The story goes like this. They were deep into the filming of Running With Scissors, Sony Pictures’ new movie about a dysfunctional family starring 19-year-old Evan Rachel Wood as the hard-bitten younger sister, Natalie. During one crucial scene, in which Natalie’s stony self-possession is poked and prodded to the point of emotional collapse, director Ryan Murphy told Wood that he wanted to see her cry in the second take. That’s when Wood pulled a move that left the entire crew speechless.

“She said something like ‘Which eye do you want the tear to come out of?’” Murphy recalls, still in a state of disbelief. “I thought she was kidding. And then when I realized she wasn’t, I was like, Holy shit! Did that just happen? It was weird—it was like Zen-master stuff.”

But that’s the kind of thing Hollywood directors have come to expect from Wood, who’s been acting almost as long as she’s been able to speak—and who admits that she sometimes confuses the screen with real life. She was a regular on ABC’s Emmy–winning series Once and Again. She stormed the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 with her complex performance in Thirteen (filmed when she was only 14 herself), outshone Tommy Lee Jones in The Missing, gave a nuanced interpretation of a vengeful Lolita in Pretty Persuasion, jarred critics in The Upside of Anger, and had matured enough to play Edward Norton’s muse in last year’s Down in the Valley—all before she’s reached the legal drinking age. Parts get handed to her. And these are not dumb-pretty-girl parts. These are roles for strong-willed, dark—at times, even sinister—characters. They’ve earned her praise like “the next Meryl Streep.”

Looking at her in late-morning light filtering through the windows of Manhattan’s Soho Grand hotel, though—where she’s hunched over on a big velvet couch in the mezzanine, wearing ripped jeans and a big jade fishhook necklace—you’d swear she was just some hotel guest’s daughter. Her hair is only a touch redder, her skin a shade paler, and her frame a few pounds wispier than Typical American Girl. For someone accustomed to dark characters, she seems delicate and a little unsure of herself. It is disorienting, somehow, to find Hollywood’s youngest deity looking so vulnerable.

“I used to not even be able to order pizza on the phone because I was just so shy,” Wood says, her porcelain fingers wrapped around a cup of green tea. “I think that’s why so much comes out onscreen, because that’s my time to let go in a safe place. When you’re doing that, it’s all written down on paper and it’s total fiction.”

Onscreen roles aside, it’s Wood’s life offscreen that sometimes seems a total fiction—apart from dating Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), the Hollywood-starlet fantasy she’s living out is decidedly more Silver Lake hipster than red-carpet socialite. She flies across the country just to catch a Radiohead show. She karaokes with Eddie Izzard. She has no interest in the aristocretin antics of the Hilton/Lohan set. “The clubs in L.A. usually just make me want to vomit,” she says—a world-weary comment from someone who’s young enough to regard the party scene as an exotic mystery.