“Play one wrong note and you die.” Those are the words scribbled across the sheet music of the great pianist Tom Selznick, forcing him to literally perform the concert of his life. It’s basically “Phone Booth” in a concert hall. This almost absurd premise for a film is accompanied by the actor at its center, Frodo—I mean, Elijah Wood. But if you suspend all disbelief and excuse the heavy-handed foreshadowing—and there’s quite a lot to suspend and excuse—“Grand Piano” is actually a rather engaging and elegant thriller.
The film focuses on the brilliant Selznick, who is slated to perform his big comeback show after leaving the spotlight due to an embarrassing performance years prior. He had since ceded his territory as a star to his actress wife, played by Kerry Bishé. After much coaxing, Selznick has very reluctantly agreed to take to the stage again but, at the last minute, chooses not to take the score for “La Cinquette,” described as the impossible piece, on stage with him. But he’s ultimately forced to play it anyway by the film’s villain, portrayed by John Cusack, who threatens him with his life if he were to make even one mistake.
Through intense piano lessons, Wood brushed up on the piano skills he acquired as a child in order to be able to actually play the challenging piece at the center of the film.
“The greatest challenge was to make it so that you believe, as an audience member watching the film, this character is really a brilliant pianist,” Wood said in an interview with Spectator. “I certainly wasn’t, so it was a massive challenge. It was really important to me that it be as accurate as possible.”
The other element that challenged Wood was ensuring he could fully capture his character’s depth and range despite being stationary, sitting on a piano bench, for most of the movie.
“It was really important to me that you feel there’s a genuine arc that the character takes over the course of the film,” he said. “And that was challenging because there’s very little space to work with to make sure that comes across.”
Due to the many confines of the film, Wood concedes he didn’t need to do much in order to artificially convey the extreme pressure his character faces. Having to act while listening to John Cusack’s dialogue in his ear piece—and having to respond, simultaneously listening to the musical score, while keeping time and playing the piano—made Wood feel like he was running a marathon.
“I was literally out of breath, even though I was sitting down,” Wood said. “So yeah, some of that stress was definitely real.”
Despite Wood’s performance in “Grand Piano,” which is vastly unlike his famous role in “The Lord of the Rings,” Wood knows he’ll always be remembered as Frodo and takes it all in stride.
“I accept that I’ll always be associated with those films, like Mark Hamill is with ‘Star Wars,’” he said of “Lord of the Rings.” “It will be a part of my life forever, so I can’t really begrudge people referencing it too much or calling me Frodo. I’m so used to it. Would I rather them not? Sure. But it’s so out of my control. It is what it is.”