Woody Harrelson knows bad guys; Natural Born Killers and No Country for Old Men set the bar for charismatic villains. Sometimes he plays one in real life, or at least if you believe tabloid reports of his arrests for assaulting paparazzi or planting hemp seeds, or an unfortunate recent Reddit "Ask Me Anything" stint in which somebody did. The Cheers alumnus also knows how to get a laugh — Kingpin and Zombieland have huge cult followings. And he can croon like a cowpoke, as in A Prairie Home Companion.
In short, he's got range; so why don't we take him more seriously as an actor? His collaborations with director Oren Moverman might change that. In 2009 he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in that director's Iraq War–at-home film, The Messenger. He was not so lucky with Moverman's latest film, the Oscar-snubbed Rampart, though many felt that his portrayal of a nasty bastard with a bleeding heart might have been his best work to date. Harrelson was a lot more sympathetic than nasty in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and a short follow-up over the phone a couple of weeks ago.
IT'S ONLY BEEN A COUPLE OF YEARS SINCE YOU WORKED WITH OREN MOVERMAN AND [RAMPART CO-STAR AND PRODUCER] BEN FOSTER ON THE MESSENGER. I suppose it's every actor's dream to get thrown into this kind of group— to be working with a director like Oren, and with Ben. Ben's not just a great actor, who transforms in this role, he's also as a tremendous producer. He was there every day, helping, especially with emotional scenes. He was incredibly supportive, just like with The Messenger. I love these guys. So to get to go on another journey with them so soon after the other one was unexpected, and fraught with peril and difficulty, but also a dream job.
WHAT SEPARATES OREN FROM OTHER DIRECTORS FOR YOU? For years, when people asked me about my favorite role, I would say Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt. I ran into Milos in New York, and he had just seen The Messenger, and he said [with a Czech accent], "Now you won't be able to say that Larry Flynt is your best film." That's pretty high praise coming from one of the great filmmakers of all time. But I think it's deserved, because Oren is just born to it. He was meant to be a director. You need to feel like you're with someone who's like a papa bear, who's taking care of you and nurturing you and sets the stage. It's like all the elements and the excitement and the danger of the scene is all there for you to jump in. Yet you feel completely safe.
YET YOU WERE NOT HAPPY WITH A FIRST CUT OF THE FILM? That was a really early cut, and there was a lot missing, maybe 36 scenes. I was upset about it, and it was a sore point in my relationship with Oren. But then I watched it later and it was, like, this is brilliant. I don't know what I was thinking.
YOU HAD THE SAME RESPONSE TO KINGPIN, TOO. Oh, yeah. That was terrible. Peter Farrelly was a friend of mine, and that caused a rift. But I saw that again too, and it's great.