Before returning to Middle-earth, Elijah Wood plays straight man to a dog on the FX comedy Wilfred.
Elijah Wood recently saw a photo of Daniel Radcliffe and his two Harry Potter co-stars in a newspaper. “It kind of blew my mind,” he says of how much the three had aged since the movie franchise began. “It made me remember how young they were. I’d forgotten, because we’ve all kind of grown up with them.”
Wood has grown up in public, too, from his first part in a Paula Abdul video (directed by David Fincher) when he was 7, to his role in the 1997 film The Ice Storm, to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which began shooting when he was 18. The thing is, despite the occasional scruffy beard, he could still play 18. This might be an advantage for director Peter Jackson, who has asked Wood to reprise the role of Frodo Baggins in The Hobbit (due in late 2012), but not so much when it comes to finding roles as mature as he is. “Work sort of slowed down in the last few years,” says Wood, who has been in three films since 2007—partly by choice and partly because “people may not be able to imagine me playing my age.”
Nearly six months into 30, however, he’s starred in the Beastie Boys’ epic short film, Fight for Your Right Revisited (he played Ad-Rock, alongside Seth Rogen and Danny McBride), and embarked on his first comedy and TV series, FX’s satisfyingly spiky Wilfred. As Ryan, he plays a troubled young man who, after failing to kill himself, bonds with his neighbor’s pet dog. The twist: Ryan sees Wilfred not as an animal on all fours but as a loutish, bong-smoking, teddy-bear-humping man in a dog suit, played by Jason Gann, who co-created and starred in the original Australian series. “My character is the straight man to Wilfred,” says Wood. “He has to adapt and react to situations that can be quite intense. A lot of hilarious comedy comes out of that, but it’s also ridiculous and all sorts of surreal. I mean, we are dealing with a guy dressed as a dog.”
Wood’s glacial anime eyes can lull you into believing all sorts of fantastical nonsense onscreen, but they don’t prepare you for his goofy dudeness. “I want to punch you with laughter right now. That was so fucking awesome!,”he yells at Gann after one oddball scene. He’s also exceedingly nice, which can sound like a backhanded compliment but in Wood’s case is not. “He makes everybody else look like an asshole,” says David Zuckerman, who adapted Wilfred for an American audience.
In October, Wood returns to New Zealand for The Hobbit. Filming the Rings trilogy was, in many ways, like slipping off the Earth for sixteen months. “I was 18 when I started and 20 when principal photography ended,” he says. “That’s a fucking huge chunk of, you know, developmental-age time.” When he got back to L.A., “I didn’t know what to make of my own life anymore, which had been so defined by that place and those people and that experience. I just remember everything feeling kind of foreign.”
Wood has yet to see a script for The Hobbit, but he assumes that since Frodo wasn’t in that book, his character will essentially be a framing device. “To me, it makes sense if Frodo bookends the film, but I don’t know,” he says. “I ran into a guy playing one of the dwarves at the airport. He was on his way to New Zealand, and he hadn’t read anything yet. I didn’t see a script for the Rings until we got to the set.” Wood adds, “I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there was a Hobbit video diary that Peter posted, with all my friends and family from the first production on one of Stone Street’s soundstages. It choked me up a little bit.”
More than dog bites man; man sees man in dog suit. Hilarity ensues.
The first episode of FX's new comedy series Wilfred led to a frantic need to hit play on the second. Ditto that for the third. What we have here, folks, is more proof that the comedy genre on television is stronger than ever. Then again, a man in a dog suit is never not funny.
Based on the Australian series of the same name, Wilfred was adapted by David Zuckerman (King of the Hill, Family Guy) and centers on a depressed lawyer named Ryan (Elijah Wood), whose botched suicide attempt leads him to see his neighbor’s dog as an oddly sweet and insightful but irascible Australian guy in a cheap dog suit, while everyone else just sees a dog. Wilfred (Jason Gann, who co-created the original series) gets thrown into Ryan’s life when his owner, and Ryan’s neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), needs Ryan to watch him last minute one day.
That day is Ryan’s failed suicide. He got some pills from his uptight doctor sister, Kristen (Dorian Brown). He took them all. “Abusing those pills can lead to paranoia, hallucination, depression and much worse!” she tells Ryan, who then realizes his seeing a man in a dog suit is just a hallucination. Until Kristen tells him they were sugar pills.
The conceit is a great one. Ryan doesn’t know why he’s seeing Wilfred as an unshaven Australian in a dog suit, but the two of them have an immediate chemistry. Wilfred, it turns out, is part philosopher, part devious dog, part life coach. The two of them smoke a lot of pot at Ryan’s house, since Ryan quit his job and Jenna works all day and leaves Wilfred at home. The series probably could have coasted on all the inherently funny situations that a bong-loving dog who loves Matt Damon movies could get into with a possibly schizophrenic neighbor. But Wilfred goes beyond that – which is why there’s more than a little hilarious genius in this series.
Wood is perfect as Ryan, struggling to find happiness and meaning in a world where his father called the shots, like becoming a lawyer. Ryan is awkward, emotionally shackled, fearful of embracing life. Gann is also superb as Wilfred, who wants to help Ryan grasp the joy in life and seize the day – provided Ryan doesn’t use him to get to Jenna. Oh, sure, Wilfred may sometimes muck up Ryan’s life for no reason, but hey, he’s a dog. A foul-mouthed, often irascible dog who has his own bong, but still.
While all the philosophical, existential and surprisingly intimate moments of their friendship are the wonderfully surprising backbone to Wilfred, the hook is the absurdist situations and brilliant humor.
In one scene, Wilfred becomes very friendly with a waitress at an outdoor restaurant – fine, he’s humping her leg – and Ryan breaks it up. “Ryan, I like you, but you’re a shit wingman,” Wilfred says. In one episode, the two are on a walk when a motorcycle drives by and Wilfred takes off running after it, shouting “I’ll kill you!” In other random scenes, Wilfred pushes over a guy on a bike, does bad things to stuffed animals and delights, crazily, in the ocean, even though it causes Ryan to get a $300 fine. Again, the visual jokes alone are worth watching this series, plus it’s almost impossible to get tired of watching a guy in a dog suit say stuff like, “I’ll kill you. I’ll murder you in your sleep.”
Wilfred has a string of cameos planned, including Ethan Suplee (as a porn-loving thug), Ed Helms, Rashida Jones, Nestor Carbonell, Peter Stormare and many others. Maybe the word got out that there’s something oddly magnificent in this dog story.