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Elijah Wood - Biography

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Elijah Wood

Personal details

Name: Elijah Wood
Born: 28 January 1981 (Age: 34)
Where: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA
Height: 5' 6"
Awards: No major awards

All about this star


Surviving child-stardom is challenge enough. Usually chosen for their appeal to other kids, cinematic prodigies are so often stuck in a rut, fronting just a few teenie hits before adolescence and acne bring the hammer down on their career. It's a problem seldom overcome, yet Elijah Wood managed it. After his first (very) public appearances at the age of 8, he managed to pick a succession of roles that would keep his profile high and also allow him to become a real, grown-up actor. But then, as if avoiding becoming the next Macauley Culkin wasn't sufficiently tough, he chose to take on a part that might cement itself in the world's imagination so tightly he could never be accepted in another. Who could wear the hairy feet of Frodo Baggins and still convince in modern dramas? Surely this would be the (ho ho) hardest hobbit to break?

He was born Elijah Jordan Wood on the 28th of January, 1981, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a town of some 200,000 souls a couple of hundred miles due west of Chicago. His parents, Warren and Debbie, ran a deli in town, and were already supporting 7-year-old Zack, later a video game producer in San Diego (sister Hannah, later a poet, would arrive two years after Elijah).

Though unspeakably cute, young Elijah was a wilful child, known as Spark Plug to his benighted parents. His mother recalls a day when, at the age of only two, he locked her out of the house and proceeded to trash the kitchen as she watched helplessly through the glass in the door. Throughout his solo riot, she said, the boy was laughing, revelling in this all-too-real play-acting. Even at this tender age he was forever singing and dancing, trying to entertain, as if he were born to it.

Naturally, he took to the stage early, at 6 winning a bit part in his elementary school's adaptation of The Sound Of Music. By the next year he had graduated to the title role in The Wizard Of Oz, as well as serving as a choir boy in the Marion Creative Council production of See How They Run. Mother Debbie was not slow to notice the effect of her boy's looks and nascent talents, in 1988 enrolling him at Avant Studios, a modelling school and agency in Cedar Rapids. Immediately the endless round of auditions and studio calls would begin.

In January, 1989, just a few days before Elijah's 8th birthday, Debbie took him to Los Angeles to attend a convention held by the International Modelling And Talent Association. He was just one of 200 kids, alongside a further 300 hopefuls up to the age of 30. And, though he was simply seeking advancement in the world of modelling, his charisma and boundless energy caught the attention of one Gary Scalzo, one of the judges of Wood's monologue. Scalzo asked Debbie to bring Elijah to his office the next day, he and the boy read several scenes together, and Scalzo decided there and then to sign on as the boy's "talent manager".

No matter how highly he regarded the boy's potential, Scalzo can't have imagined the speed of his progress. With Debbie upping sticks and moving to LA (along with Zack) to give Elijah a better chance, the search for work began in earnest and, within a mere 6 months, was spectacularly successful. Aside from a brief part in Robert Zemeckis's Back To The Future Part 2, Elijah also won the main supporting role in a video by up-and-coming singer Paula Abdul. Adbul had risen to prominence as choreographer for the cheerleaders of the LA Lakers and moved on to work with the likes of Janet Jackson and INXS. Now she was being pushed as a solo star and her debut album, Forever Your Girl, promoted by such classic singles as Straight Up and Cold Hearted, was about to prove a massive success. Another single would be the title track, the video for which would see Elijah playing a pint-sized business executive. As Abdul's inventive and hi-octane videos (most of them, including Forever Your Girl, being directed by David Fincher) were her main strength, it was excellent exposure for the young wannabe.

With Elijah enrolled at St Patrick's Catholic School at Arroyo Grande (he'd see out just three grades before work pressures demanded he drop out and be schooled by one-on-one tutors), the family sold the deli in Cedar Rapids and moved en masse to LA, where Warren would work for Fed Ex and an air purification company. Another prime, if brief role was found for Elijah in Mike Figgis's superior police thriller, Internal Affairs.

At this stage it was more than likely that Elijah would go the way of Felix, the natty little dude who'd taken centre stage in a Madonna video then disappeared entirely. But Debbie Wood and Gary Scarzo were careful in their handling of him, seeking out meaty roles in lower budget productions, rather than pushing too hard too soon. The first result of their canny strategy was the lead in a TV movie called Child In The Night. This saw Elijah as a young kid who has seen his father murdered with a cargo hook and, quite naturally under the circumstances, locked the ugly memory in the darkest recesses of his mind. Thus child psychologist JoBeth Williams is called in the discover the truth, attempting to clarify the boy's visions where he sees himself as Peter Pan and the mystery killer as Captain Hook.

And then, with Wood still not even 10, it got even better when he won the role of Michael Kaye in Barry Levinson's Avalon. Levinson was then riding high after Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man, but had decided to step away from the front-line for a while to concentrate on a semi-autobiographical tale set, as was his breakthrough Diner, in Baltimore. The movie would cover several decades in the lives of Russian-Jewish immigrants as they deal with the changing nature of society and their own family, the traditional view being that of patriarch Armin Mueller-Stahl and the contemporary that of his grandson Elijah (playing Levinson himself), taken to live in the suburbs by parents Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins and now a modern little American. Wood delivered a surprisingly mature performance, revealing all the frustration and naivety of youth, and was duly nominated for a Young Artist award for his efforts here and in Child In The Night.

Having thus averted the Felix scenario, Elijah moved on to Paradise, a remake of French movie Le Grand Chemin. This saw Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson (then married in real-life) as a Delta couple on the verge of splitting after the tragic death of their child. Luckily, a friend of Griffith is pregnant and under pressure and sends her son (Elijah) to stay, his presence not only drawing Griffith and Johnson back together, but also helping local kid Thora Birch (making her debut) through her parents difficulties, as well as bringing revelations to several other needy townsfolk. It was charming stuff, with Wood and Birch particularly effective in their relationship - Wood being nominated for a Young Artist award yet again.

If it had been going well so far, 1992 saw Elijah really push ahead, appearing in no fewer than four productions. First came Radio Flyer, directed by Richard "Superman" Donner. Set in 1969, this saw mother Lorraine Bracco divorce and take her two sons (one being Elijah) to California. Unfortunately, rather than embarking on a bright new start, she hooks up with drunken bully Adam Baldwin, who demands to be called The King and beats up Elijah's little brother. Afraid to discuss this dreadful situation, the kids instead decide to build a flying machine out of a toy wagon so the persecuted sibling can soar to safety. Though the child abuse angle was weakly handled, the movie was appealing in its depiction of the children together, and Elijah at last snapped up that elusive Young Artist award. He also became something of a pre-teen idol - a dangerous place to be.

He moved on to Day-O, a well-received TV movie where Delta Burke played Grace, a woman who has long suffered her father's failure to show her any love. Now desperate, she is re-visited by Elijah, playing the imaginary friend who comforted her in her youth. It was an excellent part for Wood, whose precocious intelligence allowed him to easily play a character wise beyond his years. It could even have been viewed as a step backwards when he became a mere kid again when appearing alongside Mel Gibson in Forever Young. Here Gibson played a pilot in the 1930s who loses the love of his life and allows cryogenics pioneer George Wendt to use him as a guinea pig. Somehow, he's forgotten about and only awoken 50 years later by young Elijah - Gibson gradually rediscovering love by teaching Wood to fly an old Air Force bomber and getting it on with his mum, Jamie Lee Curtis. Much like Radio Flyer and Paradise, it was a fair effort to portray kids and their wild imaginings.

Very different was The Witness, a short by Chris Gerolmo, which saw Gary Sinise as a WW2 soldier helping transport Jews to their deaths. Elijah would play a young prisoner who accusingly watches Sinise at work, so disturbing the man that he is driven towards action and eventual tragedy.

For most, such a year would be a peak. For Elijah Wood it was just a start. The next year brought another raft of plaudits when he took the lead in a new adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, directed by Stephen Sommers, later to hit pay-dirt with The Mummy. Travelling down the Mississippi, taking on desperate criminals and comedy con-men Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane, while learning tolerance and wisdom from his runaway slave companion, he was once again wholly convincing, far more than a mere child star.

One reason for this was the smart guidance he'd received from Gary Scalzo and from Debbie, who'd taken over as his manager after 3 years in Los Angeles. Having never placed him in a film aimed wholly at children, they'd ensured he would overcome his teenie-star status and not suffer from a short shelf-life, and the success of this was brought into sharp relief when he now joined the cast of The Good Son, playing opposite Macauley Culkin. Culkin was now on the wane and, in a final bid to lend him depth (and thus prolong his career), the infamous Culkin family were using all their power to re-cast him as a super-villain - much to the chagrin of the movie's writer Ian McEwan. The Good Son saw Elijah as a kid who's sent by his recently widowered dad to stay with relatives on an island in Maine. Enter Culkin as cousin Henry, a satanic beast of a child who kills dogs, causes car crashes and may well be on a mission to terminate his entire family. Wood finds all this out the hard way but cannot share his knowledge because, well, who's going to believe Macauley Culkin is a psycho killer? Indeed, this was the movie's problem. In turning The Good Son into Home Alone with real death, the Culkins alienated Macauley's youth audience and failed to find a replacement.

So, while Culkin continued his fall from grace, Wood slipped past him. Not that he didn't have trials of his own, for his next picture was a major bomb. North saw him as a disgruntled kid who, tired of being ignored by his work-obsessed parents, takes them to court in order to "divorce" them, the resultant publicity leading to offers of a new home and parents from all over the globe. He tries out new families in Texas, Hawaii and Alaska, meeting the likes of Dan Aykroyd and Kathy Bates, with Bruce Willis (in a bunny suit!) tagging along as both guardian angel and narrator. Sounds horrible, doesn't it? And it was, slushy and smug, a dreadful loss of form from director Rob Reiner.

Yet somehow, possibly due to his youth, Elijah avoided the brickbats and moved on to The War, a critical success set in Mississippi in 1972. Here Kevin Costner played a Vietnam vet now horrified by confrontation of any kind who's having trouble with the neighbours but, true to his new-found beliefs, is trying to avoid a fight. The neighbours' kids, though, are not so peaceable and attempt a take-over of a tree-house built by Costner's son (Elijah) and daughter. Can Costner persuade Wood not to fight for his rights? Will the movie bring about an end to conflict in all its guises? It certainly gives it a go, leading many to call it over-preachy. Yet Elijah was now receiving some serious attention, being named by critic Robert Ebert as the most talented actor of his generation. His face was very well known, too. Aside from the film roles, January 1994 had seen him appear alongside ex-Vice President Dan Quayle and Troy Aikman in an advert for Wavy Lays screened during the Superbowl.

But it wasn't all rosy. Wood had occasionally suffered great difficulties during his brief career. During the filming of Forever Young he'd endured a major crisis of confidence when required to ad-lib entire scenes. He'd also spent a period of intense loneliness, agonising over the decision to skip High School altogether and thus miss out on an ordinary youth. Come 1996 and there was more turmoil when his parents finally divorced, Warren returning to Cedar Rapids. From now on he would have very little contact with his father. In interviews he would accuse him of always being emotionally unavailable, his words often backed by what appeared to be a deep resentment.

1996 brought Flipper, a remake of the 1963 hit, where Wood played a sullen Chicago youth sent to Florida after his parents' divorce. Here he stays with salty old uncle Paul Hogan, befriends the dolphin of the title and, together, all three battle against the swine who's dumping toxic waste into the sea. It was good, cheery fun, unlike his following project, The Ice Storm. Directed by Ang Lee, this was a Seventies-set drama where middle-class families, adults and children alike, are trying to escape their existential angst by experimenting with drugs, drink and sex. Kevin Kline's having an affair with Sigourney Weaver, while her son (Elijah), a precocious dope-smoker, is getting it on his daughter, Christina Ricci. It was dark stuff, brilliant but wholly depressing. And it taught Wood a new way of working. Before turning up for the shoot, he received a 300-page info-pack about the Seventies, which included a questionnaire on his character's views. Much time was spent discussing and rehearsing with Lee, Ricci and his co-stars - a very new and profitable experience.

From this bleak exercise, he moved on to far lighter fare with a new adaptation of Oliver Twist, playing the Artful Dodger to Richard Dreyfuss's unusually loveable Fagin. And there was more fun and games in high-budget disaster flick Deep Impact which, despite its weighty subject matter (the world is threatened by a comet the size of Everest), was pretty silly stuff. The movie suffered in relation to its rival Armageddon, but again Elijah, as a High School kid who first spots the comet while out with the Astronomy Club, came through unscathed.

Performing far better was The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez's High School horror-fest and Wood's only venture into the teen market. This involved a gang of disparate children - Elijah being known to his peers as "that geeky Stephen King kid" - who are drawn together in a battle against aliens who have body-snatched all the teachers, including Robert Patrick and Bebe Neuwirth. It was a cross between The Breakfast Club and The Thing, and proved a big success, making up somewhat for Wood's disappointment in missing out on leads in Rushmore and Pleasantville. Interestingly, Wood was often mistaken for Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville's eventual star.

It was while filming The Faculty that Elijah heard of auditions taking place for Peter Jackson's mega-adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. Recognising the movie's potential, and the advantage his looks, height and experience might give him, he got hold of a hobbit costume and went off into the Hollywood Hills to enact a few scenes, filmed by his friend George Huang, director of Swimming With Sharks. The resulting tape was carefully edited, sent to the relevant Los Angeles casting agents and passed on to Jackson in New Zealand. Within months, the part of Frodo Baggins was his. The movie would dominate his life for the next four years. After spending 18 months in New Zealand on the original shoot, he would then be required for much re-shooting and many promotional trips as the ludicrously successful trilogy was put together and released over consecutive Christmases.

Before he began, though, there was time for three independent productions, none of which would garner a widespread release. James Toback's drama-documentary Black And White showed the interplay between street kids and the middle classes in Manhattan while recounting a tale of bribery, blackmail and murder, Wood playing a hip-hop wannabe indulging in drugs and sex alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Mike Tyson, Claudia Schiffer and the Wu-Tang Clan. Then came The Bumblebee Flies Anyway where he was a (possible) amnesiac undergoing experimental therapy in a last-gasp hospital for terminally ill kids. Following this was the violent comedy Chain Of Fools, a Pulp Fiction-style multi-storied piece, featuring Jeff Goldblum, Tom Wilkinson and Elijah's Faculty co-star Salma Hayek, with Wood himself appearing as a teenage hit-man.

After the initial burst of Lord Of The Rings fever, Elijah returned from Middle Earth to seek out roles that would dispel any thoughts that he was the new Mark Hamill, just Luke Skywalker with big hairy feet. He took on Edward Burns' Ash Wednesday, playing a New York-Irish youngster who kills some Italian mobsters threatening his criminal brother (Burns). Shipped off to hide in Texas, he returns after three years to find Burns with his own sweet-heart and the Italians still keen to do the dirty on him. Chaos, naturally, ensues.

Some critics found Wood too clean-cut, still too young for such a gritty drama. There would be no such complaints about All I Want (originally titled Try Seventeen) which saw him as a student and wannabe writer who drops out to experience life and indulge his fantasies by renting an apartment in a block packed with oddballs. Elizabeth Perkins would appear as his mum for the second time (after Avalon), this time very, very drunk. Mandy Moore would be an aspiring actress, Deborah Harry a lusty furniture retailer and Franka Potente a photographer with a serious attitude. The movie was certainly fun, but a tad too wacky for its own good and only given a limited release. Wood, though, did enjoy a year-long relationship with his co-star Potente, seven years his senior.

Of course, at this time Elijah's profile could not be harmed by release schedules. The Two Towers and The Return Of The King, following Frodo's tortured progress towards the Cracks of Doom, were monumental hits, a cinematic phenomenon. He hardly needed the kudos he received from a hilarious 2-minute Frodo-spoof he performed when reuniting with Robert Rodriguez for Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. He was amongst the biggest stars in the world.

Yet still he faced that old problem, and that new one. Though he'd always been a child actor, as opposed to a child star, could he now move successfully into adult roles? And, given the enormous scope of The Lord Of The Rings, could he separate himself from Frodo Baggins? He began to solve both with Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Here Jim Carrey discovers ex-lover Kate Winslet has had all memory of him removed by some ingenious new process and decides to undergo the same treatment. Halfway through, though, he rediscovers his love for her and tries to reverse the operation - something doctor Tom Wilkinson and tech-supporters Elijah and Kirsten Dunst cannot allow.

Next would come his first genuinely tough lead, in The Yank, formerly known as Hooligans. Here he would play an expelled Harvard student who, while in London, is introduced to the brutish underworld of British football violence. It would be a major step into the unknown, a real risk. And perhaps the best way possible to both grow up fast and kick Frodo into touch.

Dominic Wills

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