At The Center Of The 'Ring'

Just 22, ELIJAH WOOD succeeds at evincing the emotional stress that comes to Frodo, his maturing 'Ring' character.

December 23, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

NEW YORK - Thirty-five years ago, the graffito "Frodo Lives!" was as ubiquitous on college campuses as "Kilroy was here!" used to be on Army bases. Today, Elijah Wood has made "Frodo Lives!" for new generations of J.R.R. Tolkien fans - and he's done it without minimizing the character's heroic complexity.

In a Manhattan hotel room a week ago, he eloquently dismissed the too-hip-to-live rap against The Lord of the Rings trilogy - the one that calls it a spectacle of epic simplicity about pure good vs. impure evil. "All the characters in Tolkien's novels doubt themselves or wrestle with demons all the time," he told me. "That's the human element in the books and movies, and that's what makes them connect with audiences and readers."

Contrary to their leprechaunish reputation, it isn't easy being a halfling when the weight of your known universe bears down on your furry feet. It's even harder to act Frodo, especially in the trilogy's final chapter, The Return of the King, when the nonstop presence of the Ruling Ring and Frodo's prolonged quest to destroy it have begun to shred his own personality. The Ring promises omnipotence and gradually strips its Ring-bearer of human emotions. Yet Wood found the challenge of acting that mutation elating. "What was so exciting about the project was going through that internal journey - playing a character who starts out in an innocent place, and taking him to a very dark place where he almost shatters."

A few minutes later, Wood adds: "If you understand the human condition, if you understand where a character is coming from and where he's going, and try to embody that as best as you can, you just grab hold of that burden and make it come to life."

What makes the climax of The Return of the King as moving as it is turbulent is the amalgam of figures from various races and species fighting for survival with honor, often out of friendship. Actors of several nationalities and styles echoed this fraternity when they united to form the trilogy's Fellowship of the Ring. Wood uses as an example Ian McKellen, the British stage legend who plays the wizard Gandalf: "For years and years and years he's been esteemed for doing wonderful things in the theater. But he didn't embody Gandalf from an overly stage presence or perspective - that might have alienated him from the rest of the movie process. Of course, Ian has his own way of inhabiting a character. There'd be days when I'd be working with him and I'd be pinching myself, because I felt I was sitting next to Gandalf."

The Holy Cross College theater and film professor Steve Vineberg, who wrote the groundbreaking book Method Actors, puts Wood's accomplishment right up there with McKellen's. As Vineberg said in a recent interview, "Elijah Wood does one of the most difficult things I've ever seen an actor do: sustain the sense of a burden that's eating up a character while he's struggling to maintain his humanity."

The focal point

Quote that statement back to Wood and he comes up with an unselfconscious "Wow." Not yet 23 (his birthday comes in January), Wood has been the focal point of the most popular and acclaimed trilogy in movie history - what the Godfather and Star Wars movies might have been if each Part III hadn't proved a letdown. But he looks back on a three-part movie that took him from age 18, when production began, to 22, when he did his last "pick-up shot," as profound, exhilarating fun. "Part of it was being in New Zealand," he says. "Part of it was the friends all of the actors made. We were called upon to give so much of ourselves that it was a very growing, maturing experience."

Unlike Frodo, who battles with his own possessiveness over the Ring, Wood seems both worldly and unspoiled. During a photo shoot he banters merrily with a hair-fluffer and a publicist about more obscure movies in his portfolio, like that 1992 attempt to make an uplifting film about child abuse, Radio Flyer, and the 1996 big-screen Flipper ("Hey, I got to swim with dolphins for weeks!"). When he talks about The Lord of the Rings, his conviction is complete.

Wood is alight with pride for embodying a pint-sized protagonist who goes from green naivete to moral shades of gray. Still, as soon as Wood senses himself giving into hubris about playing "the spiritual guy" amid more battle-oriented hobbits, elves, men and dwarves, he corrects himself. "None of us is playing an archetype or cliche. We're all playing characters who are flawed. That's what's fascinating about Viggo Mortensen's character. Yes, Aragorn is a warrior; yes he's strong and heroic. But he's reluctant to be the king he knows he has to be, and it's because of his fear of his weakness as a man."

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