Elijah Wood: True Player

So much for standard celebrity perks like "World’s Sexiest People" nominations, overenthusiastic groupies and champagne-soaked soirees. A nerd icon even before The Lord of the Rings trilogy made him a household Hobbit, actor Elijah Wood merely cemented his outsider status with geek-friendly cameos in later films like Sin City and Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.

Between his youthful looks (despite appearing professionally on-stage since age nine, he’s still only 25) and charming demeanor though, the talented thespian’s become Hollywood’s de facto go-to goofball nonetheless. See: A plethora of roles casting the amiable performer as unlikely hero and/or charming underdog, e.g. wildly unpopular yet tap dance-prone penguin Mumble in Warner Bros’ recent animated box office smash Happy Feet.

Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Wood isn’t just a lifelong videogame enthusiast. He’s also an active industry participant, lending his vocal talents to the titular star of just-released 3D platform-hopping romp The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning (GC/PS2/Xbox), featuring the world’s most popular purple cartoon dragon. The game – which also features voice-overs by comedian David Spade and silver screen legend Gary Oldman – doesn’t just raise the visual bar for the franchise and explore its headliner’s mysterious origins. It also reinvents the entire series, letting fans new and old freeze or fricassee a range of fantastical enemies with fire, ice, earth or electricity-based breath attacks.

Being the self-avowed dork he is, we seized the opportunity to give Wood a call. The mission: Discover not only what his favorite games are and how much time he’s been clocking in behind the controller lately, but also just what his latest venture holds in store for joystick jocks. Following are the Tinseltown A-lister’s thoughts on the state of the industry, retro fever and why he’d made a great God of War. (No, seriously…)

Elijah Wood
Doing Voice-Over work for Spyro The Dragon

Q: We hate to say it, but talk about typecasting: Aren’t you getting a little tired of playing improbable heroes like Frodo and Spyro, on whose shoulders the job of saving the world always falls?

A: No, not really. I think the concept behind these guys is something that everybody can appreciate throughout anytime in history. We all go through this phase where there’s a sense that we’re insecure or just can’t accomplish something, no matter how hard we try. That’s why people continue to love these characters that are such unlikely heroes. You’d never in your wildest dreams picture them being able to accomplish all that they accomplish. I think it makes people feel better to see this and gives them a way to empathize with a character that in many ways is like they are.

Q: The Legend of Spyro explains its hero’s mysterious origins. Is there anything people don’t know about your past that might surprise them as well?

A: I don’t know that there’s anything particularly surprising in my past. I’m originally from Iowa. I was born in Cedar Rapids and grew up there until I was eight years old. I’m from the Midwest. I think people know that. What they may be shocked to learn is that my initial experience with acting was actually as a model. There’s not really any outlet for acting in Iowa or the Midwest outside of the big cities, so I was enrolled in this modeling school that had actually had acting elements on the side. That’s how I actually got myself to Los Angeles was through a modeling and talent convention.

Q: What makes the game so compelling, besides, of course, the whole flying and hyper-powered halitosis thing?

A: The first cool part is the story itself: It’s reinvented here and given somewhere new and unexpected to go. As for the character, he’s this young guy that discovers he’s a dragon, which is a pretty major thing to stumble on. Because for most of his life, it turns out he thought he was a dragonfly. It’s intense. He has to discover his lineage and there’s so much that you can do with that as an actor or storywriter in future games that it makes playing Spyro such a great opportunity.

Q: You’re a big name in the world of showbiz. The appeal of appearing in a simple interactive outing like this is…?

A: As both an actor and videogame fan, there’s just something inherently neat about lending your voice to a game. But it’s fun. I don’t think of it as work.

Q: Find any inspiration for the role in a certain hairy-footed hero with an unhealthy penchant for white-bearded wizards and rings of invisibility?

A: I don’t know that there was any particular inspiration for Spyro beyond the character himself and what he discovers. A lot of the discoveries he makes, I discovered as he made them. I followed them in sequence, so as he makes his discoveries in the game I was there right along with him all the way. I think the comparisons are certainly there between his personality and Frodo’s – the similarities aren’t lost on me. I don’t know that I necessarily put any of Frodo in the character, but the parallels are definitely there.

Q: What’s it like trying to play an animated character, since you can’t really use your body of facial expressions like you would on film?

A: What can I say? That’s the fun of voice-acting. Happy Feet, which I’ve been working on for the last three years, really employs the same kind of process – acting without any kind of visual aid and having to create this sense of life and momentum, just with your voice. It’s a lot of fun. But it takes a lot of imagination, and having to have an active understanding of what’s going on and what the character is going through in any given environment… Thankfully, I got to play the game before recording, which made things a little easier.

Q: What was it like performing without another warm body to bounce lines off of? And what sort of performance did you give: Friendly, snarky, sleepy, grumpy?

A: Spyro is very happy. I wouldn’t say he’s grumpy. He’s incredibly positive and courageous. At times, he can be – let’s not say arrogant – but too self-assured in his abilities, especially when he’s a dragonfly. I think he comes to realize his abilities have not even begun to be realized eventually. And in regards to playing the role without having other actors there, because I did record everything on my own, they played a lot of the dialogue from the other characters. Certain sequences I got to hear all the way through, how they interact with Spyro. It gave me a real sense of how I could interact with them.

Spyro The Dragon
Spyro is the little blue Dragon

Q: Given that you play a dragon, we have to ask: Ever been mad enough you felt you could breathe fire? If so, who would you use this talent on?

A: Hmm. I’m sure I have been mad enough I wanted to, but I don’t often allow myself to get that angry. I don’t know if there’s anybody I’d necessarily like to breathe fire on, but I’m sure I’ve met a few in my day.

Q: Rumor has it you’re a gamer. How’d you get started, and what’s the appeal?

A: I’ve been playing games for, like, 18 years. They were a part of my childhood. I’m a child of the early days, and I’ve seen the industry evolve. I started with the NES, and I’ve pretty much had every other system ever since. As I said, it was a big part of my childhood and it’s been a big part of my adult life as well. I love videogames. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much time as I like to play these days because of my schedule, so I tend to binge on one game here or there, win it, then stop until another game catches my attention at the right time. Which is not really intentional, it’s just sort of my pattern. I wouldn’t consider myself up to some people’s level of gaming talent, though; there are people who take it far more seriously than I do.

Q: What titles are your current favorites and why? Any genres you prefer?

A: The Silent Hill series I’ve always loved, the Resident Evil games too… I kind of like games that have a complex story and really move from point A to B that you can only win in a matter of weeks. I like investing time into something, vs. a game that you can just pick up and play. Although, recently, I’ve been playing the Burnout games a lot, even though they’re the total opposite of the types of titles I just described.

Q: So what’s the connection?

A: Well, the Burnout games are addictive and there is a process of moving forward in them. As you play, you can open new levels, cars… there’s a lot to it. I just find something about those games incredibly exciting. It’s also a fun type of game to play with other people. But that is an exception to the rule.

Q: You mentioned growing up with gaming. Back when you were a young ‘un, what were the games you couldn’t get enough of?

A: Um, let me think when that was. That was the SNES days, I think. I was really into Super Star Wars. That was a big game for me. I always loved the Super Mario series as well – they happened to be a lot better in those days. Super Mario Land for Game Boy I loved too.

Q: A lot of folks have joined the gaming fold since then. If they went back and compared PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles to these older offerings, how surprised do you think they’d be?

A: I think they’d be pretty stunned, but maybe not as much as they might have been a few years ago. There’s this huge crowd of people into nostalgia now. Classic games are being rediscovered. There’s places to go play online, emulators that let you play on your computer, t-shirts that feature characters from classic games on them, bands that cover classic game theme songs (Contra, Super Mario Bros.), etc. There’s actually this huge awareness now of how primitive these games were and trend towards falling in love with them again. It’s really awesome.

Q: Sorry, can’t resist given your resume: Magic, dragons, etc: Do you believe it does or ever actually existed?

A: I like to believe in the possibility of anything, even things like fairies. There’s documented history of people having seen these things. Whether they actually did or not, I don’t think these things will ever be explained. So I like to believe there’s a possibility they existed. I’m certainly not a naysayer.

Q: Any other games you’re hoping to appear in soon… not a Resident Evil cameo, hopefully?

A: I don’t know that there’s anything in the pipeline. But I’m a huge fan of God of War – I’d love to do a voiceover. They’re doing two sequels, I think, relatively close together. That’s one of my favorite games. If I could do a voice for that game, it’d be pretty incredible.

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