x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Elijah Wood finds his funny side

The stars of Wilfred, a new hit US sitcom starring the Lord of the Rings star, on taking man's best friend to a new level.

Elijah Wood's character Ryan is the only person who sees Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. AP Photo / FX / Michael Becker
Elijah Wood's character Ryan is the only person who sees Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. AP Photo / FX / Michael Becker

The timeless tale of a boy and his dog gets a seriously weird update with Wilfred, a new sitcom about a suicidal man and a chain-smoking canine that tilts viewers beyond their comfort zone into a jittery comic hallucination.

This half-hour, live-action comedy stars Elijah Wood as the angst-ridden Ryan, a young man who's losing his struggle to make his way in the world until he meets Wilfred, his neighbour's dog, cheekily played by Jason Gann.

This is not Lassie. Wilfred and Ryan wallow in bad habits, voice forbidden thoughts and partake in the illegal substances with a mind-bending regularity that would impress Harold and Kumar.

Their adventures revolve around a simple conceit: the world sees Wilfred as just a dog — but Ryan sees a crude and somewhat surly, yet irrepressibly brave and honest, Australian bloke in a cheap dog suit.

As Wilfred leads (and sometimes drags) the hapless yet good-hearted Ryan through a series of comedic and existential adventures, he helps him to man up as well as give him the courage to face his fears and find joy in the unpredictability and insanity of the world around him.

"I was handed the script to the pilot by my manager," says Wood, "and she just said: 'Read this. It's really funny. Funniest thing I've read.' I thought it was so hilarious and so unlike anything I'd ever read and anything I could imagine seeing on television. So I was immediately very excited. I essentially just fell in love with the project and went in and met with Jason, and we read."

Adds Gann: "It was really funny, too. The first couple days of shooting was mostly Elijah's stuff, and I was on set watching it. So day three I sort of came in with my stuff and I thought, 'I'm gonna be funny in this show. Elijah Wood is bringing it.' Keeps me on my toes."

When this show made its debut earlier this year for FX in the US, it was the network's highest-rated comedy premiere ever with 2.6 million viewers. "This is the funniest and trippiest of summer's new comedies," Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone wrote at the time. Based on the critically acclaimed Australian series of the same title, Wilfred was adapted for North American audiences by the writer and showrunner David Zuckerman (Family Guy, American Dad, King of the Hill). Gann himself, who first donned the dog suit for a short film that impressed the Sundance Film Festival in 2003, also serves as the co-executive producer. In August, FX renewed Wilfred for a second season for next year.

The idea for Wilfred goes back to the 1990s when Gann, who then worked in children's theatre, found it amusing to see actors in animal suits smoking and swearing backstage.

Wood, revered by millions as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, easily shakes off the baggage of Middle Earth here and revels in some tasty contemporary comic chops. His pained, anguished expressions are priceless as Wilfred pushes him off the cliff, storywise, each episode on to a new comic quest and opportunity for personal growth.

"It's exciting for me to be a part of a comedy," says Wood. "It's not something I've ever really been given the opportunity to do, and I'm so proud to be a part of this ensemble and this creative process. It's been a lot of fun so far, and I'm very excited as to where it's going to go."

And Gann, as the ultimate naughty dawg, breaks social taboos with abandon, as he behaves towards humans just like a dog, but in ways no human would ever behave towards another human. His unwavering loyalty to his attractive owner, Ryan's bubbly next-door neighbour Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), is extraordinary.

Gubelmann's challenge as an actor is to keep her focus and strictly deal with her Wilfred as a dog, not a man in a dog suit. "At first in the audition process it was especially hard when we were doing the chemistry read and the actual network test," she says, "because I had to try to have a conversation with Elijah and ignore Jason saying 'ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball, ball' in my ear, and trying not to laugh. We would just break out laughing.

"And also, we discussed when we were shooting, what does Jenna hear? Does she hear him panting? Is he barking? Nothing? So it's just trying to figure out what she hears when Wilfred speaks."

Most impressive, however, is Wilfred's big heart. Like any faithful hound, once he's your friend, his love proves unconditional, making the lonely Ryan a very lucky man to have him in his corner.

But does Gann have a pooch to call his own? "I don't need a dog. I've got Wilfred. You know, that's enough for me. I've actually got a couple cats. One of the great ironies of Jason Gann."

Wilfred is broadcast on Thursdays and Fridays on OSN Comedy and OSN Comedy +2