How Elijah Wood went the extra mile to become Frodo in Lord of the Rings

·5-min read
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the Lord Of The Rings series (Image by New Line Cinema)
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the Lord Of The Rings series (Image by New Line Cinema)

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series.

Twenty-one years on from the release of The Fellowship Of The Ring, it’s tough to imagine other actors in those parts.

Who else but Ian McKellen could breathe such warmth and wisdom into Gandalf the Grey and can you picture anyone but Viggo Mortensen as the heroic, noble Aragorn?

Of all those actors and all those roles, however, there’s one that seems so pre-ordained, that it’s hard to see how JRR Tolkien didn’t have him specifically in mind when he wrote the character, albeit 27 years before the actor was even born.

The Lord Of The Rings series is the ultimate ensemble piece, yet it’s Elijah Wood’s sweet-natured Frodo Baggins that’s the undoubted lead.

It’s his journey from the shielded environs of Bagend to the fiery menace of Mount Doom that carries us through the three films, and it’s a part that, had director Peter Jackson got it wrong, could well have botched the entire franchise.

Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin in Lord of the Rings (Credit: Rex)
Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin in Lord of the Rings (Credit: Rex)

Elijah Wood, who turns 41 today, was just 16 years old when he was informed by Harry Knowles of movie website Ain’t It Cool News that Peter Jackson had just been announced as the director of the first live-action adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

Although Wood hadn’t read **that** book, he had read The Hobbit, so was familiar, in part, with the world of Middle-earth.

He also knew that The Lord Of The Rings was a big deal and, as a fan of Jackson’s 1994 flick Heavenly Creatures, was excited about what this New Zealand-born film director might do with these famously unfilmable books.

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Urged by both Knowles and his agent to pitch for Frodo, he was told the script was not being sent out to actors for security reasons. Instead, Wood was instructed to go to casting director Victoria Burrows’ office where he was given the screenplay to read there and then.

Two hours later, he emerged, having fallen completely in love with what Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens had done with Tolkien’s tome.

“Driving home,” the actor told GQ, “I was so immersed in the world, it was so palpable and lifeline, it really came to life off of the page.”

Ian McKellen (L) as Gandalf with Elijah Wood as Frodo. (Photo by New Line/WireImage)
Ian McKellen (L) as Gandalf with Elijah Wood as Frodo. (Photo by New Line/WireImage)
Elijah Wood, director Peter Jackson and Liv Tyler. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images)
Elijah Wood, director Peter Jackson and Liv Tyler. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images)

Hungry for the part, he hit upon a novel idea. These days, actors making their own audition tapes isn’t unusual. Every budding thesp has an iPhone in their pocket and the ability to film and edit their own micro-movie, but this was 1997, remember, when even the priciest mobiles could barely take a photo.

After going to a vocal coach to help refine the British accent that Jackson wanted for the film, Wood got in touch with his friend, actor and filmmaker George Huang (Swimming With Sharks, Trojan War), with a plan to produce what would turn out to be an ambitious audition tape.

Heading out into LA’s Griffith Park, they shot two audition scenes there and a third at Wood’s house, each one, as the actor recalled, “a different aspect of Frodo along the journey.”

Afterwards, they went to Miramax’s offices to cut the scenes together, copied them to VHS and then physically delivered the tape to Victoria Burrows who in turn Fed-Ex-ed it to Peter Jackson.

Wood's above-and-beyond approach worked and Jackson called him personally to offer him the part. He was the first actor cast.

Elijah Wood, pictured last June, has just turned 41. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
Elijah Wood, pictured last June, has just turned 41. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Before Wood’s audition, however, the actor wasn’t really on Jackson’s radar. He’d originally planned to cast lesser-known actors in the roles of the Fellowship, even auditioning a pre-Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal.

"I had heard Elijah's name,” the director said in a 2002 interview with Charlie Rose, “but I had never seen a film he'd done." It was his partner, Fran Walsh, who urged him to watch Wood’s VHS. "Elijah cast himself,” Jackson reflected.

Wood has called the experience of filming The Lord Of The Rings "totally mind-blowing and the adventure and opportunity of a lifetime." He spent 16 months in New Zealand filming the three films back to back, and that’s not to mention the various pickups he and other cast members had to do for the next three years.

Watch: Amazon releases teaser for Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

After apparently bowing out as Frodo in 2003’s LOTR closer The Return Of The King, Wood made a surprise return as his most famous character in the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, in 2012.

For many, it was the highlight of the movie, seeing Elijah Wood back in his signature role, even if it was a glorified cameo.

Though he had something of a profile before Lord Of The Rings, it was Frodo Baggins that made Elijah Wood a bona fide star. And it’s all because of that video tape, made for the price of a ham and cheese bagel, filmed in Griffith Park nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Proof that going that extra mile so often pays off.

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