NEW YORK – When it came to auditioning for the biggest and riskiest role of his young career, Elijah Wood just mailed it in.
That's not to say the 20-year-old actor took it lightly. To win the lead part of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings — the $300 million, three-movie production that would take 16 months to film — Wood refused to just saunter into the casting agent's office.
Instead, he put on a puffy shirt and some goofy suspenders, adopted an English accent and went off into the California woods to videotape himself as a hobbit. George Huang, a buddy and director of Swimming with Sharks, filmed the audition and they edited it together.
"I wanted to be noticed," says Wood, who would have done "anything to get the role."
Now, with most of the movie trilogy filmed, the actor known for his arty turn in The Ice Storm finds himself leading an international juggernaut. With bemusement he sees his likeness splashed across bus shelters, billboards and a set of Burger King collectible cups.
"Isn't it weird?" he asks. "I never thought I'd be a part of anything this commercial."
During an interview to promote the first film, Wood shrugs at the notion that the stakes have suddenly gotten quite high. As Frodo, the hobbit whose journey is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, the actor must shoulder both the story and the movie franchise.
"You can assume that if it does well, it's going to be popular in some way shape or form for the rest of my life. That's a staggering thought. I'll always be associated with it," he says.
"However, if I maintain a career that has nothing to do with it and I can do things that are successful in their own right aside from Lord of the Rings, then it can be nothing but one part" of a healthy livelihood.
Fellow hobbit and friend Sean Astin isn't worried about Wood handling the pressure. The two bonded during the arduous filming in New Zealand, over a year of lacing up prosthetic hobbit feet and gluing on itchy ears.
"He can't fail — just look at his body of work," says Astin. "Should he be concerned if the film doesn't perform? It is Elijah's doe-eyes on the buses that go by. But he's got more confidence and more comfort in his own skin than anyone I've ever met. Do what you will to try to knock the guy off center, he's just not going to go."
Partly that's because Wood has been around the block. Since making his debut in Richard Gere's 1990 thriller Internal Affairs, Wood has appeared in Avalon, Paradise, Flipper, Forever Young, Radio Flyer, The War, Deep Impact and The Faculty.
"I'm really blessed to have had a career before Lord of the Rings," Wood says. "People already knew who I was to a certain degree — not huge, but they knew, so it wasn't this debut thing. Like, Mark Hamill in Star Wars — he'd never done anything else before so there was nothing else to counteract" that role.
"I'm lucky. I'm 20. It's still the beginning," says Wood.
When the actor's homemade audition tape landed on the desk of director Peter Jackson, the moviemaker tasked with capturing J.R.R. Tolkien's epic vision knew right away that he'd found his leading hobbit. Few candidates had gone to as much trouble to prove their interest.
Wood's already elfish features certainly didn't hurt his chances. His wide-set eyes, translucent skin, fine features and tiny nose — not to mention his smallish stature — lend him an ethereal, expressive quality.
"His eyes are a window to his soul," says actress Liv Tyler, who plays the Elf princess Arwen. "He has big blue eyes and they're so powerful. He's so good at showing emotion effortlessly. I feel when I watch the film that it always comes back to him, no matter where you go."
Wood squirms. "I don't want to take all the credit as if I'm the only person who could play the character, which I'm not. But certainly physically, there are quite a lot of parallels in the way that Frodo's described, which I find interesting," he says.
Another parallel that developed while filming was the closeness forged among the actors playing Tolkien's nine-member fellowship. Along with Wood and Astin, they are Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan and Sean Bean.
"The fellowship became a reality," Wood says. "We made some of the best friends of our lives. We went through ups and downs together as a single unit. I learned how to surf — we all learned how to surf. We took vacations together. It was so special and profound."
The nine actors were known to rally together to lobby for certain aspects of the production. "This is not just a film, not for anyone involved. It was life for us," says Wood.
As if to prove that point, all nine got the No. 9 in Elvish — which looks a bit like two curly m's — tattooed on their bodies. "We're going to be intrinsically linked for the rest of our lives anyway," says Wood. "It made it permanent."
That bond and the months spent in rural New Zealand made returning to America and resuming his career feel odd. Wood has already completed his next project — Ed Burns' Ash Wednesday — for which he worked only eight days and was in the makeup chair for only a few minutes.
"Coming back, I didn't really have a grasp on what my life meant any more. Because my life was The Lord of the Rings. It was as much a filmic experience as it was a life experience and vice versa," he says.
"I think I'm only now, in the last four or five months, really coming back into life."
Asked what he missed most, Wood lists family, friends, new CDs, the latest movies and Mexican food. Asked what he missed least during his sojourn, Wood thinks for a moment.
"Massive commercialism," he replies, with a laugh.
And now he's part of it.