Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Those who enjoy watching child actors flame out spectacularly or fail to find decent work as they transition into adulthood must have been frustrated with Elijah Wood, who made the jump with relative ease, thanks in no small part to Peter Jackson picking him to play Frodo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings. Being a part of the Tolkien trilogy also put Wood in a position to step outside the box with his choice of projects: In addition to a recently concluded four-season run on Wilfred, where his co-star was a talking dog, he can currently be seen in Open Windows (currently available on VOD, with a theatrical run set to kick off on November 7), where the action unfolds almost exclusively in windows on a computer desktop.
Open Windows (2014)—“Nick Chambers,” executive producer
Elijah Wood: Nick Chambers is a fan of this actress called Jill Goddard, who’s played by Sasha Grey in the film, and when we find him, he’s just won a contest to meet her and have dinner with her. We see that he’s got a website devoted to images of her, so he’s basically trolled the Internet and collected images of her from appearances and so on and so forth, and he gets dragged into or becomes sort of an unwitting participant to her capture, ultimately. And because he’s effectively implicit in her being captured and kidnapped, he has to figure out a way to save her. So he’s sort of this innocent that’s thrust into a series of actions that he normally wouldn’t have done, and it sets forth the cat-and-mouse thriller that takes place over the course of the film.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the film in the first place?
EW: The project really came to pass because—well, my association with this really started with Nacho [Vigalondo]. I was a fan of Timecrimes, and I had always wanted to work with him. I ended up meeting him at Fantastic Fest and consequently went to Fantastic Fest two years in a row and hung out with him and got to know him. And then I think heard about the nugget of the idea back in, like, 2011, that he wanted to make a film that would take place entirely on a computer screen, which was both insane and ridiculously ambitious. But it was also really exciting—the idea that you would take something as complicated as that and try and weave a narrative into that that would work.
And then it all just kind of came to pass. He wrote a script and ultimately developed the story, and then he worked on an animatic for almost a year as well, to sort of ultimately try and figure out how to make the film. And then he, of course, came to me about working on the film as an actor, and I was thrilled. I was thrilled to get a chance to work with him as a friend and as a filmmaker that I admire, but also to work on something that was so incredibly challenging. To tell a narrative story that worked within the context of something that’s completely on a computer screen was obviously a huge challenge for him as a director, but there were some really interesting challenges for us as actors, too. It was a very solitary experience. Very rarely were any of us in the same room together—so much of our experience was directed at the camera, not a person. So it was complicated, but I loved those challenges. I found it really fascinating. And it was fun to be involved as an executive producer. I can’t say that I contributed much beyond support for the vision and for Nacho, with the complicated effort of bringing it to life.
AVC: It’s also a challenge for a writer to watch the movie on a computer, particularly if you’re trying to multitask. I tried having a couple of work windows up at the same time as the movie, but between my windows and the windows in the movie, I finally just gave up and watched the movie.
EW: [Laughs.] That’s so meta! It’s so funny, because oftentimes you don’t want people to watch screeners on a computer—at the very least, you want them to see them on the TV—but this is literally and genuinely the only movie I’ve ever made where I thought, “Oh, for this one, it absolutely makes sense.”
“Forever Your Girl” music video (1988)—“Executive”
AVC: I always try to ask about an actor’s first on-camera role, so I wanted to get some insight into the pencil-breaking intensity you brought to your role as the executive in the video for Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl.”
EW: Amazing. [Laughs.] That’s so awesome! You know what’s crazy is that the video was directed by David Fincher before he started doing movies, which is so funny. It’s something I didn’t realize, obviously, until he had his own career and somebody pointed it out to me, because at the time he was making videos and commercials.
That was so exciting for me. I had never worked as an actor on anything, and for me, I was so thrilled to meet Paula Abdul, because she was a big deal at the time, and I… was an 8-year-old child. [Laughs.] And I remember the scene, how they had the idea of me playing somebody older and with that intensity. They had to describe it to me what they wanted, and I can remember sitting at that desk and breaking that pencil and looking out the window with intensity, but having fun playing the role. It was kind of hilarious. But the thing that stands out in my mind the most is getting to meet Paula Abdul. I just thought that was too super cool.
AVC: So what led you into acting in the first place? Was it a case of curiosity, or did your parents think you’d be good at it?
EW: I think initially it really came—well, it was sort of a mixture of things. I always had a lot of energy growing up, and—I think my mom tells it that she’d seen a commercial on TV, and it sort of occurred to her that that would be a fun outlet for my energy. So it kind of just started there. She thought it’d be fun for me to do commercials or something. I was certainly expressive, and I was interested in it. It sounded fun.
I was born in Iowa and raised in Cedar Rapids, and there’s no real outlet for that in Cedar Rapids. So we ended up traveling to Los Angeles for this, like, modeling and talent convention, and I ended up meeting a manager who stopped me and said, “Would you like to be an actor?” And at the time, I was 7, so I’m, like, “Yeah! That sounds fun!” [Laughs.] So I didn’t have a whole—it wasn’t the thing of seeing movies when I was a kid and thinking that was something I wanted to do. It happened in a slightly more, I don’t know, a light, organic kind of way.
But from the moment I started, I kind of immediately loved it, and I think a lot of it had to do with just loving people and new experiences, and the idea of working on a film was extremely exciting. Even at a young age, the idea of playing another character was something that I found interesting and fun. Obviously, the older I got, the more I understood what I was doing, and the more movies I consumed, the more vested interest I had in it, of course, as you would with anything as you become an adult.
Deep Impact (1998)—“Leo Biederman”
EW: Leo: The character that sort of almost saved the world? Or tried to? [Laughs.] In the broadest sense, I suppose. It was a lot of fun to work on that. It was the first time I’d ever really been a part of something that was a major event movie. But what I loved about it, what I remember about reading it and what I really connected with, was that—unlike something that is just simply a disaster film—it was actually more about the people rather than the event itself.
That really struck me, that you would attempt to make a movie that was sort of about a comet or an asteroid colliding with Earth, but rather than deal with the cataclysmic aspect of it or focus on the dramatic cinematic possibilities, the script really focused on these characters and who these people were and what one would do if faced with their imminent death. Like the scene on the beach. And I just remember loving that and thinking that it was really an elevated way to tell that kind of story that we’d sort of seen many times before.
And it was a lot of fun to play. What was interesting about that character—the way it was written was that it was examining what would happen to someone who’s 15 or 16 years old if they knew they were going to die. Would it suddenly elevate or exacerbate or speed up their own evolution? The girlfriend that he had the time—would they want to get married and share in that experience before they die? There’s all those really human things that I think were really interesting examinations of the choices that we make when faced with our mortality.
AVC: Speaking of Leo’s girlfriend, how was it working with Leelee Sobieski?
EW: It was great. It was really great! I don’t think it was at the time, but I remember talking to her about working with [Stanley] Kubrick. Maybe it was when we were in promotion for the film? But she’d already gone to England and worked on Eyes Wide Shut. I just remember being so fascinated by her stories, about how she was flown out there for what was supposed to be a week of work, and she was there for three months. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it was cool. Leelee was lovely.
Sin City (2005)—“Kevin”
EW: Oh, dude. That was a dream come true for me. As soon as I discovered Frank Miller and Sin City the graphic novel, I, like, devoured them in a three-day sitting, completely just so enamored with the storytelling and the art style. The sort of hard-boiled, pulpy stories were so fucking awesome, and as I was reading them, I was like, “Man, someone has to adapt these!” [Laughs.] And I thought, “Well, fuck, there’s no way to do it live action. It’d be an amazing series, potentially. Like, an animated series, kind of like what they did with Spawn on HBO. And I thought, “Man, it’d be so cool!”
And literally, I’m telling you, not three days later, I get a call because [Robert] Rodriguez had come to town, and as had happened many time before—because I’d worked with Rodriguez before—a mutual friend called me and he was, like, “Hey, let’s go to dinner, Robert’s in town!” And I’m, like, “Awesome!” So we met up and went to dinner, as we’d done before, but over dinner he’s, like, “Dude, my next project is Sin City.” And I was, like, “You’re fucking kidding me!” [Laughs.] “I literally just devoured these things and was thinking to myself, ‘God, it’d be so incredible for someone to adapt this material, it’s so good,’ and you’re literally telling me exactly what I was just thinking.” And he’s, like, “Not only that, dude, but… do you wanna see some of it?” And I was, like, “Wait, what?” “Yeah, man, we shot a test with Josh Hartnett.” And I was, like, “Yeah, I want to see it!”
So he went out to his car, and on his laptop he had basically what amounted to the first sequence in the first Sin City movie, with Josh Hartnett and—on the balcony of that building, he had already shot that. And as the story goes, he shot that as basically a proof of concept, primarily for Frank Miller, to prove to Frank that he would adapt his work in a way that would keep the integrity of the animation style or the drawing style and bring it to life in a way that looks very similar. So I literally saw that for the first time outside of Roscoe’s Chicken And Waffles. [Laughs.] We’re in the back of his car, on a laptop, and I was, like, “Holy fuck! You’ve done it!” And that night, my friend George was like, “Dude, you should be Kevin!” And I would never be so presumptuous to be, like, “I should be in your movie, Robert!” But he said it, and I was like, “Oh, that’d be fucking nuts!” But that was all that was ever spoken of it.
But then when he actually starting casting the movie, he called me and was, like, “Dude, do you want to come in for Kevin?” I was like, “Yeah! That’d be incredible!” And my audition was literally—I went to the Four Seasons, and Robert was just meeting people, actors were just coming into his hotel room. And he put me on tape, but because Kevin’s a mute—he obviously doesn’t say anything in the movie—he just had me sit there with glasses on, and he read parts of the comic. [Laughs.] That was my audition!
But, man, it was a joy. Being a huge fan of Frank Miller’s work, seeing it come to life in a way that literally was as if the pages of the comic book were leaping onto the screen was so exciting. And, obviously, to play a character that is so fucking evil and demented was a blast. Just a blast. It was so much fun. And it was only two days, dude! I worked only two days on that film. That’s it. It was all green screen, and it was so amazing.
AVC: Not to accuse you of being typecast, but you also played someone who was rather evil and demented a few years later.
EW: Oh, yeah! Well, Frank is definitely a very disturbed character. [Laughs.] You know, that came into my life via one of the producers, Alix Taylor, who I knew socially. She sent me the script and said that it was something that Alex Aja was producing and had written and that it was a remake of [the 1980 film] Maniac. And I sort of bristled at the notion of a remake, because I typically don’t like those. Unless there’s sort of a new take or a reason for remaking something, I often think it’s a relatively devious affair. But there’s obviously great examples to the contrary, and this was intriguing to me because it took the idea of the original film but turned it on its head.
Shooting the movie from the killer’s perspective was really fascinating to me, and as an actor it fascinated me that my experience making it would not be the traditional one. And the challenges of making the character come to life without being in front of the camera—I was intrigued by the sort of subjective nature of experiencing this killer’s behavior while you’re in a movie theater. I thought that that actually lent itself to something that could be quite a step further in terms of being disturbing for people. That really intrigued me. So it was an exciting prospect. It was a really exciting prospect, and it was fun, obviously, to play a villainous character, but more fun for me was just the challenge of making all of that come to life.
It was very technical, and it kind of incorporated three elements, a character made possible in three parts. One of them was the third-person perspective that occurs when he kills somebody. You sort of see him then, and then you see him in reflection. So that’s part of the character, and then there’s the character we hear, and then there’s the third part of the character—at least in terms of my experience—where I’m putting my hands or arms into the frame and interacting with people that way. So it was kind of a performance made out of three parts, but I just found the whole experience fascinating, where every day was kind of a puzzle piece. We would approach every scene from a traditional standpoint and block it out with the actors, and then we had to figure out how the camera would get into any given scenario, and how I would interject myself physically, and would it break the camera?
So it was kind of a constant discovery every day, but I’m so pleased with the results. The film actually ended up being far more beautiful that I ever imagined. There’s something kind of dreamlike about it. Maxime [Alexandre], our cinematographer, is so gifted and, really, I think he elevated the material with the way he shot the film. It’s really graceful and quite beautiful, for something as disturbing and fucked-up as it is. [Laughs.]
Back To The Future Part II (1989)—“Video Game Boy”
EW: That was, I believe, technically the very first film I was ever a part of. And what a film to be part of, man! I had grown up watching the original film, so it blew my fucking mind, you know? I was 8 years old, and I walk onto the Hill Valley set, and there’s the clock tower and the town square, but it’s set in the future. So, like, I knew that environment, but it was also in the future, so I’m like, “Holy fuck!” [Laughs.] And there’s all these futuristic cars driving around, and it was just a complete mind-bender. And then to see Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly… The whole thing was just a total mind-blowing experience for a child of 8 years old. And really, really fun. It was a total joy. It was awesome. Super awesome. It was like going to an amusement park or something. The film that I’d seen was coming to life, but in a crazy new future world. It was awesome. It was just a really, really incredible experience.
The Good Son (1993)—“Mark Evans”
EW: The Good Son was the first time as an actor that I ever really worked on anything that had a darkness to it, and I remember being really disturbed by the script. The material was definitely different than anything I’d ever worked on as an actor before, but the prospect of working on a different kind of film was very exciting. I remember being intrigued at the notion of Macaulay Culkin, who we all knew from Home Alone and had this sort of very different image, playing a villainous character. It was a really smart, interesting idea to see this kid that we knew in one way and to completely flip that and have him play something really disturbing. It was almost toying with people’s perceptions, and I thought that was really cool.
It was a lot of fun to make, too, so it was a cool experience. But one resounding memory is at the end of the film, when we’re both hanging off the cliff. We actually shot that in Duluth, Minnesota, over Lake Superior, and we were literally hanging off of the cliff, suspended by wires and harnesses. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, and it was frightening and awesome. [Laughs.] And every time Wendy [Crewson] would slip with her hand, where her grip was letting go, they would let us fall and slip a little bit, which was terrifying. Terrifying but awesome.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)—“Patrick”
EW: The opportunity to work with Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman was an absolute dream. It’s literally a movie that I would’ve wanted to do anything to be a part of any aspect of it. [Laughs.] I’ve always loved Kaufman’s writing, and I’ve been a major fan of Michel’s work in music videos as well as the movie he first collaborated with Charlie on, Human Nature. So it was an absolute gift to be able to be a part of that, and to be a part of crafting something as unique as that. And to work with Michel was just a joy, to see how his mind works and the on-set creative process and how that homegrown style of his manifests on set. So much of it was actually practical, which was so cool.
I can remember specifically that there’s a sequence in the movie where Jim [Carrey] is moving from memory to memory, and he leaves a house, walks down a hall, walks into a doctor’s office, sees himself talking to the doctor, and then runs out of the office. Well, that was all one shot, and we did it—I think we did maybe 16 takes, which is actually not bad considering how complicated that was. And it was one of those moments that was a real uniter of the crew and everyone, this sense of, “We can literally watch a playback and see it all happen in camera,” and it was so extraordinary. I remember the sort of celebratory feel of everybody at having accomplished that, and also, I think, a realization of the kind of movie we were making and a really obvious realization of Michel’s vision. It was really special. It was awesome.
Wilfred (2011-2014)—“Ryan Newman”
EW: Wilfred was such a unique opportunity. I’d never worked in series television before, so the idea of working on something that was effectively a comedy was really exciting, but it was the material that ultimately inspired me to want to work in television or to have anything to do with that kind of thing, because it was unlike anything I’d ever read before! [Laughs.] It was the most hilarious, disturbing, and strange thing I’d ever read. I mean, the idea that that could be a television show was fucking thrilling. It’s just so bizarre!
I think what I loved about it—ultimately, David Zuckerman kind of broke down the way that he saw the first season play out—and what excited me about it was that, at its best, it was going to be a sort of relatively well-balanced hybrid of dramatic elements and comedy. It’s actually about a man in recovery. There are sort of deep psychological aspects to the show. I mean, the character’s actually kind of mentally unsound if he can see this man in a dog suit manifest in front of him. [Laughs.] I don’t know, there were just all of these elements, and the various layers that the show operated on were what I loved most about it.
And getting a chance to work with Jason [Gann] was a joy, too. You know, to go to work every day with that man and try to keep a straight face was awesome. It was a really fun four-year partnership that I’ll cherish forever, because it was always a joy to watch what that guy could manifest and how many variations of that character he could play. It was awesome.
EW: Um, well, North is actually based on a book. I don’t know if most people know that. Alan Zweibel, who wrote the script, wrote the book that it’s based on. I have a lot of love for that film, and it’s funny, because I feel like its reputation is that it’s a sort of misfire. And perhaps it might be. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so I suppose I can’t be totally objective anymore… or now, anyway. I’d have to see it again to sort of jog my memory.
But I love the idea of this fairytale of a child who’s unsatisfied with his parents and decides that he doesn’t want his parents anymore, that he’s going to be a free agent and search the world for better parents. It was so clever and so funny, and what I think was great about it, too, was that it also created this incredible opportunity to cast all of these really interesting, wonderful actors in these prospective parent roles. So for me it was a joy every day. We were always having these completely crazy new experiences and new environments because of the journey that North takes throughout the film, and to work with these really incredible, wonderful actors. It was an amazing experience. I loved working with Rob Reiner, and, you know, Bruce Willis as a bunny is, uh, something that stands out in my mind. [Laughs.] Somebody actually made a reference that it was like a precursor to Wilfred, which is kind of funny. I’d really love to see it again, because I remember loving it at the time, and I love the idea of what Rob was trying to achieve.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001) / The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002) / The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003) / The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)—“Frodo Baggins”
EW: Fuck. [Laughs.] I mean, what to say? Life changing. Probably more profoundly on a human level than anything. I was 18 when I went to New Zealand to start working [on The Lord Of The Rings], and I was 22 when we were finished. Those are the years that—they’re really important growth years. They’re the years when you’d be going to college, and I was in New Zealand, living on my own for the first time, making some of the best friends of my life, and taking a journey that was unlike anything I’ll ever experience again. It solidified my relationship with New Zealand—it introduced me to that place, and I fell in love with it—and as an actor, it was certainly the greatest challenge I’d ever encountered, taking a character from one very innocent place to a destroyed place during the end, but also doing that over the course of three films. I mean, it was a Herculean effort.
Also, what was so exciting about it and what’s so different now, even going back and doing it on The Hobbit—I mean, obviously, to a certain degree, that spirit is always going to be the same. It’s part of who Peter [Jackson] is, and also the spirit of New Zealand is there, so in some way the comparison between the two sets, you could say there’s a lot of similarities. But the one major difference is that what we were doing when we were embarking on that journey of Rings was that it was something that no one had ever done before. None of us ever had, and that was so thrilling: We didn’t know what was around the next bend.
And to a certain degree, the Internet was sort of in its infancy. We knew that there was a fan base, and we were certainly aware of, like, spy photographs and things like that. Ain’t It Cool News was obviously something that existed, and Harry [Knowles] was all over it. [Laughs.] But it was not at the critical mass that it is now, so we were also kind of alone. We were out there, in New Zealand, effectively making something away from the eyes of everyone else, on this crazy journey, literally on untrodden ground. And it was fucking thrilling and exciting, and it felt like the world’s largest independent movie.
You know, people ask about the experience, and they’re, like, “What was it like to work on those massive blockbusters?” But they weren’t to us. They felt very intimate. It was the opposite of that kind of experience. We were all in it together, experiencing everything for the first time together. It changed all of our lives in profound ways, and I think more than anything, beyond what it may or may not have done to our careers or whatever, it’s something that we’ll carry with us as people for the rest of our lives. And that’s beautiful.