You know Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, the goodhearted, quietly brave hobbit at the center of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). Now meet him as the clueless, cowardly Ryan, the neurotic single guy he plays in his first television series, the quirky comedy Wilfred, which will debut June 23 on FX.
How much of Frodo might be in him is open to debate, but Wood makes clear that he's nothing like the troubled Ryan, who in the opening scenes of the series is preparing to kill himself.
"I'm braver now than I've ever been," the 30-year-old actor says, speaking by telephone from the Wilfred set in Venice, Calif. "I've let go of certain fears. I have an overall sense of groundedness, which, in this industry, helps for longevity and not losing your mind."
Wood's good looks are undeniable -- Oxford Murders director Alex de la Iglesia calls his big, blue eyes "the most powerful eyes in the industry" -- but it has not been easy for him to make the transition from child star to adult actor. His boyish face and 5-foot-6-inch stature make him look more like 20 than 30.
"There's a great benefit to looking younger," Wood says, "but at times it's been to my detriment with certain characters I've wanted to play and for which I may have been perceived as too young. Where there have been difficulties trying to find roles or land particular parts, it's mostly been because of my age."
A few films ago, after playing a manipulative lab technician with designs on a client (Kate Winslet) in the romantic fantasy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and an American exchange student solving British homicides in The Oxford Murders, Wood thought he'd gotten over the hump.
"That was not accurate," he says. "I don't know that I've made the transition entirely. I think I'm still perceived as younger."
Wilfred might change that perception, along with several others. It's Wood's first outing as the lead in a television series, and also his first major attempt at playing for laughs.
Wilfred's premise is similar to earlier fantasy sitcoms in which the protagonist has a friend, spouse, or animal whose magical powers he must keep secret, but this time it's kicked up a notch or two.
Deeply unhappy at living under the thumb of his controlling family, but lacking the guts to take charge of his life, Ryan is about to end it all when he meets Wilfred, his new neighbor's dog. The world sees Wilfred as a mischievous mutt, but Ryan -- and viewers -- see him as a bullying, profane, beer-drinking, marijuana-smoking man in a dog suit who talks with an Australian accent.
Wilfred often behaves physically like a dog, making for some crude slapstick humor, but he becomes Ryan's tough-love life coach, daring him into adventure and goading him out of his shell. The show is an American adaptation of an Australian hit co-created by and starring Jason Gann, who also portrays Wilfred in the U.S. version.
Though Wood mostly plays straight man to Gann, he already has found that being the straight man isn't as easy as it looks.
"My character is mainly a reactor," he says, "but that has its challenges. So does selling something as being funny and keeping it in a space of realism. Comedic timing can be quite challenging."
As for the switch from movies to television, Wood says that it's not as remarkable as it might have been a decade or two ago.
"Television has opened up so much," he says, "and incredible actors and amazing directors and writers have moved into it. The Wilfred script was unlike anything I'd ever read."