- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

NEW YORK — Elijah Wood is not only the star of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he's the face of those movies. Director Peter Jackson's camera is enticed by it, by the young actor's big, intense eyes.

They are innocent eyes, and somehow sad, as if they have seen and experienced more than his 21 years.

That face and those timorous blue orbs probably are the most indelible images of both "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," which opens today .

The second installment of the hugely popular "Rings" series, "The Two Towers" tracks the alternate journeys of the now-splintered Fellowship of the Ring, a group of flinty hobbits, elves, dwarfs and humans battling a dark lord and an army of beastly infantrymen in a fantastical world created by the late J.R.R. Tolkien.

Mr. Wood's Frodo Baggins, a young, increasingly weary hobbit, continues to bear the ring, the apparently innocuous little band that could spell worldwide enslavement if Frodo doesn't see to its destruction.

Needless to say, Frodo has a lot on his shoulders, as seemingly does Mr. Wood, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native at the center of what shortly will become a billion-dollar franchise.

Recently on the cover of Time magazine, he even has been forged in polystone, the material for busts, figurines and other "Rings" merchandise.

If it all seems faintly ridiculous, Mr. Wood is dealing with superstardom with a surprisingly mature, ironic detachment.

"I feel like Elijah is this 1,000-year-old soul," says "Rings" co-star Sean Astin, huddling with entertainment reporters recently at New York's Regency hotel. "He just carries himself with such ease and sophistication." Mr. Astin, 31 son of actors John and Patty Duke Astin and once a child actor himself plays the hobbit Sam Gamgee, Frodo's loyal friend and confidant.

"I've always felt older than I am," says Mr. Wood, now wearing a high-and-tight crew cut that brings those big eyes into even sharper relief.

"I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I've been doing this since I was 8 years old. So I was surrounded by adults for most of my childhood."

Mr. Wood's mother thought commercial acting would be a good channel for her son's energy.

"I ended up traveling out to L.A. for a modeling and talent convention and met the person that would end up becoming my manager," Mr. Wood says. "He asked me if I wanted to become an actor, and I was like, 'Yeah.'"

In a self-deprecatingly deadpan tone, he adds, "I was 7 at the time." Five years later, he appeared opposite another, then more famous child actor, Macaulay Culkin, in 1993's "The Good Son."

Mr. Wood landed the role of Frodo Baggins in 1999 and spent nearly a year and a half in Wellington, New Zealand, where the three films were shot in toto. (The third and final "Rings" movie, "Return of the King," will premiere in December 2003.)

Dyed-in-the-wool fanatics of Mr. Tolkien's literary behemoth, on which the movie trilogy is based, might be surprised to learn that Mr. Wood didn't rely much on the original text to interpret the Frodo Baggins role.

Although he eventually would plow through the more than 1,000 pages of Mr. Tolkien's "Rings" sequence, Mr. Wood says it would have seemed "redundant" to reread it minutely for inspiration.

As he saw it, he was immersed daily and physically in the imaginary culture of those books. Of course, the script written by Mr. Jackson; his partner in love, Fran Walsh; Philippa Boyens; and Stephen Sinclair came in handy, too.

Along with co-writing the screenplay, Mr. Jackson oversaw almost every aspect of the gargantuan project, often directing multiple units at once.

"It was extraordinary, the workload that was expected of him, and what he ended up accomplishing," Mr. Wood says. "Peter was amazing to work with."

The indefatigable one himself, Mr. Jackson, could be seen lurking in the halls of the Regency a short, roly-poly man in a short-sleeved salmon-colored polo shirt, khaki shorts and bare feet, looking curiously like a Tolkien character.

His hobbitesque physique aside, the New Zealand-born Mr. Jackson whose career didn't by any means prefigure the world-conquering "Rings" movies has proved himself a faithful devotee of Tolkien's works.

"Tolkien was a very religious guy, and we made a decision a long time ago that we would never knowingly put any of our own baggage into these films," says Mr. Jackson, 41. "We wouldn't put any of our messages in or things that we wanted to say. What we tried to do was to honor the things that were important to Tolkien."

A devout Catholic, Mr. Tolkien also was a World War I veteran, a witness to the trench carnage of the Battle of the Somme. The "Lord of the Rings" was composed in the shadow of World War II and its aftermath, imparting in Mr. Tolkien a profound distrust of the machinery of total war and industrialization.

"He seemed to be very concerned about enslavement," Mr. Jackson says. "The ring itself is a metaphor for enslavement. What the ring ultimately does is, it takes away your free will.

"And he hated the way that the industrial age has made prisoners and slaves of human beings you have to turn up at the factory at nine o'clock in the morning, and you can't leave until the whistle blows at six o'clock at night."

The hobbits' homeland the Shire may have represented the British countryside, the rolling greensward Mr. Tolkien didn't want to see blighted by the metallic grime of factory smokestacks.

"He was a hobbit himself," Mr. Wood says of the British writer. "There's something great about this movie in the sense that it really points out the threat that nature is under."

With all this talk of neo-Luddite and proto-environmentalist literary metaphors, Miss Boyens, for her part, says Mr. Tolkien "eschewed allegory; he hated it."

"This is not a story of good versus evil," she says flatly. "There's goodness and evil in all of us. You can look to any period of human history and find great evil."

Miss Boyens says "Rings" ultimately centers on two themes: faith and death. The thematic pair, in Mr. Tolkien's characters, are perpetually entangled.

"Are you going to keep going? Do you have faith? Is the world worth fighting for?"

In "The Two Towers," nothing less than civilization is at stake. That's enough to make any hobbit want to curl up in his hole.

That explains the ever-present anxiety in Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins' eyes.

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