Q & A: Elijah Wood and Jason Gann talk FX’s “Wilfred”
In the new FX comedy, Wilfred, Elijah Wood stars as Ryan, a depressed ex-lawyer who meets a dog named Wilfred. The only problem is, when the world sees a dog, Ryan sees a guy in a dog suit.
An Australian, pot smoking, hole-digging, horny man in a dog suit.
In his first TV show, this may seem like a gamble for Wood but it may just pay off. The show is funny, dark and totally unique.
I talked Elijah and co-creator and co-star Jason Gann in a conference call where Wood talks about why he decided to do a TV series, what good comedy is and what he looks for in a script.
Wilfred airs on Thursdays on FX. Tonight is the premiere.
Elijah, I imagine that you get offered a lot of TV roles. Why you chose this one?
Elijah Wood: I actually don’t get offered a lot of TV roles. I read a few scripts, mainly dramas. I was just interested in taking a look at television because I really had never seen what was kind of available and what people were making on television. It’s changed so much even in the last five years. I don’t know, I read this script … the last scripts that I was sent, and my manager sent it to me and said it was the funniest thing that she’d ever read. I loved it and it kind of blew my mind. It was unlike anything I’ve read or seen on television. A perfect extreme in funny but also sort of cerebral and strange and difficult to describe, which I think is always a good thing.
Can you kind of talk to us about your characters in the show and kind of give us a little bit on them?
Jason Gann: Well “Wilfred” is a dog. The world sees a dog. “Ryan” sees a man in a cheap dog suit who smokes bongs and pretty much terrorizes him. But you know, we sort of think that after a while that maybe “Wilfred” is an angel and a devil on his shoulder, giving him advice and trying to bring him back into the real world. That’s “Wilfred’s” character. Elijah?
Elijah Wood: Yes, “Ryan” is essentially a guy who had followed a path that was ultimately not of his choosing for far too long. He listened to his family, listened to his father, did kind of what he thought everyone else wanted him to do as opposed to following his own interests. As a result of that in this pilot, we find him in a place where he’s hit a wall, essentially, and it’s made him suicidal.
He’s kind of a broken individual. He’s someone that hasn’t really busted out of himself to live freely and to live with confidence and to define himself, and ultimately that’s where “Wilfred” arrives. He arrives sort of in that moment of crisis to push “Ryan” outside of the self-imposed and sort of family-imposed boundaries that have been created around him.
What is your definition of a good formula for comedic TV?
Jason Gann: A good formula—well, people are pretty quick to admit if they can’t dance or they can’t sing, but not many people think that they have a bad sense of humor. Everyone thinks that their sense of humor is good. So it’s a really difficult thing to throw open to a large panel of people’s mind, which is what happens in most television. So I think to get something right you really have to have like a smaller nucleus of comedic minds and then trust that small group and trust your instincts and what you think is funny regardless of what you think what the masses will think is funny. Because if you try and cater to an audience that already exists, then you’ll just come out with boring old stuff. You really need to, I think, pioneer what you think is funny and then hope that the audience follows you.
Then there’s just truth on the actual playing of the comedy. Aside from the writing is just trying it for truth and I think that’s hopefully what Elijah and I bring, I think, together.
Elijah Wood: I was going to say the same thing. From my experience, what I think is a solid base for any comedy is just honesty and truth and it coming from a real place. As surreal as this show gets and is, ultimately, we’re dealing with a character that most can’t see the way that I can see it. But outside of that, most of the scenarios, we’re playing them for honesty and I think that that is always an important base, and I think something truly funny will always come out of that.
“Wilfred” is sort of “Ryan’s” coping mechanism, I guess, … stranger coping mechanisms. I was wondering how you guys cope with stress and problems. Who do you see and talk to?
Jason Gann: I don’t know if you really want to go there. I’m sort of lucky that in that for me, I’m a writer now. I started out as an actor but I’m a writer, and so things like Wilfred and shows like that are where I escape to. It’s only been the last two years that I had to sort of force myself to go out and be more involved in the world because I can get a bit cerebral and escape into the characters and the world of characters. So but now, I guess I escape into stories about “Wilfred” and characters like “Wilfred.”
Elijah Wood: Coping mechanism? I don’t know. We all deal with a certain amount of stress on a day-to-day basis. I probably smoke too many cigarettes, which isn’t a very good thing. I don’t know. I don’t have any extraordinary sort of coping mechanism. I certainly don’t talk to a dog.
“Wilfred” and “Ryan” are both intriguing characters. What is it like bringing them to life and have you picked up any of their bad habits?
Elijah Wood: Intriguing characters—I certainly haven’t picked up any of “Ryan’s” bad habits. “Ryan” and I are very different, thankfully. I think I’m a lot more pulled together than “Ryan” is. Yes, no bad habits have entered into my life as a result of playing him.
He’s a constantly interesting character to play. He’s sort of in constant struggle. It’s an interesting character to play. On the surface level, he is interacting with “Wilfred” and kind of takes that, as we as an audience, I think, take that for granted and accept that relationship. But throughout the show as we’re filming it, I’m constantly thinking about what’s happening in reality and what he’s really going through. I’m not necessarily playing that and I don’t have to play that, but I think there’s a lot of depth to what “Ryan’s” experience is, and he’s kind of broken and he’s constantly in the state of trying to repair himself and he’s working really hard to sort of stay above water, and it’s constantly interesting to play.
Elijah, you seem to have a knack for choosing roles in movies that are interesting and challenging. Are there certain types of projects that you gravitate towards or a specific thing you look for in a script?
Elijah Wood: I think I’m always just looking for something—I mean, look, on the basest of levels I’m looking for something that I just respond to. I think it’s hard enough to find quality scripts and work that you just respond to on a gut level. But more than that I think I’m also always looking for something really different. Something that is unlike anything I’ve done before both in terms of the project as a whole and also in terms of what the role would entail. To continue to challenge myself, but also to work on projects that are unique and different.
I’m definitely attracted to things that are less easily defined, and this is a perfect example of that. It’s never interesting, I don’t think, to do anything truly conventional. I think convention can have its merits, certainly, but I think it’s far more interesting to travail roads that are less traveled and that are a bit more fascinating and certainly more challenging. For me, with this as well, I’ve never done comedy before and I was very interested in the notion of delving into comedy and working within a medium that I’ve not worked in before.
Is there a lot of improv going on on set or do you stick to the scripts?
Jason Gann: There hasn’t been a great deal of improvisation in this script just because we have like 22 minutes of television and you’ve got to get a lot of story across, but we have a bit of freedom within when we’re rehearsing the scene, like just before we do it.
I mean if something begs to be tweaked and changed because we think it’s really funny then it’s great to have a bit of flexibility to do that. Also when we’re just bouncing ideas around when we’re not actually shooting, we get a really good idea, then we can kind of, we’ve got the bat flying straight into the writer’s room and so we can inject those ideas as we go along.
Elijah Wood: There’s also, to speak to the scripts as well, they’re very finely crafted scripts. They’re incredibly detailed and layered, which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for improv, there certainly is, but there’s also a lot of story to tell, like Jason said, within each episode that is important to get across and there are sort of finely crafted joked within that as well. There probably is room to play around, and Jason and I certainly have the conformability with each other and within our characters to be able to do that. There’s also just so much that we have to get through each day that there’s also just simply not a lot of time for. We were doing, I think, eight to ten pages a day. So we had a lot of work.
This was an Australian series, but can you talk about how you became involved in the US version?
Elijah Wood: My experience with this is before I read the pilot script, I was not aware of the Australian show. But when I was sent the script it came attached with information about the original show and indicated that Jason, who had created the original show, was involved in the creation of this incarnation as well as reprising, as well as “Wilfred.” For me, immediately even before reading the script, in fact gave me such confidence. It’s so rare, I think, for a show to be that good from a foreign country that actually includes it’s original creator, I knew that is was immediately going to have a sense of integrity attached to it in whatever incarnation it was going to be from it’s origin, and then reading it and falling in love with the pilot.
From there I met with David Zuckerman, who’s our show runner, and head writer and he indicated for me where—we talked for about an hour. We just talked about the possibilities for the show and where it was going to go from the pilot and all of these ideas that he had for the character of “Ryan” and for the relationship between him and “Wilfred,” and I just became more and more excited about it. I loved the pilot, but the world that opened up beyond that in talking with David was so exciting to me. Particularly in that he was imagining and crafting a comedy show that had darkness to it, that had a cerebral aspect to it, that was not necessarily easy to peg, and allowed us to explore quite a lot within the context of what could simply be described as a man and befriending a man in a dog suit.
I don’t know, the very notion of being a part of something like that was so exciting and interesting. So it just sort of—from there it was just a normal process, auditioned and then I met Jason in that process, and we kind of immediately had a blast in the room and so that’s just sort of—we ended up doing it.
How hard or how easy it is to play to a character in a dog suit and react to that? Is that something that comes naturally or do you find it actually easier than other work you’ve done?
Elijah Wood: I have to say that we have become so used to the environment that we’re working in and for Jason and I as actors we’re playing these characters. We’ve become used to that relationship and work within that relationship. So honestly, I’ve almost literally forgotten that he’s in a suit. I don’t see “Wilfred” like that. Me, personally working as an actor against a man in a dog suit, I have ceased to see that.
It’s actually really funny. When we went to do—we went to American Idol and sat in the audience to sort of cause of a bit of a stir and to be sort of a strange placement. And when we were there, again because I’m so used to seeing Jason like that and it almost sort of means nothing to me anymore, it was really interesting for me to be in an environment where he did stand out. Where people saw him and would look at him as a man in a dog suit and it was a really interesting thing for me to kind of take a step back and actually look at it from a different perspective because I’ve become so used to it.
So acting with him, we’re literally just two guys playing these characters. I don’t really think about the way he’s perceived or the fact that he’s in a suit anymore. He’s become real to me.