“Wilfred” Lets Elijah Wood Show Off His Comedy Bite

Not too many comedies open with the main character gleefully crafting a suicide note.

But that’s only the beginning of the weirdness in Wilfred, an edgy comedy premiering June 23 that will fit right in with FX‘s collection of bold, outrageous series that wouldn’t get past the censors on broadcast television.

Elijah Wood plays Ryan, a distraught man who decides that rather than pursue the cubicle-hell job his overbearing sister (Dorian Brown) has procured for him, he’ll just swallow a whole bunch of pills and end it all. Much to his chagrin, he’s still alive the following morning and is able to answer the door when his beautiful next-door neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) drops by looking for an emergency dog-sitter. She makes no acknowledgement of the fact that Ryan does not see a dog standing next to her, but a grown man wearing a dog suit.

Freaked out at first, Ryan eventually finds a friend in Wilfred (Jason Gann), whose frank insights into his life make him one of the few, um, people who seem to understand Ryan and push him to change his life. Whether that’s for the better is debatable, but it does shake him out of his funk. All in all, it’s worth putting up with a bit of doodie on the floor and some holes in the backyard.

Wood, best known for his work in the epic Lord of the Rings films, spoke with us recently about relishing the chance to unleash his inner comedian:

How much was getting the chance to do comedy an attraction for you to Wilfred?

Very much so. It’s not something I’ve ever had the opportunity to do really, except for little pieces here and there. To work in the comedy medium on a cable network was really exciting. I was reading a few things late last year for television just to see what was out there, particularly because television has changed so much and those were amazing shows that I watch and I’m a fan of. This kind of came around. It was unlike anything I’d read. Clearly, I mean, from seeing it you can tell that it’s really unlike anything that’s on television and I was so attracted to that. It has this surreality to it, it’s quite strange, and I think there’s real depth to it beyond the obvious sort of comedy of a man in a dog suit interacting with a guy. There’s also a lot of layers at play all the time, and I think that’s really interesting. When I read the script and sat down with David Zuckerman, who is the creator of this incarnation of the show, and we talked about where the show was going to go beyond the pilot for the rest of the season, I just became more in love with it. The possibilities of what avenues it could travel and what could happen to the character and various things that could be explored, I fell in love with the concept even more.

Has it been tough explaining the show to people if they haven’t seen it? It’s about as high-concept as you can get.

It’s a very difficult show to describe. What’s really nice, and I don’t think we necessarily anticipated this, is that people really do seem to understand it from the pilot, which is great. We were expecting that it would take maybe a couple of episodes for people to really get it. That hasn’t been the case, which is fantastic. I don’t know if there are any misconceptions, but I don’t think people who haven’t seen the pilot really get it necessarily. I don’t think they will until they see it. Which I think is fine, I’m quite happy with that, that it’s a little bit strange and difficult to describe is a good thing.

How about yourself? Did you get it right away?

When I first read the pilot, I immediately thought of Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart film. The major difference with Harvey and Wilfred in terms of how Wilfred comes to exist is I get the distinct feeling in Harvey that Jimmy Stewart’s character sort of willfully checked out on reality, and that’s when Harvey showed up. Whereas with Ryan it’s at a moment of powerlessness and weakness that he arrives. It’s not that he’s actually willfully checked out. But I love that similarity. People have also used the reference to Fight Club in regards to a kind of Tyler Durden character as a sort of alter ego to Ryan, which I think is an interesting thought.

How has it been having Jason Gann [creator of the original Australian version] aboard? Has he been pretty open about people tinkering with his creation?

By the time that I read the script and got a chance to come onboard, he’d already been through that process, giving it over to a new creative process and conceiving it anew. I’m sure that there were probably initially concerns on his part, because he’d done two seasons in Australia and it had originally come from a short film that he had done. When he came out here, there may have been some reticence for him to play that character again. But when he realized it was going to be very different, a new approach, taking the best elements of what he had done and breathing new life into it, he was quite excited. For me, reading the script and knowing the original creator was involved … was really exciting as well because far too often shows that are adapted in foreign countries don’t include their original creator nor do they include any of the original cast. Oftentimes they can be bastardized in the process, and this is definitely not the case, and I was really excited about that as well. It’s very rare.

Ryan seems to have hit his stride a bit at the end of the pilot, standing up to his sister. Has he really turned a corner, or is it still a struggle for him to find out what he wants out of life?

It’s a work in progress. Over the course of the season, you’ll see him make relatively good strides toward getting to a place where he’s more secure and healthier. But I think that’s always being challenged as well. It’s being challenged not only by Wilfred but by the situation that he finds himself in. The thing that’s interesting about that relationship between him and Wilfred is that Wilfred is sort of both a demon and a guardian angel at the same time. He’s recommending paths for Ryan that go completely against what Ryan is comfortable with and in a sense it’s a good thing because it’s pushing him to live life in a way he wouldn’t have prior because he didn’t have the strength or the courage or the interest to move forward in that way. We’re never quite sure. But if there’s a benefit to those actions, there is a sort of negative result as well, and we’ll never quite feel secure with Wilfred’s suggestions. There’s a constant sort of battle between the two of them whether it’s for his best interests or not.

Obviously Ryan just accepts that he can talk to Wilfred while no one else can, but are there moments when he questions it, and his sanity?

Not to give away too much, but we don’t really acknowledge it too much. Pretty much the way that Ryan reacts to him in the pilot sticks. He simply accepts it, he sees that he had been through a moment in his life when he was prepared to lose his life, and this person came into his life that he feels is his first real friend or relationship in a time of need, and I think he just accepts it. There are moments of questioning peppered throughout, but you never see Ryan outwardly express what it is that he’s experiencing or questioning it. He just kind of accepts it.

I had kind of a crazy train of thought as I was watching the pilot, too, and you can tell me if I’m way off base. Is it all a death dream?

It would be difficult to sustain a death dream, and I think we would upset people à la Lost if it were some major conceptual conceit that ultimately ended up all being a dream. So it’s not a death dream.

Obviously, given your resume, you’re no stranger to making long-term commitments to projects. But was there any hesitancy on your part to possibly being locked in to such a quirky, oddball kind of show like this?

(Laughs) There wasn’t. I believe in the show, and I believe in what it is that we can do and the freedom we’re afforded from FX, which is extraordinary. They believe in the show. It’s a little daunting, the notion of being associated with or tied into something for a very long time. We really don’t know. Who knows how long the show can last? But I think it’ll only last as long as Jason and all of the creators feel that it is something to explore, and that it is still interesting. There’s something kind of nice about having an outlet, a certain amount of consistency of a creative outlet while still giving me quite a lot of time within a year to do other projects as well. … It also films in Los Angeles. It films very close to my house, which is a complete luxury. I haven’t filmed in Los Angeles in a very long time, so there’s something nice about being home and working on something as well. For me, my hope for the show is that it’s simply good. Whether it lasts for two seasons or five seasons is sort of irrelevant to me. As long as what it is that we’re doing is something that we believe is interesting and quality. That’s the most important thing.

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