NEW YORK — ELIJAH WOOD, who is given the job of saving the world (or Middle-earth at least) in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, began his career modeling little boys' clothing in a mall. He was just 7 when his mother moved him from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Los Angeles in 1988, and his screen debut came almost immediately, with a small part in the second episode of "Back to the Future." Enough decent roles kept coming his way that he did not have time to do a single stage play or complete high school. He figured he could learn more "from life," anyway, and by working with the likes of Peter Jackson, the rumpled New Zealand director who had never grossed more than $3.1 million with a film in America before he began negotiating a deal to make three, for $300 million, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's cult classic novels -- arguably the greatest gamble in filmmaking history.
Jackson offered Wood the part of Frodo Baggins, the tiny hobbit who must carry the One Ring of corrupting power from his idyllic Shire to the top of Mt. Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed and kept from the grasp of the Dark Lord Sauron. Wood was a natural for the role not only because of his size -- a slight 5 feet 6 -- but because of his enormous blue eyes, which make him seem the epitome of wide-eyed innocence while also projecting sadness, terror or depth. When the 18-year-old actor took off for New Zealand in summer 1999, it was only the second time he had been away from home on his own.
Wood recalls that it was a clear day that Aug. 30 when his plane landed in Wellington and a producers' assistant drove him around its spectacular bay. He was unnerved, though, as he often is when starting a film.
"There's the sense of 'I'm not familiar with any of these people, I'm in a foreign land, I'm by myself,' " he explains. But they took him to a cast dinner that first night where Fran Walsh -- Jackson's partner in filmmaking and life -- plunked him next to Sean Astin, a fellow Angeleno in a cast mostly of Brits and the one tabbed to play Samwise Gamgee, "Sam," his faithful hobbit companion and protector.
"She was like, 'We'll make sure Elijah sits right next to you,' " recalls Astin, who was a decade older, 28 then, and married with a child. " 'I don't want him to feel scared.' "
It worked -- Wood says he felt "immediately comfortable" and remained so their nearly 16 months in New Zealand, with Astin becoming "like a brother." Astin, however, was not so relaxed. The one who was supposed to do the soothing found himself on edge those many months, for a reason hard to imagine now -- money.
Like Wood, Astin had been a child actor, though he didn't have to gravitate to L.A. -- he was the son of actress Patty Duke. But his own roles in films such as "Goonies" and "Rudy" enabled him to buy a house in the flats of Sherman Oaks and then -- closing escrow the day he got his "Rings" part -- a fancier place in the hills of Encino. It was a typical Hollywood progression, if not as pronounced as Wood's. The younger actor lived with his family among the wannabes in the Oakwood Apartments by Universal Studios, then in a house in the Valley and then -- also right before "Rings" -- got a pad befitting a budding star, in Santa Monica. The difference was that Wood's family used his new place while he was off in the wilderness, while Astin brought his wife, Christine, and toddler, Alexandra.
"I made a strategic mistake," Astin says. "Instead of leasing that house out and going to New Zealand and coming back with the money that I made, [it] went to sustain the house. It was like a $5,000-a-month kennel for the Siberian husky."
Astin knows that sounds crazy now, but who knew then if audiences or critics would get these movies, or if they might wind up another DVD on the shelf? His nervousness peaked right as the first episode, "The Fellowship of the Ring," was opening two Decembers ago. While he was doing press at the Waldorf hotel, his wife told him she was pregnant again. "I thought I was going to collapse," he says. "My head was going to explode."
Then the first "Rings" film took in nearly $1 billion worldwide and a year later so did the second, "The Two Towers," and both were acclaimed as far more than popcorn adventures and with that they were all but home free.
The third installment, "The Return of the King," comes out next month, when Jackson will get to show us why it's his favorite of the trio, with the story's "triumphant" resolution on both the macro and micro levels: the grandeur coming from such new locales as Minas Tirith, "a seven-tiered city of kings," and a final battle of truly "biblical" proportions; and the close-up emotional drama coming from those little guys, Frodo and Sam, played by Elijah and Sean, as they climb that fiery mountain toward an abyss while struggling to save their souls if not their lives and, if they do it right, cement the standing of the trilogy of movies.
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