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Elijah Wood on Wilfred, Playing Insane People, and Maniac

Elijah Wood. Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty

In the FX show Wilfred, Elijah Wood plays a rudderless lawyer who spends most of his time talking and getting baked with his neighbor’s titular dog — only he sees that dog as a man in a dog suit. It’s a hilarious premise with disturbing implications when you consider Wilfred’s delinquent, twisted, sometimes criminal pranks as a manifestation of Ryan’s psyche. Wood is no stranger to dark material. He was unforgettably creepy in Sin City, he started his own horror production company, and you can soon see him play a serial killer in Maniac, about a mannequin-restorer who hunts women down and scalps them. With the third season of Wilfred premiering tonight at 10 p.m. on FX and Maniac opening Friday, we spoke to Wood about playing a psycho, producing horror films, and why his Wilfred character isn’t certifiably crazy.

You play a great straight man to Jason Gann. Is it his mission to make you crack up in scenes, like when he’s humping Bear [a stuffed animal]?
I don’t know if it’s his mission, but he certainly has succeeded. We work really hard and there’s days when we’re doing six to seven pages a day, so I don’t think he’s ever thinking, I have to make him crack up. But he succeeded more in doing that this year than ever before.

I’m kind of assuming at this point that we’re dealing with mental illness and not just a magical dog — and it’s just a matter of how and when Ryan is going to realize this. Is that how you see it?
I feel like the show has to continue that sense of ambiguity. I don’t think it can ever totally answer it because if it were to answer it, then Wilfred’s presence would be so much more defined. I don’t know if it would work if we defined it. I think Ryan’s relatively self-aware. He knows that there’s something happening in terms of his perception that allows him to see a man in a dog suit [breaks out laughing]. I don’t know if he’s mentally ill, but I definitely see that he’s someone that hit a breaking point in his life and at the breaking point this thing has manifested.

It’s fun to watch thinking that he is mentally ill. It adds a whole double meaning to every scene.
Totally. The other thing that’s really important is if we were to fully delve into the world of accepting that he is suffering from some kind of mental illness, it would change the way that we perceived the show. It would be a much scarier show. Because if the basement, for instance, doesn’t exist, if he’s simply sitting in a closet smoking weed by himself with the dog, what is that? That is kind of scary.

I think everyone loves the scene in Fight Club where we get to see Ed Norton punching himself. Have you guys talked about ever doing something like that, where we see Ryan doing crazy stuff and there’s just a dog at his side?
We haven’t talked about that specifically. We did talk about potentially seeing a version of Ryan that maybe other people see — and not necessarily determining whether what we’re seeing is real or if it’s a fear that Ryan has of what he’s gonna turn into.

I had a Wilfred marathon and topped it off by watching Maniac. I have to say, you do creepy really well. Do you seek out creepy roles?
I was really excited at the prospect of doing Maniac. I wasn’t really looking for a horror movie, but I do love the genre. And I love the idea that you only really see the character in reflections. It was like playing a character in three parts, in a way. There’s obviously all of the reflection shots that were specific character moments. The rest of my time on set was really being there for the other actors off-camera and physically entering the frame with an arm or a hand. And then I always knew that the heart of the character would be created in a voice-over studio because so much of the character is not seen but heard. So I really feel like the delving into the darkness of the character kind of happened after the film was finished. In the midst of it, I never really felt like I was in this super-dark place all the time, because it was also such a technical job.

You started your own production company for horror films. How did that come about?
I had already started thinking of starting a production company because I’ve wanted to get involved in developing films that I wouldn’t be acting in, so the transition was really to just start a horror film production company. I think the kinds of horror movies that we love are starting to be made in the U.S. more frequently now but are predominantly movies from different parts of Europe and Mexico and Asia over the last ten years. It’s an interesting genre because it tends to be mired with a lot of schlock and cheap production value and poor lighting. You kind of have to sift through them to find the good quality horror movies — which is less true these days. I think there are better films being made. But yeah, we were really inspired by more recent movies like Let the Right One In. Even House of the Devil by Ti West is a film that we love. And then films from the seventies, like The Exorcist and The Omen and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. And even films from the forties and fifties and sixties. Some of our guiding principles are movies where you could almost take the exploitation elements out of the film and you’d still have a compelling story. Movies that are very character-driven and story-driven and don’t necessarily survive solely on the scares or the horror element. I think we were interested also in trying to push the boundaries of what people consider a horror film.

Does this mean we get to see Elijah Wood in more horror roles?
No, no, most likely not. I’m really keen on simply just producing them and developing them. We actually made an acquisition, this really fascinating documentary that’s sort of a mix between an actual documentary and also blends narrative elements into it. It’s called Toad Road, and it’s about these documentarians that followed these kids who were experimenting with drug use and it just sort of gets more and more out of control. All of that seems quite real, and then it weaves in this sort of myth. There’s this place called Toad Road, a real place where the myth is that if you walk into the forest there’s seven gates and each gate is a different gate of hell. So the movie transfers it from being a documentary into this sort of descent into hell. It’s really powerful and exemplifies perfectly this idea of pushing the bounds of what most people would consider horror.

Elijah Wood on Wilfred and Maniac