It feels like Woody Harrelson has been around forever. Certainly in the last 25 years he has accumulated plenty of baggage. He was on the most successful sitcom from the ‘80s (Cheers); flirted with leading-man stardom (the popular White Men Can’t Jump, then the less-popular The Cowboy Way and Money Train); received two Oscar nominations (The People vs. Larry Flynt and The Messenger); became a well-known environmentalist and pro-pot activist; and has lately been appearing in more movies than ever, alternating commercial projects with some of the most intriguing art and independent films of the last decade (A Prairie Home Companion, No Country for Old Men, Defendor).
And now, U of T will be contributing to the Harrelson canon: on April 21, he will open his new play, Bullet for Adolf, at Hart House Theatre, and next week he’ll be a Contributing Editor at The Varsity.
THE VARSITY: You’ve described the play as “a raucous frolic into murky waters.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
WOODY HARRELSON: Well, I dunno what that means, exactly. I guess I thought it sounded good. (Laughs) That’s a very ambiguous statement, but I do think it’s kind of a racy play. I was thinkin’ especially about this yesterday when I went over to [a restaurant] and this one woman said hi to me, and she was quoting this line to me from Zombieland, but she was saying, “Woody Fucking Harrelson!” like I was sayin’ “Bill Fucking Murray!” right? And, the woman behind the counter turns to someone and says, “Did you hear that? You heard her cuss? You heard that?” This is the woman who I guess is runnin’ the place, and then a little later she asked me what I was doing here, and I said, the play. “But there is a lot of cussin’, so you might not want to go to this play.”
But it is racy in terms of, y’know, it has some provocative statements, racy things… it’s humour with a little bit of an edge, I guess you’d say. It’s a comedy.
TV: The play is called Bullet for Adolf, so it’s obviously provocative. What are some of the ideas you’re dealing with?
WH: There’s these discussions that go on about a number of issues. So, maybe, on the issue of race, or on the issue of… there are philosophical discussions, but I don’t wanna portray it as this, like, really philosophical play. So, if you ask me what the play’s about, I’ll say it’s about makin’ you laugh.
The plot does relate to this artefact [a gun intended to kill Hitler] that gets stolen in the course of the play, and so that’s kinda the exciting incident in the play. But the way it’s autobiographical is that all eight of the characters are real people that we knew in Houston, two of whom include myself and Frankie Hyman, who’s the guy that I wrote this with. And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the whole deal, is that Frankie and I wrote this play together. We knew each other in the summer of 1983, which is about 92 years before you guys were born (laughter). We worked construction, and we had these incredible conversations, and he had this enormous impact on me, just philosophically. I ended up thinking, y’know, this guy’s gonna be a lifelong friend — the kind of guy where only death separates your friendship.
And then I didn’t see him again for ten years. But part of the reason was, Frankie left Houston, and then I had no way to get in touch with him. Anyway, long story short, I ended up going on the Jay Leno show and asking if anyone knows where Frankie Hyman is, and the next thing you know, I get a call to the office — I was at Paramount doing Cheers at the time — and they said ‘It’s Frankie’s brother’, and he had been watching. The next thing you know Frankie comes out and we’ve been friends and hangin’ ever since. And then we wanted to write this play because there was something special about that summer.
TV: This is the second play you’ve directed in Toronto, and I guess this is the inferiority-complex question that any Canadian asks when an American celebrity does anything in Canada, but: why Toronto?
WH: Well, I love it here.
TV: Oh good. We do too.
WH: Yeah, y’know, even in the wintertime, which, I’m not a winter fan. I love it here. People are great… I have a lot of friends here… y’know, Roots, some of the yoga studios here. I dunno, it’s pretty cool.
TV: Do you think Canada is more receptive to a lot of the environmental issues you’re interested in?
WH: Yeah, yeah, I think they’re much more receptive here. It’s more the mainstay here to be green or eco-conscious. Even eating, I think people tend to eat a little bit healthier than Middle America.
TV: There was a period from 1999 to 2004 when you made almost no movies. Since the end of that period, you’ve been in movies just about constantly, and you’ve been in movies by Altman, the Coen Brothers, Schrader. So, what made you take the break, and what has inspired your career path since then?
WH: Well, I really made a decision that I wanted to take some time off. And I did — I took a long time off. A lot longer than I expected. But I’ll tell you what: I’m a hard worker — a good worker, I think — but a world-class slacker and vacationer. I can get on a real roll with that to where I don’t even wanna come out. And it’s hard, y’know, livin’ in Maui, I don’t need anything else. Everything I need is there: my family; I get to play soccer with my buddies; I get to go do kite-surfing and all the sports stuff that I love, and so many of my closest friends are there.
TV: And raising kids?
WH: Yeah, I mean, really that was a big part of the initial impetus, was like, “Jesus, I’m spendin’ a lot of time goin’ from project to project, I’d like to get some time with the little rascals before it’s…” There used to be this song… oh, how did it go… well, the effect is, the kid’s always sayin’ to the dad, “C’mon dad, let’s play,” and he’s like…
TV: Oh, “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon…”
WH: That’s the one! (Singing) “Little boy blue and the man on the moon! When you comin’ home, dad, I don’t know when – but we’ll get together then! You know we’ll have a good time then!”
TV: Did you make a conscious decision about the type of movies you wanted to do when you came back? Because there are a lot of films that don’t seem so concerned with… “stardom,” per se, because there are a lot of interesting and uncommercial films in there.
WH: That’s true. When I came back I was like, “I’m really gonna focus on just doin’ stuff that I love and kinda attracts…” Y’know… the very first one I did after I started doin’ movies again was a little bit of a… I kinda got talked into a…
TV: Was it After the Sunset?
WH: Yeah, kind of a commercial endeavour (laughs). Which, any time I’ve ever done a movie with the concept of, “Well, this’ll be commercially successful,” it just never goes that way. It’s just the worst way, and it’s the worst motivator, and so many people today are motivated by, they really have the equation in their mind of success equals happiness. And, of course, it’s happiness equals success, so better to be the bum on the street who’s happy than the frickin’ guy freakin’ out on Wall Street.
TV: Was success equals happiness a mentality you had in the ‘90s and the ‘80s?
WH: Yeah, I think probably so. I mean, I was very much conditioned by that same mentality. I mean, billboards are effective. You really wanna get that cool-lookin’ car, ‘cause… well, look at the girl who’s gonna like me, she’s in the poster too! And I think I bought that whole deal. I remember drivin’ down the road in my white Corvette, maybe mid ‘80s, just when the [cell] phones were comin’ in, and I got this big ol’ contraption, just thinkin’ I was such a cool guy. I realize the folly of it all now, but I was just chasin’ the dream.
TV: I found this article in our archives from 2003 about you coming to U of T to host a yoga class [“Woody brings yoga to U of T,” by Ian Ha], and it begins by describing you as, “Movie bad-boy turned eco-friend Woody Harrelson,” and it ends with this passage: [reads aloud several paragraphs in which U of T students discuss wanting to smoke a joint with Harrelson]. What I think is interesting about this article is that, when someone has been around for as long as you have, one tends to develop certain preconceived notions about you. I feel there is a “Woody Harrelson persona”….
WH: Tell me what it is — I’d like to know what your opinion is.
TV: Well, when I think of the Plato’s World of Forms version of Woody Harrelson, I think: “Good Old Boy.” You’ve played many different kinds of roles, but No Country for Old Men is the one that, in my mind, epitomizes the Harrelson persona, while something like The Walker I would characterize as an atypical role. Is this something you’re at all conscious of, or do people’s preconceived notions of who you are and what characters you play have an impact on the roles you get?
WH: Well… I think there’s been a good variety of roles offered, so fortunately I don’t think… well, you never know how much impact things have. Probably, I haven’t been my own best friend in terms of courting studios, but… I dunno, it’s hard to gauge, but I guess it’s inevitable that someone that you see two-dimensionally, and hear about in a rather one-dimensional fashion, that you’re gonna gain some preconceptions.
TV: I bring this up also because you’ve been so active with environmentalism, and your celebrity brings a lot of attention to these issues, but on the other hand, are there also people who see your work from this one-dimensional view? “Woody Harrelson, he’s a Hollywood liberal, he’s a pro-pot activist, I’ve got him figured out.”
WH: Yeah, I would say that’s probably true, especially the thing with pot, because, I don’t know about so much here, but from the time — I think it was ’96 or ’97 — a buddy of mine was going to jail who was, he had been growin’ some pot and he was going to jail, so I appeared on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. So, when I went on it with him, y’know, I don’t know what the fuck I was thinkin’ even doing that. It’s kind of a suicide move, but I went on, and from that day it’s never stopped, never close to stopped. I think I should embrace it the way Willie [Nelson] does, but I just find it annoying ’cause it’s so superficial, and such a…well, would you care so much if I drank? Would you care so much if I took pharmaceuticals?
TV: (Laughs) Of course not.
WH: It’s like, what’s the onus on pot? And, I dunno, I would say that my real mistake to go on the Bill Maher thing was, I wanted it to be more on the issue of consensual crime, and what they call victimless crimes, and I think that’s the broader issue that’s much more important. I do think that when you live in a country that calls itself free then you have to examine, y’know, what does it mean to be free? And so, I think you can do anything you want as long as you’re not hurtin’ someone else, or hurtin’ their property. That’s freedom. So, if you think about it, a lot of what’s goin’ on in the United States and even I s’ppose a little bit in this very progressive country is the legislation of morality. So, on the subject of, like, drugs or gambling or prostitution or all these things that are gonna go on in society and people are always gonna find out how to go down that path if that’s their interest, it seems to me it’s absurd to be making those things illegal. But anyway, I still haven’t really answered your question, but… y’know, I suppose it’s hard to ever achieve three-dimensionality when you’re a public figure. You pretty much stay just two-dimensional.
Check back next week for a special edition of The Varsity featuring a guest editorial by Woody Harrelson.