Eternal Sunshine poster

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Interview: Elijah Wood

by Carlo Cavagna


LEFT: Eternal Sunshine poster

Young Elijah Wood is only twenty-three years old, but his acting career is far from young. Wood appeared in his first movie as far back as 1989. Though that was a bit part in Back to the Future 2, it wasn't long before Wood was noticed—just one year, in fact. His performance as Aidan Quinn's son in Barry Levinson's critically acclaimed Avalon catapulted him immediately into lead roles.

You may recall Wood as the boy who brings Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith together in Paradise. Okay, probably not. Perhaps you remember Wood in Richard Donner's child abuse drama, Radio Flyer? That one may be too obscure as well. Forever Young, in which Mel Gibson awakens after a fifty-year cryogenic sleep, should be easier to recollect, as should the thriller The Good Son, in which Wood starred opposite Macauley Culkin's first attempt at a bad boy role—a homicidal boy, in fact. And surely you recall Rob Reiner's critically reviled stinker, North, in which Wood travels around the United States searching for a new family to adopt.

Elijah Wood in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Despite being widely identified as one of the worst films of the 1990s (if not the worst), Wood's performance was not at fault. His career continued to grow, with starring roles in the family adventure Flipper (1996), Robert Rodriguez's teen horror The Faculty (1998), Mimi Leder's SF disaster movie Deep Impact (1998), and most notably, Ang Lee's delicate tragedy The Ice Storm (1997). All this brought Wood to the attention of director Peter Jackson, who tapped Wood to anchor the massive, blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy as the hobbit Frodo Baggins. With his small stature and outsized eyes, Wood was the perfect choice for the role, which has made him a household name and instantly recognizable all over the world.

So where do you go after Lord of the Rings? According to Wood, to something completely different. Something small and intimate, yet equally unusual and daring. Something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Though Wood was not asked to play a lead in Eternal Sunshine, the movie satisfied his keen desire to work with both screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) and director Michel Gondry, famous for his music video work, particularly with Bjork and the White Stripes.

The film concerns Joel (Jim Carrey), who discovers that ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of him erased through a medical procedure invented by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). In pain and desperation Joel contacts the good doctor and his staff, demanding to have his own memories of Clementine erased. However, as Joel lies trapped in a lucid dream with the procedure well underway, he has a change of heart. During the procedure itself, the movie explores Joel and Clementine's relationship, and the link between memory, identity, and love. Wood plays Patrick, a member of Dr. Mierzwiak's staff, which also includes Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst. Wood, however, is also an interloper in Joel's life—an antagonist Joel can't quite see, but uses his knowledge of Joel to steal Clementine away.

Prior to the film's opening, Wood sat down with reporters to discuss working on Eternal Sunshine, what the film means to him, and his plans to launch an independent record label.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Question: How did you get the part in Eternal Sunshine?

Wood: Well, I'll break it all down. To be a part of something like Lord of the Rings, which is such a once in a lifetime opportunity, was truly amazing and life-enrichening. But, it reaffirms my philosophy—it makes it even stronger—that I want to continue to do things that are different from the movies that I did last. That's even more intense after doing something like that, which is so in the public consciousness for so long that you're this one thing. So when [Eternal Sunshine] came along, it was the perfect opportunity to do something completely different, and to indulge my own interest in Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry.

It was funny; I was driving home one night, and I got a call from my agent. She said, “Listen, I've got a script here, uh, that Charlie Kaufman wrote?” and I'm like, “Aaaah—What?” Then I said, “Who's directing it?” And she said, “Ah, Michel…Gondry.” [high pitched voice] “Whaaat??” You know, because I'm a huge, huge Michel Gondry fan. I've watched his videos for years. The prospect of being able to work on a Kaufman film with him directing was just too good to be true. So I got home, read the script, loved it. Loved its sense of romance and its emotional core, which I'd not really felt in other Kaufman films. Not that there isn't an emotional attachment to the experiences that his characters generally go through—I think there is—but not in this romantic sense, which I really enjoyed. And I loved the character of Patrick, who is on the one side incredibly creepy and manipulative, but also at the same time kind of endearing and sweet and sad—pathetic in the sense that he doesn't really have any confidence, and doesn't know how to be cool, and doesn't know how to get the girl. So ultimately I loved it, and I got to meet with Michel while I was in New York doing the junket for The Two Towers. I went to his office, and I think I asked him more questions about his videos that I did about Eternal Sunshine. Then I heard that he really liked me, and I got the role based on that meeting.

Question: You went from a mammoth, ambitious project to something that's certainly more intimate. There's a different kind of emotional intensity to this. What kind of transition did you have to make?

Wood: It's a different dynamic.

Question: Can you talk about that a little bit? Is this the kind of movie that makes it possible for you to go back to smaller pictures? What do you know after doing the biggest trilogy of all time?

Wood: You do the smallest movie you can, in some ways. That's sort of how I felt when I finished The Lord of the Rings. But in terms of the dynamic of working on [Eternal Sunshine]— The atmosphere [in] which we were able to do what we were meant to do, was really created and set up by Michel. It was an extraordinary environment to work in. Incredibly creative, it was very spontaneous. We didn't quite know what each day would hold. There were times in which we didn't know the camera was rolling. He would inspire us to improvise and completely change our perception as to what the scene was in the first place. He would allow us as actors to work together to come up with our own ideas as well, which was wonderful. It's a great group of people who were ready and willing to go in that direction, to be free and led into an environment that they'd not existed in before, which can be kind of nerve racking, because it was unfamiliar for everyone. It was liberating more than anything.

Question: Were there specific instances that you can recall? A certain scene?

Wood: Sure, yeah. Well, with Mark Ruffalo—because I spent most of my time with Mark—he's a great actor, and a great guy. We got on really well, which was awesome because both of our characters are reliant on that relationship. I think that relationship is pretty important. There were many scenes. The one in which we're starting the process on Joel, and Kirsten [Dunst] comes over. We have a little bit of a conversation before she comes, and then she comes over, and we're talking about quotes and stuff like that, and that whole scene carries on. Midway through many, many takes, Mark leaned over, and he's like, “We should just laugh the entire time, and not say our dialogue, and just see what happens, and not tell Kirsten.” All right. Game, whatever. Cool! So we just winged it, and we'd throw in a line or two, but essentially laughed the entire time. Some of it's in the movie. There's a couple of the laughs that seem slightly out of place—that's probably why. [laughs] We were given that freedom, and it was—man, it was so invigorating, and so exciting. I would love to work more like this, because I think out of that spontaneity, when it's not forced, is realism. I think what Michel really wanted out of us, was a sense of reality and of real moments, and real connections. By the way that he set up our mode of filming, I think he really achieved that. It really comes through in the film.

Question: How hard is it to wrap your mind around a Charlie Kaufman script?

Wood: Oh, it's not too difficult. I mean, it's certainly cerebral. But, when I read Eternal Sunshine, it definitely made sense to me. I understood what it was about, and ultimately what its aim was. It wasn't altogether confusing. You can get lost a little bit in the structure, because there are so many layers, and so much of it takes place in Jim Carrey's mind. But, it's so clearly labeled in the script that it makes sense. You can read the subtext of a scene and go, “Okay, I know where we are now.” It was actually more confusing on set, because then we were trying to apply it. When we'd apply it, we kind of lost our place as to what we were doing and where we were. “Right, okay, so I'm in this bookstore which is also in the thing which is in his memory, so—” You know, that got a little confusing. But his scripts flow incredibly well.

Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood
Elijah Wood with Mark Ruffalo (left) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Question: So that was you in the bookstore even though we don't see you?

Wood: Yes.

Question: Gondry insisted on having your back?

Wood: Yes. Yeah, he insisted on having my back, because it's that classic sort of dream state. You're in a dream, and you're trying to see someone. You know who it is, or you know what that person represents, but you can't quite see their face, or make it out. That was the idea, that there is a sense that Joel has [an] imposter in his life, ingratiating himself into [Clementine's] life, and yet he doesn't. He's never seen this person, so he gets the back of my head constantly. Which is brilliant. So smart.

Question: Jim Carrey does a very nice dramatic turn in this. What was it like working with him?

Wood: It was fascinating. He's a fascinating guy, incredibly dynamic, multi-layered, not an easy individual to peg. And, vulnerable as well, which I think is why he's so good in this film. He's a great actor, above and beyond all those things, but there is a vulnerability to Jim that he definitely tapped into for this role, and it was fascinating to watch him do that. This would be a difficult role for anyone to play. It's an incredibly subdued, emotionally wrecked—you know, insecure, awkward character. That's a difficult place to exist in every day, for a couple of months. He had to do that. I think he dredged up a lot of past experiences in terms of heartbreak and heartache, and so it was actually quite emotional for him. It was amazing to watch someone who can be in one breath so dynamic and extroverted and insane, to these incredibly intimate, amazing moments. After seeing the movie for the first time, I was so proud of him for doing what he'd done. This is by far the best thing that I've ever seen him do. It's a true indication of what he's capable of doing. I can't wait for people to see it. It really was wonderful to work with him and be around him, and mainly to hear stories of his past experiences. I loved hearing about him playing Andy Kaufman. That's a fascinating story, because the way that he talks about it, it's as if he channeled him. He had a lot of interesting stories about Andy's family and friends and, you know, how they reacted—pretty amazing. He's had an incredible life, and some amazing experiences.

Question: This movie is unique in terms of romance, and you touched on that. Is there any other romantic film that has inspired you, that has that kind an emotional core?

Wood: Umm...Don't know. I can't think of anything that is nearly as offbeat as this. But I love romantic comedies. I love romantic movies. I'm kind of a sucker for them, and, sort of end up crying at the end of them all—you know, like a child. [laughs] When Harry Met Sally. A lot of the classics I love. [I'm a] huge fan of Love Jones. It's a really good movie, really underrated. I also really liked Next Stop, Wonderland; I thought that was really nice. That was a good movie that a lot of people didn't see.

Question: The flip side of that, is there anything out there that you would like to erase from the public consciousness, as far as TV, movies, music?

Wood: Well, in terms of the public consciousness, I don't know. The question that comes up a lot is, if you had the chance to erase your memory of something specific, what would you erase? And my answer has always been, I wouldn't erase anything, personally. In some ways, I almost wouldn't want to erase anything from the public consciousness, either, for the same reason. Our bad memories and our bad experiences are what make us who we are and what make us grow and allow us to learn, if we choose to see the lessons in those experiences.

Question: Is that true of bad reality TV? Is everything really worth remembering?

Wood: Now when it comes to that, maybe not. [laughs] But then, that mediocrity, and those elements that we hate and despise, allow us to appreciate what's really great, and makes it even greater. So there has to be that element of the life experience. At the same time, I would love to do away with reality television. [laughs] I can't believe that fad has not ended yet.

Question: You're very familiar with the indie music scene. Did you talk about that with Gondry? Was it your idea to put The Polyphonic Spree into the film?

Wood: Oh, it wasn't my idea. He's got great taste—look at the bands that he's chosen to do videos for, and that he's worked with. He definitely has great taste in music, and his taste is pretty widespread. I love music, and it was great to be able to work with someone who has such an appreciation for music, although it was not something we talked about all that much. I mean, to be able to hang out with someone who is a huge White Stripes fan and also has a close relationship with Bjork, is kind of amazing.

Question: What are you listening to? What is exciting to you right now?

Wood: Right now? There's a band out of Scotland that I really like right now, Franz Ferdinand. They're really good. You know, I've not been to a record store in over a month, which is really weird for me. I've been a bit busy as of late, so I've not had any time to buy anything new. I've actually been listening to a lot of old stuff. I listen to a lot of The Zombies, and I'm in kind of a Beatles kick at the moment.

Question: Which album?

Wood: Let It Be, the new version of Let It Be. Also I've been listening to the John Lennon box set, which is amazing. So yeah, I'm in an old music, old rock and roll kick at the moment.

Question: Did you ever want to be a rock star?

Wood: Well, I think as a music listener you have your rock and roll dreams. I personally wouldn't want to apply that necessarily, mainly because I love music too much to mess it up. In my fantasies, it would be great. But I'm actually working on starting a record label, because I really just want to facilitate other bands, and get music out there that I believe in.

Question: How far along is that? Is that in the idea stage?

Wood: It's in the initial stages of talks. I'm going to do it with a friend of mine. It won't really be applied until I get back from London. I'm going to London to work on a movie called Hooligans. So I'm going to be gone for a little while, and I want to be able to have some time to devote to it. I'll probably get it going this summer.

Question: Will it be indie?

Wood: Completely. Oh yeah. Yeah.

Question: How was it to watch The Lord of Rings winning Oscars, but knowing that they didn't nominate you guys as actors?

Wood: I really didn't think too much of it, to be honest. I don't think that the movies were particularly marketed for individual performances. The movies were marketed as incredible adventure stories with a great ensemble from the beginning. This last year, they tried to turn that around a little bit, and to see if they could not get some nominations. And I think it was just kind of too late. They'd already created this perception as to how we're supposed to view these films and the actors in them. At that point it's quite difficult to then say, “Well, you know, you should at least nominate one actor out the whole.” But from my perspective, I see the movies as ensembles as well. We felt like such a fellowship of actors working on them. I think it's very difficult when I see them to single anybody out. Everyone's wonderful in the movies... But it didn't bother any of us, really, not to my knowledge. Certainly not me.

Question: Did you share anecdotes about Peter Jackson with Kate Winslet [who starred in Jackson's Heavenly Creatures]?

Wood: Oh sure. Yeah, we definitely had that connection. I mean, that was her first movie, so she has a real fondness for Peter and Fran [Walsh], his partner. Yeah, we definitely talked about New Zealand, and how wonderful that country is, and how much we loved it, and how wonderful it is to work for Peter, and various stories about experiences, sure.

Question: What do you remember about making Radio Flyer?

Wood: I remember a lot. [laughs] Richard Donner was amazing. His dogs were great. I was nine years old. I turned ten on that movie. I remember my tenth birthday. Whenever one of the kids would have a birthday on the movie, [Richard Donner] would get gifts for the kid whose birthday it was, as well as the other. So when I turned ten, I was given gifts, and so was Joseph Mazzello, who played my brother in the movie. He got gifts as well, so as not to feel excluded, which is very, very cool. I had a lot of fun on that.

Question: Do you miss not having had certain life experiences because you've worked as an actor since you were really young?

Wood: Um, no, not really. I mean, because it's one of those things where to miss something—based on the experiences that I've had and the path that I've been on all my life—to say that I've missed out on experiences or wish that I'd had other experiences, is to not appreciate the experiences that I've had. I've been really lucky from eight years old to continue doing what I do and continue to love it. I've been able to travel all over the world. I've had experiences at my age that a lot of people haven't. So, you know, I've missed out on certain things, but in other ways I've gained, so it balances itself out. I'm very fortunate. To be 23 years old—and, you know, things are getting better all the time—is pretty extraordinary. I'm definitely blessed to be doing what I'm doing. And it was a real blessing to be a part of [Eternal Sunshine].

Question: How do you continue to love your job without getting jaded?

Wood: Because I'm lucky enough to be a part of something like [Eternal Sunshine], and to be a part of something like The Lord of the Rings. You know, it's easy to be cynical. This industry is at a point right now where it's extremely easy to be cynical. It's very frustrating, because it's getting harder and harder in some ways to make certain movies. The studios don't want to take chances, much less than they've ever wanted to. So, it's definitely hard to exist in this industry and maintain your perspective, and yet, these kind of things come around. This last year, actually, has been kind of amazing for film. Independent film was huge this last year. It's the first year in quite awhile that we've seen so many movies get nominated for major awards that were independent releases. So it's a really great sign for the future of cinema in some ways. But yeah, I guess I'm not jaded because I still believe that there are good films out there, and there are great directors, and there are great writers. It just takes a little bit more perseverance and a little bit more time to find [them].

[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

[Read the AboutFilm profile and interview with Kate Winslet]

[Read the AboutFilm interview with Jim Carrey]

Feature and Interview © April 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about this movie on the AboutFilmBoards
  Official Eternal Sunshine site
  IMDB page for Elijah Wood
  IMDB page for Eternal Sunshine
  MRQE page for Eternal Sunshine
  Rotten Tomatoes page for Eternal Sunshine