Thanks to that service that places the cute little red envelopes in our mailbox, I’ve been regularly soaking up much celluloid as of late. One of our latest viewings was of an animated film called 9, the debut of recent UCLA Film School grad Shane Acker.
Its story hinges on a timeworn sci-fi premise – intrepid underdogs out to restore a world where technology’s gone out of control – reenergized by Acker’s visual style: equal bits Verne, HG Wells and other Steampunk touchstones, with a daub of the Brothers Quay.
Acker also lucked into snagging a formidable cast to voice his characters: Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer (who’s become quite in demand in his senior years), Jennifer Connelly, and the film’s lead, voiced by none other than Elijah Wood, who knows a thing or three about playing underdogs.
Duly impressed all around by 9, I was thus reminded of my enjoyment of Wood’s work as an actor, and the various projects he’s been involved with. The Ice Storm. Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A Gallic vampire story comprising one of the two best vignettes of the Paris Je T’aime anthology. Not forgetting, of course, a certain triptych of Tolkien.
So it was that I decided, now was as good a time as any to unearth the transcript of a telephone chat I was fortunate to have with Elijah Wood, one fine October morning in 2005.
I was ostensibly inspired to quiz ‘Elwood’ about his work on the Peter Jackson films, as one might. More personally intriguing, though, was Wood’s diverse and (for someone his age) surprisingly clued-in knowledge of music, and the eagerness and enthusiasm with which he’d discuss recent finds in interviews. (Since this chat, Wood even started a record label, Simian, which released a fine disc by art-pop combo The Apples In Stereo among others.) I figured having at least that much in common might make for some pleasant music-head discourse.
Which it did: originally allotted 15 minutes by his PR handler, Elijah and I ended up talking for twice that. Affable, cordial and sharp, Wood put this erratic journo at ease immediately.
Of further interest to me was the recent disclosure of Wood being slated to play Iggy Pop in a biopic of the Stooges, provisionally titled The Passenger (and to this day still hermetically sealed in Tinseltown limbo). Clearly, there was much to discuss.
So with coffee in hand and tape rolling, my opening gambit related to my astonishment that Wood, having put so much energy into Lord of the Rings, seemingly dove right into no less than three flicks in LotR’s then still sizable wake.
Things rolled from there, and into areas you won’t usually see covered in your typical Hollywood press gang schmoozefests, such as Elijah’s favorite rock movies.
What follows, then, are just some choice bits. Enjoy.
Elijah Wood: I think it would have been foolish for anyone who worked on those films to have stepped back and coasted on them for long, primarily because they are so specific and dominating in their scope and size.
I think it was important for all of us – certainly something I employed after – to immediately continue to work, to differentiate myself from what (LotR) was, this…impenetrable behemoth.
We were all extremely proud of it, and it’s something that had a massive impact on my life personally, and an incredible project to be a part of. But, because of the success, it was even more important to look for work that was different, and continue to work.
Also to seize that opportunity to work, as there was already attention on everybody involved, sort of forward what we do, and hopefully be able to further our careers in the process. That part of the process was important after LotR, but also on just a very simple level… I remember when it first came to my mind about being a ‘working actor’: first thing, I didn’t want to work at all when it was finished…
ML Heath: And this was, what, two, three years’ work?
Sixteen months of principal photography for all three, and then three years of work after that, each year doing ‘pickups’ and post-production on each film. So all in all four years, and each of us worked as actors on other films in each year after the principal photography.
Anyway, after it was finished, I was exhausted by the scope and size of LotR, and the idea of working on another large-scale production wasn’t at all something that interested me. The idea of doing something really small, intimate and focused only on character was the only thing I wanted to be part of immediately.
That was in response to having been part of something so huge; I wanted something to just experientially contrast that.
So would it be fair to say that the half-dozen or so films you’ve done since LotR were deliberate attempts to take roles that were completely different, even from one role to another?
Yeah, but I think that’s also something I’ve always believed in, and I think as I’ve gotten older, believed in it more. To constantly try and find things that were totally different from the last thing I worked on, with a mind to challenge myself as an actor, but also to change perception as to who people think I am.
Also to keep myself interested, you know? A lot of the recent films I’ve worked on have been small independent films, but it’s not so much a result of me looking specifically for independent or small films. It’s just, those were the scripts I read that I responded to and they happened to be small.
These would of course be Everything Is Illuminated, Green Street Hooligans…
And Eternal Sunshine…but a lot of it is more…organic than a specific thing I’m looking for, or some great plan. I think I’m just always looking for something that’s good, first and foremost – and that’s a very difficult thing to find, in and of itself – also for something that’s different, each film from the last.
So I’m old enough to remember when, every six months, the news would always be that David Bowie was going to play Sinatra in a movie. Should I take this recent news about you playing Iggy Pop in a biopic with a similar shovelful of salt, or what?
Yeah, it’s true, it’s happening…we start shooting in March.
So will this be covering the entire history of Iggy or the Stooges, or a particular time period for either…?
It’ll focus on the Stooges, from the Iguanas up through when they record the three LP’s, from the perspective of Iggy in the hospital. After the Stooges’ split he checked himself into an L.A. hospital, because of his drug dependency and, basically, because he thought he was losing his mind. So it’s Iggy telling the story of the Stooges in flashback to this doctor in hospital.
That’s a big gig, you must admit.
Yeaahh, it’s huge. I’m a huge fan of the Stooges and I loved the script, and the same guy who produced The Ice Storm is producing it… although initially I was, and still am, incredibly scared. And rightfully so; it’s no small task to fill anyone’s shoes in a biographical sense, much less Iggy Pop, pretty daunting…but it’s extremely exciting to play someone like that. To play someone so completely different from anything I’ve done before is such an incredible opportunity. It’ll be its own journey.
So then, with this drive you have to play characters so different from one film to the next, do you see yourself ultimately becoming best known as a character actor?
I don’t know – I want to have a career that’s relatively versatile, and different, and colored by all these very different kind of films and choices. The career paths I respect most are those not nailed down by one specific kind of role or film. Actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.
Chris Cooper’s like that too.
Yeah, Chris Cooper, definitely. They’re actors who are known more for their work, and if I can have a career path that’s in any way similar, it’ll be incredibly satisfying. But it is such an organic process, because I’m only at the mercy of whatever is available, and always looking for something different, and those don’t always come around. I’d much rather not work, than work on something I don’t believe in – so it’s really down to what comes my way, what I can find.
Your appreciation of all kinds of music does seem to go hand in hand with your involvement in acting…and it’s such a great gig, you have the acting thing and then through that you can indulge your obvious passion in this other thing. A great combination.
And I feel very fortunate to be able to indulge in that passion.
But what first caught my attention as regards to that were things like this piece I read awhile back in Blender magazine, where you listed your favorite LP’s. One of them was the first Sundays album (Reading Writing and Arithmetic)…
Oh yeah, what a great album.
…where you commented that ‘oh yeah, I got that after it came out’. Now that was 1990, and so I did a little mental arithmetic, to realize that you were, what, ten? (laughter) So clearly this is something that goes way back for you.
Yeah, yeah. It’s funny, I think that was around the time my tastes in music were really being shaped, around 10 or 11, and really took hold around 12 and 13, being exposed to really interesting music at a young age.
Was this stuff you actively sought out or did you have outlets to feed that, or…?
I wasn’t as actively seeking it out as I do now. My knowledge as how to discover and find music were not as sophisticated as now, but as a function of working in films, I was traveling and being surrounded by all sorts of creative, interesting people all the time, at work. All of them of course older than me, but because I was interested in music, I would talk and listen to what they had to say, pick up on their stuff, hear about bands and investigate them…a scope I would not have gotten if I had been only watching MTV, or from the radio, or other people my age.
I also recall from when you were filming LotR your raving about the CD collection you were amassing at the time.
Well, one of the great benefits of working on a film is a thing called per diem (chuckling).
When abroad or in another state, they give you money to live on, food and basic provisions to live on throughout the week when you’re not working, that’s what it’s for.
Which, for the most part, I would use as record money! (much laughter) More of that money has gone towards CD’s as anything else, which is great. Being in New Zealand for so long – and there’s a relatively cool record store there called Real Groovy, after a while I got to know the folks there – over the course of 16 months, I must’ve got 2-300 CD’s there.
It definitely comes across, in most interviews I’ve read where you talk about music, that you are someone who doesn’t keep secret treasures, that you’re very much someone who will say ‘you have to hear this!’ So what has been pricking up your ears lately?
Sons And Daughters, a really extraordinary band from Glasgow; they just put out their first full-length LP this year. They’re kind of based in Americana and rootsy stuff, but they’re essentially rock and roll. They do these really amazing shared male and female lead vocals, and don’t sound like anything else out there, which is refreshing.
Given your interest, then, in both music and films, there’s something I’ve never heard anyone ask you before. Do you have any favorite rock music movies or documentaries? Because I know that you went to the L.A. premiere of the recent one about the Ramones (End of the Century).
That’s an incredible one, although I do find it really sad, and extremely depressing, as a portrait of a band that, basically, so many others stole from and got the credit for starting a movement, when the Ramones were really at the forefront of it. And, of course, the issues between band members – but it’s an incredible document of a band that deserved so much more than they ever got.
I also think I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (the Wilco documentary) is amazing. Not only as a great document about the making of a record, but also a really fascinating look into…how f#%@ed major record labels are (much laughter).
I mean, when a band like Wilco can do what’s arguably their best record, one that ends up deemed a classic upon release, and yet their record label could reject it…it’s a fascinating tale into where we are in the music world these days, and how the people at the top don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about. I mean, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will probably go down as the best record Wilco ever did.
What about older rock movies?
I think Purple Rain is classic, I’m a huge Prince fan. I even quite like Under the Cherry Moon (ML groans). I know, to most people it’s not exactly a ‘film classic’, but the soundtrack is incredible…Parade’s one of his better records, so to see those songs in that context of, basically, an extended music video, I think was really cool.
And this last year, I was obsessed with Martin Scorcese’s series of documentaries on the Blues. I had originally gotten fascinated with Blues when I heard Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” the way it was used in Ghost World.
Up until then I wasn’t really familiar, certainly not with Delta Blues…I’d heard bits of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson…and of course, with any genre of music you’re not familiar with, if you step into it, you sort of jump into a large pool and end up spending a lot of time in that pool, peeling the layers as it becomes deeper and deeper. That’s what happened to me with the Blues.
So I watched those Scorcese documentaries religiously – I found it fascinating, the way they each focused on different elements of it, like one was about Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters and Chess Records and Willie Dixon…but the first one that Scorcese directed himself, about Delta Blues, I found utterly fascinating.
There’s also a really great documentary from the early Sixties, I don’t know the name of it, where they got all the Delta Blues artists that were still alive then, Son House being one of them…got them together again in this house, and just had them play. It’s a great window into a generation that was kind of dying back then.
And do you know this documentary about the band Beulah, A Good Band Is Easy to Kill? They’re from the Bay Area, and it’s essentially a video of their last tour, they broke up last year. It’s a great insight into a small band. I mean here they were, even on their last tour they were still managing themselves, still touring around in a van, selling their own merch.
A great insight into what it’s like for 99 percent of all bands out there, really, everyone working their asses off; that’s where the real fight is for music, where it really exists, is in these people who believe in what they do, traveling across the US, doing it themselves.
Because, really, all in all very few bands are massively successful, while under the surface there’s hundreds and hundreds of bands that people don’t necessarily hear about. So it’s an interesting documentary to me, in that it’s a very revealing look into that process.
So to wrap things up: when this interview was first arranged, I went around to friends and asked them what they would ask Elijah Wood if they ever had the chance.
One friend I asked, Christopher J. Garcia, is a curator at the Computer History Museum here in the Bay Area, and here’s what he wanted to know: what was your foot care regimen during LotR, when you weren’t wearing the feet?
(A long, raspy laugh, then) There actually wasn’t much of a regimen, really. What would happen is, they’d put the feet on in the morning, then take them off at night…but our feet were, actually, really well taken care of. We’d take these foot soaks at the end of each day, and they’d clean them, soak them in hot water. And in between days of shooting, it was almost a relief to be able to wear shoes (laugh). But there was this sort of evening regimen where they’d, kind of, bathe everybody’s feet, put powder on them. Which sounds incredibly cushy (chuckling).