Frodo Baggins might be a hobbit hero in Middle Earth, but picture this frail, “differently-formed” oddball trying to cut it in our contemporary, competitive world of the New Millennium. Would the pointy-eared emotional basket case end up in a halfway house, struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety issues? Could he of the runty build and hairy, oversized feet endure heckling from appearance-conscious mall-bunnies?
“Difficult to say,” as fellow pop-culture dwarf Yoda might proclaim. But upon meeting Elijah Wood, who embodied Frodo in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, one senses that the actor is a much more world-wise fellow than the vulnerable hobbit he will forever be associated with. Wood appears small but wiry, like the undersized tough in junior high who kicked surprising a*s on brutes three times his weight. Wood’s striking blue eyes convey sensitivity, but the Elvis-styled muttonchops he’s sporting on this day suggest a rebel spirit. Frighteningly articulate, impressively thoughtful, and quick on the verbal draw, Wood greets the round table of five Seattle journalists shuffling into his room at a downtown hotel with warm handshakes and a smile. Then he lights a cigarette.
“Iggy and the Stooges are touring,” Wood proclaims with glee between sips of Starbucks coffee, expressing elation that the band’s seminal punk album “Raw Power” has been re-mastered. Later in the interview, as ciggie smoke clouds the room, the actor reveals his plans to unveil a new record label. He then displays a record by Ukrainian Gypsy Punk band Gogol Bordello, fronted by Eugene Hutz, Wood’s co-star from his latest film, “Everything is Illuminated.” Enthusiastically waving the disc in the air, he insists, “You guys all need to own this!”
Wood also discloses the likelihood that he will soon be starring in a music biopic. And precisely which songwriter will he portray? Iggy? David Bowie? Wood’s lips are sealed. His love of Smashing Pumpkins is discussed to infinity and beyond. It’s clear that at this moment, Wood is more in rock-fan mode than movie-star frame of mind. Considering that the 24 year-old screen idol is still wide-eyed with enthusiasm after seven hours of interviews, it’s also clear that he’s been drinking a lot of coffee. (Coincidentally, the original Starbucks retail outlet was built about three blocks away, where it’s still open for brisk business.)
Wood’s excitement registers even higher when conversation turns to “Everything is Illuminated,” a delicate truffle of a film compared to the gargantuan “Rings” undertaking that preceded it. The directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber (who also adapted the screenplay from Jonathan Safran Foer’s celebrated novel), “Everything is Illuminated” follows the eccentric quest of a writer to find the woman who saved his grandfather from annihilation by the Nazis during World War II.
With his immaculate suit and tie, and disturbingly enormous orbs magnified yet more by coke-bottle glasses, Jonathan (Wood) resembles a Mormon missionary with a thyroid condition. When the young Jewish writer’s search leads him to the Ukraine, he sticks out like a particularly well-manicured thumb. Jonathan meets Alex (Hutz), a punk-assed, testosterone-fueled translator with a knack for mangling the English language. According to Alex, “girls want to get carnal with me because I’m such a primo dancer.”
Helming a tour service that “aids rich people in their searches for dead relatives,” Alex is also the proud owner of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. The family border collie and “seeing eye bitch” to Alex’s selectively vision-impaired grandfather (Boris Leskin), this moody canine initially despises Jonathan, before eventually warming to the penmeister’s presence.
“Everything is Illuminated” becomes a road movie, as Jonathan, Alex, and Grandfather travel across the country (with Prague filling in for the Ukraine), piecing together the secret of Trachimbrod. A tiny Ukrainian village that Jonathan’s grandfather once inhabited, Trachimbrod seems all but wiped from the map of time. However, the revelation of its very real, achingly painful history will unite Jonathan and Alex in ways neither thought possible.
The ice of today’s round table interview session is broken by a frizzy-haired journalist, who asks what appeal the “Illuminated” project held for Wood. After all, the unprecedented critical and box office success of the “Rings” films virtually guaranteed him pick of the post-Tolkein script litter. “Primarily, I was drawn to the movie because it’s so different from what I’ve done before. It’s a continued philosophy of trying to do films that were very different from the last, especially ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which was so massive. I really loved the story, and the opportunity as an actor to play this awkward, strange character. And there were comedy elements that I really liked.
“Ultimately, it was meeting with Liev that sold it for me. He has a very strong perspective on what he wanted to do. At one point, we were talking about the character. One of the greatest references in his mind, and the way that he visualized the character while writing it, was Chauncey Gardener from ‘Being There.’ That was a great inspiration. The characters were similar in a sense that Chauncey is also very quiet, and a bit of an observer. And he has this whole other world going on, that is very different from the outside world. He’s not comfortable amongst society, and doesn’t really fit in much. Yet, there’s also this beautiful silence to him, as well.”
Indeed, Jonathan provides the eyes of “Illuminated,” watching all, but maintaining a tentative emotional distance. More extroverted is Hutz’s Alex, an impulsive force of nature who, unlike Jonathan, plunges into the tides of Western pop culture influence. Wearing sweat suits and gold jewelry, and stressing that he “loves Negroes,” Alex is obviously smitten with all things hip-hop and dance. Amazingly, “Illuminated” was Hutz’s first starring role. Prior to this newfound acting niche, the Kiev-born descendant of the Sirva Roma Gypsy tribe was best known as a critically praised rock singer. In fact, Hutz’s role in the film resulted from Schreiber’s presence at a New York concert by his acclaimed band, Gogol Bordello.
“Liev met with Eugene in reference to music,” explains Wood, inhaling another breath of nicotine. “His interest in Eugene was not to cast him in the role. Then he met with him, and realized very quickly that Eugene embodied quite a lot of what Alex is in the script. Eugene had read the script, and during the meeting, he said, ‘I am that guy.’ And the rest is history. This was his first film job. It was wonderful. He came at it with such a pure perspective. It was always a pleasure to have him on the set. He was a blast to have around.”
Another journalist, this one towering and sandy-haired, asks Wood how purists who embraced Foer’s book have taken to Schreiber’s onscreen adaptation. According to press notes, Schreiber’s screenwriting strategy involved adapting only a small portion of the book, entitled “A Very Rigid Search,” rather than taking on Foer’s entire novel. Wood states that the film’s faithfulness to the book was not a concern of his. In fact, he didn’t even read the novel.
“The people who love this book love it with a passion,” he acknowledges. “It definitely has a following. Liev adapted what he wanted to adapt from the story. I think he had a very clear vision of the story that he wanted to tell. I think he took relative liberty, to a certain degree, and simplified the story.
“The reason I didn’t read the book was because I brought it with me to Prague, started thumbing through it, and realized very quickly that the structure of the book was quite different than what Liev had adapted. Based on that, I decided to stick with what his vision of the story was. As a result of not reading it, my choice was just to go with what Liev had written, and the character he had conceived of, in relation to the book. Unlike ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which is a very, very strict adaptation that’s always referencing the book, this, for me, was a case where the book was somewhat irrelevant. Not in a negative sense, or to discount the book, but (the screenplay) really did feel like its own journey.”
And what’s with the glasses? Obviously, Wood’s baby-blue peepers are the most startling in the business, and they’re used to great effect in “Illuminated.” Accented by frames, they’re as impossible to ignore as Dolly Parton’s breasts or Mick Jagger’s lips. Take the wide-eyed actor’s supporting turns in both “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Sin City”, where he played, respectably, part of a mind-erasing team and a cannibalistic serial killer. In both, he wore specs overt enough to have Elton John salivating with envy. In “Illumination,” the glasses accent Jonathan’s uneasy nature.
“Jonathan’s weird,” admits Wood. “Very neurotic, and practical, and awkward. It was Liev’s and my own interpretations of the character, based on conversations that we had: the visual concept of the character with the suit, and the glasses, trying to make him somewhat awkward. It was kind of a mix of both of our concepts.”
Jonathan is also a collector. He compulsively bags remnants of each and every step of his Ukranian journey, including a grasshopper amulet, a Star of David, and even a potato. Asked if he could relate to his character’s pack-rat tendencies, Wood answers in the affirmative. “I could definitely relate to that,” he explains, “in a much less organized fashion. I collect, as well. I find value in the tiniest piece of paper. I’m a bit of a hoarder, in that sense. I kind of attach value to everything, be it photographs or pieces of paper that someone has written on. The main difference is that I’m completely disorganized, and Jonathan is extremely meticulous and extremely organized, in that he logs and tags everything. But I can certainly relate to his connection to memory, and his connection to those things around him in reference to his experiences.”
The interview continues in part two of ELIJAH WOOD: SHEDDING LIGHT ON “EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED”>>>