Elijah Wood on Maniac and being a Hobbit for life

ELIJAH Wood’s latest film is called Maniac. In it, the world’s most plucky Hobbit hangs up his hairy feet to play Frankie, a deeply disturbed serial killer who scalps his female victims.

It’s about as far from the Shire as you can get. Maniac is a grubby and grotesque slasher film with an uncomfortable arthouse twist: the entire film is shot from the killer’s point of view. We see what Frankie sees, and follow who Frankie follows. And the only time we see Frankie is in reflection.

“It’s the most intriguing element of the film,” Wood says. “It meant I could create this character in a completely different way. It became about hearing him and feeling him rather than seeing him. And you only see him in flashes, so they become very intense character revealing moments. I’ve never played someone so dark before. It was interesting to go there.”

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Wood as a murderer. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? That’s probably because all you can see when you picture this particular actor is a halfling with a cute mop of curls. OK, since the global takeover that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy he has made other films, started a record label, and worked an indie hipster look that makes him appear like the fifth member of Grizzly Bear. But still, you can’t help it. It’s the saucer eyes the colour of swimming pools. The little pointy ears. The big feet. And the One Ring around his neck. In this context, it’s hard to imagine Wood being menacing. Yet in Maniac he pulls it off, at least from what I could see through my fingers. It turns out those pretty blue eyes can be very creepy indeed.

In fact Wood is a massive fan of the genre. He has his own horror production company, The Woodshed, and runs an annual film festival, Nightmare City, in Los Angeles where he moved with his mother from Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the age of eight to pursue acting.

“Some of my favourite movies are horror films,” he says. “The Exorcist… John Carpenter’s Halloween… Rosemary’s Baby… Let The Right One In. I think horror is a really interesting medium to tell stories that explore our darker selves. These films express our fears and those elements of human experience that we don’t really discuss. Often horror films can be beautiful and evocative. There is something about their tone that I really love. I don’t find them frightening at all.”

So he didn’t give himself nightmares stepping inside the mind of a serial killer? “Not really. The four-week shoot was very technical so you kind of become desensitised to what is very disturbing material. None of us had ever made a PoV (point-of-view) film before. There was this whole element of the character that was basically the camera. I’ve never worked so closely with a DP (director of photography)before. I would be behind him the whole time, tapping on his shoulder to make him move faster or slower. It was a totally fascinating way to work.”

Talk turns, inevitably, to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, for which Wood returned to New Zealand to film last year. What was it like going back? “I never expected to return to Middle Earth,” he says with a beatific sigh. “I didn’t think Frodo would be involved because he’s not even alive during the time of The Hobbit. So to revisit New Zealand, return to Bag End, and see old friends was incredible. It was like a family reunion. I only had three days of filming but I stayed a month, just to hang out and catch up with people. And, well, walking on to that set and seeing Ian McKellen as Gandalf again…” He sucks in his breath with the zest of a true LoTR superfan. “It was beautiful.”

Wood was relatively unknown when he landed the part of Frodo: a baby-faced 18-year-old who found himself moving to New Zealand to carry the burden of a lifetime: the ring of power which Peter Jackson kindly gifted to him after all that hard work (he keeps it safely hidden in a box at home, which seems wise). He and Frodo grew up together. By the time he walked off the set of the last film he was 23. “I think of it more as a life experience than a work experience. It’s not really about the films for me. Those were huge years of my life. It was the first time I lived as an adult. I made some of the greatest friends of my life. I was a changed person afterwards.”

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Actually, at the age of 32 Wood still looks like Frodo, minus the ears. Like the films, he doesn’t really seem to age. It’s something to do with his air of detached innocence. Liev Schreiber, who directed him in Everything is Illuminated, has described Wood as “insanely sweet” while Ian Holm, who plays Bilbo in the LoTR trilogy, praised his “remarkable, god-given eyes”. Christopher Lee, who plays Saruman in LoTR and The Hobbit, simply said: “Elijah Wood will never grow old”.

“I certainly look young,” Wood laughs. “But the funny thing about Christopher Lee is that he’s the one who will never grow up. He must be like 90 now and he’s as sharp as ever. Anyway, it’s something I’ve accepted. I’m 32, I don’t look 32, and that’s fine.” He comes across as cool, kind, and completely unaffected by the pressures that typically befall child actors. He credits this to his mother, a factory worker turned delicatessen owner who instilled respect for others in him from the start.

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“She made sure there was always a separation between my life as an actor and my life at home,” he says. “I still feel that way. The work was never made to feel too important and I made sure I never defined myself by it.” These days Wood’s time is split between acting, his production company, DJing in Los Angeles, and running his label, which may soon stop releasing new music to focus on reissues. He loves Glasgow bands and tells me he can’t wait to hear Mogwai’s new soundtrack to French zombie film Les revenants. “And I just found a first pressing of one of the Vaselines’ albums on vinyl,” he says proudly. “I love that band.”

As for the so-called Mark Hamill effect (the actor who played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films and never managed to go beyond them), Wood is delighted to be tied to Frodo for life. “I still get the same number of people calling me Frodo on the street,” he says. “When Maniac was announced the articles came out saying it was yet another attempt on my part to shake off Frodo. That’s bizarre to me because it’s been eight years!” He laughs. “I accepted a long time ago that Frodo would be a part of my life forever. He will always be there because these movies have transcended all of us and become part of popular culture. And that’s pretty cool.”

•  Maniac is in cinemas from tomorrow and reviewed on page 6.