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Elijah Wood, 24, best known for starring in the Lord of the Rings movies, plays a student who becomes immersed in the world of English soccer thugs in the upcoming film Hooligans.
SI: This a far cry from a big-budget film. Why was this script so compelling to you?
Wood: I was utterly fascinated by the subject matter. I had never heard much about English soccer hooliganism. It's a part of English and European culture that was completely foreign to me. I had heard bits of information here and there but I really didn't know the whole story. Right off the bat, the subject matter was one of the more fascinating elements of the script itself. The idea of playing a character like Matt who starts off as this very innocent character -- he travels to England after being kicked of college, he has no friends there and just a sister he is slightly estranged from -- was interesting. He falls in with this group of people and it's kind of what happens as a result of being exposed to football fans and the violence and the camaraderie. It's an interesting character arc as the character grows throughout the process. As an actor the role fascinated me. Meeting with [director] Lexi Alexander after I read the script and hearing her passion for the film and her ultimate vision was exciting. I wanted to be a part of something that had these kind of grassroots attached to it and would be difficult to get made. There was someone at the helm who believed in it so much that she would do anything to get it made. That kind of energy and passion excited me.
SI: How did you approach researching this world of English football?
Wood: My character comes into it from an innocent perspective and kind of has no idea about football or the violence that ensues between the fans or any of that world. I simply had to fly to London and kind of experience things as they went along -- which was kind of perfect for my character. The guys who played the characters who were in the firm actually had to more research and spent time with some of the guys that actually exist in firms to get a sense of who those people were to be able to play those characters. For me, I just jumped into the world and experienced by default what these guys were experiencing.
SI: How did you present hooliganism on the screen without glorifying the violence of it?
Wood: Well, I think for all of us the important thing was to show the initial excitement of being part of a group like that and the kind of camaraderie that a group like that has, this sort of addictive nature that violence has and the excitement and rush that it gives them. So it was important to show the good of that, and ultimately what is attractive about that. And to not glorify it, it was important to show what ultimately the outcome of that can be. So there is kind of an arc within the film throughout the fight sequences. From the beginning it becomes more and more exciting and then ultimately there is a price to pay. And we don't hold back in showing what that price is. And that was our way of not ultimately glorifying football violence.
SI: Can an American audience get behind a film that is so steeped in another country's culture?
Wood: I think ultimately the story is a relatable story and a human story. It's going from a place of not feeling he belongs anywhere and not having a direction in life to finding people he belongs with and gaining a sense of identity and brotherhood through that. And then making various choices that he has to learn from. Everyone can relate to that. I think there are very common human themes and it just happened to be set against English football hooliganism. But I don't think you have to any knowledge of that world to enjoy the film. And it's presented through an American's eyes.
SI: Your director is a former World Karate and kickboxing champion. Was there any doubt as to who was in charge on set?
Wood: No (laughs). When your director can kick your ass, there is certainly no question who's in charge.
SI: Are you an big sports fan?
Wood: I'm not a huge sports fan. But I grew up in Iowa in a family that supported college football and basketball. So there were the Iowa Hawkeyes. But I never really got into it. The sport I probably paid most attention to was boxing. I've been a boxing fan for awhile. Basketball I have followed lightly. I followed hockey for a bit. My brother was a huge Red Wings fan so I kind of got more information about the team. I didn't follow boxing enough to really know many boxers but I enjoyed the sport. It's just one of those things I would catch and watch. As brutal as the sport is, it's really technical. I boxed before. I used to train for boxing mainly for exercise so the kind of chess match that is boxing is fascinating.
SI: Have you ever had any interest playing a real-life person from sports or a film about a sports team?
Wood: Never actively interested in it in terms of looking for it but certainly I wouldn't be opposed to playing a character like that. Sports stories are often such human, heroic kind of stories of personal triumphs. A lot of the sports films that we have seen over the years generally revolve around characters who are fighting against opposition and though a specific sport sport they kind of overcome their own demons. Or maybe it's a team that against all odds wins a championship. That's what captures people's imagination about sports in the first place. It's about watching people achieve greatness on some level, particularly the underdog. Sports films tend to revolve around underdog characters. There are great stories to get wrapped up in. I'd certainly love to be a part of something like that.
SI: You can trade places with any athlete for a day. Who would you choose?
Wood: Maybe Kobe Bryant when he first came into the league. The thing that is always fascinating about great sports figures is the period of time before they are considered to be at the top of their game. When they are just starting to make strides in that direction, when people start to realize the potential of a particular player, it's always an exciting thing to watch someone go from a place of relative obscurity and then over the course of a season that person becomes a sports god of sorts. So maybe to be Kobe during one of those early seasons as he just started to make his mark. I find that period within a particular athlete's life incredibly fascinating and amazing.
SI: You own one of the two prop rings in Lord of the Rings, true?
Wood: I don't carry it with me. The ring is actually in a pouch in a small wooden box, and it's boxed away at the moment.
SI: Make sure that it doesn't get out, OK?
Wood: No kidding.