Review Article

A glimpse of elwoodian acting in Ash Wednesday

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Review Article

A lot of the pieces my boss writes for medical journals are review articles - things like, "Advances in hereditary colorectal cancer research over the past decade."  A recent attempt to describe the results of this decade's elwoodian acting research in a forum post made me think it might be time for a review article on the subject, especially for those who haven't been on the research team all of that time. There is, of course, the glossary, but that doesn't put the pieces together.  Since elwoodian research is a form of fandom, it's been conducted somewhat tongue-in-cheek,but that doesn't mean the concepts are any less real (except, maybe, for Nat angst).

One reason this is a good time for a review article is that there's evidence we may be entering a new phase in which some of the concepts we've become familiar with will need to be re-evaluated. The fundamental question for future research is whether, as Elijah matures, he'll be able to retain his natural ability to connect on an emotional level with a character. Will growing self-awareness negatively affect the subconscious elements that are so much a part of true elwoodian acting? Is it possible that those effects are already being seen? In order to monitor this in the future, we need to understand what research has shown so far regarding Elijah's ability to display such natural-appearing emotions in his acting (natural to the character, that is).  

The microexpression theory

The microexpression theory of Elijah Wood acting is built on the work of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (to which we were alerted by peaceweaver when she ran across it in a New Yorker article some years back). I check out the UCSF website a couple of times a year to see what's happening, and the last time I looked this research was still continuing, with its primary aim now being towards lie detection for law enforcement - not too useful for our purposes, although it may help explain the theory to those not familiar with it.

Microexpressions are, according to the UCSF researchers, tiny changes in human facial expression that are not under an individual's conscious control. For example, no matter how good a liar someone is, a person who's well trained in the recognition of microexpressions can recognize the subtle movements of the facial muscles that indicate lying - and which the liar cannot consciously control.

What drew the interest of the UCSF researchers was the discovery that there are people who are almost always correct in their "hunches" about other people, although they don't know how they do it. To follow our law enforcement example, they're able to "just know" when someone is lying or telling the truth. What the researchers found was that these people were subconsciously responding to microexpressions. The researchers have now taken the direction of using what they can find out about microexpressions from these especially gifted individuals and teaching it to "ordinary" people so they can consciously watch for and detect the microexpressions.

This direction taken by the researchers isn't as exciting for elwoodian theorizing as if they would have continued to study the gifted individuals themselves to find out how they're able to do what they do. Because, naturally, one of the postulates of the theory is that Elijah Wood is one of these especially gifted people. During interviews connected with LotR publicity, he made several comments (now lost through message board crashes), that he evidently considered normal, about being able to read someone's state of mind. Perhaps realizing that other people didn't consider them normal, he hasn't made any for awhile. Of course, even an especially gifted person has to be focusing attention on the other person (which some people who've personally encountered Elijah say he's almost frighteningly capable of) to be able to do this, which is one reason there's a fear that growing self-awareness may limit Elijah's ability in this area.

This gift wouldn't be of much use for acting without its other side: being able to display the microexpressions a character would have in the situation being shown on film. It's important to remember that these expressions are not under a person's conscious control. Part of elwoodian research by Faculty members has been the identification of such microexpressions in Elijah's acting; they're found, not unexpectedly, primarily in movies where he most fully disappears into a character, the kind of movie he must have been talking about when he said he knows he's done a good job if he watches a movie he's in and doesn't see himself on the screen. Two of the strongest pieces of evidence for the microexpression theory of Elijah Wood acting are that (1) these microexpressions are observable by those who know what to watch for (e.g., Faculty members who've read or learned about the New Yorker article), and can be documented in screencaps - including many of the ones on this site; and (2) when he's asked about certain scenes after a movie's released, Elijah doesn't remember why he played them as he did. The second of these is essential, because microexpressions, by definition, have to be displayed subconsciously. This isn't to say that the theory doesn't extend beyond microexpressions to apply even to acting moments that wouldn't need to be played subconsciously, the most well-known and most public of which was Elijah's inability during a Q&A session to remember even giving that little nod at the end of LotR-RotK - much less explain why he gave it. If he's able to subconsciously connect to a character's emotions enough to display microexpressions, he's certainly capable of doing so for less subtle moments.

Character-centered acting

In some ways, of course, all acting is character centered, but it's rare for an actor to take it to the depth that Elijah does. Not even Elijah can do it all the time; in some movies, it doesn't happen at all, in some there's a brief flash of it (the scene with Rosario Dawson in Ash Wednesday, for example - see left border), but in his best films the character - rather than the actor - is the constant presence on the screen. Each character has his own body language, movement, and speech. It's not surprising that Elijah's audition tape for Frodo got watched (even though PJ was set on casting an unknown Brit in the part) because Fran Walsh had seen him in The Ice Storm; Mikey Carver is the best pre-Frodo example of this kind of acting.

Although elwoodian acting may have some things in common with method acting, the two aren't identical. For one thing, Elijah was already doing it at the age of eight, which is a little young to have learned "the method". One of the earliest clues to the process came in an interview during publicity for Radio Flyer; when asked how he showed the emotions he did in a crying scene, Elijah replied, "I want to help my brother and I can't." There's nothing in that response about what the actor did - but it shows an identification with the character. Instead of trying to find an emotion within himself, or putting himself into the character's situation as a method actor might (for example, Viggo Mortenson living like a ranger while playing one, or Dustin Hoffman going without sleep for The Marathon Man), Elijah connects with the emotion as experienced by the character - not by himself. One of the complaints during the "Kill me now!" days was that an actor as young as Elijah wouldn't have enough life experience to be able to believably portray Frodo. My response to that was to point out that no actor has ever experienced what Frodo did, so what was needed was an actor who could believably portray emotions he had never personally felt - something I knew Elijah could do, because I'd seen it onscreen. This is what I mean by "character-centered acting".

Any acting is an art rather than a science, and Elijah's is more so than most, so I'm not going to say I know "how he does that" (and he certainly doesn't do it in the same way all the time!); but it does seem that, at least in some movies, it's related to getting to know the character as a separate person in and of himself. Judging from some of what he's said, it seems that Elijah usually meets the character primarily through the script, which makes improvisation more difficult for him than it is for some actors, and which I suspect was behind his desire to stick with the script while shooting Ash Wednesday rather than ad libbing as many of the actors did. For Mikey Carver, Elijah not only had the script, but he and Ang Lee built the character from the ground up. It's interesting that he and Liev Schreiber did the same thing for Jonathan in Everything Is Illuminated. Neither of the books those movies are based on give much to build those particular characters on; Mikey is basically a cipher and Jonathan is - purposefully, I believe - an invisible observer. Both characters were assembled outside of the actual filming, so Elijah got to know them as unique individuals before the time came to play them. Many actors would base such blank-slate characters on an aspect of themselves, but Mikey and Jonathan are - each in his own unique way - completely different persons from Elijah Wood.

Much has been made of Elijah's ability to pop in and out of character at will. I wonder if this gets noticed partly due to the ease of telling the difference between Elijah and the character; with many actors, it would be difficult tell when they were in character and when they weren't. To the extent that Elijah can do this more than other actors, I think it's because the character is being treated as a separate person rather than a part of the actor that he has to "get in touch with." But the character's skin isn't always easy to pop in and out of, even for Elijah. There's a "making of" shot from the Grey Havens where he's standing off to the side, obviously not in the part of the scene being filmed, but also very obviously Frodo rather than Elijah; there are situations where not popping in and out of character is the better choice. We know that during the filming of the "Wheel of Fire" scene, PJ kept exhorting Elijah to "go deeper." We also know that after that scene he had to go off by himself and recover. But whatever pain he was feeling was almost certainly not from "going deeper" into himself - it was from going deeper into Frodo.

Elijah's character-centered acting gives us microexpressions and "How does he do that?" moments. It gives us mixes of emotions that are impossible to label, but are perfectly correct for the character in that situation - and also, I'd venture to say, impossible to intellectually plan and execute. (Is it possible to decide to show 30% sadness, 15% fear, 40% courage, 15% determination, and various trace elements of other feelings all at the same time?) It gives us characters who transition naturally from one emotion to the next, resulting in an actor who can't be caught out-of-character even in individual screencaps; very good actors make the transition in such a way that the viewer's eyes don't see it, but the moment between can often be caught in a screencap.

IIRC, this discussion started from my statement in the forum that if Elijah became the kind of individual who's willing to step on other people to get what he wants, it would be tragic not only for him as a person but for his acting. In order to use other people you have to see them as less human than yourself. If Elijah ever got to the point where his focus was entirely on himself and not at all on other people, his ability to pick up on - and display - other people's emotions would suffer, and his character-centered acting in which he gets to know the character as a human being separate from himself would slip away. And that would be too sad for any tongue-in-cheek discussion.

Comments or additional thoughts? Come talk about it in the site forum.

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Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw. Permission is granted to publish elsewhere on the web, provided this copyright notice and an active link to this site are included.