DCSIMG

Interview: Elijah Wood: ‘Never meet your idols’

Starry eyed, Elijah Wood stars in Set Fire To The Stars as John Malcolm Brinnin, the Canadian who brought Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to the United States. Picture: Getty Images

Starry eyed, Elijah Wood stars in Set Fire To The Stars as John Malcolm Brinnin, the Canadian who brought Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to the United States. Picture: Getty Images

  • by Siobhan Synnot
 

‘IT’S a cautionary tale,” says Elijah Wood, “in the sense that you shouldn’t meet your idols because they may not be what you expect, and they will probably disappoint you.” He’s talking about Set Fire To The Stars, a new movie about Dylan Thomas which receives its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, but Wood is also an actor who dodges expectations.

‘IT’S a cautionary tale,” says Elijah Wood, “in the sense that you shouldn’t meet your idols because they may not be what you expect, and they will probably disappoint you.” He’s talking about Set Fire To The Stars, a new movie about Dylan Thomas which receives its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, but Wood is also an actor who dodges expectations.

Since starring as Frodo Baggins in Lord Of The Rings, he has been less Hollywood, more Milk Wood. Instead of filling his dance card with special effects blockbusters, his body of work since the Rings trilogy largely comprises small, tightly budgeted arthouse features.

Now a boyish 33, Wood has been executing these 180-degree turns most of his life. When he began acting, aged seven, he was fast-tracked as the cerulean-eyed child star of family films such as Flipper, Huck Finn and North. Fifteen years later he was using his baby blues to creepier effect as a manga-eyed cannibal in Sin City, a rapist in Pawn Shop Chronicles and more recently as a scalp-collecting serial killer in Maniac, which was banned in New Zealand.

“It’s certainly ironic and kind of funny,” Woods says of the ban. “For that country to ban the movie, I found kind of humorous.”

New Zealand, of course, is where he spent four years of his life filming with Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen, Billy Boyd and Orlando Bloom. “I was there when I was 18 and left when I was 22, and there will never be an experience quite like it in my life. I made some of the best friends of my life there. I kind of grew into being a man.”

Famously, Wood didn’t read Lord Of The Rings until after he’d completed the film, and he admits that before Set Fire To The Stars, “I didn’t know anything about Dylan Thomas really, and I hadn’t read any of his work. I was familiar with him as a literary figure, but beyond that I didn’t know anything about him.”

It was the script, by Downton Abbey director Andy Goddard and Welsh actor Celyn Jones, which caught his interest: “It had incredible characters, and in particular the relationship between John and Dylan in the script was something that I fell in love with.”

Stars focuses on the fractious relationship between the poet (Celyn Jones) and his Canadian-born agent John Malcolm Brinnin (Wood), a young poet who was also the director of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association Poetry Centre in New York.

Brinnin so admired Thomas’s work that he helped bring Thomas to the United States for a reading tour. It made Thomas famous, enabled him to send money home to his wife Caitlin, and sealed his reputation as a drunken, eccentric, bohemian literary lion. It is said he made a pass at Marilyn Monroe at a Hollywood party hosted by Charlie Chaplin, and was then asked to leave by Chaplin himself, after the poet used a pot plant as a makeshift toilet. Brinnin wrote an account of their relationship in 1955, which detailed travails including whiskey, onstage breakdowns, bursts of obscenities and fights.

A meeting with Goddard to discuss what wasn’t on the page further excited Wood: “He told me that he wanted to shoot it in black and white, and get Gruff Rhys to do the music. It was clear his vision of the movies was very different from a standard kind of approach. Then we talked about the kind of movies it referenced, and when Andy said ‘Withnail And I’, that was when I went ‘OK!’ I’m a huge fan of Withnail And I, so I was thrilled.”

In January, Texas-based Wood flew into Swansea and spent four days holed up in a hotel for rehearsals with Jones, Sherlock Holmes star Kelly Reilly and Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, followed by a tight 18-day shoot around the city, with Swansea Bay Studios recreating a wintry 1950s New York.

The schedule barely left Wood time to do the traditional Dylan Thomas trail, but he did manage to make the pilgrimage to the Boathouse, Dylan’s last home at Laugharne, where he wrote some of Under Milk Wood.

Finding touchstones for his character of John Malcolm Brinnin was a challenge, he admits. Although he was a friend of the likes of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein, and published six volumes of his own poetry, Brinnin himself kept a low public profile which was reflected in his “enigmatic” obituaries when he died in 1998. His book on Thomas, however, vividly outlines the exasperation and affection of his relationship with Thomas.

“For John, Dylan Thomas was the pinnacle of poetry. Then, when he met him, Thomas was far more complicated than he wanted him to be. We’ve all met people who are not quite what we wanted them to be,” Wood observes drily.

Often odd on screen, but normal off, like Brinnin, Wood can be a little introverted, unless you hit on one of his passions. Music is one – Scots group Sons and Daughters got a huge boost when he publicly declared his admiration a few years ago, and his current recommendations include Goat and Boards of Canada. Horror is another of course. Since covertly watching his first X-rated picture at the age of five, Wood has become a true horrorphile, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of scary movies, and his own fledgling horror production company. Does he ever get disturbed by a late-night preview of a picture? He grins: “I’ve always been pretty fearless. They don’t really scare me.” And off he ambles, into the good night.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

Set Fire To The Stars is at Cineworld, Edinburgh, on 23 June and the Odeon, Edinburgh, on 24 June as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, www.edfilmfest.org.uk. Elijah Wood will discuss his career at the Royal Lyceum on 25 June

 

Comments

 
 

Back to the top of the page

 

X scottish independence image

Keep up-to-date with all the latest Referendum news