There is always some little thing that becomes a big thing on a very long film shoot. For Elijah Wood it was the furry feet. The prosthetic hobbit feet took an hour to put on, at 5am every morning, six days a week, for the 14 months it took to shoot the three episodes of The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. “Those furry feet became the bane of our existence,” says Wood who plays Frodo Baggins.
“They meant we lost an hour of sleep each night. The problem was that so often the feet weren’t filmed; they usually couldn’t show us full-length because of size differences.
“Hobbits, as those who have read the J. R. R. Tolkien books will know, are just a few feet tall. So each time there’d be a scene like that, I’d say, ‘We don’t need feet. We’re not going to see feet in these shots.’ And they’re like,’Well, there’s a chance.’ Nine times out of 10 I’d be right. Those feet became an issue.”
But never a confrontation. Wood is not the kind of Hollywood brat who throws a hissy fit if the fridge in his trailer isn’t stocked with Freshly strained soy milk. “I’m a pretty pas sive guy:’ he admits, a little sheepishly.
Anyway, the mood on the set was hardly conducive to tantrum-throwing. Wood says director Peter Jackson created “an atmosphere where everyone shared this collective passion for what we were part of and everyone gave their heart and soul to the project, even when it was difficult”.
Almost a year since filming finished, Wood is still overawed by the immensity of the Lord qf` the Rings experience. Still amazed that he was chosen to play Frodo, the most sought-after role for any young actor in recent years; still recovering from the long, extremely tough shoot; and now bracing himself for the huge fame bubble that’s about to burst around him as the first film in the $270 million trilogy is set for release.
Wood’s wide-eyed enthusiasm is even more appealing because, at the age of 20, he is already a veteran of the movie business. His film career began when he was just eight and he has already starred in 26 films. Yet he remains clear-eyed oddly pure.
Being a Hollywood child star has to be one of the most perilous professions in the world. Most are burnt out by the time they are 10, in rehab in their early teens, battling with rapacious parents, shovelling out all the money they made in their blighted youths to shrinks, lawyers and cocaine dealers.
Yet I’d be amazed if he has ever had more than a couple of beers, let alone smoked a joint. Wood has never featured in the gossip columns and even now, when he’s about to become one of the most recognisable faces in the world he’s too shy to ask girls out. He still lives with his mum and his younger sister, for God’s sake.
The role of Frodo was the one, in hindsight, he seemed destined for. He had been a Tolkien fan since his early teens; in a 1994 interview, he declared The Hobbit his favourite book. So when the film was ready to go into production, Wood’s agent told him to audition straight away.
Wood says he felt uncomfortable about doing a standard audition, in front of an anonymous casting director who would then send a videotape to Peter Jackson in New Zealand. “That felt kind of sterile, being put on tape, in an office, against a white background” Wood says. “It didn’t feel the right way to convey my love for the character and my passion to do the movie.”
So Wood made his own tape. “I got a dialogue coach to hone the accent,” he recalls. “I got a book on hobbits to get a reference to what they look like. I went to a big costume store and picked up an outfit. Then I went up into the Hollywood hills with two friends and we shot a scene and cut it together.”
The following day he dropped off the tape. Although Wood heard through the grapevine that Jackson liked the tape, he went off to shoot another film and tried to forget about it.
A few months later, Jackson came to LA and Wood finally met him and auditioned in person. “We talked about the implications of the journey,” Wood says. “He said ‘Are you prepared to give away more than a year of your life for this?’ I told him, ‘Absolutely, to be able to take ajourney like this would be amazing’.”
A week later, at the beginning of July 1999, Jackson offered him the part. “I was overwhelmed” Wood admits. “Just ecstatic. I couldn’t really speak. My sister was running through the house screaming. It was a great day.”
Wood is proud he fought for the part, that it didn’tjust fall into his lap. Yet as I look over at this eager, intense young man, precariously perched on the edge of a big couch in a hotel lobby, it seems inconceivable that anyone else could have been considered.
Of course, Wood’s size helps: he’s barely 167cm (5ft 6in) and is delicately framed which lends him a hobbity kind of demeanour. He doesn’t have the over-pumped arms and upper body of most young Hollywood actors. His teeth have not been homogenised by a Beverly Hills orthodontist: they are a little crooked, a bit jagged, there’s that appealingly boyish gap at the front. And he’s a fidgety kind of chap, buzzing with pent-up energy. He smokes, he bites his nails and he chews gum non-stop. But there’s something more than that. Wood has this eerily pale, translucent skin out of which shine eyes so intensely blue that the effect is startling.
Elijah Jordan Wood was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wood’s mother, trying to find an outlet for her son’s intense energy, entered him in a modelling competition in LA when he was seven. There they met a manager who suggested Elijah should also try acting. A week later, the Woods family mother Debbie, father Warren, older brother Zac and younger sister, Hannah moved to LA, where Elijah had his first taste of acting: a role in a Paula Abdul video, Forever Your Girl.
Soon he was picking up bit parts in movies such as Back to the Future II and InternalqfJhirs, gradwating to bigger roles in Avalon, directed by Barry Levinson, Forever Young opposite Mel Gibson and The War with Kevin Costner.
In 1993 he co-starred with Macaulay Culkin, the biggest child star of the modern era, in The Good Son. Culkin, who burst on to the scene in Home Alone, remains an instructive example of what can happen to a kid and his family, when he is thrust too quickly into the Hollywood limelight.
“My career has always been a slow build as opposed to being part of something that erupted” Wood says. “For me and my mother and agent, it was about the quality of the roles and about challenging myself as an actor.”
They deliberately tried to choose roles for Wood in adult films, believing that would give his career greater longevity.
“I owe everything to my mom,” Wood says. “She has helped me maintain a sense of reality and gave me the perspective that acting should just be something I enjoyed doing. And when I was not doing a film, I was just at home enjoying a normal life. My mom really kept my priorities straight. My family is so important; it has always kept me grounded.”
There are, inevitably, some smears on this idyllic picture. Because Wood was working on films throughout his childhood he seldom went to school, but had tutors on his film sets or at home. In an interview he gave when he was 13, he talked about how difficult it was to form friendships. “IfI was out there with kids my own age, I fear they wouldn’t like me, not because of who I am, but because I’m an actor,” he said. “It’s scary – like I can’t trust anyone.”
And there were troubles at home. For reasons Wood has never felt comfortable talking about, his parents separated some time after the move to LA, and it has been more than five years since he last saw his father. “It was just one of those cases of not having any emotional connection to my dad, so it wasn’t a problem,” is how he explains it.
Nor has he once returned to Cedar Rapids, where most of his extended family lives, since he left 13 years ago. “isn’t that weird?’ he says, as if the thought had never occurred to him before.
In many of his films – Radio Flyer, The Good Son, North, Forever Young and The Ice Storm – Wood has played kids whose innocence is challenged by their parents’ problems or the dysfunction of the adults around him. The Ice Storm was particularly important in Wood’s development as an actor. Until then he had never taken acting classes, worried that they might drain out of him whatever originality he had.
Yet when he won the part of the spacey Mikey Carver in Ang Lee’s dissection of upper-middle-class New England families in the early ’70s, Lee made Wood look more deeply at himself. All the actors, including Kevin Kline and Sigoumey Weaver, were asked to fill out questionnaires about their characters: their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, sex lives, and so on. It was not something Wood felt comfortable with, but now he acknowledges that “having to think about my character and develop him started my move to being an adult actor”
From the very outset, Wood who was 18 when filming of The Lord qfthe Rings began, felt that in taking on the role of Frodo Baggins, he was being charged with a responsibility as awesome, in many ways, as Frodo’s. He keenly felt the responsibility, to the director, to the books, to the millions ofTolkien fans who adored them, but above all to himself, to show that this trust had not been misplaced.
“It was an incredible effort of endurance. Towards the middle of filming, there would be weeks when you’d literally lose yourself in it. It’s so easy to lose perspective when you get up at five in the morning every day and get home at seven in the evening, go to sleep, then do it all over again the next day, and the day after that, six days a week,” he says. “But as a result, I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had and garnered some of the most amazing life experiences.”
Although Wood insists that The Lord qf’the Rings has not changed him, it has certainly changed his life and he never wants to forget it. Suddenly he stands up, yanks up his T-shirt and pulls down the waistband of his jeans. There, right over his appendix, is a tattoo, some two inches wide.
“It means nine in Elvish,” he says. “It stands for the nine members of the fellowship. A week before the film was finished we decided to go to a tattoo parlour and set the experience permanently on our skin. All the members got this tattoo, including lan McKellen. It’s a profound experience that needs to be marked.”
But The Lord qf the Rings is most important to Wood because he feels he really became his own person during the 15 months it took to make it. He had never been away from home for so long and he had never spent so long away from his mother, who was always with him on location. “It was an interesting transition for her to make, kind of difficult, because she had literally travelled with me and supported me all the time,” he says.
“But there comes a point where the water starts to shift and you’re looking for your independence. It was another reason I decided to do the movie. It was me on my own for pretty much the first time in my life, and it was the perfect time for that to happen for me.”
Now, with the release of the film, Wood faces his most profound challenge: stardom. But he insists he’s not about to be overwhelmed by it all. “I have a theory,” he says. “The people who go outside their house with the fear that they can’t lead a normal life or who try to hide themselves away, or are afraid of what might happen to them, I think they ask for it by behaving that way. The more carefree and relaxed you are about your life, that will kill a lot of negative attention.
“The other thing I know is, if this movie does become really huge, I won’t change and my perspective won’t change. I want to continue living my life the way I live it, and I’m not going to let anything stop me from doing that. I value being able to go where I want and do what I want. Because, you know, it ain’t all about acting. There’s a lot more to life than Hollywood.”