Being Brinnin: A Conversation with Elijah Wood
by, Barnaby Walter March 6, 2015 The National Student
After becoming a household name for his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s, Elijah Wood has been choosing a selection of diverse and interesting works to act in, from serial-killer horror Maniac to dark comedy TV series Wilfred. His latest production is a stylish, beautifully realized look at poet Dylan Thomas’s first visit to New York. Wood plays would-be-poet and academic John M Brinnin.
Tell us about your character in Set Fire To The Stars.
So John Malcolm Brinnin was a poet, he was a professor of poetry and ultimately he was the reason Dylan Thomas traveled to America. It was his brainchild: the idea of bringing him there and introducing who he thought was the greatest literary mind of the time to the US. He was virtually unknown outside of literary circles.
John is a complicated character, as he is in the script. There’s a lot of indication of the kind of person who he was: straight laced, quite buttoned up, not very vulnerable. He was uncomfortable in situations out of his control. I did a bit of research on him and found I was hitting dead ends all the time. I found there’s very little biographical information about John Malcolm Brinnin. The only thing I managed to find was a reference to his death in 1998 – he died in Florida, seemingly alone. There was a life partner that he was with and that was it. Everywhere else I would find references to his poetry but no information about the man, which in and of itself was pretty revealing. I think the lack of information was enough information, if that makes sense. The book that he wrote,Dylan Thomas in America, we’ve extracted from that the five days the movie takes place in. That was revealing as well – his reverence for and love for Dylan and the way he wrote about him was relatively telling.
Was there a hint of a love interest in Dylan?
I think John was a closeted homosexual, all things point to that direction, but he never would have allowed that out; it’s not a defining characteristic but it’s certainly interesting. We’ve toyed with it – it’s in the film, it’s all in the fabric of the character, his inability to communicate with women or find them attractive. He was a person that lacked the ability to just be. Dylan is unafraid of being an idiot and a fool and that changes John and that’s integral to the story.
Do you think John was trying to save Dylan?
Save him? Maybe. Help him. It was important to John that Dylan get away from his vices so that he could find his center and it was important to John that he helped facilitate this financial tour for Dylan as well, I think he felt a sense of responsibility to Dylan, that he’d brought him all the way out to the US and was creating a financial opportunity for someone that didn’t have a lot of money. So there had to have been that burden as well. But I also think it was important to John to be the one to introduce him to the US to get him more work and to give him the attention he felt like he deserved. When you read the book you see he kept his distance little bit. He got so deeply involved so quickly and realized it was far more responsibility that he was even capable of accepting and he realized to protect himself emotionally, it was best to help from a distance.
Who do you have more in common with, Dylan or John?
I think I have more in common with Dylan than I have with John but I don’t relate to the sort of whirling dervish that Dylan is or the lack of control he seems to have or the enjoyment of chaos. I’m not that person but as a human being I feel very free and very open and happy to chat with anyone. I don’t find anything daunting socially, which I think John does. He’s very uncomfortable in his own skin, he’s uncomfortable socially with how he’s perceived, all those things and I don’t feel that at all. In that regard, far more like Dylan than John.
Have you always felt like that?
I think it’s innate. I do think that through experience you can learn to be those things and you can grow to be more open – certainly I’ve had plenty of life experiences where it’s almost required of me as an actor. I sit in interviews; I’m thrust into it because of the work I do. If I wasn’t naturally that way I’d have to learn and innately as can actor you do have to find a sense of vulnerability in order to do it. You have to access that, to be vulnerable in front of people to a certain degree. But from a young age I just always remember loving people and quite enjoying being in new situations and meeting new people and socializing. I’m a funny mixture of introvert and extrovert – I can be quite quiet and be an observer as well. I can find myself in social situations where I’d rather listen than talk.
How did you first discover Set Fire To The Stars?
I read the script and my agent had read it and recommended it. I think on paper, because it’s a movie about Dylan Thomas, a literary character, it could have been very literal in its approach, very biographical, a stuffy biographical film that takes itself too seriously. What was so refreshing was it didn’t have that approach at all yet it was still about Dylan Thomas and it had energy and movement and life and it bounced off the page. I was so impressed by that, I fell in love with the characters and their relationship and what the focus of the movie was.
In some ways, you didn’t have to have a pre-existing relationship to Dylan, nor did the movie preach to you about who Dylan was. He’s just there, it’s just two men and I just loved it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and then I met with Andy Goddard who directed and co wrote it with Celyn and he described to me the vision he had, how he wanted to make the film, the idea of shooting it in black and white, because we weren’t shooting it in New York. The approach to showing New York from a very impressionistic standpoint was really exciting. It was all in Wales, it was all in Swansea – it’s amazing isn’t it? It’s a real credit to our production designer and to our DOP and to the approach but having Gruff Rhys do the score was incredibly exciting, I think one of the last things Andy said in our meeting, he made a reference to Withnail and I and I thought, oh alright I need to do this movie! In some ways the spirit of that movie is in the film, it’s about two men and it’s very fun, it’s moving, it’s sort of bawdy at times.
You an Celyn obviously got on well.
Brilliantly. We had a week before we started shooting where the cast was actually in Wales and we had to work on the material and do some rehearsing we didn’t have a lot of time. It was an 18 day shoot. But Celyn and I bonded super quickly, it was just lovely.
Your scenes with Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon are brilliant.
Oh man, they are incredible. So much of the film is Dylan and John so we would have a lot of these scenes with just the two of us and then all of a sudden Shirley and Kevin would come in with an explosion of energy and we’d feel like we were in a different film. It elevated us, it elevated the material and it gave us the opportunity to work with some actors who made those characters come to life in beautiful ways.