Elijah Wood Reflects on Genre Roles, Unlikable Characters and ‘Grand Piano’
Although the use of his piercing blue eyes in ads for The Lord of the Rings made him the face Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, in the decade since those films were released, Elijah Wood has become synonymous in a broader way with genre projects. From Sin City and 9 to Tron: Uprising and Maniac, the actor has repeatedly found unique, interesting projects to explore, playing thieves, killers and oddballs. And his latest, Grand Piano, feels like both a professional extension of that adventure and an embodiment of his career trajectory: Playing a concert pianist trying to give the performance of a lifetime – with a literal gun pointed at him – Wood takes a formidable challenge and turns it into what may become a defining role.
At the recent Los Angeles press day for Grand Piano, Wood talked with Spinoff Online at length about his interpretation of his character, which differed from that of writer/director Eugenio Mira. Additionally, he offered insights into his upcoming collaboration with Nacho Vigalondo, and reflected on the shift in focus his career has taken – and especially why genre material seems to be much more interesting to him in the past several years.
Spinoff Online: When I talked to you and Eugenio about Grand Piano at Fantastic Fest last year, he mentioned that actually after he wrote this, he didn’t really like the character – and that you brought likability to him.
Elijah Wood: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. Well, the character on the page – I don’t know that he’s very likable. I mean, I suppose he’s a brilliant kind of calculated musician. I don’t know that he’s very warm as a person. These are all things we talked about and it’s sort of apparent. You get the impression that there’s a sort of almost disconnect, maybe even with his wife. So there are all those elements that are sort of there. It’s interesting that he thinks that I sort of made him – I don’t know – I softened the edges, perhaps.
Well, you can obviously like a role without the character necessarily being likeable, but did you like him?
I did. I didn’t find him totally unlikeable. I just think he’s a character that initially served a function in a very certain way and that’s, like, he could execute the piano extremely well. But maybe he didn’t see that from an artist’s perspective. And I think over the course of the film he realizes, I think, that he had ultimately not been the one in control all this time, even before stage fright when he was just playing the instrument. And so there’s a sort of change that occurs in him where he starts to take control of his situation in a way that’s even broader than simply taking control of the piano itself. And I think I like that about it, I like where he goes with it. I like kind of what this experience ultimately is teaching him and the arc that the character ultimately has even though it’s a very confined frame of time.
When you are doing this on set, do they have a piano that does not play music, or what does it actually sound like?
It’s muted, totally muted. So there’s no sound coming out of it – which initially threw me off because when I was practicing – and, granted, a lot of what is occurring in the film is not all note for note perfect, but a lot of it’s approximation and hand techniques, and rhythm and timing is a good portion of it. There’s some notes that are right, but the way I was learning was I was trying to learn and I was learning actual notes for certain parts of music. And my practice piano was an actual piano so I was using sound as my guide. I would know that I was off if I heard that I was off. But the thing that was fucked up about that, too, is if I was off it would totally throw me off. So in a way like initially it threw me because I thought, “Well, fuck, I’m not gonna be able to hear it.” But it actually made a huge difference because I then didn’t have to think about the song sounding wrong and just focus on being in the right place at the right time and worrying about rhythm. Because I think it actually would have fucked it up more if I’d heard the sound.
Sure. Have you ever encountered like a situation like this where you had done something that you felt like didn’t come off the way that you wanted, and then there was sort of a next great opportunity and it seemed more intimidating because of that previous experience?
Yes, feeling like I reasonably failed at something and then having a similar experience to sort of face it again. Maybe not quite as directly as this. This is so specific. But I’m sure – and I’ve definitely felt the sense of disappointment or having wished I would have done something better. I can’t think of a specific example but I definitely feel that way – I get nervous public speaking and I’m sure that there’s something like that I’ve encountered but I definitely have that – I understand that feeling of trepidation, especially playing to an audience. Live performance, be it playing an instrument or being on stage or doing standup or any of these things where you’re standing in front of a group of people performing on some level – it’s a very vulnerable place to be, even if you are good at whatever it is that you might be doing. I did standup once; that fucking scared the shit out of me – and it’s not at all my vocation nor do I think I’m necessarily good at it. But that was a very scary thing, so I understand that feeling of pressure.
Looking at the stuff that you have coming up and just what you’ve done in the last few years, you seem to have gravitated more towards a lot of genre-oriented projects. Is that a result of sort of deliberately seeking those out, or is it just that you found that the more interesting roles are being found there than maybe other places?
I think it’s the latter rather than the former. I think it’s relatively organic because I never really feel like I’m seeking anything specific out. I’m reacting to what I read and to what’s available to me and that’s a relatively organic process. And as it pertains to – certainly Grand Piano and Open Windows – there’s a completely organic path that led me to those two films, you know. And to a certain degree I have Fantastic Fest to thank because that’s where I met Eugenio. That’s where I met Nacho [Vigalondo]. I don’t know that I would have been in either of those films had I not gone to Fantastic Fest. So some, but those two films in particular were ideas that I loved. Both of them are kind of crazy ideas in a way, certainly in terms of how to execute them. And they’re both filmmakers that I loved and wanted to work with and I happened to know them socially as well. So it’s very organic.
But I love genre films, and I think, you know, more often than not it tends to be where some of the more interesting ideas cinematically are occurring and where some of my favorite filmmakers are – the space that they’re working in. I do spend a lot of time at Fantastic Fest so it tends to be a lot of those kinds of movies that I like to watch. But again, I mean I think it is also relatively organic, too, because as an actor specifically you can only kind of do the things that are around and are available and want to include you. And if it so happens and I suppose there’s been a lot of genre of late.
One of the things that I will never forget and probably one of my strongest memories of Fantastic Fest is of Nacho body slamming you during the Fantastic Feud.
There was a bottle on the floor, too. Fucking broken glass.
Was it before, at that moment or after that you decided to work with him on Open Windows?
“Gotta work with this guy!” Well, it was probably before, but it didn’t deter me. Nacho’s the best, man. I mean he’s sort of become the unofficial or maybe official mascot for Fantastic Fest. A festival without him sort of feels strange now, you know. And people – I think I’ve heard stories far and wide so they come to the festival wondering if like Nacho’s gonna be around. It’s great. He’s got quite the reputation.
Well, what is his sort of disposition as a filmmaker when he’s on set? I mean, I assume that he’s …
Different, very different. Focused and articulate and what is fun about Nacho’s personality is very much a part of his personality all the time. So he’s still a lot of fun and very funny. But, you know, it’s a focused affair. And I think when you’re working on something as complex as Open Windows, too, and you’ve only got so much time to do it, it requires a lot of everyone’s focus and attention so – it was great. It was actually really a joy for me to see that side of him. Because up until then I knew him socially so I knew a lot of facets to his personality but I didn’t know that, that on set personality. And that was what I wanted to know because I had seen Timecrimes and was so excited about the prospect of working with him one day. So that – the work and the director was somebody that I didn’t know. So it was a joy to be a part of that.
When you first worked with Peter Jackson, I mean, he was still kind of in his ascent, you know. Looking at the films that you have done more recently, either looking at the end result or just looking at the process of working with these guys, like Eugenio or Nacho or Frank Khalfoun, is there anyone that you see as maybe being Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg?
I see a lot of that in Eugenio as a director. I think he has scratched the surface, just barely scratched the surface of what he’s capable of as a director. I can’t wait to see where he goes as a filmmaker. You know, but to make sort of grand predictions about the next coming of these sorts of directors is a little difficult to do, and maybe unnecessary. Because I think the real thing is there are a lot of emerging directors and people that I want to watch for a long time and Eugenio is most certainly one of them. And I see Nacho as well as being one of them, someone that I just personally want to see him and I want to see his movies ten years down the line. And I think, you know, the potential for where Eugenio could go, too, especially if he’s given a little bit of money. I mean I suppose look at someone like Guillermo del Toro and the trajectory that he took. Or even Alfonso Cuaron, too. I don’t know why I’m just mentioning Spanish directors or Mexican directors. I’m not actually making that for a specific reason, but just they were good examples. But those are pretty incredible paths that they’ve taken as well, and I see similar kind of, or perhaps a similar path for someone like Eugenio maybe.
Grand Piano opens today.