On the set of ABC's Once and Again this season, Evan Rachel Wood was having trouble working herself up for a scene involving her character, troubled teen Jessie Sammler. So the 14-year-old actress asked her mother, Sara, to come over and pinch her. "She said, 'I need something to annoy me!' " recalls TV mom Susanna Thompson.

In her third season on Once, Wood is still pinching herself in disbelief that she gets "to play make-believe with totally intelligent people who are your best friends," she says. Yet she has been acting since age 5, encouraged by her mom, 43, an L.A. acting teacher, and father, Ira, 53, a theater director in Raleigh, N.C., who divorced in 1997. By then Evan (whose brother Ira, 16, also acts) had made her big-screen debut in 1996's Digging to China, followed by 1998's Practical Magic with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. "That's when I had the idea that I'm not doing too badly here!" she says. Her Digging director, Timothy Hutton, endorsed her being cast in Once and Again in 1998.

Tutored on the set, Wood says she's too busy to date. (She and her teen ex-beau, Port Charles alum Robert D. Vito, "are just friends now," she says.) But she still finds time to make movies. Last year she played Al Pacino's daughter in Simone (to be released this year). Pacino "was so gracious" when they filmed scenes together, she says. "After his close-ups he'll look you straight in the eye and say, 'Thank you.' "