When I'm scheduled to interview Elijah Wood, I gain access to the exclusive Green Room. Normally, it's a conference room in Ringling College’s auditorium. Today, it's the epicenter of all things Elijah.
As soon as I enter, my poor college kid instincts resurface. Forget the movie star---free food! I dash to the coffee table as if the carafe holds the last-known caffeine source on earth. I throw a quick prayer to the universe that my white shirt stay white until picture time. I'm normally a stain magnet, but maybe today will be different.
Mug in hand, I sit across the table from Elijah and fill him in on the interview protocol. I'm starting a weekly series, interviewing those in Sarasota who intrigue me. A sort of "Who's Who" by the new girl not yet corrupted by the established pecking order. A shake-up from the girl who knows more about Hermione Granger than the current president (and has outed her own ignorance in the Washington Post).
I'll ask five questions. The first four will be tailored to him. The last will be about me. I give him a fair warning: before I leave the table, he will have to reveal his favorite thing about me. I once spent seven hours at one dinner table refusing to eat a hot dog, so it's not an empty threat. He can tell. No pressure though; we're both professionals. I've done this a grand total of zero times before.
(Warning: professional that I am, I incorrectly set the voice recorder on my phone. I'm paraphrasing his answers. I like to set the bar low when I start things … )
New Girl in Town: Sarasota is a town of doers. People have causes. What's yours?
Elijah Wood: I work with Art of Elysium. It's a non-profit that pairs actors, artists and musicians with sick children. These are seriously ill kids and we go in and do workshops with them. It's a good outlet---they can be dealing with traumatic issues and this gives them a way to creatively work through them, to get them out in the open. Plus it's working with kids, which I enjoy.
NG: How do you balance having a home base with all of your traveling?
EW: When I'm at home, I'm at home. It's my sanctuary. I live in a 1920s restored bungalow and it's a bit removed from the main drag of LA. It's filled with cozy furniture and I have a TV to watch films. There's a turntable for all of my records and my friends come over for record parties. It's all about unwinding and getting back in touch with the things that matter to me.
NG: When you do travel, how do you make a town your own? What do you do so it's not just a place you're visiting, but a place where you feel comfortable?
EW: I get a lay of the land. I orient myself. It's important to go where the town's occupants go. It could be a local bar, a coffee shop, a park, anything. I like to walk around and get a sense of where I am, what part of town connects to another. It's about getting a feel for the place and finding the area that fits for you.
(He was in Sarasota for two days and had a team responsible for coordinating his happiness, so unfortunately there wasn't much walking around or getting to know our coffee shops and bars. Rumor has it that a few lucky people ran into him at the Shamrock Pub the night before he left.)
NG: What's something you think everyone should know? What's your message to humanity?
(He pauses on this one. Thinking before speaking---I respect that.)
EW: Failures make you stronger. If you fail but persevere, you'll be far better off than if you had initially succeeded. I've seen projects take more than seven years to come to fruition. But in the end, the version produced seven years later was greater than anyone could have fathomed in the beginning. Celeste and Jesse Forever [his latest movie] is a prime example of that. Pick a project and don't question your belief. In this business as well as others, you have to stick behind what you know is right.
So that's my message: fail often, fail gracefully and keep trying.
NG: That's four ... you know what's coming next. What's your favorite thing about me?
EW: I liked your questions. Your outfit today is nice. But what I liked best is your use of that mug. It's been a prop for you this entire time, did you realize that? You bee-lined for the coffee as soon as you entered the room and have hardly set down the mug since. I know this is your first time interviewing---you can see that when you start to get nervous, you bring the mug to your mouth and sort of hide behind it. It's been effective, too. Far better than fidgeting or toying with your hair. It allows for a pause when needed and serves a purpose. Plus it supplies caffeine, which never hurts.
Well played, Elijah Wood, well played. An acute observation and one that shows more than a few good characteristics. First off, it implies an attention to detail, an above average level of observation. Common to acting? Probably. Picking up on human traits comes with the field. But this was done with poise; his observations detracted not one iota from his answers. He took it in without being flustered. I wouldn't know what to do with some egotistical start-up writer who tells me she's not leaving until she gets a compliment.
Most of all, I like what Elijah’s final answer says about his attitude and perspective. We knew he was smart and observant and good at interviews. But he looked for a less-than-obvious quality to point out. He looked for the good in me. He empathized, noting that I was likely nervous to be pulled into a last-minute interview, and he alleviated the stress. He picked out a tick that could have been irritating ("Why won't she just put down that damn coffee mug?"), connected the dots on why I was doing it and turned a potential flaw into an asset. That's my kind of hobbit.
Best of all, he laughed off the lack-of-recording situation. Ace reporter finishes the interview and blanches upon realizing that nothing recorded. Why, voice memo, why? Was pausing really necessary? Sputtering out my mistake, Elijah asks if we need to do it again and says that I can come back with any questions that I need clarified. He says I can even have more coffee if I'd like.
People of Sarasota, the gauntlet is thrown. Should you accept the challenge, I need other charming individuals who are willing to answer offbeat questions and placate my ego. Allow me to psychoanalyze your compliments, should you be so kind. Giving me paraphrasing rights probably wouldn't hurt either ...