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Elijah Wood on Putting Wilfred Down, Eclipsing Frodo, and the Problem With Selfies

Elijah Wood. Photo: Frazer Harrison/WireImage

After four seasons and nearly 50 episodes, Wilfred called it a dog’s life last night in quintessentially existential fashion. [Warning: Wilfred spoilers from here on out.] Viewers were left to ponder the fate of depressive protagonist Ryan Newman (Elijah Wood) and his canine best friend turned coping mechanism, Wilfred (Jason Gann). But the dark-as-night comedy’s closing chapter also offered some of its hardest-earned pathos and, depending on your interpretation, either a deeply satisfying meditation on moving forward or a bleak affirmation of ill fate. Hours ahead of the finale’s broadcast, having not yet seen the fully produced episode himself, Wood spoke with Vulture via cell phone about the show’s multidimensional journey, whether it will ever eclipse his association with The Lord of the Rings movies, and his feelings about the word selfies.

Do you think Ryan’s dead?
When I read the script, that was my feeling. At the very beginning of the episode, when they recall the pilot, I talked to [executive producer] David [Zuckerman] about this and said, “I have a weird interpretation, but I feel like he actually managed to commit suicide, and that the rest of the episode is him dead.” When I mentioned it to David, he thought, Oh, that’s interesting, and that was not his intention at all. [Laughs.]

That still doesn’t stop people from forming their own interpretations. 
I agree. Based on reading the script and working on that episode, it felt definitive without being definitive. If people are looking for answers, and as much as the show is also about Ryan looking for answers, it ends with enough information for you to be satisfied, but still it’s relatively ambiguous.

Which seems apropos for a show that’s been both heady and emotional.
Totally. And I think it’s appropriate that the ending is emotional rather than informational. This season became so much about Ryan’s path of discovery through so many informational pieces in regard to the cult, and it became quite a mystery. But at the end of the day, it’s not about those things, and in some ways, it’s not about the answers, and I think that’s what the resolution does best. It indicates that it wasn’t about who Wilfred was or what Wilfred was or where all that came from. It came down to the emotional resonance of what the benefit of that friendship was for Ryan, and ultimately, his own emotional progression. That, hopefully, is what the ending achieves.

The ending also seems to suggest Ryan recognizing that his coping devices are no longer pushing him toward progress.
It’s the, “Can we coexist without your manipulation and take the best parts of our relationship and allow me the freedom to move forward on my own?” I’m a great fan of a movie called Harvey, and there is certainly a kinship with Wilfred. The resolution of Harvey is there’s a doctor in the psychiatric hospital that sees Harvey too and decides he wants to be friends with Harvey, and Elwood lets Harvey go. There’s something in that, and our resolution as well, that’s a level of acceptance and moving forward without needing him to progress. And I think that’s what’s really beautiful.

That would make Ryan having died seem particularly morbid.
I agree, and it actually presents quite a dark tone to the ending, because then it reflects that there really wasn’t any progression at all. The possibility of him having died was there, but if that is your interpretation, it’s a far less hopeful and evolved process and ending, because it’s all done posthumously and it’s not really about someone in present time taking care of their psyche and emotional well-being.

Do you think Wilfred earned an emotional ending after taking so many chances with tone and content?
Wilfred is so many things. It’s at once an absurdist comedy about a guy in a cheap dog suit talking to a man, but it’s also got this emotional depth. And I think Wilfred at its best was about finding that balance and coexisting in a way that was seamless. It didn’t have to just be a ridiculous buddy comedy about a guy in a dog suit smoking weed in a basement. It tried to achieve other things, and that’s why that emotional payoff is earned and can work.

And is Jenna just the world’s worst dog-owner?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. We joked a lot on set this season about [Fiona Gublemann’s] character. Jason and I were like, “Man, you were so quick to put the dog down. Ya know, Ryan was trying to fucking help and look into Eastern medicine, and there were all these other relatives and you just shot them down.” We’re making fun of Fiona like, “You fucking killed Wilfred!”

What was with Mimi Rogers and William Baldwin taking over for Mary Steenburgen as Ryan’s mom and Dwight Yoakam as Bruce this season?
It was scheduling conflicts for both of them, but it turned out great. And there are subtle references in each episode. I look at Baldwin and say, “You look different,” and he says something about being on a cleanse. But Mimi was wonderful, and Mimi auditioned for the role originally. I don’t know if that’s common knowledge. She was a contender for the role to begin, and I think she fell in love with the character and already knew the character. And Baldwin was fantastic and came in with utter fucking gusto and made something really weird and enjoyed the opportunity to play around in our space.

Has it been surreal for you to play such a disconnected character as the ostensible straight man?
[Laughs.] We would joke on the set that if he’s in the basement in his mind, and if maybe that place doesn’t exist, maybe he’s in a closet sitting with his dog, smoking a bong. It’s crazy. But because everything comes from Ryan’s perspective, we’re not seeing the crazy, so I never had to address that specifically.

But you did get to unleash the crazy during the finale while reenacting memorable scenes from throughout the series. Was that cathartic? 
So fun, and it was a great thing for the writers, I’m sure, to come up with that sequence of the big reveal of Ryan realizing all that time he was by himself with the dog. To call back very specific moments and re-create them was a blast, and it was exciting to know we were gonna go there on a show, to break that veneer for the very first time. It felt appropriate, and it was also hilarious and exciting.

Do you hope that enough people discover Wilfred where it might eventually supplant Lord of the Rings as your most cited role?
I mean, I’m not naïve to the fact that Lord of the Rings will follow me for the rest of my life. It would be silly to hope for a time in which no one mentions it or it’s not the first reference. I get it. Those films loom so large. If people were to reference other projects, and Wilfred being one of them, that’s awesome, but I’m also not naïve.

You’ve also been cited as a very generous autograph-signer through the years? Do people now exclusively want to take selfies with you instead?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s far more popular. Selfies, man. I’m so ready for that word to be taken out of our vernacular. Two years ago, it didn’t exist, and now it seems to be the only way for people to reference a photo of themselves. It’s so bizarre. But because that’s become such a phenomenon, and because every single person has a camera on their person, that has certainly increased its intensity, so there’s far more photos than autographs now, for sure.

And I’m sure you’re always still gracious.
Of course, always.

Elijah Wood on the Wilfred Finale and Selfies