Tabloid scandal of the week: Elijah Wood is in debt! In fact, the 13-year-old star of The War owes so much money that he has decided the only way clear is to sell his prized Fender guitar.
Well,actually, he's out only a few hundred dollars. And he didn't spend it on drugs or gambling but on Christmas presents for his family. And he hadn't learned how to play that Fender yet, and anyway, the only reason he's in over his head is that his allowance is $10 a week, which he gets in monthly installments. ''If I said $40 monthly, I'd say, 'Wow,' but it's $10 a week,'' he says. ''It's really no big deal.''
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the Drew Barrymore story. At Ed Debevic's Restaurant, a '50s diner on laughing gas that is the place to see and be seen if you're 13 years old in Los Angeles, money troubles are worlds away and probably not all that pressing for a kid whose per-movie fee is now roughly 100,000 times his weekly allowance. Elijah Wood, buzz-sawing through a plate of french fries, a plate of onion rings, and a plate of buffalo wings, doesn't look like a kid who has 10 feature roles under his belt (including North and The Good Son), who was the most poised presenter at last March's Oscars, and who's billed above Kevin Costner in The War. He gobbles down bits of knowledge like Jujyfruits. He is completely irony-free. And he's bugging out about Freddy Krueger.
His mom, Debbie Wood, won't let him see Wes Craven's New Nightmare, but he's very curious about a clip involving a severed arm he caught on Entertainment Tonight. ''If you cut off your arm,'' he asks me, ''instead of going 'spurt, spurt, spurt' wouldn't it, like, go nuts? Or would it go with the beat of your heart?'' He really needs to know this, so he's told the rhythmic spurting is probably anatomically correct. He ponders. ''I see. It just looked fake.''
That's not a word that gets applied to Wood. ''He's the first child actor I've worked with that I think is really an actor,'' says War director Jon Avnet. ''He's not tied to his cuteness.'' The Good Son's Joseph Ruben, who directed Wood in scenes opposite the biggest kid star of the day, says, ''He's just really quick. Elijah can give you the same reading or different readings with a lot of facility. Mac may take a little more work, but he gets to a good place, too.''
It helped that, from his first major role (1989's Avalon), he looked like a walking Keane painting: immense, pensive pool-blue eyes under brows that could furrow sorrowfully or leap in high spirits. That's changing fast. Cheekbones are beginning to elongate Wood's Buster Brown face. He's a head taller in The War (in which he plays a dirt-poor 12-year-old in 1970 Alabama) than he was in North. There's also a nascent teen-idol factor. While The War should bring Wood up to the plate for more grown-up roles, it may also solidify his status as the heartthrob for the just-post-Barbie set. How the? Log on to Prodigy. Go to the Movie message boards. Note that a full third of the Actor/Actress topic folders are devoted to ''Eli.'' Sigh. Wood himself seems more interested in rock & roll and gore films than in girls, although he does go on a bit about Claire Danes, the 15-year-old star of ABC's My So-Called Life. (''She's very talented. I'd love to work with her. I mean, I really love the show.'') More unsettling is that he has few friends who share his interests. Wood has a private tutor, and the arrangement suits him, partly because, he admits, he feels uncomfortable among his peers. ''If I were out there with kids my own age,'' he says, ''I fear that they wouldn't like me, not because of who I am but because I'm an actor. It's scary it's like you can't trust anybody.''
That sounds boy-in-a-bubble sad, but adults who know Wood say he can handle it. ''To the extent possible, I think he has a childhood,'' says Avnet. Chalk that up to his parents, Debbie and Warren Wood. With son Zack, now 19, and daughter Hannah, 9, the family moved from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Hollywood in 1986, when it looked as if Elijah might make a go of acting. Debbie helps oversee her son's career, but she seems far from a Kit Culkin-style calculator. ''She's totally unhip and uncool and just grounded,'' says Avnet. ''She cares about her son, she listens to him and yet has guidelines for him. He's expected to behave very, very well, and he does.''
He does indeed. Since Wood obviously has a jones for horror movies, he's asked if he'd ever want to act in one. He charmingly backpedals: ''I think God gave me a talent to use for the positive and to do a horror movie would be, like, overstepping my bounds.'' He thinks some more. ''If I was to do a horror film, I wouldn't want to be paid. It would be like a vacation, because you don't really have to use your acting skills.''
For the first time in ages, Wood has nothing lined up. So what would he like to do next? ''Um, I'd like to play a bad guy.'' Like Macaulay in Good Son? ''That kind of role but 10 times up.'' He glints happily. ''I'm not a dark person or anything, but it would be a challenge to be someone who's messed up in the head.''
What he also wants to do even he grimaces at the cliché is direct. Funny thing is, his directors say he could do it. ''I think there's a good chance Elijah will be like a Ron Howard,'' says Ruben. ''He's smart and he's interested, and he has a sense of where the scene should be. And he's naturally bossy.''
Wood has his own opinions about directors. He's high on Oliver Stone, even if Mom won't let him see Natural Born Killers. He thought Coppola went overboard on Bram Stoker's Dracula. And he has an idol: ''George Lucas. He's a director and a writer. I enjoy writing, and I know that if I can really focus on that and get some good tutoring in English, I can be a really good writer when I get a little older. What's more fun than that? It's creating your own world.''
Maybe he means that this world isn't quite the way Elijah Wood would like it, not yet. Probably he means nothing of the sort. He returns to the buffalo wings and brings up Coppola's Apocalypse Now. ''Isn't it about the end of the world?''