Like James Bond, Elijah Wood spends his latest film in a tuxedo trying to save a beautiful blonde from an assassin. Only he's gotta do it sitting down.
In Spanish director Eugenio Mira's tidy thriller Grand Piano, Wood plays first-class concert pianist Tom Selznick, a prodigy nicknamed "Failznick" after choking in the middle of the unplayable (and fictitious) "La Cinquette." Shattered, he spends the next five years in hiding. En route to his comeback performance, he prays that the plane will crash. But when Tom walks toward his mentor's piano, his night gets worse. Scrawled on his sheet music is a threat from a sniper (John Cusack) vowing that if he plays one wrong note, both he and his wife will die. Hisses the killer, "Now you know the meaning of stage fright."
"It was pretty active sitting on my part," laughs Wood. "There were moments where I felt like I was running a marathon." Grand Piano plays in real-time, which means over three-quarters of the film is concert. And Mira, a director and composer, timed the action to the four pieces Wood's character performs. Which means that Wood simultaneously had to hear the musical cues, dash his fingers down the plummeting scales, and act against Cusack's dialogue on an earpiece.
"It was pretty maddening, actually. It was stressful." His fingers got sore. The score, blasted on overhead speakers, pounded into his brain. "It was in our pores at that point," says Wood. "When I hear it, it takes me right back."
Under Mira's direction, which has the confidence of a young Hitchcock or De Palma, the full orchestra under Wood's feet lurks with murderous potential. The slice of a bow across a cello's neck sings with violence; the heavy tubas are poised for bludgeoning. But the piano is the perfect instrument for this deadly drama by Damien Chazelle (who also wrote and directed the 2014 Sundance award-winner Whiplash). Even its parts sound cruel: the hammer shank, the strike point. Besides, the piano is still the most popular instrument inflicted on children, so the audience can empathize as he struggles to nail those glissandos. "There's only a select few people who might have an understanding of how complicated the tuba can be," jokes Wood.
He, too, was one of those kids. From ages ten to 14, the same stretch that Wood starred in Radio Flyer, The Adventures of Huck Finn, Forever Young and The Good Son, he was plopped in piano lessons. (Before then, Wood's closest view of the music world was a bit part in Paula Abdul's video for "Forever Your Girl," directed by David Fincher: "I was eight years old and super psyched.") Now 33, he found the old lessons helped a bit. He knew middle C and the correct place to put his hands. He had three weeks to master the rest.
"The learning curve was super intense," says Wood. "There were these days where I thought, 'Oh, I've got this! I can do this!' and then there were days when I was completely discouraged. Eugenio would say, 'Do this run,' or 'Hit that note,' and I couldn't do it." Sometimes Mira himself would slip on the tux and play Wood's part. But Wood did it well enough that Mira extended one shot of him slamming the keys from 30 bars to 60. Now, alas, it's all been forgotten. "Eugenio was saying the whole time, 'You really should keep playing and take lessons,' but I really haven't kept it up," says Wood. "When we were in Madrid, we did some press for the film. People were like, 'Play?'" He laughs. "'Um, no, not really."
After the shoot, Wood had one week at home before flying back to Spain to shoot the upcoming cyber kidnapping curio Open Windows with Sasha Grey and another Spanish director, Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes). It's not just that Wood loves Spain, though he calls jamón ibérico "one of my favorite things in life." It's that Wood loves genre films the way Smeagol loved the ring. When he goes to film festivals with indie horror flicks like Maniac and Cooties (which just premiered at Sundance), he actually watches the other movies.
Invited to Austin's wildest film week, Fantastic Fest, in 2010, he befriended Mira and Vigalondo. "I met this whole Spanish contingency in one fell swoop," says Wood, "and I was completely enamored with all of them." The next year, all three returned to watch Wood box fellow hobbit Dominic Monaghan while hooting movie fans pounded Shiner Bock, and they came back the year after, too. And this year at the fest, Mira and Wood premiered Grand Piano and capped the week with Wood tattooing a stick of dynamite on his arm in the center of the closing night party.
"I find that films with a very small budget cut out a lot of the bullshit," he says. "The people that are there certainly aren't there for the money." He quickly adds, "With Lord of the Rings, as large as the budget was, we still felt like we were making the world's largest independent film just because of the spirit behind it."
Still, with his quirky recent filmography — Spanish chillers, low-budget shorts, midnight horror flicks, and a cameo in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — it's tempting to see him as the rare actor with the discipline to invest a big paycheck in his own creative freedom.
"I wouldn't say that I have the comfort to pick and choose so much — I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say that," demurs Wood. "But the last few years have been some of the most gratifying."