It's said that the most important thing an actor can do is fully commit to every on-screen moment. And whether he's battling mythical creatures or dueling with imaginary dogs, this is a fundamental skill that Elijah Wood has clearly mastered -- and remastered -- throughout his career.
Now, as the star of FX's brilliant black comedy, Wilfred, Wood is once again pushing the boundaries of believability as he brings to life the story of a downtrodden man who is the only one capable of seeing his neighbor's pooch for the smoking, drinking, foul-mouthed man in a dog suit he truly is. Or appears to be.
That ongoing ambiguity is one of Wilfred's greatest tricks -- and one of the things Wood spoke at length about when he participated in The Screen Actors Guild Foundation Conversations series, moderated by ETonline's Jarett Wieselman, at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway. Here are some highlights from the hour-long chat!
ETonline: One of the things I love about Wilfred is that after one and a half seasons, I still have no idea how to describe this show to friends.
Elijah Wood: [laughs] We love that. It's sort of what attracted me to the project to begin with: I'd never seen anything like it on television, I'd never read anything quite like it and it's not easy to define. It's funny because when we did the first season we thought it would take more time to find an audience, and even if they're not able to describe it, I'm so excited people are getting it.
ETonline: Was part of your attraction to the project knowing you'd be able to push that boundary on cable?
Wood: I don't know that I would have jumped into television were it not for this kind of free environment. Although there are great network shows, like Parks and Recreation, the freedom of cable is quite extraordinary. The storytelling with shows Mad Men or Breaking Bad … actually I ran into Bryan Cranston today and his publicist gave me a packet of the blue meth! Is that going to get me stopped on a place? [laughs] But those are shows that I've become such a huge fan of, and knowing that so many actors, writers and directors have moved to that space got me interested in the idea of television.
ETonline: One of the greatest things about Wilfred is the ambiguity that shrouds the whole series -- we truly don't know if Wilfred is real or fictional, or, for that matter, if Ryan actually survived his series opening suicide attempt. How did you approach that unknown aspect from an acting standpoint?
Wood: Everything Ryan experiences with Wilfred is happening. I think that's the only way to play it because then it's up to the audience to determine what's real and what isn't. I never really concerned myself with playing him psychologically unbalanced because what is unbalanced is purely the manifestation of Wilfred and his interactions. I think adding a layer of psychological imbalance in the presence of that would be confusing. It's really for you to think about after.
ETonline: If creator Jason Gann, who also plays Wilfred, came to you and said, "I know how the show ends," would you even be interested in that information?
Wood: Not really. I don't think it would help me at all. I have a dream scenario for how I'd like the show to end. At the end of Harvey [a 1944 play about a man and his imaginary friend], the doctor that runs the insane asylum sees Harvey as well and Elwood gives Harvey over to the doctor because he doesn't need him anymore. I thought that would be a beautiful way to end Wilfred as well. I mean, the conceit is that Ryan is in recovery and Wilfred is there to help Ryan, so if Ryan does ultimately fully recover, Wilfred will cease to be in his life. That's how I imagine it anyway.
ETonline: I read an interview where you revealed the tendency to get so wrapped up in your work, you basically disappear from your non-work world. Is that true?
Wood: I really do, especially with Wilfred. When I first signed on, I was so thrilled. I don't often get a chance to work at home – so many shows shoot outside Los Angeles. To be home for 3 months is so exciting and I thought I'd have this wonderful balance between work and keeping up with friends and family [laughs]. It's impossible. Impossible! Even on weekends I sort of shut down just to recover and recharge for the next week of work. And what's crazy is I came into this season thinking the same thing! "That was just getting the whole thing established, this season will be so much easier." Again, no way. I'm just in Wilfred-land with a dog telling me what to do.
ETonline: How do you get out of that mindset once filming has wrapped?
Wood: I watch Breaking Bad. This year, there were four Sunday shows, but I couldn't watch them all that night because it would have kept me up too late since I get up at 4:30 in the morning. I'm such a nerd ... if my call time is 6:30 a.m., I'm up at 4:30 a.m. -- I have to get up two hours earlier, so I'm not making my job any easier [laughs]. I could have more of a social life, but I get myself to bed earlier so I can get up, make some coffee, chill at home before heading out. So during the season, a lot of what I would do to unwind and separate is watch Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Girls – Lena Dunham is extraordinary.
ETonline: Your next role is the lead in a retelling of the 1980 cult horror hit, Maniac -- a film that's shot entirely from the killer's perspective, right?
Wood: Almost entirely. We move into a traditional perspective a few times. Whenever my character kills someone it moves out of my perspective and into an observational perspective, but a majority of the film is from my point of view.
ETonline: Given that you're not actually on screen that much, was it an easier acting experience or did it make things tougher for you?
Wood: It presented much different challenges. It was like playing a character in three different movements. The character was comprised of my voice and we re-recorded all the dialogue from the film in a booth, so I knew a significant portion of the character would be created in that environment in terms of atmosphere, his presence and him vocally. The second was arms and hands in frame – trying to navigate around a moving camera. The third was ultimately the camera operator. Our Director of Photography was effectively me. He stood where my character would during filming. Often we worked together and every scene was choreographed. It was so interesting. I think the film we ended up making was quite different than the film we intended to make. It ended up far more beautiful and artistic than we imagined … while also brutal. I mean, I do scalp women in it.
ETonline: One of the prevailing themes of your career is unpredictability -- do you choose projects with the conscious aim of doing something different than last time or just wanting to be challenged?
Wood: It's a mix of both – I'm really attracted to diversity and new challenges. That's one guiding principal. The other guiding principal is responding to what moves me and what I respond to. Or, sometimes, it's as simple as wanting to work with a specific filmmaker.
ETonline: If you could revisit a role you've previously played to bring to life the next chapter in their journey, who would you like to play again?
Wood: I'd sort of love to see where my character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is now. He's a great character -- he's a little shifty and his methods are a bit shady, but he means well. I just wonder how he moved on from that. Did he grow up or is he still nefarious?
ETonline: What's the best acting advice you've ever received?
Wood: Funnily enough, it was from Mel Gibson, who isn't in the best position to give advice these days, but he told me, "You can always do better." Which is so simple, but it meant a lot to me back then. It still does. It's the idea that we're always striving for the best we can do and even when we feel like we've accomplished something great, know we can always do better. The notion of humility and continuing to strive for better performances and to challenge yourself. Once you think you've achieved something great, you stagnate and stop trying.
ETonline: How about worst advice?
Wood: I don't know if it's bad advice as much as it is seeing bad examples of behavior on set.
ETonline: You've never really fallen into the bad behavior that often comes with child stars -- how did you avoid those pitfalls?
Wood: 100 percent family. I am the person that I am because of my mother. I was also lucky because I never was a part of anything that made me very famous very young. I didn't have a Home Alone, or anything of its ilk where I was suddenly very famous. I also did roles that in were movies for adults – they weren't family specific. I was never pigeonholed and people became familiar with me gradually over time. To be new to the craft and suddenly hit something where people know who you are overnight can be overwhelming, and detrimental to longevity if you don't utilize that time right.
ETonline: Yet you did have a massive hit with the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- looking back on that time, what was it like?
Wood: It was massive, and bigger than any of us ever anticipated. But we also made that movie in a bubble – we were aware of the internet presence following us, but we were in New Zealand and that distance was comforting. It helped that we experienced everything as a group. We were a family, we traveled the world like a circus. We came to your town with our massive movie. There was great solidarity and comfort there.
ETonline: You recently reprised the role of Frodo Baggins for The Hobbit -- what was it like going back?
Wood: It was extraordinary. Just thrilling to revisit a time and a place in my life – it's not often you get to do that outside a high school reunion. It was an absolute gift and a treat for me on a few levels. When I was in Hobbiton, I was standing outside Bag End, and the last time I was standing there I'd just turned 19 – I'm now 30. It shows how much time has passed. It was wonderful to meet a new group of actors, knowing this would be a similar experience for them.
ETonline: Did you give any advice to Martin Freeman [who plays Bilbo Baggins]?
Wood: No, no advice – there would be the occasional trading of stories. Hanging around set with dwarves and Martin, as you do – latex stories, ear stories. Things like that. I think there was a sense of being overwhelmed that we didn't have. But he's so got this – Martin's so perfect and do great for the role. I can't wait to see it.
Wilfred season two airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX while season one will be available to Watch Instantly on Netflix starting August 18.