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On the Scene: The 'Illuminating' Elijah

September 29, 2005 By:
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Ukrainian field of dreams? Surprises await the formal American Jew, Jonathan (Elijah Wood), accompanied by guide Alex (Eugene Hutz) and Sammy Davis Junior, Junior (below, played by Mickey and Mouse).
There's the ring of truth - and fantasy - in the quiet wizardry Elijah Wood applies to his magic wand of quirky characters.

From "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to the singular sensation that is "Everything Is Illuminated" - which opens Friday, Sept. 30 - Wood illuminates the human (and elfin) condition, radiating rays from within. From Hobbit to Hebrew - Wood's latest screen scion, the young and Jewish Jonathan, is an obsessive collector trying to retrieve elements of his grandfather's past from World War II - the actor is flexible and nimble, nailing one character after another with a dynamic deftness.

With much ado about Frodo now waning - it's just part, albeit a major part, of his impressive bio - the actor has gone from Middle Earth to the ends of the earth: His Jonathan seeks solace and sustenance in discovering what happened to his zayde in war-torn Ukraine as the Holocaust and its public hell encroached on the world.

Leaving the comfort of his American homeland, Jonathan time-travels to Russia, where the present has really never let go of the past and heritage is a personal Hermitage, a museum piece as anything else that is in the stately collection.

Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 National Jewish Book Award-winning work of the same name, "Everything Is Illuminated" is lit with outlandish and larger-than-life self-styled lunatics, including Jonathan's guile-driven guides - a hip-hop Ukrainian P. Diddy wannabe and his "blind" anti-Semitic grandfather, who drives the tour car on a road trip down memory lane that yields no signs of stopping anywhere worth remembering.

Adding to the tale is Sammy Davis Junior Junior, Grandpop's seeing-eye dog, just another howl of a fringe member of this ragged rat pack of pack rats.

It's a trip Crosby and Hope would have made had they been Jewish. And while he is not Jewish, Wood is eager to go into the woods with his character, discovering, too, a Jewish feel for life amid its flora and fauna.

"I can certainly relate to the Jewish sense of memory and the need to relate to relatives," says Wood, 26, close to his own family. "In fact, I feel like an honorary Jew, having grown up working with and knowing so many Jewish people," adds the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native son.

"And I've played Jewish before," notably as a younger Barry Levinson in that director's autobiographical "Avalon," 15 years ago.

It extends way past Hollywood casting, however; in a way, says Wood, he casts his lot with Jewish traditions.

"I feel a kinship to Jewish people; I'm fascinated by the religion, the sense of tradition" - and the legacy of tragedy: The actor is "very familiar with the Shoah Foundation," having worked with the Holocaust history project founded by Steven Spielberg and done tapings of books about the Holocaust.

Which is why the novel way in which "Illuminated" sheds light on the Holocaust attracts him, too. The spotlight here is not on "the grander scale" of concentration camps and the labor camps, but on the shtetl-size shared experiences of families during the war.

Rocky Roads
And what especially intrigued the actor was the rocky road trip that jolts Jonathan into new realities about his family's past. "The whole idea of an American traveling to a foreign culture and connecting with that culture - and this is not some American cliche - to bridge gaps as a human being and as family … ."

Well, he says, he found it personally illuminating, having been a stranger in a strange land himself, spending 16 months shooting "Lord" in New Zealand.

If Wood has a new zeal for travel and traipsing through history, the past is a path he is keen on taking. "Illuminated" has been a learning experience, as electrifying as lightning.

"The beauty of the Jewish culture is that the past is so important," says Wood. "That makes Jewish people so unique."

A sweet sui generis? Wood certainly thinks so. As for those things that made him feel like a gefilte fish out of water on the set, he had only to turn to the movie's debuting director, the Jewish Liev Schreiber, the noted actor who also adapted the novel for the screen, for advice.

More than anything, Wood has collected fine memories in portraying Jonathan. But then … "I enjoy collecting; of course, I'm not as meticulous in my collection" as his alter ego, who gathers up and bags all of life's detritus and details.

"I horde, sure; I'm a pack rat."

What Wood has gathered over the years is an impressive array of awards and reviews, whether staying "Forever Young" opposite Mel Gibson in 1992; being "The Good Son" the following year; or heating up "The Ice Storm" in 1997. He is also starring in the upcoming "Green Street," a soccer-style saga set on the mean streets of London.

Hollywood has learned to open the door and save a chair for Elijah at its dinner table; he's proved quite the meal ticket. Wood was more than a Tolkein token when it came to the success of "Lord of the Rings": His Frodo freeze-dried the character in movie history; the championship ring Wood earned? Solid Oscar-gold.

Wood proves his mettle again in "Illuminated," ill-fit with a pair of goblet-sized spectacles that shade from view those deep-blue eyes that seem to see all.

"The part made me ask questions, too; in my case, about where my great-grandparents came from," he says.

And like his character, he didn't look west as a young man - he looked east: "I do have heritage in Eastern Europe, and I wondered how that defines who I am."

Obviously, he's not defined by the business - knock wood, he seems to say with every action he takes while off the big screen that lets him focus on a real life and matters mundane.

And if Wood occasionally comes across as an old soul in a brave new world, that glow is refracted too in his choice for personal favorite film.

Surprise Choice
" 'Harvey,' " he says of the 1950 classic in which Jimmy Stewart's character imagines a 6-foot rabbit as his companion, "is incredibly profound; the more I see it, the more I get from it."

And what he gets is a tutorial in "the way human beings treat each other."

It is, he says, his DVD treat of treats.

And what an ironic treat it is that his latest movies involve rings - as represented by the holy grail of the Tolkein stories and as a wedding band in "Illuminated."

But there is another ring that makes up Wood's own trilogy. He dons a silver ring on his right hand, a band with a Hebrew inscription, given him by his ex-girlfriend that, caught in the band of light of a late-summer day, seems magically illuminated.

"It's a quote from Hillel," says Wood, deciphering the Hebrew text on the outer ring as the legendary advice of "If not now, when."

"It's a variation of 'seize the day.' How we face our fears, overcome our barriers."

From Hobbit to … Hillel: "That expression means a lot to me," he says, slipping the ring of truth back on his finger.

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