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The good guy: Is Elijah Wood the nicest man in Hollywood?

London Evening Standard
By, Stephanie Rafanelli
Photographs by Jessica Craig
Styled by Anish Patel

Elijah Wood is a rare breed: a former child star who stayed on the rails and a blockbuster hero with indie credentials. He talks to Stephanie Rafanelli about shunning celebrity, DJing in East London and why he'll never be a stoner.

Blue-eyed boy: Elijah Wood

Right in the middle of interviewing Elijah Wood - reportedly one of the most charming and well-adjusted actors in Hollywood - I realise that I'm giving him an incredibly hard time. In his screen performances, Wood has a Christ-like quality, his cornflower-blue eyes able to transmit at once anguish, stoicism and vulnerability; off screen, he has been referred to as a source of genuine goodness. Maybe it's because I finally get to pick on someone my own size. Only 5ft 5in tall, delicate and elfin, at 33, Wood looks as though he has been frozen in time as a 16-year-old boy. I wonder if it can be just this physical slightness that has allowed him to dodge the slings and arrows of Hollywood fortune: the damaging repercussions of a decade of child stardom and the potential career-killing effects of the mania surrounding The Lord of the Rings trilogy that forever crystallised him as the load-bearing saviour Frodo in the minds of the media, public and casting directors alike.

All of this, Wood has endured good-naturedly and politely. And he is so polite. Despite a morning of 12 television interviews back-to-back at the Corinthia Hotel, he is still opening doors for waiters, thanking everyone and pronouncing that everything is "wonderful" or "delightful." He's also handsome. But he really, really can't be this nice. So when we sit down to talk about his new film, Set Fire to the Stars, I start testing him, jabbing at him like a school bully, though I'm not quite sure what I'm trying to find. Some bratty manchild? Unvented rage? A dash of healthy cynicism, at very least. "I don't believe in cynicism," he says, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "I believe in sarcasm, in scepticism. Cynicism kills the soul and murders people's ability to move forward." Come on, Elijah. "Well, sometimes, I can be frustrated at the laziness of journalists who just won't let something die. They'll be like, "Frodo is doing a horror movie." That's annoying. I've done ten years of other movies. But The Lord of the Rings will be with me for the rest of my life, I'd be a fool not to recognise that."

Set Fire to the Stars marks a kind of fourth act of his 25-year career. First, there was the child actor, whose instinctive performances in Barry Levinson's Avalon, Joseph Ruben's The Good Son and, above all, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, inspired esteemed US film critic Robert Ebert to write: "Elijah has emerged the most talented actor in his age group in Hollywood history." Then came The Lord of the Rings, in which he was burdened with the task of carrying the whole trilogy, which swallowed up four formative years, from 18 to 21, of his life. Next came a decade of de-Frodification, in which Wood progressively ruptured the confines of family-friendly, big-budget fantasy, with smaller indie roles: the nerdy pervert lab technician in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Kevin the prostitute-eating psycho in Sin City; and a West Ham football hooligan in Green Street. Then there was the serial killer who scalps his victims in Maniac. I get the feeling Wood has been trying to tell us something.

Perhaps the final death-blow to virtuous Frodo was his recent appearance in Wilfred, a bizarre BBC Three comedy in which he played a suicidal loser "saved" by his friendship with his neighbour's dog who manifests to him as a bong-smoking Australian. "It's a stoner comedy!" he chuckles, prodding at my knee playfully. "Do I appreciate laddie humour? Totally. I don't know if I'm laddie in that slightly misogynistic, on-the-piss, lack of intelligence, overly masculine, gross way. I don't respond or relate to that... And I'm not a big weed smoker." Too well-adjusted? "No. It's not for lack of trying. I get very stoned, that's the problem. I have a high tolerance for alcohol, but not weed. I wish I did. But f*** me, I get so monged out." Wood is an ace at British colloquialisms.

Now that he has enough projects out there to make references to Frodo ridiculously churlish, it seems he has nothing left to prove. And it shows. His role in the understated Set Fire to the Stars, which he also co-produced, is a return to Ice Storm form. A semi-biographical work, the feature debut of Downton Abbey director Andy Goddard, the film focuses on the relationship between the "roistering, drunken, doomed poet" Dylan Thomas (played by Welsh actor Celyn Jones, who also co-wrote the film) and the Harvard academic John Malcolm Brinnin (a Buster Keaton-looking Wood), the man responsible for inviting Thomas to tour America - a move that would both cement his status as a cultural icon for the Beat movement and lead to his untimely death, hastened by binge-drinking, in New York in 1953. Jones' remarkable performance as the philandering, attention-seeking, mollycoddled manchild poet is matched by Wood's nuanced turn as a young man both disillusioned and profoundly altered by his initial five-day encounter with his hero. It begs an obvious question... "No!" Wood catches on immediately. "I've never been disappointed with any of my heroes. I met Paul McCartney once and he was so wonderful."

Wood says he was always well-adjusted. Born in Iowa to parents who ran a delicatessen, he was the middle child of the family, between his older brother Zach, now a film producer, and sister Hannah, an actor. "I was the family peacemaker and moderator," he sighs. "The one who understood everyone's perspective, for better or for worse." At four, on his mother's suggestion, he began modelling in local shopping malls and at the age of eight, she took him to Los Angeles to a Hollywood talent scout convention where he was cast in Paula Abdul's video Forever Your Girl, directed by David Fincher. A small role in Back to the Future Part II followed, which led to Avalon, The War and Flipper. He'd had no formal acting training. "I wasn't a show-off. I didn't put on plays at home. I innately knew that I had to portray another person and I had to do that with honesty."

Charming man: Elijah says he was always well-adjusted

When they moved permanently to the West Coast, his father Warren stayed behind. His parents finally divorced when he was 15, around the time that he was shooting The Ice Storm, the story of two dysfunctional families and the effect of their infidelities on their children. Wood has had little contact with his father since, and clearly puts his mother-mentor on a pedestal. "I'm a mummy's boy, totally." he says proudly. "It was always my mum and me. She was the one taking me around on location. That's the closest relationship that I ever had. I'm indebted to her. There are so many ways to go wayward in this industry."

It was not until he was cast by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, after sending in a homemade audition tape of himself running through the woods in a hired Hobbit costume, that Wood left home on his own for the first time and moved to Wellington, New Zealand, for the 16-month shoot. He regards that time as "my university, the year I changed from boy to man." I ask how Frodo went down with the ladies: "Well, I think. I mean as a Hobbit I was a bit desexualised. I didn't get as much love as, like, an Elf perhaps, or a Gondorian. But I did OK."

The length and insular nature of the shoot allowed him to make the deep personal connections that he felt he'd missed out on as a child � he recounts tales of surfing and road trips with his co-stars Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan and Viggo Mortensen. Which perhaps goes some way to explaining why, after all his public exorcising of Frodo, Wood agreed to appear in the prequel trilogy The Hobbit, the final part of which is out next month. "I knew that I wasn't going to have to carry the film on my shoulders. It was more of a family reunion." The same logic applies to the Air New Zealand safety video he shot recently in which he is dwarfed in a giant-scale plane seat.

Rare breed: Elijah Wood

He knows how to laugh at himself. He can also be disarmingly candid. When I ask if he has ever been in therapy, he immediately replies: "F*** yeah. I highly advocate it. It's not an admission that there's something wrong, it's an admission of vulnerability. All these things bubbled up when I was 29. I'd just broken up with my girlfriend of five years [Pamela Racine, his co-star in Everything is Illuminated]. Someone suggested therapy and I thought, "I actually think I need this." I was an adult from a young age, I had to deal with so much familial responsibility. Some might say I lost my childhood. I missed out on certain things, but if anything that shaped me. By the time I really needed friends my own age, I had them." He lights another cigarette. "I was always taking care of other people, thinking about their feelings and not my own. That can bite you in the ass. I found it hard to say no. I don't like to disappoint people. Too nice. Too honest." Did he just get bored of being the dependable, level-headed one? "No, I like having a healthy perspective. It allows me to deal with all the bullshit in the industry."

Wood purposely circumvents a lot of said bullshit. He lives between California's Venice Beach and Austin, Texas, avoids the paparazzi's prime hunting areas in Los Angeles, doesn't party at clubs and tends to only retweet on Twitter. "...and I don't release naked pictures of myself. Men who take dick-pics? That is the most retarded thing. There's really nothing sexy about it." He has also managed to carry out his private life under the radar; his only publicly documented relationships have been with German actress Franka Potente and Racine. I wonder if he actively doesn't date high-profile actors? "It's not a policy I have, but it's better not to. It brings a certain attention I'd rather not have in my life. I don't roll in the scene at all." Of Hollywood he says: "It can be a very dark place, but it can also be wonderful. At its best it's an opportunity to create great art. It's capable of that. At its worst it can destroy and bring out the worst in people."

Our conversation turns to Robin Williams, with whom Wood worked side by side when voicing Happy Feet. 'The death of Robin really shocked me.' His eyes look like giant blue marbles for a second. 'When you unpack it and you recognise that he battled with addiction for the vast majority of his life, there had to be darkness, but I never saw a stitch of it. I don't think I've met anyone in my life that shone so brightly, made so many people so happy and was so humble. I kept thinking about how alone he must have felt to make that decision. People are so judgmental about suicide. It's important never to judge someone for their decisions, if you don't know what it's like to walk in their shoes. I remember when Kurt Cobain died, people called him a loser and said that he took the easy way out."

Cobain is another musical hero Wood is categorically not disappointed with. He is a ceaseless font of nerdy enthusiasm for a plethora of musical legends and genres. He's a part-time DJ with 4,000 vinyl sleeves in his collection. He often plays at Market Bar in Dalston, when he's over here scouring London haunts for new trainspotter finds (his favourites are Honest Jon's and Soul Jazz). But his record label Simian Records has taken a back seat while he concentrates on SpectreVision, his production company specialising in horror films - another of Wood's ardent predilections. He rhapsodises about the genre, then chuckles, exposing the slash between his front teeth. "Yeah, sometimes I can be drawn to things a little on the darker side."

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