FOR AN ACTOR forever destined to be known as Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings, Elijah Wood has make a strong attempt to dismantle that image. Think of Sin City, in which he played the sadistic cannibal Kevin: “It was certainly the darkest character I’d ever played up until that point,” he acknowledges when we meet. Or 2012’s Maniac, in which he played a girlstalking killer. Those baby-blue eyes then took on a new chilling dimension.
The actor puts this interest in the macabre down to his early days living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his folks ran a delicatessen. “The first horror movies that I saw were when I was five or six – and I’ve loved the genre ever since,” he says. “It all started with seeing movies that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing, ones that my brother Zachariah would rent with his friends – that I would get to see unbeknownst to my parents! And it made an impression on me.”
His latest dip into genre territory is Grand Piano – which has been described as “Speed on a keyboard”. This time, it’s not Wood that’s playing the crazed killer, but John Cusack. The film’s premise is ridiculous but riveting: Wood’s concert pianist Tom Selznick is making his return to tinkling the ivories some five years after an onstage meltdown. But as he turns the page of his music sheet, there’s a scrawled note telling him to keep playing or a sniper will kill him and his wife (played by Kerry Bishé, whom Wood dated for a while).
With Cusack’s killer taunting Wood’s character via an earpiece, the actor calls it a “Hitchcockian thriller”, and it’s the sort of film the Master of Suspense would have revelled in.
“It’s incredibly audacious, incredibly ambitious, the concept,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy and all those elements were thrilling and exciting.”
Directed by Spaniard Eugenio Mira, the ultra-tight thriller captured Wood’s imagination from the start. “Seventy per cent of the movie takes place in real time… it’s really quite beautiful,” he says.
Curiously, Grand Piano is one of two films the American actor has made in Spain in the past two years. The other is Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows, an action thriller that entirely plays out on a computer screen. Its high concept follows what happens when Wood’s character tries to save an actress who gets kidnapped, orchestrating her rescue onscreen via web cams, mobile phone cameras and the like. “It’s easily the most technical, experimental film I’ve ever worked on,” he says.
Wood befriended both Mira and Vigalondo at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, in 2010 – just one example of how he’s become a staple on the genre circuit in recent years. Never mind that he briefly reappeared as Frodo Baggins in The Hobbit – Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings prequel – you’re more likely to find him scaring scream queens these days.
Now 33, Wood has helped launch a horror film festival, Nightmare City, in Los Angeles, and also formed his own production outfit, The Woodshed, dedicated to producing genre movies – the aim simply to make the sort of films “we want to see and that we love”. Already, the company has made A Girl Walks Home Alone, an Iranian vampire Western – shot in black-and-white and in Farsi – with Wood credited as executive producer.
Wood has also produced Cooties, a sci-fi horror comedy co-written by Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell about a zombie virus that breaks out in a school, and the controversial-sounding The Boy, about a nine-year-old sociopath discovering his first taste of killing. In addition, he’s working with E. Elias Merhige (who made the fabulous Shadow of the Vampire) on second world war horror It Was Cruel. Ask him why this sort of cinema sells, and he swiftly answers: “There are a lot of people taking it seriously now.”
He cites Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In – which has already seen a US remake and a successful stage run. “Typically, a foreign horror movie would not really get legs in the US, or find an audience – primarily because it’s not in the English language. And that movie was really successful in the US.
So great genre cinema is being made worldwide, and it seems to be inspiring people in America to make similarly high-quality horror films as well, which is the kind of thing we want to do.”
Factor in Wood’s regular appearances on the DJ circuit and his voiceover work (video games, animated feature Happy Feet and the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, the recent TRON: Uprising TV series), and it’s a diverse output. “I have a lot of interests, and I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be in a place in my life where I’m able to do a lot of those things and express a lot of those interests,” he says.
The middle child of three, Wood’s desire to act started early, when his mother Debbie put him up for commercials. So successful was he, they decided to move to Los Angeles, selling the family business. His younger sister Hannah and father Warren followed on some time later, by which point Wood had been directed by David Fincher (in the Paula Abdul video, Forever Your Girl) and featured in a bit-part in Back to the Future Part II.
His parents eventually divorced in 1996, and the former child actor admits that he didn’t find his teenage years easy.
“You’re going through a change in your life. You’re trying to figure out who you are, where you belong and where you want to go. Everything’s alien.”
Yet for all this, Wood became regarded as one of the industry’s brightest prospects in his teens. After appearing in Rob Reiner’s comedy, North, his performance alongside Kevin Costner in 1994’s The War prompted the late critic Roger Ebert to declare: “Elijah Wood has emerged, I believe, as the most talented actor, in his age group, in Hollywood history.”
Three years later, he made an impact in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, then had his first foray into genre cinema in Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, in which bodysnatching aliens invade a high school.
But it was in 1999, when he left for New Zealand to spend 12 months shooting Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that his life changed for good.
Wood knows that he’ll never escape the shadow of his Hobbit character. “I suppose there are people that have Frodo in their minds… so if that’s their predominant thought, that’s interesting,” he says, diplomatically. “But I’ve been working on characters that are completely different for a long time.”
Next up is Set Fire to the Stars, about an aspiring poet who meets his hellraising hero Dylan Thomas, again a long way from Frodo territory. Delving into the darker side is becoming Wood’s party trick.
Grand Piano opens on April 24