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The Long, Strange Road Trip of Elijah Wood

The newest member of the ‘Yellowjackets’ cast arrives at an interesting time in the show—and the series has arrived at a perfect time in the actor’s career

Dan Evans

When Elijah Wood was cast for Season 2 of Yellowjackets, the Showtime thriller about a bunch of warped women and their particularly gruesome girlhoods, the choice was largely based on vibes. The first season of the show, which is set in both 1996 and 2021, benefited greatly from the creators’ meta decision to feature highly recognizable actors from the mid-to-late ’90s, like Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci, in the characters’ present-day forms. And Wood, with his child-actor cred and his subsequent turn-o’-the-millennium Lord of the Rings ubiquity, definitely hit that same note.

But when showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson reached out to tell him about the part, there was a catch to their pitch. For secrecy reasons, only those who had signed up to be on the show could access the scripts. Wood was given only the broad strokes of the proposed character, Walter Tattersall: that he was an eccentric fellow with a yen for true crime, that he would spend a lot of time on-screen with Ricci in her similarly idiosyncratic role of Misty Quigley, and that he was so nerd-earnest it would border on comic relief.

“It was a leap of faith,” Wood tells The Ringer in a Zoom conversation, “in the sense that I didn’t read anything, so I had to kind of take their word for it.” Luckily, it wasn’t just their word that was good—it was their work, too.

Wood first became aware of Yellowjackets the same way many of the show’s viewers did: Someone posted about it enthusiastically in a group chat. In Wood’s case, that group chat just happened to include Yellowjackets actress Melanie Lynskey, with whom he starred in the 2017 movie I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, and other people they worked with on that project. “There is a text thread that has been going on for six or seven years, and so we’re always keeping abreast of each other’s work,” he says. “Whenever anyone has something coming up, everyone is sort of, like, heaping all this love and praise onto the individual.” Lynskey signed on to Yellowjackets, the thread heard, and Wood made sure to check it out.

“It ticked a lot of the boxes for me,” he says. As the founder of SpectreVision, a production company that focuses on horror and psychological thriller films, Wood loved Yellowjackets not only for its messed-up character work, but also for its supernatural elements. And yeah, the gore too. “The whole thing felt really delicious,” he says. (Somewhere, a sleepwalking Taissa is mumbling: same.) And so, a season later, he jumped at the chance to become part of it.

“It was the first time in my life that I watched a show and loved it, and then in some subsequent season I got to participate in the thing that I had already seen and loved, which was really fun,” Wood says. “Getting to play in that sandbox was a total treat.”

Now, four episodes into the series’ second season and with Walter firmly embedded into the hectic arc of Yellowjackets, audiences are in for a total treat. In a show filled with unsolved mysteries ranging from the specific (who is the man with no eyes?) to the universally applicable (who is telling the truth?), Wood’s memorably penetrating gaze and aura of potential omniscience make Walter both a worthy adversary and a partner in(to) crime for Ricci’s character.

“Razor-sharp, touchingly sincere, and completely original” is how Ricci describes Wood in an email to The Ringer, a summary that could apply to Yellowjackets itself. And that combination is what makes Wood the perfect new name to pop up while “No Return” plays in the opening credits.

There are a few useful rules of thumb in this life: Never start a fight with someone named after a state; never follow a hippie to a second location; and, for crying out loud, never board a boat named Great Expectations to meet a stranger who posts on true crime forums under the handle “PuttingtheSICKinForensics”!!! All pretty sensible stuff.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the first season and a half of Yellowjackets, it’s that Misty, the spectacles-adjusting, syringe-wielding, screwy nurse, isn’t someone who follows societal rules—written or unwritten. (Misty is a gal who can clean up a hit but cannot take a hint.) And so there she is, in Episode 3 of this season, wearing a windbreaker and boarding some rando’s sea vessel. Which, honestly, thank goodness for Misty! Because that rando is Walter, and the scene that follows is absolutely shipshape.

Misty and Walter first meet on a Reddit-esque message board in which amateur sleuths try to suss out new details and theories on various crimes. She downvotes him (for being onto something about the murder of Adam Martin, which Misty helped Shauna cover up). Then he pursues her (all the way to the Tupperware in the fridge of the old folks’ home where she works). Just your classic online meet-cute! They first lock eyes IRL in the season’s second episode; and in Episode 3, they finally square off. The result involves a power saw, a long-sleeved shirt layered underneath a shorter-sleeved shirt, a savaging of the story Cyrano, a boat commode, and an impersonation of a federal officer. In other words, everything you could ask for.

Originally, this boat scene—which involves Misty hiding in a bathroom and feeding lines to Walter, who is posing as an FBI agent and trying to get information about the whereabouts of Misty’s missing friend, Natalie—was set to be filmed separately by the actors for logistical ease. But later, they decided to keep the actors together and stage it as if it were actually happening. “We were on a boat, with Elijah in the living room as pictured and me crammed into the bathroom,” Ricci says. “We shot both rooms simultaneously using ear wigs, and I kept forgetting to hiss ‘go for the kill!’ But we got it done.” At one point, both characters are crammed into the bathroom together, trying to strategize, and the mix of escalating stakes and vivid physicality in an unexpected location is about as peak Yellowjackets as it gets—without someone being consumed.

The fun continues in Episode 4, when Walter and Misty decide to go for a long drive to investigate a clue in Natalie’s disappearance. Despite barely knowing each other, the two wannabe detectives have extreme old-married-couple energy on their road trip. They bicker over which show tunes to put into the tape deck (Misty is not a Starlight Express fan). They assemble breakfast concoctions at a local diner. (Well, Walter does.) And they flirt via Agatha Christie references, natch.

“My favorite part of the Misty-Walter dynamic,” Ricci says, “is how genuine it is and how real it’s played. We both played the reactions we felt even if they were weird, and were painstaking in our efforts to make all the choices and lines feel organic and true to the characters. I suppose that’s why the strangeness really works.”

In their scenes, Misty and Walter mostly respect, but sometimes suspect, one another. They sneak sidelong glances, but they also roll their eyes. “Maybe I’m just a bored Moriarty looking for his Sherlock,” Walter suggests at one point—choosing to refer not to Sherlock’s sidekick, Watson, but to his professional nemesis. An interesting choice! (Also an interesting choice: Misty falling asleep in Episode 4 listening to bird sounds, while Walter tunes in to cats.) Misty, meanwhile, bosses Walter around as if she’s known him her whole life. You get the sense that she is flattered by Walter’s attention but also that she intends to turn it into one more tool in her macabre medical kit.

“She is just so skilled—she’s something of a finely tuned instrument,” Wood says of Ricci. “She’s been working since she was 8 or earlier. So we share that—like, we both come from having worked as kids.”

As a little kid with huge blue eyes, Wood modeled in and around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his parents owned a deli. By the age of 8, he had moved to Los Angeles and been cast in the 1989 music video for Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” as a small boy in a suit. Mary Agnes Donoghue, who directed a 10-year-old Wood in Paradise, says in an email that his mother “told me it was his idea to become an actor at a very young age, and his parents decided to go along with it.”

By the time Wood was a teenager, he had starred in films alongside so many big and emerging names of the ’90s—Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, and Thora Birch in Paradise; Mel Gibson and Jamie Lee Curtis in Forever Young; and Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son (not to even mention Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, Kevin Costner, and Lorraine Bracco in a bunch of other projects)—that he was like a younger version of Kevin Bacon, that iconic nexus.

“At the age of 10, Elijah was very talented and imaginative, and even though very much a child, he was an experienced actor,” Donoghue says. “The best thing about working with him, though, was that the child always won out over the experienced actor, which meant he inhabited his role, he didn’t act it.”

In 1994, wearing the hell out of a backward hat, Wood appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for Wavy Lay’s that also involved then–vice president Dan Quayle. “Obviously, potato(e) jokes, insert there,” Wood says now. “I got to go to the Super Bowl as a result of having done that commercial. And it was at that Super Bowl that … I got to meet Stevie Wonder. I got to meet Stevie Wonder at the fucking Super Bowl. Like, what a weird, crazy life this is!”

Speaking of weird, crazy lives, in 1997, both Wood and Ricci were part of the ensemble cast in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, a doleful adaptation of a Rick Moody novel about—as Wood described it in a delightful live chat on Prodigy that fall—“the sexual revolution in the 1970s and its effect on two families.” (In the same live chat, Wood said his musical tastes at the moment were “basically everything except for country, heavy metal, and rap. Favorite bands: Smashing Pumpkins, the Beatles, Bjork, Radiohead, Liquid Soul.”)

Wood has two major memories of working on The Ice Storm, which also starred Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, and Katie Holmes. There was the material: After mostly appearing in wholesome family fare, he was fascinated by the darker, grimmer, more adult subject matter. And then there was the visceral. Wood may have been an experienced actor, but that didn’t mean that the teenager didn’t sometimes win out.

“I certainly remember standing at the bottom of a pool with our tongues in each other’s mouths,” he says of a scene in which his and Ricci’s wholly inexperienced characters make out in an emptied deep end. (He described the vibe as “sucking each other’s faces!” in the 1997 Prodigy chat.) “I remember that day really well,” he says now. “I was more anxious about my mom being present and seeing it than I was about what Christina and I were doing, because it felt like we were just doing our job.”

That same year, Wood found out that the director Peter Jackson was casting for a new Lord of the Rings adaptation. He had never read the books, but he liked The Hobbit. And he was also a big fan of Jackson’s 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures (which starred a 16-year-old Lynskey). This was another heavily guarded script, and Wood had to go into a casting office just to skim it. For his audition, though, he went to the woods.

These days, filming a remote audition tape is an increasingly standard thing. At the time, it wasn’t. So to make his tape stand out, Wood and a filmmaker friend of his, George Huang, went off and recorded Middle-earth-inspired scenes that they later converted to VHS and brought to Miramax. Later, Jackson would tell Charlie Rose that he had never seen any of Wood’s previous work, but that his partner, Fran Walsh, had loved him in The Ice Storm. She encouraged Jackson to watch the audacious audition tape, and it was a hit. The rest was cinematic history. “I remember this feeling of, like, Hey, I did it,” Wood recalls. “It was a lark. I’d never made my own tape before. I’d never taken that risk, but it felt like I had no choice.”

All three Lord of the Rings films were shot together in a nearly 15-month period in New Zealand from 1999 to 2000. Wood was still a teenager; he told Esquire in 2021 that living in New Zealand had been a “giant leap” for him in terms of maturity and life experience. (He had his own car!) Across the span of those movies, Wood’s character, Frodo Baggins, amasses some gnarly life experience of his own, transforming from a happy-go-lucky young fellow to an anguished chosen one brutally tortured by his calling. “I accepted a long time ago that I would forever be linked to Frodo, so it doesn’t bother me,” Wood told The New York Times when asked about how it felt to be so defined by the character. “Honestly, it would be such a sad burden if it did.” By the time the full trilogy aired and earned its box office billions, those eyes of Wood’s were everywhere. And he was more than ready to be looking elsewhere. (He still hasn’t finished the books.)

Seeking to do something, anything, very different from Frodo, Wood entered what New York magazine recently referred to as his “weird little freak” era. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he played a creepy brainwashing technician who demonstrated that when it comes to love, you can say all the right things and still be really, really wrong. In Sin City, he played a terrifying, cannibalistic serial killer—a performance that scratched an itch he didn’t really know he had. He still did plenty of normie work, to be sure, like voicing animated characters Mumble in Happy Feet and Spyro, a video game dragon. He paid tribute to his old music video roots, too, appearing in 2011’s “Make Some Noise” for the Beastie Boys. But he increasingly became interested in genres like horror. He played another serial killer in 2012’s Maniac. And he launched a thriller-centric production company named The Woodshed that would later become SpectreVision.

“I’m so impressed with what he’s done with SpectreVision as a whole,” Macon Blair, who directed Wood and Lynskey in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, says in an email. “I love that, apparently, he used his mainstream success with LotR to champion weird, risky, left of center horror stuff. There’s an authenticity to following that kind of path that I respect very much.” (One of Wood’s personal favorite SpectreVision projects, The Greasy Strangler, has such a disgustingly high-concept premise that whenever someone mentions it to him with approval, he knows they’ll probably get along.)

When Blair wrote the part of Tony, a ninja-star-throwing, rat-tail-rocking vigilante, in 2014, he had Wood in mind. But he struggled to get the movie financed at first. “Oddly, [I] kept hearing from all these more traditional places that they wanted a ‘bigger name,’” Blair says. “This made no sense to me because as far as I could tell, Lord of the Rings was the most important franchise of the last 15 years, and what maniac doesn’t love Elijah Wood?” Netflix agreed with him and bought the film.

Now, Blair is in the midst of another film that features Wood, called The Toxic Avenger. “It’s a villain part that I wrote for him to play with the idea that it could be a disappearing act for him, kind of a Peter Sellers type character where you might not realize it’s even him at first. I think folks will get a kick out of him in this part.” When it comes to Wood’s work, that’s typically a safe bet.

“Everybody’s hiding something,” Walter tells Misty matter-of-factly in a recent Yellowjackets episode. And watching Wood in the role, it’s easy to relate that line to the actor’s own lived experience. After all, many of Wood’s best performances are the ones that luxuriate in the space between his impossibly youthful visage and the more harrowing realities of the guy behind those eyes.

Walter seems to clock when Misty does a terrible job lying about being friends with the mother of the missing Adam Martin. But Walter may be passing off some humdingers himself. Like, did he really finance that boat with the settlement money from a freak accident? Is the name Great Expectations a nod to him pretending to be someone he’s not, à la Pip? Despite his Episode 4 denial to Misty, IS he actually just one more Yellowjackets 25th-anniversary enthusiast trying to get dirt about the quarter-century-old bloodshed? Is he avenging the cig-smoking Jessica Roberts? Is he … Adam Martin’s proctologist brother who lives in Michigan?! He did quickly bring up irritable bowel syndrome when forced to lie in a pinch …

Wood says that in comparison to some of Yellowjackets’ blood-thirstiest story lines, his role “doesn’t really delve into the darkness of the rest of the series, nor does it bear the weight.” But while Walter Tattersall may currently carry himself with a certain lightness, that could turn out to be his strategic advantage. Lightness is illuminating, after all. And though Misty turned to oxygenated bleach to clean up Adam’s pesky body back in the first season, perhaps the strongest disinfectant in Yellowjackets will wind up being sunlight.

As he started to film his Yellowjackets scenes, Wood himself was caught off guard by where the plot leads. “They only told me so much, and it felt like they told me a lot,” he says, “but there was still so much that I didn’t know. And so going along that journey as both a cast member and then also someone who was curious about where the story is going to go, it was really endlessly exciting and fun and surprising.” Neither Wood nor Walter has yet arrived at a final destination, and both the actor and his latest character have miles of road ahead. But already, what a long, strange road trip it’s been.

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