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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, December 13, 2001

'Lord of the Rings' actor is a hard hobbit to break

By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press

Elijah Wood, 20, plays the part of Frodo Baggins in "Lord of the Rings," the $300 million, three-movie production that took more than a year to film. Associated Press

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NEW YORK — When it came to auditioning for the biggest and riskiest role of his young career, Elijah Wood mailed it in.

That's not to say the 20-year-old actor took it lightly. To win the lead part of Frodo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings" — the $300 million, three-movie production that would take 16 months to film, and opens Dec. 19 — Wood refused to just saunter into the casting agent's office.

Instead, he put on a puffy shirt and some goofy suspenders, adopted an English accent and went off into the California woods to videotape himself as a hobbit. George Huang, a buddy and director of "Swimming with Sharks," filmed the audition and they edited it together.

"I wanted to be noticed," says Wood, who would have done "anything to get the role."

Now, with most of the movie trilogy filmed, the actor known for his arty turn in "The Ice Storm" finds himself leading an international juggernaut. With bemusement he sees his likeness splashed across bus shelters, billboards and a set of Burger King collectible cups.

"Isn't it weird?" he asks. "I never thought I'd be a part of anything this commercial."

During an interview to promote the first film, Wood shrugs at the notion that the stakes have suddenly gotten quite high. As Frodo, the hobbit whose journey is at the heart of "The Lord of the Rings," the actor must shoulder both the story and the movie franchise.

"You can assume that if it does well, it's going to be popular in some way, shape or form for the rest of my life. That's a staggering thought. I'll always be associated with it," he says.

Fellow hobbit and friend Sean Astin isn't worried about Wood handling the pressure. The two bonded during the arduous filming in New Zealand, over a year of lacing up prosthetic hobbit feet and gluing on itchy ears.

"He can't fail — just look at his body of work," Astin says.

Wood has been around the block. Since making his debut in Richard Gere's 1990 thriller "Internal Affairs," Wood has appeared in "Avalon," "Paradise," "Flipper," "Forever Young," "Radio Flyer," "The War," "Deep Impact" and "The Faculty."

"I'm lucky. I'm 20. It's still the beginning," Wood says.

When the actor's homemade audition tape landed on the desk of director Peter Jackson, the moviemaker tasked with capturing J.R.R. Tolkien's epic vision knew right away that he'd found his leading hobbit. Few candidates had gone through as much trouble to prove their interest.

Wood's already elfish features certainly didn't hurt his chances. His wide-set eyes, translucent skin, fine features and tiny nose — not to mention his smallish stature — lend him an ethereal, expressive quality.

"His eyes are a window to his soul," says actress Liv Tyler, who plays the Elf princess Arwen. "He has big blue eyes and they're so powerful. He's so good at showing emotion effortlessly. I feel when I watch the film that it always comes back to him, no matter where you go."

Wood squirms. "I don't want to take all the credit as if I'm the only person who could play the character, which I'm not. But certainly physically, there are quite a lot of parallels in the way that Frodo's described, which I find interesting," he says.

The actors playing Tolkien's nine-member "fellowship" became close during filming. Along with Wood and Astin, they are Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan and Sean Bean.

"The fellowship became a reality," Wood says. "We made some of the best friends of our lives. We went through ups and downs together as a single unit. I learned how to surf — we all learned how to surf. We took vacations together. It was so special and profound."

The nine actors were known to rally together to lobby for certain aspects of the production. "This is not just a film, not for anyone involved. It was life for us," Wood says.

As if to prove that point, all nine got the No. 9 in Elvish — which looks a bit like two curly m's — tattooed on their bodies. "We're going to be intrinsically linked for the rest of our lives anyway," Wood says. "It made it permanent."

That bond and the months spent in rural New Zealand made returning to America and resuming his career feel odd. Wood has already completed his next project — Ed Burns' "Ash Wednesday" — for which he worked only eight days and was in the makeup chair for only a few minutes.

"Coming back, I didn't really have a grasp on what my life meant any more. Because my life was 'The Lord of the Rings.' It was as much a filmic experience as it was a life experience and vice versa," he says.

"I think I'm only now, in the last four or five months, really coming back into life."

Asked what he missed most, Wood lists family, friends, new CDs, the latest movies and Mexican food. Asked what he missed least during his sojourn, Wood thinks for a moment.

"Massive commercialism," he replies, with a laugh.

And now he's part of it.