Frodo's bid to leave the Shire: Elijah Wood in Maniac

Nearly a decade on from the last Lord of the Rings film, Elijah Wood's name is still interchangeable with that of his Hobbit. James Mottram meets the actor on a quest for a new future

A while back, rumour circulated that Elijah Wood was DJ-ing under the name “DJ Frodo”. “It's so funny,” he muses. “I don't know where that came from. I've never called myself 'DJ Frodo'. I don't think I would ever call myself 'DJ Frodo'.” Unwilling to exploit his most famous character – the Hobbit in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy – Wood simply had to sit back and take it. A sly joke, perhaps, at the expense of an actor who has failed to emerge from the shadow of Frodo Baggins.

With his curly brown hair and saucer-like blue eyes a constant reminder of the character, “I accepted a long time ago that Frodo would be a part of my life forever,” he says. Yet surely erasing Frodo from our minds has been difficult?

“It's been eight years since the last Lord of the Rings movie came out. Almost nine. To me, I've been working on characters that are completely different for a long time. But I guess in terms of popular reference… a lot of people consider me to be that character predominantly,” he says. Like Mark Hamill post-Star Wars, Wood has struggled in the wake of Rings. Aside from small roles in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, there's been little of note on his CV. Plenty of voiceover work (video games, animated feature Happy Feet, the recent TRON: Uprising TV series) and lots of shorts, but for an actor who carried Jackson's first Tolkien trilogy so elegantly, it's somewhat surprising there have been few leads.

Understandably, he revisited Middle Earth more than once, voicing Frodo in a rather X-rated episode of the stop-motion comedy Robot Chicken, and last December fans glimpsed him in a brief cameo in The Hobbit, the first of Peter Jackson's three films taking on JRR Tolkien's prequel to Rings.

“It was like stepping back into time,” he says, admitting “it was strange” to be without his fellow Hobbits Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan and Sean Astin, who he got so close to on the New Zealand set of Rings."

He claims that's it for Frodo, and that we won't see him again in Jackson's next two Hobbit films.

“I've actually done my piece, which is just the beginning of the first film. But anything can happen, I suppose. It's funny – we were doing press for The Hobbit, and I was told by Warner Brothers not to say it was the last time. I don't know what that means! But I genuinely don't think there's any more place for Frodo to exist within the framework of what they created. In all likelihood I won't be going back.”

His latest film, Maniac, feels like an attempt to shake the Shire from his soul once and for all. A remake of the 1980 William Lustig film, he plays Frank, a New York loner with a mother fixation who stalks women before killing and scalping them. Violent, gory and sick, genre-hounds will love it; most others will probably be repulsed. Did he choose the role to help distance himself from the sweet natured Frodo? He says not, that he doesn't operate in such a calculated way.

“To play something this extreme, that represents such a sharp turn, is just interesting in and of itself.”

It is co-produced/written by French horror maestro Alexandre Aja (who made Switchblade Romance). Wood notes, “I don't typically love horror film remakes – or remakes at all for that matter. There are exceptions, but I think what was so interesting about this was that I knew going into it that it was going to be done in a completely different way.” Unlike the original, which starred Joe Spinell in the title role, this is shot entirely from the killer's point of view – with Wood off-camera for the most part, bar his hands and, occasionally, his reflection glimpsed in mirrors.

Criticised for its extreme sexualised violence, Lustig's 1980 version was considered highly controversial for its time (the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “without any redemption whatsoever”). This latest effort, though undeniably shocking, has been met with a series of one-star reviews (including The Independent's Anthony Quinn, who noted that “Wood is possibly desperate to reposition himself as a serious actor, but his face still screams Hobbit”). It's not Wood's first twisted role of course; in Sin City, he was the cannibalistic serial killer Kevin – though his screen time was scant. This time, he's the lead. Although his baby face looks lend a creepy edge to the character, I wonder if his agents advised him against taking such a provocative part?

“Not really, no,” he answers, without hesitation. “I think the pedigree of those involved was quite high. It was an interesting opportunity for me as an actor. I think everyone saw it for the strange little art horror movie that it was. So there wasn't any advice against doing it.”

Born and raised in Iowa, Wood developed his love for horror from the age of six. “It all started with seeing movies that I wasn't supposed to, that my brother [Zach] would rent with his friends – ones that I would get to see unbeknownst to my parents!”

One of three children, Wood's folks ran a delicatessen; when his mother Debbie started putting her son up for commercials, the decision was made to sell the family business and move to Los Angeles, so Wood could start auditioning more regularly.

While his younger sister Hannah and father Warren remained behind initially, they eventually followed on – by which point Wood had been directed by David Fincher (in Paula Abdul video Forever Your Girl) and featured in a bit-part in Back to the Future II.

His parents would eventually divorce, in 1996, as Wood – still only 15 – became regarded as one of the industry's brightest prospects. His performance alongside Kevin Costner in 1994's The War had prompted critic Roger Ebert to declare: “Elijah Wood has emerged, I believe, as the most talented actor, in his age group, in Hollywood history.”

Now 32, that proclamation seems premature for Wood – particularly when he's put up against peers like Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy. He recently admitted to one British tabloid that, after not working for two years in his late twenties, he went into a slump. “I've had things that I had to overcome, like everybody does,” he said. “I went to therapy for the first time. It was amazing. It made me learn to laugh a lot at myself, but I also learned a lot of groundbreaking things. It was like mental excavation.”

Still, you won't find him bemoaning his lot. “I've had a lot of moments worth celebrating,” he tells me, although he has yet to marry or have children. He previously dated Pamela Racine, the former member of the band Gogol Bordello (Wood starred with lead singer Eugene Hütz in Liev Schreiber's 2005 directorial debut Everything is Illuminated).

More recently, he has been spotted with American actress Kerry Bishé, with whom he's just made the Hitchock-ian thriller Grand Piano in Madrid (he plays a concert pianist terrorised by John Cusack's assassin).

Moreover, he has smartly diversified in a way few actors ever do. A mini music mogul, his indie label Simian Records signed bands like The Apples in Stereo and Heloise and the Savoir Faire. And, yes, he does DJ – just not as DJ Frodo – with a friend, Zach Cowie, under the moniker Wooden Wisdom. On the film side, his production company The Woodshed, which specialises in genre fare, has just wrapped an Iranian vampire Western shot in Farsi called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. He's also heavily involved in the LA horror festival Nightmare City, which was founded last year. So why so many fingers in pies?

“I have a lot of interests,” he shrugs, “and I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be in a place in my life where I'm able to do a lot of those things and express a lot of those interests.”

It all culminated in December 2012, he says, when he felt a wave of satisfaction wash over him. In addition to his DJing and film producing, he'd completed the second season of his TV comedy series Wilfred, in which he plays an attorney who, strangely, strikes up a relationship with his neighbour's dog (it is shown on BBC Three here, and Wood has just started shooting the third season).

Other achievements for 2012 included completing two forthcoming movies in Spain – the aforementioned Grand Piano and also Open Windows, a thriller in which the action plays out entirely on a PC, as his desk-bound techie tries to orchestrate the rescue of a kidnapped actress (ex-porn-star Sasha Grey).

“I had an incredible year doing a lot of the things I always hoped I would be doing,” he says. “And I had this moment of reflection – what an extraordinary year it'd been. That felt like a very celebratory moment.” With The Hobbit also on release, just maybe he was also able to say goodbye to Frodo.

'Maniac' is on general release.

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