From spraying zombie brains to eco campaigning, Woody Harrelson does things his own way. Hamish MacBain meets an alternative Hollywood hero
Towards the end of ShortList’s interview with Woody Harrelson, he declares that he hopes to have “the George Clooney thing”. Not his silver-fox locks, but his “no press clause”.
“I don’t like doing it, I’ll be honest, because it’s an artificial conversation,” he smiles. “This is an entertainment, a performance. I understand that’s the nature of how it works, but I’d love to not be a part of it. I bet you in the next couple of years I’ll never do another interview.”
This, of course, is part of the perception of Woody that we love. The brutally honest, heart-on-sleeve Hollywood outsider with a passion for indies and a low tolerance for commercial, game-playing frivolities. By way of further example: while today, ostensibly, he is here to talk about magician heist film Now You See Me, we begin our chat with the 51-year-old actor instead enthusing about his plan to come to London next year to direct a play he has written.
Twenty years ago, in between twin generational tentpoles White Men Can’t Jump and Natural Born Killers, he received a Golden Raspberry for Worst Supporting Actor for Indecent Proposal, but that is a lone blip in a near-faultless career. It’s hard to think of a more impressive, varied body of work. And, more importantly, one that contains so many films so close to our hearts. Not bad for the doofus from Cheers.
Going into Now You See Me, were you a magic sceptic or have you had any experience?
Yeah, I’ve had stuff done to me. Keith Barry, who was my consultant, did some fantastic stuff to me. And David Blaine is a really good buddy, so I’ve seen the crazy stuff he does.
You play a con-artist magician, which you can add to a porn baron (The People Vs Larry Flynt), a serial killer (Natural Born Killers), a corrupt cop (Rampart) and a Republican strategist (Game Change). Which would you say is the most evil or morally corrupt?
You see, one of those guys is a serial killer, so I’d say him right off the bat. Even though you thought I’d say the Republican, but I really liked the gentleman I was playing [Steve Schmidt]. He was a friend. I don’t think of him as an evil guy, I just think he got involved with a few evil people.
You’re back with Jesse Eisenberg in this film. Have you stayed in touch since Zombieland?
Oh yeah. He was the reason [I did it], actually. We met in New York about a year and half ago and had lunch, and he started telling me about this movie. He was attached to it, and he said that I’d be getting a script. I read it and thought it was good, but that my part was, like, nothing. So I started trying to make it a little more interesting with the writers. But Jesse told me about it, and I thought it was a great idea.
Can you offer advice to someone like him who is 20 years younger?
I don’t know, he’s like my kids: you give them advice and they say no. I give him a great example of what not to do. My advice would be: let me show what you shouldn’t do, and learn by that.
At the other end of the scale, co-stars Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are 30-odd years your senior. Do you still get star-struck by Caine?
Yes, for sure. We went to dinner and he’s a great raconteur. He was talking about this time where… I think it was him, Jane Fonda and someone like Paul Newman. They were going down Bourbon Street [in New Orleans], from bar to bar. Can you imagine that? It was them and – maybe [Robert] Redford – they were going bar to bar and I thought, “Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall?”
How do you think the establishment in Hollywood views you now?
I don’t know if they really view me much. I can’t say. If you think of ‘the establishment’ in America, you think of the government, but in Hollywood it’s an ambiguous concept, because they’re all individuals. Each head of a studio is an individual. Some directors are considered the establishment. So that would be an individual thing and hard to know. They probably think of me as “not very Hollywood”. Hopefully.
You’re happy with that perception?
When you say ‘Hollywood’ it makes me think of going to parties and being on that circuit. I’ve done it, but I have no desire to do that sh*t any more.
Your veganism and support of marijuana legalisation has made plenty of headlines. Do you ever feel that it overshadows your film work?
But who could I attribute that to? If it’s a bother, I have to blame myself, because I’ve talked about it. I like to think I’m doing good work as an actor, and that I’ve helped a few people. Of the crucial areas – if you consider that people have self-destructive activities – their food is probably No1. I mean, the road to the grave is through the mouth, so if what I’ve done has annoyed some people, so what? I certainly helped some people.
In terms of future projects, can you tell us a bit about True Detective, the HBO series you’re doing with Matthew McConaughey?
It’s a very work-intensive project. A lot of things going on – it’s eight one-hour episodes that will premiere probably next March on HBO, after Game Of Thrones. To give you a sense of the premise, Matthew and I are investigating a murder as homicide detectives, from 1995 to 2012, spanning 17 years. There’s a lot of other stuff, but that’s the basic premise.
And then, of course, there’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Can you tell us how that’s coming along?
I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s looking great.
How does it feel for you to be part of a big juggernaut franchise? It’s the first time you’ve…
...it’s the first time I’ve been a part of something that’s a hit [laughs].
No, it’s just that being part of a huge blockbuster is not something people would associate with you.
I love it. I really love it. I said no at first. But the director called me and he said, “You’ve got to do this for me, I don’t have a second choice.” He was so passionate about it, and I thought, “Well if you want me to do it that bad, I’ll do it.” Just one conversation made me throw the dice. That was it, and now I’m part of this incredible franchise.
Were you surprised by how big it became?
Yes I was. I didn’t know what I was stepping into.
A lot of people have said Hollywood is relying too much on big franchises at the moment. Do you think that’s true?
Well, Hollywood is so many diverse things; you have indies that I love. But when you’re looking at studios, they need to make money. They’re giant corporations, so I understand that in getting something that is working, you stick with it. Most times, sequels aren’t as good as the original, and I hope that’s not the case for The Hunger Games. I haven’t seen it, but if it is as good, why not? I don’t have a moral issue with it, I get the idea. F*ck it. Do it.
Now You See Me is at cinemas nationwide now
(Image: Rex Features)