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Photography by John Russo

The Ring Master

by Scott Huvers | Men's Book Chicago magazine | July 10, 2012

Elijah Wood could be forgiven for feeling a tad schizophrenic this year.

Professionally, that is. The 31-year-old actor’s putting the “multi” in multifaceted with a packed slate of diverse projects that each show off a different, well, facet: There’s Wood the television comedian—returning for a second season of the hit cable series Wilfred; Wood the voice artist, vocalizing the digital hero of the new Tron: Uprising animated series; Wood the indie actor, offering an against-type stint in the romantic dramedy Celeste and Jesse Forever; and—perhaps most significantly—Wood the screen icon, who once again walks in the sizable feet of Frodo Baggins as he reprises the role that made him a global superstar for Peter Jackson’s two-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings precursor, The Hobbit.

And yet, after trying and retrying on all those different identities, Wood reveals himself to be an apparently—and, among many of his onetime-child-actor peers, perhaps remarkably—centered personality. “It’s only when people kind of reference the fact that I’m really busy that I realize that I am really busy,” he says of the seeming uptick in his current creative output. “But it’s wonderful. Everything I’m doing is relatively varied—which is exciting and keeps it interesting. To have the ability to do that—I’m very happy. It’s awesome.”

It’s not at all the norm to see a career that began at the age of 8 still going so “awesomely,” but Wood has successfully navigated the oft-dangerous waters of a showbiz childhood, maturing through a much-praised succession of boyhood roles into an impressive roster of films any actor of his generation would envy—The Ice Storm, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sin City and Happy Feet among them—all without addictions, mug shots or stormy romances playing out in the headlines.

“Humility was drilled into me at a very young age,” says Wood, crediting his family’s steadying influence with his drama-free transition into adulthood. “I was never able to accept special treatment. I was never able to consider myself any better than anyone else simply because I was an actor,” he says about his conventional upbringing. “Having a really strong separation between the work that I was doing as an actor and my home life... All of that went into building that foundation for myself and ultimately made for a very healthy upbringing that I think probably kept me away from your average trappings.”

The actor also points out that there’s a strong distinction between the good notices his early work drew and actual celebrity-dom, which also played a factor. “I was lucky to have a career as a young actor that was relatively gradual in its growth and progression in regards to people knowing who I was,” he explains of his slow accumulation of fame, a commodity he was wary of. “It’s kind of an awful scenario, and I don’t really wish it on anyone: to sort of be in relative obscurity and then become really famous really quickly. I think it’s too much of a head-f***. At that stage you don’t have any of the tools. You don’t know how to deal with it. It’s completely foreign.”

“Sometimes when you’re 15, 16, 17 and you become super-famous and you’re handed a lot of money and people want to give you everything, I think that can screw with you,” he admits. “I was just extremely fortunate to have an incredible home base, an amazing family and an incredible mother, who I totally credit with the person that I am now.”

Wood also views his initial stint working in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (aka New Zealand) as a crucial, character-shaping experience. He spent the formative years from ages 18 to 22 on set down under. “I often think about what it did to me as a person and the kind of personal growth that I experienced making it. Those are major growth years, kind of developing and growing into a man. Living in New Zealand, working with those people, many of which I’ll be connected to for the rest of my life, had a profound effect on me and shaped who I am as a person. I guess I say that because I think of that more than I think about the success of the films.”

Success is an understatement. That the three Rings films became a global phenomenon that catapulted everyone associated with them into stratospheric levels of success and fame was a shock even to the true believers in the cast and crew. “You work in a bubble, and we were definitely aware of the fact that it had a huge fan base already, pre-existing from the book, and that it would very much find an audience,” he says. “We knew that it would be successful, but by no means did we know that it was quite going to be like that. But we also experienced that whole thing kind of in a bubble as well.”

Wood says he and his castmates—including Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sir Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd and Andy Serkis—further bonded in the wake of the trilogy’s towering popularity, famously getting elvish tattoos at the end of the shoot to seal their personal fellowship. “We would travel the world as a group of actors together, sort of experiencing the madness together, which was kind of incredible,” he says. “To a certain degree, it was almost like it was happening to other people. You do kind of compartmentalize things. I remember there was a giant poster on a building on Sunset Boulevard for Fellowship. It was a photo of me where I’m holding the ring and I remember people freaking out, like, ‘Holy s***!’ Friends of mine were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re on the side of a building!’ And I couldn’t really even process it. It becomes something other,” he says, reminiscing.

“To me that’s just a part of the promotion, so I kind of put that in that box, like, ‘OK, that’s what’s happening. OK, I guess we’re on the side of the plane now for Air New Zealand.’ But it literally didn’t occupy my mind for more than a few moments, appreciating it and acknowledging that this was a part of the phenomena we were a part of and how cool that was, but then just sort of letting it go,” he says, recalling his first brushes with mega-stardom.

“At the end of all that, I didn’t really want to do anything for a while. I don’t think that I’ve ever been so exhausted in my life,” he says. Fortunately the success of the franchise left the young actor in a position to control his own creative future. “It opened opportunities for me. I don’t know that it necessarily put me in a position in my career where I could choose anything that I wanted. A lot of those [projects] that I still am kind of in love with are things that I still have to fight for—which I think is really healthy, ultimately.”

Now, Wood’s enjoying the ability to direct his energies into different corners of the showbiz universe that capture his fancy. “Tron is a sort of interesting example: I was a fan of the mythology and the opportunity to do a voice on an animated series—especially one such as that that has a very kind of elevated animation style—was very exciting.” Celeste and Jesse Forever began as a script-reading favor for his friend Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation), who co-wrote and stars in the film, and turned into an offer to play a fresh take on the sidekick role. “The joke of this character is that he’s homosexual, but when he says anything that’s overtly homosexual it doesn’t quite fit on him,” says Wood. “He’s [almost] like a straight gay man.”

Then there’s Wilfred, FX’s adaptation of the acclaimed Australian series and a labor of love that the actor expected to have a certain cult following, only to have it emerge as both a critical darling and one of cable TV’s highest-rated comedies. “We knew we were making something different and bizarre and a little bit strange and dark, but something that we loved,” he says. “It’s not just a comedy: It also has dramatic elements and all the cerebral layers to it. We thought that it would take time for people to get used to it and to understand it, but maybe we didn’t give people enough credit… that they would be interested in something that was a little off-kilter. We were really surprised.”

And of course, there’s his return to the Shire for the two-film The Hobbit shoot, the second installment of which is appropriately subtitled There and Back Again. Wood calls his homecoming-style return to the campus that carved him into his adult self “hugely significant. It’s not often that you get to revisit a time in your life like that, and there are so many of the original crew that are working on Hobbit and many of the original actors have come back to reprise certain roles. It was incredibly surreal. It felt kind of like stepping back into time—primarily going back to Hobbiton, because that hasn’t really changed.”

“Putting on the outfit—the wig and the ears and the feet again—I think that I expected it to feel more surreal than it did,” he says. “What was actually more surreal about the whole thing was how normal it felt. Being on that set in that outfit just felt normal.”