From Iowa to the hobbit-filled Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, the true tale of how Elijah Wood rose to a heroic challenge and became the Lord of Rings.
"It feels like this road could go on endlessly,” Elijah Wood says, spinning around and then walking on the flat, cracked earth of a dry lake bed in California’s Mojave Desert. “You are chasing something that you are not actually reaching.”
We are staring at a mirage, walking toward it as it recedes in the dry heat. Water appears to surround us, reflecting the sage bush and rocks that create a perimeter around this remote, ancient spot a mere two-hour drive from Wood’s home in Santa Monica.
“Now, this is spiritual!” he says. “I’ll have to make pilgrimages out here.” In the distance, a brushfire rages, casting a smoke plume high into the cloudless sky, but Wood focuses on the dusty earth below us, and he flops down on his stomach. “Ahhh, the ground is amazing,” he says. “What would be incredible would be to camp out here. Can you imagine seeing the stars?”
He sits up and peers around, looking again at the mirage. “This is so cool,” he exclaims. “You can go anywhere.”
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with weary feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say. —Frodo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
There was little surprise when, on July 8, 1999, New Line announced that Elijah Wood had been cast as Frodo Baggins, the lead character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy The Lord of the Rings. Sure, there had been talk about finding an unknown to be the chosen one, but Wood was so clearly perfect: At five-foot-six, with otherworldly, wide-set blue eyes and elfin features, as well as a reputation for being one of Young Hollywood’s most talented and diligent actors, he was ideal to play the diminutive, hill-dwelling hobbit. “Elijah instinctively understands how to act for the screen. And he has awesome craft and technical ability,” says his Rings director, New Zealander Peter Jackson. “It’s quite humbling to see so much talent in someone so young.”
Joining Wood is a dream cast: Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Ian Holm as hobbit Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett as the elf queen Galadriel, and Liv Tyler as the elf Arwen. “It was amazing to be welcomed into a journey that I knew would not only be a journey as an actor but as a person as well,” Wood says. “We all signed on to this knowing that we would be taking an adventure that would mirror that of the book.” Indeed, New Line’s handing the reins over to Jackson—who, though he blew away indie audiences in 1994 with his smart, creepy Heavenly Creatures, had made only one studio film, 1996’s commercially disappointing The Frighteners—was an unprecedented gamble. And allowing him to film the entire trilogy in one stretch, in his homeland, over an unheard-of 15 months, at a cost that is now nearing $300 million, was an act of epic, Tolkienesque proportions
One of the most beloved series of books ever written, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its predecessor, The Hobbit, kick-started an entire literary genre of fantasy that can now claim everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter as its progeny. The books have sold more than 90 million copies since their initial publication, from 1937 to 1955. This story of good versus evil tells of the Dark Lord Sauron, who threatens to take over the fantastical Middle-earth, a land of elves, dwarves, and hobbits, those happy-go-lucky, three-feet-tall people who live mainly in a bucolic region called the Shire. It is left to Frodo Baggins, along with a fellowship of eight others—including his hobbit buddies Sam, Merry, and Pippin—to travel to the foul domain of Mordor to destroy an all-powerful ring that controls the fate of Middle-earth. At its heart, beyond the swordplay and wizard spells, The Lord of the Rings is the coming-of-age tale of a young man (at 50, Frodo is young in hobbit years) who must find his worth in bearing an awesome responsibility. As Frodo says in the book, “I will take the Ring . . . though I do not know the way.”
And now, finally, after Ralph Bakshi’s animated film in the 1970s achieved mixed results, Tolkien’s devoted fans—from the hippie generation to the current Internet-fantasy community—are going to get to see The Lord of the Rings splashed on the big screen. It begins with The Fellowship of the Ring this December and will be followed by, in consecutive years, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. And Wood will be its poster child. “I was jazzed beyond belief,” says Harry Knowles, who runs the powerful Ain’t-it-cool-news website, of Wood’s casting.
“I think that it’s something that you really can’t prepare for,” the 20-year-old Wood says of the mounting anticipation. “But as it approaches, it gets scarier.” He has much to fear: Tolkien addicts across the world have been clicking on the official website (a staggering 400 million hits so far) and arguing and critiquing the smallest Rings minutiae. How will they respond, for instance, to news that Wood hasn’t read all of The Lord of the Rings? After trying to explain that the books “became a massive part of my life” just through being on the set, Wood bows his head knowingly (for the record: He did read The Hobbit when he was nine) at the potential Internet avalanche that awaits him. “I will be crucified,” he sighs.
We see a small compound of vehicles in the middle of the mirage. “What are these people about?” Wood asks, as we drive up to what appears to be a camper, a few cars . . . a dolly track. “Yep. It’s a production,” he says, not surprised that even out here, in the middle of nowhere, a film crew is at work.
A tall blond woman wearing a headset and a deep frown walks over and tells us that they’re shooting a Harley-Davidson commercial, and adds, “Could you please drive away verrry slowly so that you don’t kick up any more dust? We would really appreciate it.” She punctuates her condescension with a dismissive wave.
We drive. “Not cool, man,” Wood says, shaking his head. “Sure, you have a set, which you need control of, but . . .” He kicks his Adidas sneakers up on the dashboard. “You can be reasonable—not be a dick. C’mon, guys, this is supposed to be fun.”
Wood has spent more than half his life romping around on movie sets. But, as a former child actor, he is a rarity: Because he doesn’t go for a party-hopping lifestyle and he tends toward smart ensemble movies instead of star vehicles, he has truly grown up for us on the screen—as opposed to in the tabloids.
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wood was enrolled in modeling school at age seven by his mother. When the school took him to a convention in Los Angeles, he was quickly signed by a manager. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to act?’ ” Wood remembers. “At that age, you don’t have any fears,” he says. “Everything was fun. I was in L.A. seeing palm trees for the first time. It was a fantasy.”
The family—Elijah; his older brother, Zach; his younger sister, Hannah; and their mother, Debbie—moved to L.A. a week later. It was a rather abrupt departure, one which Wood only half explains. “She wanted to move from Iowa,” he says. “She was ready to move. My dad stayed in Iowa to secure everything. Then it sort of happened.”
And it happened quickly. Parts in TV commercials and a Paula Abdul video (directed by David Fincher, no less) were followed by costarring roles in Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990); Forever Young (1992), opposite Mel Gibson; and 1993’s The Good Son, in which Wood was partnered with Macaulay Culkin.
“He was a good kid,” says Wood, who is glad he didn’t receive the same instant celebrity that Culkin garnered. “Child acting is a cutthroat world, which is pretty frightening and really silly in retrospect. But it’s the parents who are evil,” he says. Wood credits his family—namely his mother, who, along with his sister, would come on sets with him—for keeping him straight. “It is a really difficult world to live in if you don’t have a base, if you don’t have a strong sense of yourself. My mom wanted me to maintain a reasonable degree of normalcy and to enjoy my childhood.
“Family is so important,” he adds. “I rarely meet families who are as close as we are. I feel really blessed.”
The closeness appears to have come at some cost: Wood doesn’t mention his father. “It’s just not really relevant,” he finally says, after allowing a long pause to linger. “I was raised by my mom. [Moving to L.A.] was a decision that my mom made. It wasn’t a negative thing at all: The kids were all cool with it. It was just one of those cases of not having any emotional connection to my dad, so it wasn’t a problem.” Wood last saw his father, who is now separated from his mother, five years ago. “I am sure there will be issues at some point, [like] whether or not I will want to contact him. But at the moment, there is nothing,” he says. “My mom so overcompensated for the loss of a father.”
Central to his mother’s teachings, Elijah says, has been the importance of separating himself from the corruption of the movie industry. “The Hollywood scene is a lot of posturing. It is not in any direct relation to acting,” he says. “It’s important that I stay away from all of the bullshit and all that attention. Young Hollywood is in constant rotation. I simply want to carry on doing what I am doing for as long as I can, and I don’t want to take advantage of a specific moment and burn out really quickly. Believe me,” Wood says, “the world does not revolve around movies. Mine certainly doesn’t.”
Which is not to imply that Wood doesn’t love movies. In fact, he is, in the words of his friend Knowles, a “good geek,” meaning he’s a fan: He applauds Ang Lee’s success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (“That’s the kind of movie that should be making massive money—not [that] fucking Pearl Harbor piece of shit”); bemoans mainstream Hollywood product (“Where have all the good movies gone?”); and champions smart films like this year’s Memento and 1998’s Rushmore (“A perfect movie”).
“I love film,” Wood says. “I love watching movies and I love everything it takes to make a movie. I am fascinated by the process on every end, from the technician on set to the sound recording to the cinematographer. And I love acting, putting myself into different characters and exploring different people who can learn not only about themselves but about life.”
Wood’s education—when he wasn’t being taught by a tutor—has clearly come through what he has experienced on sets. It’s something Knowles learned while razzing him for taking the lead in 1996’s Flipper. “I said, ‘Why’d you do Flipper? The script was terrible,’ ” Knowles recounts. “And he said, ‘But you have to understand: I was going to get to spend three months swimming with dolphins.’ That’s the reason he took the role—he wanted to spend time with a dolphin.”
And as Wood got older, he delivered nuanced, understated performances—usually centered somewhere within his inscrutable, serious eyes—in films that became more diverse, including Ang Lee’s solemn The Ice Storm (1997), the end-of-the-world drama Deep Impact (1998), the horror flick The Faculty (1998), and the in-your-face race-relations ensemble Black and White (2000).
“What was bold,” says director James Toback of Wood’s involvement in his film Black and White, “was to take a shot at something that, in a way, violated all of his previous experiences as an actor.” But Wood gamely threw himself in with Toback’s motley cast, which included Bijou Phillips, Robert Downey Jr., Gaby Hoffmann, and Mike Tyson.
“Elijah was probably experientially the most wide-eyed,” Toback says. “He stood out as the one who had explored the issues [sex, deceit, interracial dating] of the film the least, but in terms of acting, he had already gained a lot more of a sense of accomplishment.” The director believes that Wood’s inexperience was what drew him to the project. “I think it was to be able to explore that world in this half-direct way,” he says.
And for his next tutorial, he chose (after signing to do the yet-to-be-seen Chain of Fools) his own version of a year of studying abroad in New Zealand. “[I was] living there with the same people for the same reasons,” says Wood, who, for the second time, was on a movie set without his mother. “So many different people, different artists. It was a learning experience.”
A few miles down the road from the dry lake, Wood bolts out of a bathroom door, kicking up dust. “Someone’s definitely been in there,” he says, scrunching up his face. “You know,” he says, sucking air, “when you smell something, you’re actually eating molecules with your nose.”
Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Isn’t that a line of his from The Ice Storm?
Wood smiles—not letting on if he’s unconsciously referencing himself—and then shrugs, “Yeah, well, but it’s also true.”
About five months into production on Lord of the Rings, Wood and fellow actors Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, and Orlando Bloom took a week’s vacation and went together to nearby Australia, to visit another massive fantasy-film set, Episode II of the Star Wars series. They hung out with Hayden Christensen (the new Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman, and other Episode II stars, and swapped set stories. And though Wood says the gathering was amicable, he sensed an underlying tension between the two parties. “We felt like the rogue crew. There was a weird sense that with the two trilogies, there was this odd, undercurrent rivalry,” he says. “They all thought that we were quite strange, because we referred to each other as the hobbits. They had a few laughs at our expense.
“Within the first month, we were those characters,” Wood explains. “We called ourselves the hobbits because we adopted the relationships that were important to those characters. We were always together. We were on set together, we went out for meals together, we loved being around each other.” Many of the actors, including their elder statesman, Ian McKellen, immortalized that closeness with fellowship tattoos.
That sort of passion ran throughout the production. “So much wonderful work and love went into what Pete managed to do, what the guy who toiled endlessly making the chain mail did,” Wood says, “that it is unlike anything I have ever been a part of.”
When Peter Jackson made Heavenly Creatures, in 1992, he relied on a single, leased computer in Wellington to produce the film’s whimsical special effects. He must have realized then that in order to have the sort of autonomy that, say, George Lucas has at Skywalker Ranch, he would need a more sophisticated effects department. So he developed Weta Ltd., a digital and model-making facility, which worked on The Frighteners, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, and several other films. But it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that Weta became a full-fledged effects powerhouse. (That “undercurrent rivalry,” which Lucas stoked by commenting that The Lord of the Rings production could use help from his own Industrial Light + Magic [ILM] F/X house, may have an economic base: Weta is said to be capable of generating special effects at a fraction of the cost of ILM.)
And while Weta gave Jackson creative control, there was an ancillary benefit: It, along with his company, WingNut Films, created a community. Most of the facilities—from editing suites to digital effects to hair and makeup—were within walking distance. “It was open to everyone,” says Wood, who often visited the workshops. “Everyone was a part of the whole process.” With more than 300 crew and dozens of cast members, not to mention some 20,000 extras, Wellington became its own loving, rogue fraternity. “Pete said, ‘Why would I leave the Shire to go to Mordor?’ in reference to Hollywood,” Wood recalls. “He has created a filmmaking world around him that is absolutely ideal. And that’s something that the Shire is: a perfect world, untouched by the evils of the outside world.”
And if New Zealand is the Shire, then surely Jackson is lord of the hobbits. The amiable director, who favors padding around in bare feet, inspires both respect and affection from Wood. “I have such love for that guy. Such a gentle, kind person. Quiet but really enthusiastic,” says Wood, who, with his fellow actors, gave Jackson a scale model of the director as a hobbit, complete with pointy ears and hairy feet, after the film wrapped. “Pete was a total child. He was like a kid in a candy store. He would visually create a moment, and he got so excited about it.”
That childlike wonder saturated the set. “I’d turn to Elijah,” remembers Boyd, who plays the hobbit Pippen, “and say, ‘Oh, well, no acting required,’ because you didn’t have to act, because you were actually on this adventure. You weren’t in a studio, having to imagine what’s it like to walk across a volcano. You were actually walking across a volcano. It’s a boy’s dream—never mind an actor’s—to be given a sword and be told to attack these baddies and run up mountains.”
With New Line’s millions, Jackson and company constructed more than 200,000 digital characters, as well as hundreds of actual suits of armor, thousands of weapons, and prosthetics galore, including countless pairs of feet and ears for the four lead hobbits alone. “It was magic,” Wood says. “The thing is, with this movie, we were making magic. We were making these things come alive.”
Wood’s director gives him his share of the credit. “Elijah would find levels in a story moment that I didn’t think possible,” Jackson says, recalling the first moment he knew that Wood really “got” Frodo. “It was a few days into the shoot, when the hobbits arrive at the town of Bree, which is populated by big people. He is four feet tall, in a scary, creepy inn, and he shows a mixture of intimidation and courage that somehow captured the essence of being a hobbit on this frightening adventure. From that point on, we all knew the film we were making.”
Not that everyone just skipped through the Shire on a pipe-weed buzz all day. Jackson’s attention to detail made for a very meticulous filmmaking process, whether it involved making sure that the costumes were right or maintaining the appropriate character sizes. Wood usually began his day at 5:30 in the morning, when he had to stand for an hour and a half while getting his prosthetic hobbit feet applied. (He would pass the time reading such books as I Am Legend, American Psycho, and High Fidelity.) But his greatest torment came when he was called to work in front of the blue screen. “That got quite maddening toward the end,” he says. “When you look at the call sheet for the next day and you’re like, ‘Aw, fuck! Half the day in blue screen.’ ”
But despite Wood’s occasional frustration, he was no whiner. “After six months, I didn’t think we’d make it,” says Sean Astin, who, like his peers, found courage in Wood’s example. “Elijah had such ease. He just threw himself into it with reckless abandon; he gave himself over to the experience. I was like, ‘Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to go home?’ You know, he’d say, ‘No, I’m having a great time.’ ”
In fact, Wood was savoring the creative benefits of the long shoot. “We were able to live out our characters’ experiences in somewhat real time, because the book takes place over about a year,” he says.
Astin recalls a scene from The Fellowship in which Frodo’s party approaches Moria, and the tentacled creature known as the Watcher in the Water tosses Frodo around. “This big beast comes up out of the water and grabs him by the leg and starts whipping him around in the air, and Elijah just let the guys tie him up and whip him around. He was like a cat—he couldn’t get hurt: They’d drop him, he’d fall down, and he’d just pop right back up.”
Wood eagerly bites into a steak fajita just as five teenage girls with long eyelashes and dangling earrings nervously approach him at La Salsa, a fast-food Mexican joint in Santa Monica. Wood’s eyes widen. “Helllooo,” he chimes happily.
One of the girls thrusts a video camera at him. “Would you mind saying something for the camera?” she asks. Her friends twitter. Wood faces the camera, closes his eyes for a moment, and then says, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility is being superior to your former self.” The girls stop giggling. They thank him and leave the restaurant while Wood repeats the line, which he picked up off a Radiohead website. “Don’t you think that’s true?” he asks, not noticing the girls now standing outside the window and quickly descending upon another cute boy, who wears a tennis visor and mugs for the camera. “So much time is wasted on trying to be better than others.”
After The Lord of the Rings wrapped, on December 22, 2000, Wood arrived in Los Angeles in time for Christmas. When he got home, he found himself without many friends to call—a result of an actor’s transitory life, which often means best friends that last a production cycle, but also a product of Wood’s adamant separation from Hollywood. “I have a number of so-called celebrities’ phone numbers,” Wood says, referring to such former costars as Brooke Shields (Black and White) and Salma Hayek (The Faculty), “but I don’t feel comfortable calling them.” He used to have Seth Green’s number, but the listing changed.
And yet the friendships he made on Lord of the Rings—especially with his fellow hobbits, Astin, Boyd, and Monaghan—will be different. “I’ll always be close with those guys,” Wood says. “They are like brothers.”
Wood is in between projects now. If he weren’t entertaining a journalist, “I’d be cleaning my room,” he says of his studio apartment (which he fixed up with some of his Rings salary), which adjoins his mother’s house in L.A. “I’d wake up late, have a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette,” he says, the latter being of the Indonesian clove variety, something he picked up from Josh Hartnett on the set of The Faculty. “I’m not really doing much these days. . . . Maybe I’d see a movie.”
He’s already acted in one film, Ash Wednesday, an indie directed by and costarring Edward Burns, which was shot over 20 days in January (a walk in the Shire, compared to the 274-day Rings marathon). With reshoots still to be done for Rings, Wood says that Frodo remains under his skin. “Hobbits, basically, besides their size, are just kind of pure, in love with life, in love with friends and friendship, good food, and great conversation,” he says. “It’s all of the wonderful things about life. And I feel like I was kind of like that before I played Frodo, but I think I’m probably more like that now.”
So, between CD shopping and checking out concept cars on the Internet, he reads the two or three scripts that his agent sends him every couple of weeks. “I want to do something that is completely different from anything I’ve done,” he says, mentioning the possibility of a Ted Demme bank-heist movie. He also wants to play older: “Something more mature, more character, more obscure—not your run-of-the-mill person. Something that’s a challenge to me and allows me to grow.”
Does that preclude returning to the Shire for a prequel? “I actually mentioned that to Pete early on. I said, ‘What about making The Hobbit?’ ” Wood recalls. “He didn’t know if The Hobbit would actually lend itself to a film, ’cause it’s just adventure after adventure. It’s not as heavy or as extreme as Lord of the Rings.”
Okay, but would Wood be game? “I’d love to work with Pete, but I wouldn’t want to play Frodo,” he says, without hesitation. “The thing is, we did three movies of probably the greatest fantasy novel, arguably the greatest novel of all time. We jumped into the fantasy realm and treated it like reality. I think this is it for fantasy—for all of us.”