Though the real-life Madonna has always been a strategic businesswoman, the film’s Madonna beguiles like an old-school Bond temptress swathed in tulle, lace, and jelly bracelets. She’s calculating and conniving as she seduces Weird Al and becomes a bad influence on his life and career. Madonna’s role is so central to the plot of the film that Weird even ends with a hilariously sinister gag related to the ubiquitous pop icon.
But it’s all played for laughs. Madonna and Yankovic never dated and only met once, briefly, backstage at an event in 1985. In fact, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is more of a parody of a biopic than an actual biopic, lampooning the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis, and Rocketman as it sends up its subject. During filming, the script’s disconnect from reality offered a much-welcome cushion for Wood, who was understandably “nervous” to play Madonna, let alone such a “sociopathic,” coked-up version.
“I said yes immediately, without hesitation, and then I thought, ‘Oh my god, now I actually have to do this and pull it off.’ I’m a Madonna fan so I know if I went to see a film and somebody was playing Madonna and not getting it right….” Wood trails off, cringing.
Once Wood had the voice, physicality, and mannerisms down, including ’80s Madonna’s perpetual bubblegum chewing, the pressure was off and she had plenty of room to play alongside Daniel Radcliffe’s equally over-the-top Yankovic. By the third act, it was all about taking what she had learned about Madonna and “dialing it up to 11.” That was the most challenging part for Wood: “It was just like, OK, how do I stay true to who she is while making this completely ridiculous?”
“I really tried to study her as much as possible beforehand,” Wood says. “There was clearly some leeway because it’s heighted and a parody, so it didn’t have to be 100 percent true. But I knew in the beginning I wanted the audience on my side, so I tried to make it as convincing as possible early on so that when the character just flew off the handle by the end, the audience was still with me.”
At one point in the film, a frenzied Madonna toys with the idea of becoming the leader of a drug cartel. “Why conquer the music industry when you can conquer the entire world?” she asks Yankovic in her heavy New York accent, an evil twinkle in her eye. The line is a tongue-in-cheek callback to a real MTV interview from 1984. “That’s a little homage to the Madonna we know and love,” Wood says.
Considering Wood’s Weird portrayal, the 40-year anniversary of Madonna’s self-titled debut album, whispers of a rumored world tour, the singer’s newfound chokehold on TikTok, and her forthcoming self-directed biopic, reportedly set to star Julia Garner, it appears we may finally be entering pop culture’s long-overdue Madonna renaissance.
“Have we ever left it though, really?” Wood jokes. “I think with this [film] and with her biopic on the way, we’re going to see a huge Madonnaissance. I’m kind of shocked the Met Gala hasn’t done a Madonna theme … everybody just doing different eras of Madonna. That would be incredible. I think we’ll start seeing stuff like that more and more.”
Should the Queen of Pop watch the film, Wood simply hopes she’d get a good laugh out of her cartoonish onscreen persona. “Clearly it’s not meant to be taken seriously. I hope we can joke about it the next time I see her.”