We're in the non-smoking Four Seasons Hotel, in the non-smoking city of Los Angeles, in the smoke-free nation of the US of A, and Elijah Wood is puffing on a funny-smelling cigarette. "These are infused with cloves, so they're sweeter," says naughty little Elijah, in explanation, if not exactly as an apology. A healthy smoking option, then? "No - they burn hotter, so they're worse for your lungs. But they do have less nicotine."
Wood was turned on to clove ciggies by Josh Hartnett six years ago, while the two were shooting The Faculty, and now admits to a 30-a-day habit. But he still looks way too young to be smoking. Until very recently, he lived with his mother and, at 23, remains a teen-zine pin-up and "style icon". Today, courteous and formal in his crisply ironed striped shirt, he seems like a schoolboy all togged up in his Sunday best for his first job interview. Clinging precariously to his chin is the slightly absurd little goatee he sports in the film he's promoting, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. "I can't grow all that much facial hair, so it's futile really," sighs the actor formerly known as the furry-footed Frodo Baggins.
Wood has had to make some nifty moves to keep his career burning. First, he has had to navigate the rocky passage from child star (in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Good Son, opposite the more ill-starred Macaulay Culkin) to proper, grown-up roles. And now, fresh from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he has to show he can survive a leading part in a blockbuster franchise.
He's all too aware of the flame-out which awaited Mark Hamill after Star Wars. Unlike Hamill, Wood possesses the advantage of a versatile acting talent, seen to its best advantage in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, which gave Wood a couple of wonderfully embarrassing sex scenes and a memorable death by overhead electric cable.
Eternal Sunshine stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as warring lovers who have their memories of each other excised: Wood plays one of the geeky technicians who performs the procedure. He has difficulty getting girls and seduces Winslet by applying experiences he sees while washing Carrey's brain. "The movie is about accepting what comes along with being in love," he says. "It's completely different from Lord of the Rings and for it to be released so soon after is really perfect for me.
"I would probably have agreed to do it even without reading the script, because I'm such a huge fan of Charlie Kaufman. He's one of the few writers who continually comes up with original and interesting ideas. In Hollywood these days there seem to be so many sequels and remakes and so few people taking chances. Everything has to fit in a box." Wood also admires music videos by Eternal Sunshine director, Michel Gondry, such as for the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground".
Avoiding a party lifestyle, he has somehow managed to keep himself out of the tabloids, and must be one of the best-adjusted ex-child stars in the business. Or possibly he's just in denial. His clear, wide-set, dark blue eyes slip gently out of focus when he's asked about his father, who left the family when Elijah was 15 and has been out of contact pretty much ever since. There's a tremendous sense of mystery about the actor, a quality which he has often used to good advantage in his performances.
He has been vaguely linked to various names, including the German actress Franka Potente, seven years his senior, a relationship which he now strenuously denies. Has he ever been in love? "Sure." And had his heart broken? Woods unzips his wide, beatific, enigmatic smile. "I have. Yeah. Once, in that typical heart-dashed-on-the-rocks kind of way. But I always think everything happens for a reason even though at the moment you may not feel it. When you have some perspective on it, you can go, 'Oh maybe it's for the best.'
"I easily fall in love with women," he continues, warming to the theme. "I just love them. I'm so enamoured with... women. They're beautiful and amazing and altogether feminine." He pauses, momentarily lost for words. "Women are wonderful."
Wood's next project is hardly a love story: a British film, variously known as The Yank and Hooligans. He plays a clean-cut Harvard undergraduate mixed up in football violence. "Football's a skilled game and fascinating to watch, even though Americans sometimes get tired of it because you can get a whole game without scoring."But he'll next be seen in a supporting role in Sin City, based on Frank Miller's stylised comic novel. After that, he'll be the voice of a singing, dancing penguin, opposite Robin Williams, in a cartoon called Happy Feet.
A commanding romantic leading role is still beyond Wood's reach - possibly, given his height, in the most literal sense. But the chances are fair that there will be life for him after Frodo. Meanwhile he retains his shiny, happy, thoroughly impenetrable veneer of optimism. "I don't have a sense of missing Frodo because I feel like that series has come to its natural end for all of us. After four years of being involved with it, and though it was such a brilliant experience, we're ready to move on with our lives. Not continually to be associated with that one thing forever."
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