It's hard to say which is the greater mind-fuck—the darkly comedic premise of Wilfred or the fact that the unconventional comedy lasted four seasons on FX and FXX to complete its series arc. The story of Ryan (Elijah Wood), a depressed lawyer who attempts suicide and wakes up to find that his neighbor's dog, Wilfred, appears to him—and only him—as an Australian man in a pooch suit (Jason Gann, who reprises his role from the original Aussie series), it's unlike anything else on TV. The oddball friendship is hilarious but it's got emotional and psychological heft (Wilfred has spot-on canine mannerisms but acts human, taking bong rips and regularly manipulating Ryan into realizations about himself). As comfortable a buddy relationship as it feels at times, the mystery of why Ryan sees Wilfred ultimately determines whether the man is a complete loon or not (or maybe even comatose or dead).
It's a daring move by a network to roll the dice and stick with a comedy like Wilfred, which has surface laughs but layers upon layers of meaning and plenty of room for confusion and conspiracy theories. Two and a Half Men it is not. And yet here Wilfred is, airing its final two episodes tonight at 10 p.m. on FXX, completing its refreshingly strange story.
On set during one of the series' last shoots, Complex sat down with Gann and Wood to discuss the difficulties of balancing comedy and drama on the series, Gann's love/hate relationship with Wilfred, the all-important mystery resolution, and what it means to walk away from a show like this.
What has been the key to striking the show’s balance of different kinds of humor, emotion, and headiness?
Jason Gann: I’m not entirely sure we’ve struck that balance. It’s difficult. Season one, I wasn’t sure we got it right, but we came the closest to getting it right in season one. In season two, we got too heady and a lot of people lost patience or lost touch with what we were doing there. Season three, we tried to bring that comedy back to make it more fun but it might’ve been too light. This season, it’s been more like season two: It’s darker and we’ve had so many loose ends to tie up. Last year was the most fun year for us to shoot. We’re doing something pretty new where it’s a comedy, but it’s got so much dense drama and head-fuck-ness. We’ve arm wrestled back and forth internally amongst ourselves what is the right combination of all that stuff. Now that the show’s come to an end, I think when you look at the whole series put altogether its worked. It’s difficult. You get 22 minutes of television and you gotta service so many characters and so many parts of the story.
Elijah Wood: I love that the show always worked on multiple levels. It’s a layered show. I appreciated that about it from the beginning, that we weren't making it a traditional sitcom. The stakes are real and there are dramatic moments that are interspliced with comedic moments. At its best, it is doing both of those things concurrently. It’s not an easy show to write. Part of that is because everything has to be from Ryan’s perspective, so whereas in a normal movie you can cut to different perspectives, we couldn’t do that. We were siphoning everything into a narrow space where everything had to be experienced through Ryan’s perspective all the time. There were a lot of things at play in every episode, so trying to find that balance was not easy, to be funny and weird and dark. I feel the show got it right a lot. But this season in particular, it was hard to balance those elements because there was so much to tie up. It was a bit of a Herculean effort to finish out the story because there were these loose ends that needed to be answered, and story points that needed to be tied up. But that’s why we were all so thrilled to be able to come back for the fourth season, to be able to actually finish the story. I never imagined it existing beyond four or five seasons because the conceit of the story is it’s about a man in recovery who sees this man in a dog suit at this pivotal point in his life. If you go beyond four to five seasons, it runs the risk of repeating itself and becoming a bit stale, so I always hoped it would be four to five. It feels right and I’m really pleased with what they’ve come up with. It’s a good emotional resolve.
What will the show have in the way of resolutions for its deeper "Why is Ryan seeing Ryan?" mind-fuck?
Gann: People are definitely going to be satisfied with where we take it. There were a lot of times where we led them down a path and it was a dead end and it was like, how many dead ends can you go down before you lose patience? There’s the cult that Wilfred is connected to and Ryan has to do a lot of investigating to find out what that is, and that’s satisfying. We definitely tie things that up in a satisfying way, but that’s still open to interpretation, which is important to our show, because I don’t think you can ever really know with 100% security what Wilfred is.
Wood: To a certain degree, it might be a mistake to look at the show for answers. Inherently, it’s about a man’s recovery, it’s about a man’s relationship with himself and his own psyche, and whatever Wilfred is, it’s about that relationship. It’s not Lost. But I love ambiguity. One of my favorite films is Harvey, which is a similar construct: You’ve got a character whose best friend is a six-foot tall white rabbit that no one else can see. I love that it’s completely up for interpretation what Harvey is: Elwood could be an alcoholic, he could’ve checked out on reality and it’s a choice, Harvey could be a magical being that he sees that literally gets passed from person to person—there’s a multitude of things. I like being able to potentially look back at this show and decide what makes the most sense to you and what feels right. The ultimate end and what they’ve written honors that sense of ambiguity whilst answering enough that’s satisfying to people.
Do you personally walk away with a sense of what Wilfred is?
Wood: Yeah, but I made up my mind a long time ago. And even for people who made up their mind a long time ago, [the ending] will work. The ending doesn’t head in such a definitive direction so as to negate various people’s theories. I have my interpretation and it totally works and it’ll work just as well as somebody else’s.
Jason, what does it mean for you to put on the Wilfred suit for the last time?
Gann: It’s mixed emotions for me. Wilfred is like a friend of mine. He’s been in my life for a long time. I’ve also said I’ll never get in the suit again many times years ago. I may end up getting into it again in some incarnation. [Laughs.] I recently talked about, if I hit hard times, setting out and doing kids parties, but for adults, maybe setting up like Santa Claus on a sofa and people can line up and you can have one bong hit and one joke from Wilfred. It’s a great back-up plan. When all is lost, it’s like, “Wilfred will be making an appearance in Colorado!” It will have to be somewhere where marijuana is legal as a recreational drug and not just medicinal. That way people can just come and smoke a bong with Wilfred.
What are you going to miss most about portraying Wilfred?
Gann: Wilfred is like no human character. I’m tremendously proud of the character. I get to do things that you’d never get away with in a human costume. And it isn’t just doggy humor anymore. We really developed his own different unique character. It is like no other character on TV. It’s a difficult relationship. I loathe getting in and out of the suit but I know I’m going to miss it.
It seems like it would be incredibly uncomfortable, especially on a hot summer day.
Gann: Yeah, and there’s different versions of Wilfred’s suit. There’s the outdoors one where he’s filled with burrs, and they stick into me all the time. Then there’s the three-legged one with the missing arm one that I’m wearing today. The other day I had to do a scene where I’m missing one arm and I’m carrying Bear—not a small teddy bear—and the conditions were horrible. I was like, “I have to remember these days because these are the days I’m not going to miss.” For me, getting into animal suits dates way back before Wilfred. I was doing children’s theater for like 10 years, three shows a day for 30 bucks a show. I found it a soul destroying exercise even then as a young actor, but I did it to survive. So that was why I was loathe to get in the suit even for the short film. It’s almost been a quarter of a century that I’ve been getting into animal suits. When people see me in [the] Wilfred [costume] they don’t see that history, they don’t see all that pain, but I’m aware of it.
You mentioned that Wilfred’s moved beyond “doggy jokes,” but those tiny details of canine behavior that you incorporated into the character are some of the greatest things about Wilfred. Did you spend a lot of time observing dogs?
Gann: Early on I did, like when I did the Australian show. I observed dog behavior for a bit and read about the psychology of dogs, but I gotta say, when it comes to playing Wilfred I don’t do much preparation. I’ve got a pretty expressive face and once I put on the dog suit and the black nose it takes it’s own form. People are always saying to me, “Aw, man. You’ve got that dog behavior just right.” But it’s the humanness of dogs that they’re seeing and they see me doing it and they’re like, “Wow, you’re just like a dog,” but in actual fact what they’re saying is dogs are a lot like us. A lot of people have written to me saying, “I’ll never look at my dog the same way. I’ve always wondered what [my dog] was thinking and now when I see him acting a certain way I know. Thank you for that. I also wish you hadn’t shown me because now I don’t like getting changed in front of them.”
Elijah, how does it feel playing Ryan for the last time?
Wood: In a way it hasn’t hit me. I don’t think that it’s coming to an end. So much of doing this show is the family that has been created. You hear this a lot with film productions, but particularly with television, because it’s a longer-running process. You work with the same group of people for as long as we have, and it becomes a tight family. Seeing that go away is hard to imagine and quite sad, but there’s comfort in playing the character. You play characters for as long as Jason and I have, and it’s kind of like putting on comfortable shoes. I wouldn’t say second nature, because it’s filled with challenges, but there’s a comfortability to it, so I’ll miss that. I’ll miss coming to work every day and having that, being amongst that atmosphere. Unlike making films, where it’s a finite period of time, I’ve gotten used to being able to come back every year. This feeling of “See you next year” has been a lovely thing. It’s sad to see that come to an end. But we’ve made so many friends on this job. Susie [Flower], our first A.D., I’ll know forever. Jason, I’ll know forever. [Director/producer] Randall [Einhorn] has become one of my best friends. Part of the family atmosphere on this will continue in other ways.
The chemistry between you two was crucial to the show. How did that develop?
Gann: It was in Elijah’s audition. He won the role. There were three other guys reading for the role and the suit floored them. I knew as soon as I saw Elijah that he was the guy, but we had to convince certain people. The other guys were more sitcom-y and I didn’t feel like they were telling the same joke as me. My sensibilities are more natural. Although I did take it to some heightened places, my general delivery is very naturalistic and filmic. I knew instinctively that he was the guy and when we read off each other I felt safe. You just feel like you’re home, I felt like he was family.
Wood: I approached the character of Ryan and the material from an honest perspective. I wasn’t looking to make laughs or to exacerbate a comedic moment. I was playing it real. That’s Jason’s process too. As silly as Wilfred can get, he’s still playing it straight within the world of Wilfred. That’s how we connected, and it’s grown from there. You can’t work for chemistry—it’s either there or it isn’t. I love working with Jason. It’s one of the easiest working relationships I’ve had.
Gann: I’ve acted with Elijah more than anyone else. We’ve spent a lot of hours on screen together. I guess doing film to film you don’t spend that much time with one particular actor. We pretty much know each other and what our next moves are going to be.
Wood: I get a sense of what he’s doing with a scene and where he’s going, and there’s such trust and faith in each other. It’s extremely comfortable. And some of the most fun and easy days are when it’s just the two of us.
Do you have favorite scenes that you worked on together?
Gann: We loved a lot of the capers and chaos. For me personally the most fun stuff was when Wilfred took on other kinds of characters within his character, like in season one, when he was the mad scientist and then when he was possessed by the ghost of Sneakers, Ryan’s old dog. Things like that, where I got to do the playful stuff I used to do back in my theatre days, like when Elijah and I were driving around in the car, and I was jumping in the back, breaking into places, solving mysteries and stuff like that. I would’ve been happy if the show had become more like Turner & Hooch where Ryan and Wilfred were just solving mysteries every week, going across the country, meeting a new group of people, and helping them solve their problems. That’s the stuff that we didn’t have as much of in this season because we had 10 episodes and we’re trying to sort a lot of things out.
Wood: There are so many scenes…. The Wilfred-concocted scenarios that are truly ridiculous, where it gets surreal, are some of the most fun. There’s the sort of dream that Ryan has of the courtroom drama, where he’s on trial and it was all shot in black and white and Wilfred plays the judge and the stenographer and it’s super surreal. There’s the scene where Wilfred recreates the David O. Russell freakout from I Heart Huckabees while filming, having Ryan threaten cats in the neighborhood as like a PSA. First season, with the giraffe and the stuffed animals that he’s fucking…. And I have great memories of all of the couch beats, the end-of-show moments. Those were fun days for us because we sat on the couch and we’d do 10 jokes in a row. It was so loose, not connected to story or anything heavy, so it was just these creative Wilfred-and-Ryan jokes and we have a lot of fun with that.
After all the time you’ve shared on screen, what’s it gonna be like to no longer have Jason next to you in a dog suit?
How long did it take getting used to that?
Wood: I got used to it so fast to the point where I ceased to see what it must be like for other people to see him. I was that used to it, where I would see someone else’s reaction, and go, “Oh, yeah, it is weird.” I’m just so used to it. And him out of costume with the nose still on, it’s a part of the fabric of my being now.
What impressed you most about Jason's portrayal of Wilfred?
Wood: How different Wilfred could be, how many iterations of Wilfred there were. Wilfred was a multitude of behaviors and accents, he changed his accent and did all these interesting version of the Australian accent. And the character changed—he could be incredibly sweet and he could be super weird. He was all these things and it all depended on the scenario that was written within the context of the script. Jason always surprised me. Four years and he still had me cracking up and surprised by what came out of his mouth, how he interpreted a particular scene. I didn’t tell Jason enough how brilliant I think he is, how wonderful all of his choices were. I told him at the end of the first season, because I took it for granted every day, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t tell you more often but the character’s so brilliant.”
Justin Monroe is a Complex executive editor. He tweets here.