Rolling Stone Article: The Secret Life of Elijah Wood

Interviews
Main

His world can seem vicious and unkind, but who could expect Elijah Wood to notice? At lunch at the Newsroom Cafe in Los Angeles, Wood is spotted by Chris Rock, who is on a cell phone. Without ending his phone conversation, Rock - whom Wood has not met - exclaims, "You're a fucking star! A killer!"

Wood is suffering the widespread reaction to his heroic role as the diminutive, furry-footed hobbit Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which so far has grossed more than $700 million worldwide and gathered thirteen Oscar nominations, the most this year. Wood has already filmed the two other parts of the Rings trilogy, for release in December and in 2003, so there's more attention ahead. "People come up to me," Wood says, "and that's all they want to say: 'Thank you.' "I soon see it for myself. The waitress first brings the check, then removes it. "We all decided that we liked the movie so much that it's on us," she insists.

Once Wood has eaten lunch, we move to another table, where the twenty-one-year-old star is allowed to smoke his Sampoerna clove cigarettes. This is a habit he picked up from Josh Hartnett, who smoked them on the set of The Faculty, the teen horror movie they made in 1998. Wood had never been drawn to cigarettes, but he liked this new smell. He held out until they met to promote the film. "Josh was, 'Come on, dude, you've been wanting one for ages.' So I had one and it just escalated into a full-fledged addiction."

Wood arrived home from New Zealand, where director Peter Jackson filmed the trilogy over sixteen months, on December 23rd, 2000. Since then, aside from a quick eight days playing Edward Burns' murderer brother in the upcoming Ash Wednesday and re-recording dialogue for Rings, he has unwound and waited. Wood had a long career as a child actor, from Forever Young to Flipper, and though for the most part he avoided the cheesiest and most limiting options, he has been looking forward to his chance to be an adult. "Teenagers tend to get pigeon-holed into teen films," he says. Wood is pleased about the next two chapters of Rings. In these, the story - and Frodo in particular - grows progressively darker. It was suggested to Wood during the filming of Fellowship that the lure of the ring, which confers a power that insidiously corrupts, was akin to heroin addiction. He found that useful, but suggests the ring's grip may be tighter: "It's an obsession as well as an addiction."

Wood has a few loose criteria he wants to apply to his next project. "Something modern would be nice," he says. He unfolds his thin, broad smile. "No prosthetic makeup would be good as well." (This just in: Wood will get his wish by co-starring with Mandy Moore in the college comic romance Try Seventeen.)

During the time its cast members spent making the Rings trilogy, they entered a parallel world. "As the airplanes landed in New Zealand, it was like Dorothy's house landing in Oz," says Sean Astin, who plays Frodo's hobbit friend Sam. Wood agrees. Trying to tell me what fun he and his co-stars had, Wood says, as though it were the most normal thing to say, "Hobbits know how to have a good time."

You all lost your minds, didn't you?

"Yes," he says. "Well, we referred to each other as hobbits [Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan joined Wood and Astin in the hobbit fraternity] and still do. But lost our mind in a good way. We gave in to the world of The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth. It was about brilliant friendship and a closeness."

The closeness among the nine actors who made up The Fellowship of The Ring - four hobbits, two human warriors (Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean), a dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), an archer elf (Orlando Bloom) and the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) - took bizarre forms. Wood explains that a feature of life on the Rings set was an increase in word power inspired by an obsession with uncouth British humor. "I've gained an appreciation of the word cunt," he explains. "Negative words - the best thing is to diffuse them by using and taking the meaning away. Cunt! Cunt! It's a great, great word. Very forceful."

It was not Wood but Viggo Mortensen who was the most obsessed. "He became utterly fascinated with it," says Wood, "and it became the word of the film. Their Winnebago for makeup was called the Cuntebago. I was not a part of the Cuntebago unfortunately - it was the makeup room of Orlando, Viggo and Sean Bean - but it was a lovely place to visit. Cuntebago T-shirts were made up. There was a Cunty Christmas and we had a Cunty Christmas tree, all this stuff. Cate Blanchett [who plays the elf queen Galadriel] was deemed Her Cuntliness."

And Cate was fine with this?

He nods. "It was an honor."

Um, did Sir Ian join in all of this?

"No, he didn't, come to mind."

"I didn't get involved in all that," confirms McKellen, though not unamused. "They were quite distinctive, the hobbits. They fell in with each other's sense of humor." Likewise, director Jackson comments that "if it helps them get through the film then it's fine by me." Wood says that his Cuntebago T-shirt is home in a drawer. "It's too big for me," he explains. "I'm a small guy."

Mostly, what one hears from those who shared his company in New Zealand are testaments to Wood's maturity. It is Wood who describes a rare exception to this - a night out in Wellington drinking vodka and cranberry juice that ended with Wood and fellow hobbit Dominic Monaghan climbing up a fountain statue that had been annoying Wood and pissing in it as Liv Tyler, cast as Arwen the elf princess, looked on and said (Wood does a high-pitched Tyler impression), "Guys, what are you doing? Did you just piss in the fountain?" He enjoys this story. "Funny though," he says. "Good memories."

Famously, the actors' bond was cemented when they all got tattoos showing the number nine written in Elvish. Roger's Tattoo Parlour in Wellington opened specially for them one Sunday morning. Wood opted for a spot just below his waistline on the right. "I certainly held his hand while he was having his tattoo done," McKellen recalls. "Not that he was not feeling brave, but we were all chums down there."

Now, more than a year later, Wood is considering another Lord of the Rings tattoo. In the first movie, Frodo is stabbed above the heart, a wound that never truly heals. Wood wants to get that wound inscribed onto his chest, just a simple black line or a white scar on his flesh to mark where the blade entered and the injury remained. "It would be a really brilliant personal Frodo tattoo to have," he says. "That little scar that would never go away."

Elijah Wood's earliest clear memory is from when he was four or five years old. He was at a party dressed in a page boy's outfit his mother had made for him. "I really had to pee," he says, "and I was embarrassed to tell my mother about it. And I just remember peeing myself and being really embarrassed." (This no longer happens. "Got control of the bladder now," he says.)

His Catholic mother favored biblical names. His older brother was Zachariah, his younger sister would be Hannah. He got Elijah. "He was a prophet," Wood says, "a messenger of God." This Elijah does not imagine himself a messenger of God and has not stayed close to organized Catholicism, but he does try to pray every night before he goes to sleep. He used to feel guilty if he passed out without praying, but these days he's more phlegmatic. "If I pass out," he says, "I pass out. It happens."

Both his parents are from Iowa and were building a life in Cedar Rapids, running a deli together. He was an energetic kid who loved climbing things. That's why they called him Sparkplug (a name he would later take for his production company) and Monkey. He's told that when he was two he locked his mother out of the house, climbed into the cupboards and destroyed the kitchen while she watched through the locked door. He is told that he was laughing, and that he knew what he was doing.

His mother was watching TV when it struck her that one way to channel Elijah's excess energy might be for him to act in commercials. She enrolled him in a local modeling school when he was six. Soon afterward, a talent agent spotted him and asked if he wanted to act. Of course he wanted to act.

Mom and children moved to Los Angeles so that Elijah could seek work. His father later joined them, first getting a job with Federal Express, then selling air-purification systems. Within six weeks, Elijah was cast in Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" video, directed by David Fincher, who would later make Seven, Fight Club and Panic Room. The video featured kids acting as though they were adults, and Elijah played a young executive breaking a pencil. "Very brooding and moody," he recalls.

Wood's early film roles in Back to the Future II, Internal Affairs and Avalon set the pattern for the next few years: playing the wide-eyed but smart kid in films for adults. He'd had no formal training. "I had a knack for it," he says. "I felt like I understood people." Apart from a week back home to pack up, Wood never went back to Iowa, and he has never been back since.

Elijah Wood has largely grown up in a world of adults. In California he went to regular school for the first three years, but then it became tricky, because he was always away on film sets, and after that he was home-schooled. He thinks he was happier this way, though he had one blip when he was about eleven. "I really felt the lack of friends and that social situation of being with people my own age," he says. "I just didn't have anyone to hang out with." For a short while he insisted that he wanted to stop acting, but he changed his mind: "Ultimately I felt like I enjoyed what I was doing much more than what I was missing." He's glad he skipped regular high school: "There are these kinds of social cliques, and do you belong, do you not belong? It's such fucking bullshit, it really is..."

The one adult Wood says he didn't grow up with, even when he was around, was his father. About six years ago, his parents divorced and his dad moved back to Iowa. I ask Wood what his father does now. He pauses then says, "Very good question. I don't know. He does odd jobs. He was painting houses for a while. I'm not sure."

Which, I point out, is an interesting answer in itself.

"Yes," he says perkily. "Speaks quite a lot of that relationship, certainly."

You were close, I ask, until the split?

He shakes his head. "No. It just is what it is. He was always physically there as a father, but never emotionally there. I was not raised by my dad."

He was in the house?

"Yeah. But someone can physically be somewhere and not actually emotionally be present. He just wasn't capable... how can I put this?... He just wasn't an emotional guy. You look at the idea of a mother, and the mother kind of nurtures you and cares about you and is concerned with every detail of your life and upbringing... and my dad just wasn't. He was incapable of it. The relationship was never bad. It just wasn't there. I think some of that also had to do with the fact that I was gone a lot. I have to thank my mom for everything in my life, the person I am today. She sort of overcompensated to raise the family, so I never felt a lack."

Wood says that once his father moved back to Iowa "I didn't really feel the need to call him. We don't really stay in contact. It's off and on."

Does your dad want more contact?

"I think he does, yeah. It's awkward to create a relationship with someone you didn't have a relationship with in the first place... There are probably certain behaviors that I'm angry about that I could get very specific about, but there's no real need to."

But it must have had some effect on the kind of person you are...

"The lack of a father? It very well could have. I'm conscious of..."

Sitting here during this conversation, the striking thing is not how awkward it is or how troubled Wood seems about it but the reverse; though he's talking about something serious and recognizes that, as he talks about it he is never anything other than breezy.

Astin acknowledges that nothing can be as clean and simple as it sometimes appears with Wood. "There's definitely a quality that is searching," he says. "He smokes these clove cigarettes all the time and... it's trying to fill something. It's a very primal..."

Peter Jackson explains how, at first, he had to spur on Wood to inhabit the darker side of Frodo. "He was having to summon up feelings of genuine hatred that he didn't enjoy doing," says Jackson. "Those were the times when I had to say to Elijah, 'I'm not quite believing it - let's do it again.' " And when they did it again, he was there.

I propose to Wood that when darkness doesn't appear easily in someone, especially someone as upbeat and positive as he, one wonders whether there's no darkness there, or that it's buried very deep. And is even darker.

"Because it doesn't get air," he nods, considering the notion. "When something doesn't get air, it smells worse."

Wood is obsessed with music. He is gracious in answering questions, but he's much more excited talking about Strokes B sides. His favorite band is the Smashing Pumpkins, and he talks about how happy he was, recently, when he went to see Billy Corgan's new group, Zwan, and fell into conversation with a rabble of other Pumpkins obsessives. "Talking about rare CDs and bootlegs that we owned, a very geeky conversation," he gleefully reports.

One afternoon, we go to Los Angeles' huge new record store, Amoeba. Wood works his way through the racks, raving about the Hives, Andy Votel, Buffalo Daughter, the Sea and Cake, Beulah, Broadcast and, incongruously, Heart's "Dreamboat Annie" - and then a man approaches. It is his friend Ben, who works here.

"Whassup?" screams Wood, and they fall into a rambunctious combination of hugging and wrestling in which Ben lifts Wood off the ground. "You've had a big fucking month - congratulations," Ben says, and they're off, debating whether Amelie is better than The Royal Tenenbaums (Ben's view) or vice versa (Wood's view) and discussing the brilliance of the masturbation shot in Mulholland Drive. Ben ushers him to the DVD section, where Wood gets the Twin Peaks TV pilot, and they arrange for Ben to come over and watch it. Before leaving the store, Wood looks through the Smashing Pumpkins section, knowing that there can be nothing here he does not already have, but that's what you do with your favorite artist.

"Always," he says. "Always. It's silly."

Wood had two uncomfortable scenes to film for The Ice Storm, Ang Lee's 1997 film about wife-swapping in Seventies suburbia. Because the second of these, in which he fumbles sexually with Christina Ricci, who is wearing a Nixon mask, was filmed on an interior set, his mother wasn't directly standing there, watching. During the first, in which he and Ricci kiss experimentally at the deep end of a dry swimming pool, his mom was right there. "That was awkward," he reflects. "At the time I wasn't exactly comfortable with any kind of sexuality around my mom. It wasn't just a kissing scene, it was highly clinical. You know, tongues and mouths."

Afterward, he remembers, she said to him, "That was really weird." And he realized that it was probably more awkward for her in the long run.

One afternoon I ask him: How many times have you been in love?

"Oh, fuck me," he says, startled. He puts on a raw British accent: "Jesus Christ." Then, in his own voice, he begins to address the question: "I was in love, you know what, once, but it was that kind of young, fresh, puppy-love thing that you get when you're like sixteen. It was this girl named Sarah. She used to come to my house at five o'clock in the morning, and we'd just hold each other on the couch for like twenty minutes and then she'd go off to school."

What went wrong?

"We were both young. In all honesty it was more about - the breakup was more about her needing me, and I didn't want to be with someone that needed me. It was really hard to, you know, basically be someone's happiness, and be responsible for that. . . ."

Are you currently attached?

"Completely unattached. I miss it. Really miss it. You know, it's dangerous, because I'm terribly romantic... I used to get myself into these relationships that were more about my idealization of love than the fact that I'm really in love with them. However, it's wonderful being single. It's always in flux. I'm looking but I'm not looking."

Wood still lives at home, though in a separate guesthouse. "I spend all my time in the house anyway," he says. He's very close to his mother and siblings. (Zachariah produces video games in San Diego and generally comes home every second weekend; Hannah, 18, is planning to move to New York - "she writes poetry," Elijah says.) His mother used to accompany him to every set and guide his career, but though these days she still reads his scripts and offers opinions, there has been a separation. I ask him how this is playing itself out, and he laughs.

"Better now," he says. "It's not only me getting older but me also taking control of something she really loved as well." There is another weirdness that often comes with precocious success: perpetuated money for the family. "That's a difficult thing to accept. I don't want to consider myself the breadwinner. It takes away the power and responsibility of my mother and the cohesive sense of family I have."

I have a different question. Does she do your laundry?

"She does, still. Isn't that terrible? I'm twenty-one, and, yeah... pathetic."

The last time we meet, Wood says he is a little worried about having spoken about his father. "I just don't want to upset the waters any more than they are already," says Wood. Before Christmas, his father had left a message complaining that his ex-wife had said she would get Elijah to call, and he hadn't called. Elijah is annoyed that in his message his father had said of his other children, "And if anybody else is around I'll talk to them too."

"It was so revealing," says Wood, "and it bugs me."

I ask him: In what ways are you most like your mother?

"I share quite a bit of anxiety with my mom. I have a lot of anxiety. My mom and my sister actually are most alike. They have quite fiery personalities, so when they get angry at each other it's like an explosion. Whereas I try to talk things out. I was always the family peacemaker."

We are in the outside seating area in front of a juice bar near the Pacific. A woman comes up. She isn't after an autograph. "I don't mean to interrupt you guys, but . . ." she sweetly begins, and tells us that the van behind us has a man with a camera in it, photographing Wood.

"Thank you," says Wood, and we walk off. "Isn't that terrible?" he says. "There are little references here and there - nothing overwhelming - that my life is changing. That never would have happened before."

Elijah Wood has the ring. There were other rings, used for different shots, but he has the ring he wore: the ring that was the ring. Jackson gave it to him in a wooden box as he left New Zealand at the end of filming. "It is the one ring," he says, "which is a pretty great thing to have."

He keeps the ring in his office. It's put away, out of sight.

I ask Wood whether he often takes it out and fondles it.

"No," he says. "I haven't taken it out in quite some time. I'd rather just keep it hidden away for now."

He has the ring. He mentions that he also wants the sword, but they still need that for pickup shots. Elijah Wood is talented and successful and desired and strangely secret and smart and self-possessed. He has the ring, and now he wants the sword. That's how it starts. Wood may handle it all better than most, whatever his buried weirdnesses, but there will be plenty to handle nonetheless. He will get his sword, of course, and he will keep the ring, which in fact is nothing sinister or malevolent, just a gold band from a beloved movie. And then, because this is how we are, he will want something else.

CHRIS HEATH
(RS 893- April 11, 2002)