The buzz about his weekend at the Coachella Music Festival was all about the holographic resurrection of Tupac Shakur. Elijah Wood, a huge music buff who often DJs at local clubs, thinks it was a cool festival stunt, but the thought of regularly taking dead stars on tour is totally “fucked”.
“It brings up all sorts of ethical issues,” he says. “It is a little bit creepy. I don’t know that I’d want to show up and see John Lennon be a hologram. I think we need to be careful about how we use the image of the deceased.” Wood, 31, takes a final drag on his cigarette.
If you’ve ever seen Wood in Wilfred, one of TV’s most surreal comedies ever, you quickly realize there’s a lot more to this guy than Frodo, the life-changing role he played in the three Lord of the Rings films, and which he is reprising for The Hobbit, a two-part film. (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is set for release on December 14, and part two, The Hobbit: There and Back Again is expected to premiere in December 2013.) In Wilfred, the second season of which debuts on FX on June 28, he plays a suicidal (and possibly psychotic) ex-lawyer befriended by his neighbour’s mutt, whom he sees as a pot-smoking Australian guy in a dog suit.
“I’m a huge fan of the movie Harvey, and it’s sort of like a very twisted, much darker Harvey,” Wood says. “The man in the dog suit is a manifestation of something psychologically going on with this guy. My interpretation is that it’s a portion of his psyche that had been dormant for a long time—the portion that sort of pushes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, or may not necessarily be good for you to do. But it forces him to experience things that ultimately help in his recovery.”
Wood can relate to that idea. He recently shot a short film called Set Up, Punch about a stand-up comedian. As preparation for the role, the director, David Schlussel, asked him to perform some material at the Hollywood Improv comedy club in Los Angeles. “I was petrified and kept avoiding it,” Wood says. “Because I was afraid of it, I knew it was something I had to do. It was really scary, probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. But I now know what I’m capable of doing. It was pretty incredible.”
The urge to dive into whatever adventure is most challenging helps explain Wood’s diverse body of work. He has a distinctly offbeat, indie sensibility that is reflected in the projects he chooses, the music he grooves to (Turkish psychedelic), and even the food he eats (pizza with botargo or guanciale). “I think I’m just interested in complexity,” he says.
In an industry known to chew up and spit out child stars at a rapid clip, Wood has worked consistently for the past 23 years.
It’s not what you’d expect from a former child star from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who began his career around age five as a runway model at a mall. Wood moved to L.A. at age seven, immediately landed his first gig in a Paula Abdul video, and within a year appeared in a small role in Back to the Future Part II. In an industry known to chew up and spit out child stars at a rapid clip, Wood has worked consistently for the past 23 years—playing everything from the voice of a dancing penguin in Happy Feet to a serial killer in Sin City—without a whiff of a mental breakdown or scandal. “My mother was always more concerned with raising me as a human being than making sure that my career was great,” he says. “She never allowed me to believe that I was any more special than anyone else because I was doing something that was different.”
There’s an earnestness and humility to Wood that’s distinctly at odds with his silver-screen status. Wilfred executive producer David Zuckerman recalls stopping at a fast-food joint on a road trip back from an Oregon rafting venture. If you want a good laugh, check out the YouTube video posted by a fan named GloZell, who was mortified when she clogged the restaurant’s toilet during a chance encounter with Wood there. What GloZell doesn’t share, though, is what happened next.
“Elijah went in there and plunged the toilet,” Zuckerman says. “I mean, this is a movie star, and he’s like, ‘I’ll just go in and plunge it.’ He’s a guy who just does what needs to be done. There’s no ego, no sense of entitlement.”
Even since The Lord of the Rings made him an international star, Wood has remained willing to take on roles of any size in order to work with filmmakers he likes and respects. When he heard that director Michel Gondry was pairing up with writer Charlie Kaufman to make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance, he jumped at the chance to play a secondary role. “I would have fucking done anything,” he says. “I would have done catering on that film, I’m such a huge fan.”
Wood also plays a small part as the gay co-worker of his friend Rashida Jones’s lead character in the new romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, set for wide release in August (its world premiere was at the Sundance Film Festival in January). “He’s gay, but not in any kind of overt way—a relatively straight gay man, I suppose,” Wood says of his character, Scott. “But the comedy of the character is that he keeps trying to say things that are flamboyantly gay, and it just doesn’t work coming out of his mouth. So every scene has this sort of button of me saying something that’s ridiculously flamboyant, and her being like, ‘No.’ ”
Wood never hesitated to take on a gay role, despite being asked to address rumours about his own sexuality a few years ago after a website showed doctored photos of him with other men. Wood handled the situation with class. “That website definitely tickled me,” he says. “It’s pretty hilarious and obviously a joke.” Although he’s currently single, Wood is definitely a relationship kind of guy. “I think I connect to people emotionally in all ways, and so that translates very easily to happily being in a relationship.” Most of the people he hangs out with and dates aren’t in the entertainment industry, either. “I don’t isolate myself or only mix in certain circles,” he says.
Wood spends a lot of time with his mother, brother, and sister, who all live nearby. (His parents divorced when he was a teenager.) Presuming he meets the right person, Wood hopes to settle down and start his own family at some point in the not-too-distant future. “I would love to, eventually,” he says. “I’ve always imagined getting older and having kids. And so yeah, it’s something I look forward to. I don’t know how ready I am yet. I mean, I’m still young, but I also don’t want to be 38 and having kids.”
For now, Wood is enjoying something of an extended youth after spending his childhood handling the responsibilities of an adult career.
For now, Wood is enjoying something of an extended youth after spending his childhood handling the responsibilities of an adult career. “There was a period of time where I felt that I was missing out on social interaction with kids my own age. I think I matured faster. There felt like there was a little bit of a distance because I was travelling a lot, and I was exposed to culture and experiences that one wouldn’t normally be exposed to.”
These days, Wood likes to spend his free time watching movies, surfing, playing video games, and playing music. “I mess around with instruments. I don’t play anything proficiently, but I mess around with percussion, and I have a couple of guitars and a couple of keyboards.”
Although the music label, Simian Records, that he started in 2005 never really took off in a serious way, Wood has become more dedicated to DJing in recent years. He’s part of a DJ collective called the Embassy and frequently shops eBay for old forty-fives—everything from Brazilian Tropicalia to Iranian pop from the 1970s. “There’s so many great labels now putting out incredible compilations of older, archived music—or entire albums of unheard records that are being reissued on vinyl and CD. It’s awesome. It’s a great time for archive music.” When he’s not thinking about music, there’s a good chance you’ll find Wood indulging his gustatory passions. A self-proclaimed “nerd for food”, Wood spent his pre-L.A, childhood hanging out in the delis his parents owned, and he recently considered taking cooking classes. “I’m a huge fan of the culinary arts. I love, I love food,” he says. Wood makes a mean cassoulet and likes to fire up his pizza oven at home when he’s not hanging out at L.A. restaurants such as Animal, Sushi Zo, and the Spice Table. He was recently impressed by his visit to Thomas Keller’s venerated restaurant, the French Laundry. “It felt very relaxed, very unpretentious,” he says. “I don’t like places that are overly fancy. If they happen to have great food, I’ll sit through anything.”
Wood’s interest in food isn’t all about sybaritic pleasure. The politics of food “weighs heavily on my mind,” he says. “Food in schools—that’s a pretty intense issue, what they’re serving. It’s relatively questionable and unhealthy. I think our farmland is being threatened, and that’s a little frightening to me.”
Celeste and Jesse Forever screenwriter and star Rashida Jones thinks Wood has stayed sane growing up in showbiz by remembering there’s more to life than Hollywood. “His priorities are right,” she says. “He loves acting, and he loves working, but he’s also well-rounded. He wants to know more about everything—whether it’s music or food or travelling or humour, he wants to absorb as much as he possibly can.”
When Jones and Wood get together, she usually allots a large chunk of time because their conversations range from “politics to metaphysics to relationships to family and the psychology of being a part of a family, to working to food to music,” she says. “He’s a deep dude.”
For all of Wood’s success as an actor, there are still limitations to his career that stem from the fact that he’s barely physically aged since his teen years. With huge puppy-dog eyes, a slight frame, and diminutive stature, he’s more credible playing a twentysomething scenester than a leading man in his 30s.
“I look a lot younger than I am,” he admits. “That’s definitely been a challenge in my life as an actor—sort of allowing people to see me as older. There’s probably some roles, as a result of that, that I haven’t been considered for—anything from, like, a leading man, romantic lead, to a cop in a noir cop drama. There are certain things that one may not necessarily think of me for, that I would like to play, you know?”
There’s also the small matter of having people see past his iconic role in The Lord of the Rings. Even though it’s been eight and a half years since the last of the trilogy was released, people on the street still call him Frodo. “It’s going to happen for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’ve totally made peace with that. I never resented it. I just tend to ignore it. But I certainly don’t mind people talking to me about the movies. I understand people’s love of the films. It’s a significance that’s far beyond any of us.” The films’ effect on his own life surpasses even the impact on his career. “For sure, they broadened my horizons as an actor,” he says. “But the more profound effect is what it had on me as a person. I travelled to New Zealand when I was 18, and when I was all finished with The Lord of the Rings, I was 22—usually a significant time in one’s life, in terms of growth, kind of becoming a man. I made some of the best friends of my life, people that sort of transcend friendship. It’s family.”
Filming The Lord of the Rings was a physically demanding job, too, and as a result, Wood developed an outdoorsy side. “Elijah jumped into a one-man kayak and was tackling class-three rapids pretty much the first day,” Zuckerman says of their rafting trip last year. “He’s pretty fearless. Totally into roughing it. We didn’t have any fancy camp. I don’t even think we set up a tent. We just slept under the stars and cooked our own food, washed our own mess kits. I think at one point Elijah and one of the other guys went to track some bears they saw, which I thought was insane, but fortunately, he came back in one piece.”
Wood was actually the first person ever to cross Victoria Falls on ropes—something he accomplished during an episode of Jack Osbourne: Celebrity Adrenaline Junkie. Nevertheless, at heart, Wood remains more urban hipster than granola cruncher. “I have a lot of interests in my life, and I think I’ve always felt that one can’t be wholly and completely satisfied by doing one thing,” Wood says. “I love filmmaking, and I think I’ll always be involved in filmmaking, in some respect. But, you know, I’ve always wanted to open a bar.”
A Wood gastropub, perhaps? He could cook the pizza and spin some tunes at the same time. You heard it here first.