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Elijah Wood interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-11-25

Elijah Wood

Elijah Wood

Hollywood star Elijah Wood has come a long way since he made his film debut in Back To The Future II at the tender age of eight.

Since then he's made a name for himself in a string of movies, both as a child star and grown-up actor – including Barry Levinson's drama Avalon, dark comedy The Ice Storm and blockbuster Deep Impact but the 24-year-old still remains best-known for his role as Frodo in the Lord of The Rings trilogy.

Having already appeared on screen this year in Sin City and Green Street Hooligans, Wood is now playing a neurotic Jewish writer in the quirky comedy-drama Everything Is Illuminated. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, it's the story of a young Jewish man who heads for Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis – but with only a couple of clueless Ukranian tour guides and their dog, Sammy Davis Jr Jr, for company, finding out his family history isn't an easy task.

Although Wood isn't actually Jewish himself, he's terrific in the lead – drawing upon his own experiences of growing up around Jewish people and starring in Jewish-themed films, in order to give a convincing performance. As the film is released in the UK, SJ's Caroline Westbrook catches up with him for a chat about his own experiences working on the movie…

What attracted you to the role of Jonathan?

The character is very different from who I am, so that right away was intriguing, to be able to play a character who is so kind of awkward and neurotic, was kind of interesting, but also just him in the context of the rest of the story, I loved the relationship between Jonathan, and Alex, and the grandfather and the dog, in this tiny little car driving across Ukraine, the kind of natural comedy that ensues as a result of that, and ultimately the journey that they take and the discoveries they make, I love the story and it gave me an opportunity as an actor to do something that was very different.

What did Jonathan think of your portrayal of him?

I don't actually know, I've not spoken to Jonathan so I have no idea what he thinks of the film, I think he was being shown pieces of it during the editing process when Liev was working on it in New York and I think he enjoyed what he saw, but I don't know ultimately what he thought of the entire film.

How did you approach the role? Did you do any research into Jewish culture?

No, not really, I mean I guess I didn't do any specific research at all. When Liev and I met for the first time in regards to the film we sat and talked about every element of the movie over the course of two hours, and a lot of that was about Jonathan, how he saw Jonathan, and one of the references that he made, and one of the first kind of ideas he had was mentioning the Peter Sellers character from Being There as a basic idea of how he saw that character, a still observer who doesn't really sit in the world around him, so I kind of used that as a rough template and then every day would play within that concept, that person who is at arms length to the world around him, and is relatively uncomfortable, and how he reacted to Alex and the grandfather and the environment. The Jewish element of it was not something that I needed to research, I'm not Jewish but I've grown up amongst Jewish people my entire life, there are many of them in the film industry and I've been in films about Jewish families before, so the culture was very familiar to me. So it wasn't necessarily something I had to research. If there was anything I was lacking in terms of an understanding of the culture or any kind of characteristic I employed that I wasn't I think a lot of that would come from Liev
who was a great guide in that respect.

How did you enjoy working with Eugene and more importantly, how did you get on with Sammy Davis Jr Jr?

The dog is incredible in the film and so funny – and it's kind of interesting because the dog on the day when we were filming, we had two different dogs, Mickey and Mouse, they were sisters, and Mickey was primarily the dog that was used for most of the work, certainly the stuff in the car and the close-ups. And she was so professional, and almost too easy, she would just come in and do her bit – it was easier to film her scenes than anything else. But the comedy came from putting them all together, in the context of the script. And Eugene was an incredible person to work with, he's so amazing in the film, and for it to be his first film as an actor is pretty extraordinary.

He brought such a great energy and purity to every day at work, he was wonderful to work with. We also connected very quickly over music, he is a huge fan of music and so am I.

How much of a challenge was it for you to film half the movie in Russian? Do you speak Russian?

It was interesting because actually we kind of approached every scene with quite a lot of rehearsal – each scene was rehearsed to find the specific rhythm and tone. The language barrier is certainly a part of that and the challenge at that point is if you don't speak a language to know when the grandfather says his line that you have to say your next line, so it was really well rehearsed to find the rhythms so we didn't have problems. I don't speak Russian but I picked up the odd word on set.

Is it a different experience being directed by someone who's an actor rather than someone who's a director?

It is, I've only had two experiences of working with directors who are actors, but I think there is something unique about working with an actor in that they are more concerned with performance and being able to articulate the process more than most directors would be able to. And for a movie like this which is so character driven it does rely on someone who is able to steer the characters, so working with Liev was wonderful. The whole rehearsal process and the character development process and the work on set I think was made easier because of it.

Did you enjoy filming in Prague?

Loved it. It was the first time I'd been there and it was an absolutely beautiful city. I think one of the great privileges of being an actor is that you get to travel round the world and see places, it was a great opportunity to live there. I actually lived about a block away from the old town square and I did a lot of walking. The great thing about Prague is that the main city centre is relatively small, so you end up just walking everywhere. The architecture is amazing. It's a truly beautiful city.

Your character is an obsessive collector. Do you collect anything obsessively?

I do, I'm obsessed with music. I guess more like Jonathan I'm a bit of a pack rat, he tends to collect items which other people might find insignificant, and I tend to collect items which aren't important to other people at all, like little objects that have some kind of connection to a memory or something, and they're all waiting to be put into scrapbooks that I haven't put together yet. As far as music goes, I have so many things on my iPod it's not even funny. I have a 60GB iPod and it's almost full.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

I'd say one of the more challenging moments for Jonathan was probably when they were all leaving Lista's house after having gone to Trachimbrod and understood the grandfather's history. The significance of those experiences and having to somehow articulate to this woman how grateful he is for that. That was definitely the most emotionally challenging.

Did you take any of the collectibles from the set as a souvenir?

I have the glasses and I took the suit as well. Those glasses were amazing.