Elijah Wood has been in entertainment since he was a kid, and has remained a chameleon the entire time. Parts in Radio Flyer, Forever Young, The Ice Storm, and North (to name only a few) led him to his largest role to date, as Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord Of The Rings trilogy. But after becoming a box-office star, Wood opted for smaller projects and supporting roles in films like Sin City, Everything Is Illuminated, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. His latest pet project (no pun intended) is, at first glance, a bit of a head-scratcher. He plays Ryan, the lead, in FX’s Wilfred—a show about a depressed, disgraced ex-lawyer who meets a dog named Wilfred. Well, everyone else sees him as dog; Ryan, however, sees a guy in a dog suit, and the two get baked and have philosophical discussions, while generally causing havoc around Ryan’s neighborhood. The darkly comedic Wilfred (which remakes an Australian show, costars original dog-suit-wearer Jason Gann, and debuts June 23) is a gamble for FX, but the network has built a successful business model out of gambles, and Wood—gambling himself on his first starring TV role—is along for the ride. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Wood about Wilfred’s edge, his thoughts on the dismal film industry, and his drive to remain chameleon-like.
The A.V. Club: When the show was announced, a lot of people referred to it as the “Elijah Wood stoner dog comedy.” How was the show pitched to you?
AVC: Were you worried at all about the “suicidal” side of the character, that it would come across as too dark?
EW: I wasn’t. We breezed past suicide relatively quickly. [Laughs.] He obviously has an intense evening where he’s trying to commit suicide and it’s not working, and they find a lot of comedy in the writing—that he’s pleased he’s about to end his life, that he couldn’t be more happy. Then he ends up having a sleepless night, essentially, and in the moment of crisis, he meets Wilfred. And from then on out, the very notion that he tried to commit suicide starts to dovetail. It sets the stage very well for how this show is not afraid to deal with relatively dark themes. If you look at it from an outside perspective, ultimately, it’s a story about someone who has a bit of madness—he’s clearly seeing a character no one else sees. It made me think of Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey, about a guy who has checked out on reality and meets this imaginary white rabbit—a giant, 6-foot-tall white rabbit. That’s one of the elements I loved about the pilot, and consequently where the show was going to go.
Ryan’s never really self-aware. He accepts Wilfred into his life for whatever he is, and doesn’t ask any more questions. That’s one of the things about the show that I love the most. From there on out, it’s up for interpretation what’s actually happening to Ryan. We do see him progress, and he does get his life together, but we never ask—Ryan never asks—what Wilfred is, and why he manifested.
AVC: Is that something you’ve thought about at all for yourself?
EW: I have. It’s a manifestation of the part of himself that has been dormant all this time. I don’t think Ryan was depressed. Ryan had moved in a direction in his life, largely by the forcefulness of his family, where he lost who he was. In that moment, the only out for him, he thinks, is suicide. From there on out, the manifestation of Wilfred is a part of himself. We all have it—that part of ourselves that pushes us to do things we wouldn’t normally do, and we stop ourselves from doing those things. It’s almost like your conscience, in a way, and Wilfred is that fucked-up version of his conscience. He may be asking you to shit in this guy’s boot, but what you’re actually doing is freeing you of the confines of your family and your own shackles. It’s that part in your brain that you try to shut off because it puts you in slightly dangerous, compromising situations, but he’s in need of it, because otherwise he’ll suffocate himself. That’s a more philosophical way to look at it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s a pretty philosophical show—especially for a comedy.
EW: That’s what’s interesting about it. I read the pilot, which works so well on a few levels, but it’s also just—the comedy comes out of the surrealness of their relationship, and how hilarious the character of Wilfred is. But when I sat down with David Zuckerman, our showrunner and head writer, he detailed where he imagined the show going, and I saw these extra cerebral elements coming into it, the more philosophical elements, and it made me so much more excited. I don’t think it’s overwhelming in its ideas, but they’re there, and they’re up for interpretation.
AVC: Was there ever a point in your career when you considered doing a big, dumb comedy? This is a pretty dark, twisted comedy to choose as your first TV lead.
AVC: So were you looking to branch into TV, or was this the project that brought you there?
EW: It’s a mix of both. I was reading television scripts, predominately looking for dramas, being a fan of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. If I read a script for a show like that, I would jump at the chance to work on it. So I was interested. But it was also this show.
AVC: You mentioned that TV has opened up in the past five years. What have you noticed about the movie business over those same five years?
EW: Film’s in dire straits. It’s in a funny place. There tend to be these cycles where the studios are producing these groundbreaking, artistic ventures on a high scale. And then it shifted to where the great storytelling was happening in the context of smaller films. There was a huge independent upheaval that then led to all the studios having smaller divisions, which were essentially studio films. Then all those companies died out, and out of the ashes, the studios are doing the complete antithesis. They’re making these massive franchise, comic-book films, sequels—look, there’s always exceptions, because every year, the studios release a handful of great films, but last summer was dismal. There were movies that cost $200 million, where for the studios it was a sure thing, and they failed. It served to show that that equation can’t always work. I’m looking forward to when there’s balance again; right now, it’s either $200 million major tentpole, or $5 million or less for independent films. Those midrange films, which used to tell great stories and didn’t need $200 million, aren’t being made anymore. That gap needs to diminish.
There’s also this massive focus on 3-D as a medium to get people in seats, and that seems to be getting old as well. It’s a lot of tricks and efforts to get people to buy tickets, and less reliant on taking risks and telling great stories. But last year—when something like Black Swan can come out and not only receive critical attention, but also be successful on a box-office level, it seems like the beginnings of a shift. That’s exciting. You just want an even playing field, you know?
AVC: It seems like the opposite is happening on TV now. Networks are figuring out that the secret to good TV is to get talented people and get out of their way.
EW: You’re so funny, man. You’re echoing John Landgraf himself. John’s the head of FX, and he said to me, “My whole philosophy at FX was to create budgets that give the artists total freedom to make the shows what they want. We budget our shows in a very realistic way so they’re not too high, so we don’t feel like we’re taking a huge risk with money, and that return is, we step away and allow the show that you want to make.” And that’s fucking great! It’s amazing. And it speaks highly of the network, and I’m sure the others—AMC, HBO—have a similar philosophy too, because the quality is so high. But to have the freedom to take risks is a rare thing. The fact that that’s happening on television across the board, at least with cable, is awesome.
AVC: When did you become interested in the big picture of show business? A lot of actors prefer to pay attention to the craft, but don’t get into the business side of things.
EW: I don’t know. I’m a fan of film. I pay attention. I’m disappointed when things aren’t good. I know the kind of movies that are being made for X amount of dollars, and I know the kind of movies that are being made on the small level. I read a lot of independent films, where there’s no money, and I’m starting a production company, so I’m a little more invested in the process of getting money [Laughs.] and finding out how difficult it is to get financed. I take a vested interest in anything I’m in the middle of. I want to have knowledge of the whole process.
AVC: Were you the same way as a kid on movie sets?
EW: I was always fascinated. At a young age, it was also about working with a team of people and seeing every aspect of how a film is made. I didn’t take a vested interest in that until I was a teenager, but from there on out, I fell in love with the whole process. When I’m a part of something, I feel like I’m a part of that in every way I’m able to be. When I’m on a set, I feel part of the fabric and part of the family of the atmosphere making that film, not just an actor saying his lines and doing his job. And that’s really important to me. I really started to feel that more when I started to work on independent films, because you need that. Anybody who’s working on an independent film is not there to make money; they’re there because they believe in it. It’s a great equalizer and a real unifier.
AVC: It sounds like it’s harder to find the kinds of stories nowadays in film that might interest you. Was that part of your reasoning for jumping to TV?
EW: I didn’t say that, but there’s some truth to that. It was also coming out of the fact that I never read a lot of television scripts. I’d existed in the world of film for so long, and I’d only read film scripts. I don’t know if it came out of a frustration of lack of great scripts with films, but it was also about recognizing that it was a changing environment.
AVC: The Australian version of the show introduces the main character as a potential boyfriend for Wilfred’s owner, and he meets Wilfred during the first date. In this version, though, your character is on the outside looking in, and there’s no inherent competition with Wilfred for Jenna’s affection. What do you think of the change?
EW: I don’t have a whole lot of perspective, because I’ve not seen whole episodes of the original show yet. The thing that I like about the change, though, is that it gives a reason for Wilfred’s existence a bit more. In my mind, there wasn’t anything crazy about that character, and to introduce Ryan in this moment of crisis sets up why Wilfred exists, and ultimately what that relationship was going to be.
AVC: Jason Gann is reprising his role as Wilfred, and he worked on both versions of the show as an actor and executive producer. What sort of creative relationship do you guys have?
EW: I have to say, that was one of the elements that gave me great assurance that this was going to keep its integrity. It’s rare that a show is remade from a foreign country where the original creator is involved in its new incarnation. Our working relationship on set has been extraordinary. There’s been an immediate comfortability between us from the moment we met. Also, knowing he’s one of the writers and is heavily invested in the creation of the show goes back to that notion of feeling like part of the team. With him specifically, as much as he has interests in where the show is going to go as well, he’s very much the keeper of the flame of that character. He created that character. It’s very much his journey specifically.
AVC: You’ve gotten a lot of praise for resisting typecasting, especially after the three Lord Of The Rings movies. How much of that was intentional?
EW: I suppose it’s intentional that I never wanted to be pigeonholed, so when you have that built into your essence, it does, even subconsciously, affect the choices you make. But I was always looking. The older I got, the more invested I became in my career. I was always looking for roles that were very different than what I had played before. That certainly increased after LOTR, because of the exposure that afforded, but I don’t know that it changed. I felt that way beforehand as well, so if anything, I just felt that more intensely. Just to continue to work and be visible in different ways.
AVC: Where does your work on the new Beastie Boys short film fit in? I assume everyone got involved because they were fans of the group.
EW: That was pretty much the case with everyone. I’m just such a huge fan. I grew up, like a lot of us did, with the music. I was one of the last people to be asked to be involved. A friend of mine, who is friends with their manager, e-mailed me and said, “The Beastie Boys are making a video, and they’re doing this comedy thing with Seth Rogen and Danny McBride and Will Ferrell!” I saw “Beastie Boys” in the e-mail, and “video,” and I was like, “Are you fucking kidding?? Yeah!” To make a long story short, I ended up speaking with Adam Yauch on the phone. He briefly described what the video would be—he talked about the piss-match at the end, with everybody pissing on each other—and said, “You really should just read the treatment, maybe you’ll think it’s too intense.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll read the treatment. But I’m pretty sure I’m in.” And what a fantasy to come to life. Standing in front of a fisheye lens, rapping—to get to do that in real life, when you’ve probably done that in front of the mirror when you were a kid, was surreal.