There is no actor like Elijah Wood — and that’s a good thing. January 28th marks the actor’s 40th birthday, an incredible milestone for Wood as an individual but a surprising reminder of just how young he is despite being a popular film and television star for so many years. In fact, a quick scan of Wood’s IMDb shows that Wood has been an actor for the majority of his life. His first roles were in a Paul Abdul music video for “Forever Your Girl” and Back to the Future Part II, both happening in 1989. From there, Wood’s star was on the rise as he became one of the most intriguing performers of his generation. Over the course of a 30-plus-year career, Wood has proven himself to be a surprising actor, one who can play against type as much as he plays into it, appearing in a variety of movies spanning genres in roles that require the deployment of different skills from his impressive actor’s toolbox.
Here, we take a look at Wood’s career through four definitive performances that showcase just how skilled he is and how chameleonic he can be as an actor. I’ve selected four roles to single out one stellar performance for every decade Wood has been alive, with each role generally from every decade he’s been working. (Technically, there are two roles from the ’90s but, as you’ll see this decade in Wood’s career is clearly split between child actor and teen star.)
These four roles are examples of what makes Wood such a star and consistently watchable actor. They also highlight four distinct periods in his career which make the case for said career’s longevity. In short, Elijah Wood is great and has always been great, and here’s why.
The Good Son — A Child Star Is Born
By the time Wood starred opposite Macaulay Culkin in 1993’s The Good Son, both young actors had respectively racked up a fair amount of onscreen work. Culkin was definitely the bigger star by this point, with Uncle Buck, My Girl, and two Home Alone movies floating him to the top of the child star pack in the early ’90s. But Wood was doing more than decently by 1993, too. He’d appeared in Richard Gere-starrer Internal Affairs, played the son to Aidan Quinn in Avalon, worked with Mel Gibson and Jamie Lee Curtis in Forever Young, and delivered an arresting performance in Radio Flyer.
It’s The Good Son where Wood gets to stake his claim as one of his generation’s best actors — a bold claim to put on the shoulders of a child actor, I know. The film follows Mark (Wood), a boy whose parents die and who is sent to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin Henry (Culkin). Mark comes to find out Henry is a sociopath capable of creating terror wherever he goes. Mark soon makes it his mission to prove Henry is a threat, something Henry tries to dispel at every turn.
The Good Son is the kind of taut psychological thriller you’d expect to focus on the adults of the story rather than the children. With Wood and Culkin at the center of the story, these two young actors (at the time) were able to push and stretch themselves into newer, more complex terrain than, arguably, had been asked of them up to that point in their careers. In The Good Son, Wood is able to demonstrate that he can grasp how to play a character with psychological complexity and play it believably. It’s rare for a child actor to bring that kind of maturity to a role. As such, The Good Son proves that Wood was already staking his claim as a performer of note and one who had the skills to play a wide range of emotions in a variety of characters, with this particular movie being the culmination of this idea by this point in his career.
The Ice Storm — An Actor Matures
Wood was able to make the jump from child star to young adult star, smoothly transitioning into roles that allowed him to push the boundaries through the late ’90s and early ’00s. This is not an easy transition to make, either. Making this big of a career move, which is effectively a rebrand if you think about it, is one many young actors cannot make stick. For Wood, this was not the case. As the first decade of his career — which spans the entirety of the ’90s — proves, Wood has the skills and the knack for landing roles that have helped him put his child star image in the past and make the case for audiences enjoying him in more adult roles.
Ang Lee‘s 1997 drama The Ice Storm is a harbinger of what’s to come for Wood. As Mikey Carver, Wood shines in this ensemble piece centered around two families steeped in life-changing suburban drama. Although Wood’s role is more of a plot device than a true blue character, he is able to bring a soulfulness to his performance which makes it far more memorable than it needs to be. In this way, Wood makes it known to us, even if it’s subconsciously, that he can shine even in a supporting role. For him, the size of the part doesn’t matter so long as he gets the chance to make that part monumental. This ability of Wood’s contributes to the longevity of his career. Time and time again, Wood will pop up as a supporting star in movies including The Faculty, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sin City, Bobby, and Celeste and Jesse Forever where he may not be the name on the marquee, but he makes damn sure you notice him when he’s onscreen.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — A Box Office Big-Timer
We can’t talk about Wood’s career without addressing the Oliphaunt in the room: The Lord of the Rings trilogy. To this day (and likely for the rest of time), Wood’s performance as Frodo Baggins will be one of the first — if not the first — roles you associate him with. Playing Frodo was both a major turning point in Wood’s career and had a major impact on said career. The Lord of the Rings trilogy carries immense importance when considering who Wood is as an actor primarily because it’s the peak of his time as a major box office draw (this is not to say that he isn’t a draw today, by the way) and proof he can thrive in a big studio environment.
It would be easy to lump all three Lord of the Rings movies together and argue they’re a singularly definitive role. But, having recently rewatched all three movies like the faithful fan that I am, it was clear to me that Wood’s performance in Return of the King is his finest performance in any of the three movies. Fellowship of the Ring sees Wood’s Frodo mostly lumped in with the rest of the group setting off to Mordor to destroy the Ring, so it’s hard to get a true grasp despite the breadcrumbs dropped to indicate the singular responsibility Frodo feels with his part in the mission. The Two Towers, meanwhile, sees Frodo and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) split off from the group but Frodo is mostly inert; this is Sam’s time to shine as Frodo’s support system. By the time we get to Return of the King, it’s Frodo’s turn to showcase the effects of what has culminated into the most physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing journey this character has ever made. In the best way possible, everything about the journey Frodo has been and the process of making this movie trilogy reads in Wood’s performance. The physicality of Frodo’s fatigue reads loud and clear, as does the mental anguish this hobbit grapples with after spending so much time evading the evil allure of the Ring. Wood conveys all of this through a combination of brief glances, small gestures, and careful line delivery. It’s easy for an actor to go big at this point in a character’s journey, but making the smallest moments read loud and clear in a movie of this scale is a credit to who Wood is as a performer by this point.
Wilfred — Where Weirdness Pays Off
In classic Aquarius fashion, Wood has never shied away from getting weird. The most recent decade or so has seen Wood move away from rote dramas or predictable indies to stretching his legs with roles that are unexpected. These are stories you definitely would not expect to see Wood — who still has something of an earnest and boyish quality to his appearance — to appear in. Wood began to move into more offbeat territory around 2006 when he started popping up as a Robot Chicken regular. However, it feels like his FX comedy Wilfred really kicked things into high gear and allowed Wood to get enjoyably weird with it.
Debuting on FX in June 2011, Wilfred was a U.S. remake of the Australian comedy series of the same name created by and co-starring Jason Gann (also behind the Aussie original). Wilfred follows Ryan Newman (Wood), a deeply depressed Los Angeles resident who suddenly finds a companion in Wilfred (Gann), a dog owned by Ryan’s gorgeous neighbor. While Wilfred appears in dog form to everyone else, Ryan sees Wilfred as a man in a dog suit, a surreal twist that allows man and animal to bond in a wholly unique way. Wilfred is a big turning point for Wood’s career in a few ways. First, playing Ryan — a man who sees an anthropomorphized dog where others do not — lets Wood move into some deeply silly places with his performance. He and Gann have great chemistry as opposites who attract to one another. Wood has played versions of a pushover sad boy in the past but never a character with this unique relationship to another character that leads the two into some weird places (e.g. seeing a man and a dog smoke weed regularly and casually as if they’re frat house bros).
Secondly, Wilfred ushers in more long-term runs on various TV shows for Wood and marks the beginning of a period where Wood appears in darker, twistier fare that allows him to play against type. Previously, Wood had popped up for one or two episodes on TV shows including King of the Hill and Frasier. But the one-two punch of Robot Chicken and Wilfred kicks off roles for Wood on TRON: Uprising, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Summer Camp Island, and Star Wars Resistance. In this way, Wood has been able to keep his acting sharp while moving into new territory (the far-reaching realm of television) with new projects that surprise and delight. And without Wilfred, which proves he doesn’t have to just play a straight nice-guy, who knows if we’d get to see him in more genre-driven treats like Maniac, Grand Piano, or even Cooties.
The story sounds not entirely dissimilar from the plot of ‘Ghost Ship’
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