Thursday, September 08, 2005

Interview: Illuminating Actor (and Music Fan) Elijah Wood

As with my piece on Mick Collins, this interview with Elijah Wood, scheduled prior the announcement that Tablet had ceased publication, will never see print, although it should also be posted to www.tabletnewspaper.com shortly. Here it is in its entirety.

*****

In August, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) came to Seattle to talk to the press about his new film. Along with four other writers, I met with the actor to discuss Everything is Illuminated. Based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the funny-sad road movie marks the directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate) who, like Safran Foer, is of Ukranian descent (Schreiber also wrote the screenplay). The story concerns a young Jewish man based closely on the author--also called Jonathan Safran Foer--who travels to the Ukraine to track down the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Aiding him in his "very rigid search" are gold chain and tracksuit-sporting translator Alex (Eugene Hutz from the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello), whose command of English is amusingly shaky, his "blind" grandfather Alex (Boris Leskin), their driver, and grandfather's demented "seeing-eye bitch," Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Mickey and Mouse).

In person, Wood looks and sounds pretty much as you might expect, although he's better looking than he appears on screen. Yes, his eyes are big and blue, but not as prominent as his films would lead you to believe--especially those in which he sports spectacles like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sin City and now Everything is Illuminated. As for his personality, I found him to be relaxed, charming and forthcoming. Despite having worked in Hollywood from a very young age (Avalon, Radio Flyer, etc.), there was nothing phony or calculated about his responses or about his attitude in general. He listened carefully to the questions that were asked of him and provided thoughtful, articulate answers. In short, I was impressed.

Naturally, we wanted to know what it was like to work with the inexperienced, but charismatic--and Ukraine-born--Hutz, who practically runs away with the film. According to Wood, he was "a blast to have around." Schreiber originally "met with Eugene in reference to music," but "realized very quickly that Eugene embodied quite a lot of what Alex is in the script." That said, his band's material is well represented in the movie (including the group themselves in a funny scene at the beginning). I read that Wood and Hutz bonded over their love of music, so I was curious as to the bands or recordings that united them. "We traded music a lot," Wood confirmed. In fact, they still do. (He then pulled Gogol's Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike CD from his bag, exclaiming, "You guys all need to own this.") During filming, Hutz turned Wood onto Sweden's garage-rockin' Mando Diao and Franco-Latin sensation Manu Chao, while Wood turned Hutz on to bluesmen like Skip James. Some of the groups they listened to during filming included the Stooges, James Chance & the Contortions and the Birthday Party. In fact, Hutz appears in a no-wave documentary called Kill Your Idols, that features Chance. When I asked, Wood said that he's seen the film and found it worthwhile for the interviews.

But back to Illuminated. When Wood was asked whether he based his version of Jonathan on the book or the real-life author, who visited the set during filming, he said his characterization came straight from the script (which is what convinced him to do the movie in the first place). He explained that Schreiber "took relative liberty to a certain degree" with his adaptation and that "my choice was to just go with what Liev had written." He also mentioned that Schreiber drew inspiration from the Chauncy Gardner character in Being There, in that the film's Jonathan is more quiet observer than garrulous participant (like Alex). "He has this whole other world going on that is very different than the outside world...and yet there's this beautiful stillness to him, as well." Wood acknowledged, "He's weird...very neurotic and practical." In the film, Jonathan is seen constantly placing every kind of object--dirt, a prized necklace, even a potato--into plastic baggies, which then go into his very dorky-looking fanny pack (to later be tacked up on his wall). When asked if he could relate to Jonathan's obsessive-compulsive packrat instincts, Wood said yes: "I can definitely relate to that," adding, "I find value in the tiniest pieces of paper...I'm a bit of a hoarder in that sense. The main difference is that I'm completely disorganized."

When it was suggested that he might have a master plan in terms of his career, Wood begged to differ: "It's always the material." If patterns emerge, they're largely coincidental, like the fact that he's been in a lot of literary adaptations...or played three characters in a row with bizarro eyewear. (Regarding Eternal Sunshine, Wood said, "I would have done anything to be a part of that movie, because I'm such a huge, huge fan of Michel Gondry and think he's such a visionary, and [Charlie] Kaufman as well.") As for all those adaptations, "I've never really consulted the source material," he confessed, adding that he reads some books, like Huckleberry Finn, but not others, like Everything is Illuminated (he's a particularly big fan of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels). His approach is, instead, "relatively organic." Also, he likes to "challenge myself as an actor," so he tends to gravitate towards "films that are very different than the last." Consequently, he's currently looking into a bio-pic about a particular musician. He wouldn't say who, but admitted he was both scared and excited about the prospect. He also emphasized that the worst thing he could imagine would be "to compromise any kind of integrity; I can't really see myself doing that." When asked if he had any interest in directing, he said yes--producing, too. He also confirmed that he has started a record label and is looking at a few different bands to sign. When I asked if he would ever do TV again, he said, "I'm not opposed to it." "You should be on Lost," I suggested (featuring his old pal, Dominic "Merry" Monaghan, from The Lord of the Rings). He laughed. "To do a cameo on Lost--I would love to do that!" he admitted.

Aside from Illuminated, which opens September 16th, Wood has another film coming out this fall called Green Street Hooligans, co-starring Charlie Hunnam (Nicholas Nickleby) and Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black) and directed by newcomer Lexi Alexander. The story concerns a young American (Wood) who travels to London to flee a bad scene in the States (he's just been expelled from college for a crime he didn't commit) and ends up falling in with a gang of football hooligans. From what I've read, the movie is more like Bill Buford's Among the Thugs than Chuck Palahniuk's--or David Fincher's--Fight Club. Hooligans opens on September 9th (in limited release). After that, it looks like he'll be working on Bobby (alongside Anthony Hopkins) about the goings-on in the Ambassador Hotel during the hours leading up to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. The movie is the dream project of actor/director Emilio Estevez, who also wrote the script. The more Wood talked about the film, the more passionate he became, particularly in regards to the speech Kennedy gives that day. If it turns out even half as well as he described it, Bobby should be very good indeed.

After our conversation came to a close, it occurred to me Wood used the following words the most: "organic," "beautiful" and "blast" (as in "it was a"). They seem to sum him up quite well. He came across as a guy who knows just how lucky he is to get to do the thing he loves and can't wait to see what lies around the next corner. That said, his tone became slightly elevated whenever he talked about music. For all the passion he has for his craft, it's clear that music holds a place in his life that film will never be able to touch.



Endnote: This interview can also be found at http://www.tabletmag.com/103/dispatches/103_elijah_wood.shtml

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