THERE’S a huge, scary gap between piano lessons as a kid and playing “the most gifted concert pianist of his era” in a movie. But these days, Elijah Wood lives for fear. One thing Grand Piano was sure to do was scare him.
“It was super intense and the learning curve was extremely steep,” Wood says of his preparations for the thriller—weeks of refresher lessons in Los Angeles, more weeks of rehearsals in Barcelona, where the movie was made.
Grand Piano lets us see Wood, as concert pianist Tom Selznick, play the pieces he is supposed to have mastered. In a thriller where a pianist has a sniper in the rafters, laser-sight trained on him, ready to shoot the moment he makes a mistake, “it’s important to be as accurate as possible,” Wood says. “You have to believe this guy can play. That said, it’s extraordinarily daunting.”
“The thing that was very helpful was that for 75 percent of the film was me on stage and cut to a very strict timeline and time-coded to the music. I had a very specific road map of which shots you’d see me, my hands and my face as I played, at the same time. I had a limited portion of each piece of music to learn. I didn’t have to focus on all of it. That made the job easier. But not much.”
Wood was drawn to the piano-centric film “because although I’m around music [he is dance DJ Frodo, and apparently pretty good at it] and have had instruments my whole life, I’ve never put the time into one that the instrument deserves.” He loved the idea of a Hitchockian thriller told in real-time, with much of what happens in it unfolding during a single concert—piano, with orchestra. “And really, I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to be so technically good with an instrument that even as this guy is hearing threats and seeing the little red dot of the killer’s laser sight on his fingers, he can still take care of business, musically, trying not to panic as he figures this out.”
This “piano wire-taut thriller” (Austin Chronicle) owes its existence to Wood’s varied interests, a decade past his Lord of the Rings heyday. He’s a founder of SpectreVision, a production company that specializes in indie horror films, and he will forever be in demand at fan-oriented film and comic book festivals such as Fantastic Fest, in Austin, Texas.
“That’s where I met [Grand Piano director] Eugenio Mira,” Wood says. They became friends and Wood signed on to a project that would co-star John Cusack, as the mostly unseen, but heard through a radio earpiece, sniper.
Wood’s many trips to hip, festival-rich Austin convinced him to pull up stakes, sell his place in Santa Monica, California, and move to Texas. He was drawn to the informality of the place, the creative environment.
“You break down that separation between filmmakers and regular people and genuine relationships occur. Fantastic Fest is like that, and Austin is a great place for that kind of connection.”
Reviews for Grand Piano have been enthusiastic, with Wood singled out as being “ideal” for the part (The Playlist) because “he commands our empathy and manages to remain professional and make his fingers do his bidding” (Austin Chronicle). But it is, like many Wood projects since Lord of the Rings (the cable TV comedy Wilfred is another), a work with modest expectations. That suits Wood, too. But he laughs at the notion that his Hobbit money has put him in the position of never having to work again.
“I am fortunate to still have many opportunities, and I don’t take that for granted. But I’ve always been an actor who would rather not work than work on something I’m not fully, whole-heartedly committed to.” And if he was always working, when would he have time for the piano?
“Oh, I’ve got one in the house, now. Not a Bosendorfer [the high-end model in the movie]. But I’m spending more time with it. I promise.”
In Photo: Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick in Grand Piano.