The Lord of the Rings star talks about his role as the real life poet, John M. Brinnin, in the new film Set Fire to the Stars.
Actor Elijah Wood
Tavis: Always pleased to have Elijah Wood on this program. The versatile actor, of course, played Frodo on the hugely successful “Lord of the Rings” franchise and has since starred in a wide range of film and TV projects in his latest feature which is based on true events.
He plays an aspiring poet who goes on a transformative week-long retreat with his hero, famed poet Dylan Thomas. The film is called “Set Fire to the Stars”. First, a look at a scene and then our conversation with Elijah Wood.
Tavis: That was a great line about flippancy.
Elijah Wood: Isn’t it?
Tavis: I love that line.
Wood: Hopeless form of intellectual vice.
Tavis: It is a great line [laugh]. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t [laugh].
Wood: You can use it.
Tavis: Yeah, but you see something in the movies, that’s a great line and you want to use it. And you know that, if you use it in speech, somebody’s going to be like, “Oh, come on, dude, I saw that.”
Wood: That’s in that movie [laugh]!
Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. So it’s a great line. I was saying here when you walked on the set here how generous and charitable and kind you are at this point in your career, given your stature, to continue taking these chances with first-time directors. I mean, Peter Jackson, “Lord of the Rings”, I get that, but this is not the first first-time director you’ve worked with and can I just say this thing was beautifully shot.
Wood: Aw, thank you. Yeah, I think it’s important. I mean, ultimately, I’m drawn to material and I’m drawn to what I get a sense from a person, first time or not, what their vision is for the film that we’re about to make. And I was struck by Andy Goddard, who’s the director of this film.
I was struck by his vision and I was struck by the script that he wrote with Celyn who plays Dylan Thomas in the film and I wanted to be a part of that journey. You know, it doesn’t feel charitable. It just feels you’re moved by the thing and you want to be a part of the thing, regardless of whether it’s someone’s first time.
And, you know, someone’s got to start somewhere and I would certainly hope–and I was saying this to you earlier–I would certainly hope that someone would give me that chance too. I want to direct. That’s something I want to do. There’s going to be a first time [laugh]. You know what I mean? So I would certainly want someone to join my vision and give me a chance.
Tavis: We’ll come back to that. Put a pin in that. We’ll come to that later…
Wood: Okay, okay.
Tavis: To talk about what that might be somewhere down the road.
Tavis: But give me the story line here.
Wood: So this is based on–John Malcolm Brinnin was an aspiring poet. He was a poetry professor and he wrote a book called “Dylan Thomas in America” based on his experience with Dylan Thomas. He basically got a board to agree to bring Dylan Thomas over from England and tour him around the United States.
He was a very well-known and respected poet back home abroad in England, but was not very well known in the states, so he wanted to introduce the United States to this genius and this poet that he loved.
And it proved to be a rocky experience because Dylan was unpredictable. He was a fan of drinking to excess and he needed to be contained. In the context of that relationship, John experienced–you know, he had a challenge that was way beyond his means and it made him grow as a person and that’s kind of what the movie captures.
There’s a point in the book John writes about they leave New York. He takes Dylan away from New York because there’s too much influence. There’s too many ways for him to get into trouble and he takes him to this boat house in upstate New York.
And in that boat house, he doesn’t write anything about what happened. The next thing he writes about is them going to Yale. So Celyn and Andy, who wrote the screenplay, figured that’s the movie. What happened between these two characters, these two individuals who come together, one being a great fan of the other?
It’s that thing of like never meet your idols. You know, this guy was so much more than just the artist that he admired and it was a little disappointing and a little rough around the edges. We wanted to capture what happens in that space.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because, as I was looking at this, the thing I kept coming back to–I mean, I’ve been blessed, I do mean blessed, over the years of doing my radio and TV shows to have met a number of people…
Wood: Oh, man, yeah.
Tavis: And every now and then, I allow myself to spend time with these persons outside of the studio. Not often and not because I think highly of myself, but because there is this danger in hanging out with your heroes and I’ve been so blessed to interview so many people I regard as iconic and heroes of mine.
There’s always this line that you’re scared to cross because, on the one hand, you’re tempted by the idea of your hero becoming your friend, but that can be fraught with all kind of drama and danger. And I thought about that watching this about, you know, what happens when you get that kind of intimate space to share with your hero.
Wood: Yeah, and it’s the thing. As I’m sure you’ve felt it, you connect with people in this circumstance. You’ve met a lot of people and there’s something very conducive to this interaction that people give of themselves to you in the context of this that can sort of be, oh, that’s an indication of who this person is. But there is a line and I think crossing that line and seeing who people really are can be disappointing. It can be frightening.
Tavis: You know what’s funny about this? I think the day I saw this, I’d read an article in The New York Times about Letterman leaving after 30-some years of hosting his late night show. I had just read this article before I saw this. Julia Roberts appeared on Dave’s program 26 times.
Tavis: 26 times, Julia Roberts. And she doesn’t even do late night shows, so she just…
Wood: She really doesn’t.
Tavis: She was so partial to David. She loved Letterman. 26 times, she did Letterman’s show and she said in the article that other than those 26 times on the set, she and Letterman had never had coffee, had never spent any time together off the stage.
Wood: That’s amazing.
Tavis: But they had this wonderful rapport for 26 interviews on camera.
Wood: On television.
Tavis: On camera, Letterman and Roberts were great together, but never any time spent outside of the studio. It was just kind of funny because I’d read that article that day and then I watched…
Wood: And then saw this. That’s amazing.
Tavis: And I’m watching this about, you know, a hero, a young man and his hero coming together. It was just fascinating for me.
Wood: Yeah. I think what’s beautiful about this story, I mean, as much as it’s about never to meet your heroes or the way that you can be disappointed, my character, John, is ultimately changed in a kind of profound way by this experience. I think, had he not met Dylan or had these experiences with him, he may not have gotten out of his comfort zone.
You know, sometimes people can be locked in to the way that they see the world and I think his view of the world shifted after meeting Dylan. So as difficult as it was, as complicated as the relationship was, his view of the world changed, and that’s a beautiful thing ultimately.
Tavis: It is about this relationship, but I love the fact that here’s a story that is beautifully written, beautifully told, beautifully shot that also has in its epicenter the story of literature, of a great writer.
Tavis: And I raise that only because I wonder to what extent we are getting farther and farther away from appreciating writers like Dylan Thomas.
Wood: No kidding. Oh, man, yeah. And Dylan had a very specific way with language and with his words. Andy and Celyn sort of describe him as almost like a punk rock poet.
Tavis: A punk rock poet.
Wood: Punk rock poet.
Tavis: I like that [laugh].
Wood: Well, he just played with language. He would construct sentences that were very strange and he would just play with it. He would play with the medium and he was not–poetry can get a little bit overly focused on its structure and he would mess with the structure, and that’s what’s exciting about reading it.
It’s what I think is exciting about him in the sense that you read him now and it sounds modern. Even now, it’s still relevant. But, man, I mean, that point of getting further and further away from literature, oh, it’s dear to my heart because I think we’re also getting further away from language, from the way that we’re expressing ourselves. I think…
Tavis: 140 characters [laugh].
Wood: You know what I’m saying? And I think–I mean, I get frustrated because I love the English language. I love being able to express myself with words. I’m the person that will text someone in full with, you know, full punctuation, full words…
Tavis: I’m the same way [laugh].
Wood: We have a full keyboard now. We’re not doing, you know, whatever it was when you were just using numbers. It’s just silly. I believe in language and I do think in some ways because of our communication being more accessible and digital for these platforms, we’re getting further and further away from it. And slang is becoming more commonplace quicker and faster. So, yeah, it’s something that I’m a little afraid of. I mean, but I still think there are great writers.
Tavis: Every time you come on this program, it is always for some project that is–I mean, your choices are so eclectic for the kind of roles that you play, which I think is–I would like to think or assume it’s every actor’s dream to do a variety of things.
Tavis: But your choices are pretty phenomenal. I mean, the way you challenge yourself, you’re not in a box. I assume that’s by design, that’s deliberate?
Wood: It is, yeah. I think it’s deliberate, but it feels very organic. It’s not deliberate in the sense that I feel like I’ve got a plan ahead of me or that I’m strategizing. It has more to just do about what I connect with. From project to project, it’s just what I connect with.
And sometimes the driving interest is to do things that are different and that challenge me and put me out of my comfort zone. So that might be a guiding principle.
But outside of that, it’s just an organic sense of connecting to a piece of material or, even moreover, a filmmaker. Sometimes it’s just a filmmaker’s vision that I want to fulfill. I’m thinking less about myself as an actor in the context of a film and more about, man, what this person is going to try and do, I just want to be a part of the fabric of that.
Tavis: So before I let you go, I want to circle back to where we started this conversation with your commentary about the fact that, at some point, you might like to direct. What does that–I mean, I know it’s in the distance. You don’t have a script in front of you or a screenplay, but what does that look like? What does that look like down the road, that directorial debut?
Wood: I don’t know. I think whatever the material will be, it won’t be–I’m not attracted to middle of the road. I’m not attracted to well-trodden paths in regards to storytelling. I have a production company called SpectreVision and we produce genre and horror films.
I don’t know that it’ll be that, but I’m interested in different approaches cinematically and different kinds of stories that are not of the norm. So it’ll be something like that. But all of this comes from a deep love of cinema and having been an actor for over 20-some odd years…
Tavis: And you’re only 25 [laugh].
Wood: You’re right.
Tavis: And you still look like you’re 12 [laugh]. That’s a compliment.
Wood: Thank you.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Wood: 34 now. I’m 34.
Tavis: Wow! You got me on that. I didn’t see that coming. 34 now?
Wood: 34. I’m going to be 35 in January.
Wood: But all this comes from a place of just loving the process. I love working with a group of creative people towards a common goal and that goal being a movie that we’re all excited about seeing.
So I’ve enjoyed that process for many years as an actor and I’m now enjoying that process as a producer, which is very much a facilitating role. And the idea of taking on the challenge of being a director is super thrilling and terrifying and I feel like something I need to do.
Tavis: Well, the common goal on this one has been realized. It’s called “Set Fire to the Stars” starring one Elijah Wood who I’m always delighted to have on this program. All the best on the project.
Wood: Thank you.
Tavis: And I will see you for the next one.
Wood: Yes, indeed.
Tavis: Good to see you, Elijah.
Wood: You too. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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