The busy actor discusses his transition from features to the small screen, including his role in the FX series Wilfred, and shares the downside of being involved with a major franchise.
Actor Elijah Wood
Tavis: Yeah. Pleased to welcome Elijah Wood back to this program. The “Lord of the Rings” star is enjoying success on the small screen these days on the critically acclaimed FX series, “Wilfred.” The second season just kicked off recently, airs Thursday nights at 10:00. Here now, a scene from “Wilfred.”
Tavis: (Laughter) So what is it, whether it’s “Wilfred” on the small screen or “Ted” on the big screen, what is it about these irreverent animals?”
Elijah Wood: I know. The “Ted” thing’s kind of funny, because we just finished our second season of “Wilfred,” and “Ted” was coming out just as we were finishing. Yeah, kind of similar. I don’t know what it is.
Tavis: Yeah, but irreverent animals are working, for some reason.
Wood: It’s true. Yeah, there’s something in the water.
Tavis: So for those who have not seen “Wilfred,” give us the storyline here.
Wood: Okay. (Laughter) It’s not the easiest thing to describe. It’s about a guy; the first season sort of set it up well. It’s about a guy who has kind of reached an impasse in his life and he almost commits suicide and he fails. Quite dark moment.
In that moment he meets his neighbor’s dog, and he sees a man in a dog suit. He quickly realizes that nobody else can see that but him. Everyone else sees a dog. So that sets forth a relationship between man and dog.
Tavis: Yeah. But this is a different kind of dog, though.
Wood: Oh, yeah, he’s certainly different. He kind of – the way I look at it, I think it’s up for interpretation, but he’s sort of like my character, Ryan’s, conscience, in a way, or his id, if you will. The side of his personality that has been lying dormant that is telling him to do things that he would normally not do. In some ways, he actually learns something every time.
Tavis: What does this series do or say about that old adage that the dog is man’s best friend?
Wood: Well, I think it adds enemy to that equation. (Laughter) Friend/enemy. It’s kind of constantly in question what Wilfred’s intentions are at any given time.
Tavis: When you first read this script – how did this initially come to you? Let me start with that first.
Wood: Sure. Well, I was looking at television scripts a bit a couple of years ago primarily because I love television, particularly cable television. It’s certainly proven, in the last five years, that it’s an amazing place for great storytelling. Some incredible actors and writers and directors have moved to television.
So I was curious about the medium mainly for drama, but I was also interested in comedy, and comedy is something I’d never really had experience doing. So I read a few comedy scripts and my manager sent me the script for “Wilfred,” and it was unlike anything I’d ever read. I’d certainly never seen anything like it on television.
Wood: I found it hilarious, but it also had this sort of cerebral quality to it that I think I love the most. It sort of reminded me of “Harvey.” Did you ever see “Harvey,” with Jimmy Stewart?
Tavis: I have, yes.
Wood: Where you can actually kind of interpret what that relationship actually is, and there’s something of a multilayered aspect to the show that didn’t necessarily fully rely on comedy all the time, and I think that’s what I really responded to.
Tavis: You’re an actor, and so obviously you’re good enough and ought to be free enough to choose whatever roles you want, and your success at “Lord of the Rings” has allowed you to have stuff to pick and choose from. But to your point, you had not – we, at least, have not known you really as a comedic star.
Tavis: So why even roll the dice on that? Why take the risk? Obviously it’s working in this first season, but why even roll the dice that way?
Wood: Well, I think new experiences are extremely important. I think it’s really important to constantly challenge yourself. Comfort is not a good thing. I think it’s good to take yourself out of your comfort zone and to look for new challenges. I love comedy. My job on this is more of a straight man. It’s a little bit more of a reactionary role.
Jason Gann, who plays Wilfred, has the more directly comedic role. But at the end of the day it was simply about responding to the material and on a gut level it was something that I fell in love with, so I was willing to take that risk.
We were also – I knew going into it that we’d have the freedom to make the show that we wanted to make with FX. The shows that they sort of cultivate have – they’re known for having a lot of freedom to sort of do what they want to do, and that was exciting.
The show that David Zuckerman, who’s our show runner, described to me, and the places he wanted it to go were so surreal and so strange that I just wanted to be a part of that. It felt like something unique and different.
Tavis: How did you know that the time was right for you to move in that particular direction? You’ve been such a big movie star for so long. Why – I can’t say for – you’re so young, I can’t say “for so long,” but anyway -
Wood: Well, 23 years.
Tavis: Yeah, 23, yeah, 23. Yeah, that’s a lot. (Laughter) That’s a while, OK.
Wood: It’s weird, yeah.
Tavis: Fair enough, fair enough. How did you know that the time was right to make that move in that direction, to small screen?
Wood: I don’t know. I don’t know that I think in timing or if I think in terms of the arc of a career.
Tavis: But you were looking in television.
Wood: I was.
Tavis: So why look in television at that point in your career?
Wood: It’s a good question. I think because I had become such a fan of certain shows, shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” AMC has done such an extraordinary job of establishing themselves as an artistic place; HBO certainly for a long time.
I don’t know, the idea of working on something episodic was exciting, maybe in part to the fact that it’s become increasingly difficult to find films that are interesting.
Tavis: Even for Elijah Wood?
Wood: Sure, yeah, sure. (Laughs) The studios are making – there’s a sort of mix. There are these sort of large tent pole films that studios tend to make that are franchise-based, and they make a few a year that are sort of arts-based, but not many.
Then the rest of it is small, independent films, which I definitely take part in because those are the scripts that I respond to. But it’s hard to find great work, and the idea of working on a network like HBO or AMC was exciting to me. Then when this – so in that process, with that thought process of kind of being interested in that sort of storytelling, this show “Wilfred” reared its ugly head. (Laughter)
Tavis: Pun intended.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Let me ask you something that is admittedly unconventional, unorthodox.
Tavis: But I’m curious. So we all know the good, obviously, that comes out of being in a franchise like “Lord of the Rings.”
Tavis: What’s the down side to that? What’s the challenge to being locked into one of those? I know it’s a strange question, but what’s the flip side to being locked into one of these big franchise projects?
Wood: Well, I think sometimes as an actor that that material tends to dominate people’s purview. Their impression of you is dominated by that one thing for a long time, in theory.
So it makes it more challenging to move outside of the shadow of that to prove that you’re capable of doing multiple different kinds of things. I’d say that’s probably the biggest challenge. I think for me, I always believed as an actor prior to “Lord of the Rings” that it was important to do – that each project be very different from the last, with a mind to trying to have as diverse a career as possible, and knowing that that diversity would help continue longevity in regards to my career.
I think I just felt that more intensely after “Rings.” Because “Rings” was so massive, it felt even more important to work on things that were quite different.
Tavis: Yeah. Did I just read – either you just have or you’re working on another project, though, with Jackson, with Peter Jackson?
Wood: They’re doing “The Hobbit.”
Tavis: “The Hobbit,” that’s what it is, yeah.
Wood: So they’ve just finished principal photograph for “The Hobbit.” The first one comes out in December. Technically, Frodo, the character I played in “Rings,” is not alive during the time of “The Hobbit,” so a lot of people were asking how I was involved.
I have a tiny little cameo at the very beginning of the first film, which is actually more of a flash forward that includes Ian Holm as older Bilbo as well. So it was incredible. It was a wonderful opportunity to revisit the family. So many of the crew members are still working on “The Hobbit” who had worked on “Rings,” a lot of the same actors have come back.
So it felt like time travel. It felt like going back. We were in Hobbiton. The last time I was in Hobbiton I had turned 19, and I was 30 the last time I was there, last year. So it’s kind of remarkable.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I was just about to ask you, so I will now, whether or not trying to have this diversified career you referenced a moment ago, Elijah, has been more difficult or easy – I don’t want to say “easy,” because it’s never easy.
Has it been more difficult or more challenging, that is to say, trying to make this happen as you age? Clearly, to your point now, a lot of people who start in this business young don’t have such an easy row to hoe when it comes to trying to grow with the business.
Tavis: So for a few years they disappear. Some make it back, some never make it back, and we remember them for the roles they played when they were 15 or 16.
Tavis: But I’m over-asking the question. The point is talk to me about your journey of aging in this industry.
Wood: Look, I’ve been extremely lucky. To be 31 and still working and busy and doing multiple different things that I’m passionate about is extraordinary. It’s difficult to – because this notion of a transition was something that I was being asked about even when I was 19 and 20, because at that time I was sort of newly an adult and I was working solidly.
But there’s never been a strategy to it. I think I can only sort of reference and look back at the work that I’ve done and the movies that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of. I think because there were no roles that – there’s a sort of theory that I have that when I was younger, as a child, I was never a part of anything that was massively famous overnight, so I kind of gradually grew in terms of recognizability for people, which I think was a saving grace.
Because I think had I been a part of something at nine or 10 that would have immediately made me a household name, that may have hindered my ability to continue working. So I think that helped.
I’ve always had a sense of groundedness as a person. I think that’s helped me. My mother sort of beat into me the notion of humility, and I think my focus has always been on the right things or the things that I’m passionate about, which is just simply the work.
It’s not an – I don’t know if there’s a magical equation. I’ve been very lucky, too. I’ve had fortunate opportunities which have led to other fortunate opportunities. So I don’t know if there’s any kind of – there was never a scheme, there was never a plan, and there isn’t one now.
I think when I approach a job, I approach it on such a gut level and I’m not always thinking about what that job will mean for the next thing. I’m just responding to it in the moment. To a certain degree I only have what is at my disposal at any given time.
As an actor, it’s a relatively passive job unless you’re generating your own content or writing your own content. So to a certain degree you’re at the mercy of what is available, what you’re reading, what you become passionate about, and ultimately, what people want to hire you for.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You are getting older, and that beats the alternative, obviously.
Wood: Yeah, right.
Tavis: Yeah, as opposed to just not being around anymore, but you’re not aging.
Wood: That’s -
Tavis: So is that – are you happy with this boyish look that you still have?
Wood: That’s funny.
Tavis: Or are you annoyed by this?
Wood: That’s funny. I don’t know if – it would be – it – I don’t know. (Laughter) I’m not annoyed. I don’t know, I think -
Tavis: Is that working for you or against you at this point?
Wood: I think it’s probably doing both.
Wood: I think it’s probably doing both. That’s one aspect that’s been interesting. I think when I was in my mid-twenties, when I felt like I was in my mid-twenties and I was clearly an adult and wanted to play more adult roles, there were people that still thought of me as a teenager or early twenties.
So that has been a hindrance, but it’s also been a benefit as well, and I think it will continue to be a benefit the older I get and the younger I suppose I look.
Wood: I don’t know.
Tavis: We should all be so lucky.
Wood: Well (unintelligible). (Laughter) See, that’s why I’ll never complain. That’s why I’ll never complain.
Tavis: Yeah, we should all be so -
Wood: I have what I have, and you have to appreciate what you have.
Tavis: Yeah. We should all be so lucky to look so young on television as the years go on.
Wood: (Laughs) I’ve got a painting up in my attic that’s aging. You ever hear the Rip Van Winkle story – Rip Van Winkle, is that right? Well, the – it’s not Rip Van Winkle.
Male One: “Dorian Gray.”
Wood: “Dorian Gray,” thank you, where Dorian Gray has – he stays young forever, but it’s because he’s got a painting in his attic that’s aging. (Laughter) Maybe that’s what it is.
Tavis: Well anyway, it’s all working out for Elijah Wood. The new series – well, not new; in its second season now.
Tavis: “Wilfred” on FX. It is pretty funny. So Elijah, good to have you back.
Wood: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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