Ahead of starring in Netflix’s new Dirk Gently series, the Hollywood actor tells Patrick Smith why he thinks British comedy beats its US equivalent, and about being mistaken for Daniel Radcliffe
It’s 13 years since he appeared in Peter Jackson’s colossally successful adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but Elijah Wood still gets called Frodo in the street. Not that he minds. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says the 35-year-old former child star. “It created more opportunities than it hindered.”
The trilogy also had an unexpected side benefit. “It exposed me to British comedy,” he explains. “The British actors working on it spoon-fed me everything from The Day Today to Brass Eye to The Mighty Boosh. It doesn’t adhere to the same needs of American humour. It doesn’t constantly require a laugh out of you. It’s more sarcastic. There’s more wit to it.”
It’s just as well he has a thing about British comedy. As anyone who’s read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams’s cult crime-solving novel on which Wood’s new eight-part series is based – will attest, its humour is very British, a Monty Python-like blend of intellectually robust whimsy and digressive surrealism.
Historically, the intricate nuances of Adams’s approach have been lost in translation to both big and small screen – most notably in the 2005 film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the 2010 BBC Four comedy drama Dirk Gently, starring Stephen Mangan. But this latest series, premiering on Netflix on Sunday December 11, nails the quirk quotient, even if the multiple plot strands have the potential to frustrate viewers.
“The scripts were so extremely layered and complex that they had to be described to us all at great length,” says Wood, who plays Todd, the reluctant assistant to British actor Samuel Barnett’s eponymous holistic detective. “There were all these tangential threads thrust at us that were seemingly unconnected, so we were initially quite in the dark. [The series’ writer Max Landis] would mention something like time travel, for instance, and then go, ‘Oh s—, haven’t I told you about that yet?’”
As with The Lord of the Rings, Wood didn’t read the books beforehand. Nevertheless, growing up in Iowa, where his parents ran a delicatessen, he was very much aware of Adams and says that the British author is “highly regarded in the US, with a massive fan base”. Does the fact that the streaming giant Netflix has adapted an Adams novel mean that we’re entering a new era of geekdom, I wonder? “I think we’ve been in that age for some time and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” says Wood. “It’s incredibly exciting.”
Wood is, by his own admission, a geek. He’s also polite and loquacious, with an infectious falsetto laugh. That he seems so relaxed is no doubt the result of having been in the film industry since 1990, when a cherubic nine-year-old with luminous blue eyes graduated from music videos and TV adverts to star in Barry Gevinson’s Avalon.
High-profile roles in the JJ Abrams-scripted Forever Young (1992) and Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son quickly followed, before a startlingly mature performance alongside Kevin Costner in 1994’s The War prompted the venerable critic Roger Ebert to write: “Elijah Wood has emerged as the most talented actor, in his age group, in Hollywood history.”
Unlike so many of his peers, though – the late Brad Renfro, for instance – Wood managed to avoid the clichéd route of the tortured child star. He explains: “I was lucky in the sense that I started work very young but had a solid family base provided by my mother. She instilled a strong sense of perspective and humility in me from a very early age. Also,” he continues, “that kind of excess has never interested me. I find it boring. But I don’t envy people who are suddenly thrust into fame, because there are no tools to understand how to deal with that.”
There are other perils, too, for young actors, besides drugs and alcohol. Indeed, earlier this year, Wood found himself at the centre of a media storm, after giving an interview in which he claimed that sexual abuse of children in Hollywood had reached epidemic proportions. Wood told a journalist that although he had been protected as a child – mainly by his mother, who stopped him going to parties – many of his contemporaries were regularly “preyed upon” by industry figures.
He’s still dealing with the fallout. “Those quotes came out of me discussing a documentary I’d seen [called An Open Secret] and were taken incredibly out of context,” he explains. “But I now constantly get messages saying that I need to uncover the names of [the perpetrators], like I’ve somehow become a spokesperson for a whole group of people. Truth is, I have nothing to do with that world. I’m merely someone who is deeply disturbed by the fact that something like that exists.”
Of course, the reason why Wood still has so much clout is The Lord of the Rings, the multi-Oscar-winning franchise in which he played the hairy-footed hobbit Frodo Baggins, a role with which he will be inexorably linked. I ask why so many people obsess about the fantasy genre.
“It’s a simple battle of good versus evil that everybody can kind of relate to,” says Wood, who read The Hobbit as a child. “It’s this kind of hero’s journey, which is present in literature as far as back as Norse mythology. And since The Lord of Rings and the Harry Potter films, there’s certainly been a resurgence in it.”
Flying the flag for fantasy nowadays is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, the sprawling HBO saga that was billed as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth” when it arrived in 2011. Wood is a huge fan. “The approach of Game of Thrones is similar to The Lord of the Rings in that it treats its source material almost like history and it focuses as much on the human drama as it does on anything fantastical,” he says. “What’s so strong about Game of Thrones is that it’s a character and political drama, with a sort of fantasy backdrop.” But which does he prefer: that or The Lord of the Rings? He laughs again. “I really don’t know.”
Since The Lord of the Rings, Wood has cropped up in films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Bobby (2006). More recently, though, he’s gravitated towards smaller projects, starring in the bizarre BBC Three sitcom Wilfred and a string of low-budget killer thrillers including 2012’s Maniac and Grand Piano a year later, as well as quietly making a name for himself as a DJ.
In 2010, having already established his own music label, Simian Records, he also set up the genre film production company SpectreVision (formerly known as The Woodshed), which specialises in horror flicks and was behind 2014’s revered Iranian vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Given his taste for the macabre, it’s little surprise that Wood disagrees that watching violent acts on screen begets violence in real life. “If one has a predilection for violence, they’re going to inflict that violence regardless of what they’ve seen on some form of media,” he says. “Your average person is not going to see violence in video games or in a film and then be inspired to hurt someone.”
These days, too, it’s not just Frodo that he gets called. He’s regularly mistaken for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe. “It’s really common,” he says. “I ran into somebody the other day and they said, ‘I loved you in Swiss Army Man [which stars Radcliffe],’ I was like, ‘Oh, there we go again!’ I actually find it really amusing.”
Wood takes a rare pause.
“Apparently the same happens to him with me.”
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency will be available on Netflix on Sunday December 11 [Source]