While actor Woody Harrelson has been characterized as a stoner, he's been no slacker lately, having worked hard on three movies coming out virtually back to back -- films that might help get him beyond his past. From starring in the hit television show Cheers to a film like White Men Can't Jump, Harrelson created such iconic characters that he's had a hard time escaping from them. No matter how well he immerses himself into characters unlike himself, he has struggled to get audiences to see past those cynosures with which he saddled himself.
Through his gonzo character Tallahassee, Harrelson helped propel Zombieland on to be an unexpectedly huge commericial success. The mega-feature 2012 -- which opened this weekend -- is likely to be a sci-fi blockbuster, and though Harrelson only provides a supporting role his character plays a crucial part in moving the story forward.
But it's with The Messenger -- a film also being released this weekend in New York -- that Harrelson tests himself and shines. The 48-year-old former Ohioan plays Captain Tony Stone, a hard-assed soldier who has chosen to deliver death notifications to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq. When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, it garnered Oscar buzz even then. That only amplified its powerful message, that we can best understand the sacrifices being made by our troops by seeing it through the eyes of those who have been most affected -- the families of fallen.
WH: I hadn't really thought about that commonality until now. I guess that's kind of true. [Zombieland] is not really dealing with death as much as just it's post-apocalyptic and the end is nigh for everybody. I hadn't really thought about that, no.
Q: The end of the world is a death in a way.
WH: Yeah, that's true.
Q: When you deal with films that deal with death, how does that make you think about it, talk about it or accept it?
WH: Well, the most confrontation that I've had with death is when people told me about close people to me passing and it's one of those things, of course I guess that we've all had where it's an impossible task. The person can just deliver the news and get out of the way.
There's nothing more horrible than losing someone you love. Even losing yourself is not as big a deal as losing someone that you love. In the context of this movie, it was really intense because, thanks to Oren [Moverman, the director] as well as Ben [Foster, his young co-star who is his fellow notification officer] -- they really helped make the whole scenario seem real.
It was very emotional for me. [While] I was playing Captain Tony Stone I had to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they'd say cut, I'd just start bawling. I was so moved by those experiences.
Q: So what sold you on the idea of doing it?
WH: I thought it was one of the more beautiful scripts I'd ever read; really powerful, full of emotion and humor. It was one of those things after meeting with Oren where I thought, "Well this guy is a sharp customer." He was so prepared and just on top of everything. I thought he could make a good movie here, but I didn't expect him to knock it out of the park the way he did. I love it.
Q: You talked to some of the soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and to a Notification Officer; was it hard talk to them or ask questions about their experiences?
WH: With every person I've met that's done notification--which is quite a number now because there's people I've met since who have seen [the movie] and not just the people I talked to before -- there's no real way to describe it. You're walking in and breaking someone's heart; there are certain protocols that they obviously have in the Army and in the rest of the military, but I don't think there's any easy way to do it.
In this case, they just say, "The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform bop, bop, bop." For all of those guys, it's the hardest job in the Army. Even people in combat or the people I'd met at Walter Reed who've lost their leg, arm or whatever, when I tell them what the movie is about, they go, "Oh, God. I'd much rather go back into combat than do that." Nobody wants that job.
Q: In the context of a million Iraqis who have been killed based on an invasion that was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, what do you feel about the film? And did you know that there are now more soldiers from there that are killed by suicide than by combat?
WH: I hadn't heard that statistic. Well, my feeling for quite a while was always more concerned with the victims of war. I was getting images because I wasn't just going to the standard press and so I was getting images from the first day of the Bush War II.
I saw all kinds of horrifying images, of children, that nobody in the United States was seeing unless they really went kind of a different route, but people in Europe were seeing them, I think. So I have a great deal of sympathy for them and always thought of the war as the biggest cost being for them. Perhaps that's appropriate.
So It's appropriate to be anti-war or pro-peace, especially when wars are being fought for resources and land. But the big missing piece to my whole philosophy or understanding was to find out what's going on with the soldiers, so having spent time with these soldiers and hearing their stories was really a great thing for me because it really made me start to care for them. Before I had always just lumped them with the war at large.
Now I do support the troops and think that a part of supporting them is not getting behind the concept of having to send them into harm's way for resources, for oil, etc. But I didn't know about that last thing, the suicides. That really makes me sad.
Q: In a way, your character had to set himself aside to deliver the notifications; is this a role where you put aside your beliefs or philosophies to play it?
WH: Definitely. With this film, I can never imagine being a soldier. I never would've have imagined it if I hadn't played this part. I never would've really gotten into the mindset of it and I don't do well with authority. There's a lot of reasons why I think I'd make a lousy soldier, but it's nice to try to fit your mindset into another framework.
I did this movie, Battle in Seattle. I didn't play a protestor, which would've been obvious I think, but I played a cop during the WTO [riot]. That was the backdrop of it, the whole WTO thing in Seattle. I find it intriguing to try and explore the thoughts and mindset of another [kind of] character.
Q: It must have been tough to imagine yourselves in these roles.
WH: There were two types of roles that I always felt I didn't know if I could play them, one being a cop, and the other being a soldier. There's something very interestingly complex about trying to take on a role of a guy who's hard core. The Army's his family, he's a lifer, he's just as gung ho as they get, longs to be in combat. So part of that was intriguing but challenging to a hippie peacenik from Hawaii. Well, I'm from Texas, but I live in Hawaii.
Q: How do you feel about a war movie that's not really a war movie where it has more emotional impact than an out-and-out war movie?
WH: I feel great about it. I think the response that we've had to this movie has been incredible. Also the response by soldiers has been amazing, particularly -- Oren might've told you -- the Vietnam vets who have responded. It's incredible. Tim O'Brien [author of the Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato has seen the movie], loved it and had a real emotional response. That's great.
I know that it's going to be a hard movie to sell because people don't want to go see something that at least, on the surface, is so depressing. But I do think that it's actually a very uplifting and hopeful movie in many ways. There's a lot of intense stuff in there but it's one of those things where if you're not prepared to feel something or get emotional then this is definitely not the movie to go see.
Q: What have been some of the reactions of the Vietnam vets?
WH: They really just felt connected, particularly with the notifications, to the families. It brought up a lot of stuff that had maybe been dormant for a while.
Q: Did you go out and see any of the war films along the way, particularly the late director Hal Ashby's films?
WH: I love Hal Ashby [director of such classics as Coming Home, The Last Detail, Harold and Maude]. He's one of my favorite directors, but now, so is Oren. Actually, Oren and I are going to do another movie together, Rampart.
Q: Did you talk to Oren about his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli conflicts?
WH: I think his whole vantage point really helped our character development a lot. He's a guy who's actually been in war theaters, as they call them. I think he's one of the greatest directors I've worked with.
I keep referring to him as a young Hal Ashby and yet he's got his own vision. It's not like he's Hal Ashby but I think his vision, and the way he managed to create a film that is shot very uniquely, as with that nine-minute scene between Ben and Samantha Morton, it's just breathtaking that he was able to shoot this thing the way that he did. I think his own sensibilities coupled with his experience in Israel, or really in Lebanon, that really helped him a lot.
Q: Did that help you in prepare; didn't you only have a week to prepare for the film due to working on another movie, Bunraku, that you were shooting in Bucharest before this?
WH: Yeah. He really helped with that. I had asked him. I was coming in a few days before we started shooting and feeling really at sea and was actually scared to death that I was going to botch this thing. I asked him to give me the background of Tony Stone and he sent a couple of pages that were really helpful, stuff from his past. He also had me go to Bucharest with my Class A's and my fatigues.
So I'm walking around Bucharest in Army clothes, boots, people are looking at me like, "There's an actor who wishes he was in the Army." It was that and he sent me a book called The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien which also helped, and a couple of other books [as well].
So while I was there, even though I was working intently on this other thing, I was thinking, "Okay, there's something, a big focused thing that's coming up." I really wanted to focus early on and then once we got there he took us to Walter Reed and that was just an incredible experience because for me this whole thing has been a journey of the heart and an opening to what's going on with those soldiers.
Q: Has this film change your opinion in any way?
WH: There have been a number of people who've seen it who have talked about the fact that prior to seeing it, they looked at the war more statistically, more in terms of numbers and figures. Particularly in the United States, other than recently with the President, we tend not to really show the cost side of war. It's a good thing that it helps people look at the war that way and maybe have a discussion about it.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this?
WH: Certainly their Coca-Cola cups and whatever they have in the theater; it's best not to litter.
Q: People are now talking about this as an Oscar-worthy role. How does that make you feel?
WH: I guess it's better that they talk about it than don't but I can't get all emotionally charged about it. I don't think there's any actor who wouldn't want that kind of thing. To me, I'm just happy that the film turned out great and I honestly mean I think I did an okay job.
I don't know that it's award worthy but I do think that Ben did an Oscar-worthy performance. I think his performance in this is so seeringly beautiful and so calculated and perfectly rendered, and I can tell that although I have seen others who've maybe done as good I've never seen anyone more fully commit to any part than him. He just completely immersed himself in the character.
Q: Would it change anything for you if you did win an Oscar because you've been nominated before?
WH: I'm always more interested in what kind of reaction I'll have when I lose. It's easy to be a winner [laughs].
Q: You seem to be making some interesting choices. Battle for Seattle was a great film; Zombieland was a big hit. Did you expect that?
WH: No. I didn't when we made it. I really thought that this was so swinging for the fences but the odds of it were just astronomical. But the first time I saw it was in Orange County with a huge audience, a thousand people and it was like going to a rock concert. It was incredible, the response. Then I thought, 'Yeah, this thing is going to do okay.'
Q: Will that happen with Defendor another genre type of film
WH: It was made for like $2.5 million but it turned out fantastic. The direction was really good but I don't think it's going to have that kind of [reaction]. I don't think it could play like that because it's not a comedy although there is comedy in it. This thing, Zombieland, was just a lot of laughs.
Q: How close is your wacky long-haired doomsaying character in 2012 to the real Woody Harrelson?
WH: I don't think the end of the world is nigh. I do think though, ecologically speaking from what I've gleaned over the last several years of looking into it, that we're pretty much right on target. But I still have hope. I'm kind of hopeful that we're going to survive as a species.
I guess it involves some kind of intense transformation that some people think might be a mental transformation but I'm almost certain that it's a transformation of the heart that needs to take place because it's really about starting to care more about each other and our plight if you will.
Q: More as a person, since you are both an actor and political activist.
WH: I think there are probably some similarities.
Q: Okay. Are you more like Tony Stone or Tallahassee? At least you're not hoping for a zombie plague [laughs].
WH: Well, we had eight years of that.
Q: What would happen if Tallahassee had to do notifications?
WH: Jeez. I don't want to speculate.