Riding Choppers and talking about the apocalypse with Woody Harrelson
The 'Planet of the Apes' star on being a barefoot hippy anarchist in Hollywood
Oh God, I can’t look. Woody Harrelson is barrelling down a steep, gravel-covered bridge on a Raleigh Chopper. He’s daringly balanced himself, one-footed, on the bike’s frame, and his wincing publicist is averting her gaze and praying that he doesn’t horribly brain himself on her watch. Christ, he is totally gonna come off… Nope, it’s fine, pulled it back. Just, mind you.
We’re at a golf club in Berkshire and Harrelson is hopped-up on daredevil mischief. Unsolicited mischief, we might add: the ShortList team was hoping that Woody might pose for a couple of ‘quirky’ shots, but he’s really going above and beyond, hijacking water hoses, falling off skateboards, messing about with the staff and popping stunts that have ‘concussion’ writen all over them.
Oh God, now Woody’s attempting to steer the Chopper with his feet. He is ‘on loan’ to us this evening from the Han Solo movie shooting down the road at Pinewood Studios, and if we were to break him… well, we may all end up encased in carbonite.
Blessedly injury-free, we embark on the chauffeured drive to Harrelson’s London apartment, with the interview to be conducted en route. “Hope that’s cool?” Woody asks, twisting out of his hose-soaked tee. Fine with me – he doesn’t seem the kind of man who’d suit being quietly quizzed in a member’s bar to the sombre ticks of a grandfather clock.
Woody may be in the UK for Star Wars, but he’s speaking to ShortList to promote War For The Planet Of The Apes, the third chapter in the rebooted sci-fi franchise. Harrelson plays a Kurtz-from-Apocalypse-Now type known simply as the Colonel. “He’s not a 100 per cent straight-up villain,” says Woody, charitably. “He’s a guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing, but has done some terrible stuff along the way. Even the most evil guy… like, even Donald Trump thinks he’s being a great guy, y’know?”
The movie centres on desperate refugees (the apes) enduring persecution at the hands of a bigoted egomaniac obsessed with building a wall (Harrelson). Parallels are bound to be drawn with the current Yakety Sax car crash that is US politics – is that deliberate, or is it just that everything feels like pointed political commentary right now?
“Well, there are definitely parallels,” says Woody, forking homemade superfood salad from a Tupperware box. “None of it’s deliberate, though. We were shooting a year ago, and there wasn’t the slightest idea that Trump would actually become president, so it was before his ‘wall’ became this whole thing. He was contending for the job back then – but, man, who’da thought, right?”
Woody’s appeared in a handful of post-apocalyptic movies over the past decade – Apes aside, there’s been Zombieland, 2012 and the four Hunger Games films. Is there something about them that he’s particularly drawn to? He’s described himself as an anarchist – perhaps the whole collapse-of-society aspect appeals?
“No, man, there’s no great appeal to me in the destruction of our society – it kinda saddens me.” I now feel kind of bad for asking. “When I say I’m an anarchist, I mean it in the sense that I’ve never seen good government. You very occasionally get someone like Mandela – a leader who truly cared about his people. But a leader who isn’t acting in their own self-interest is a very rare thing.”
He gets the zeitgeisty appeal of end-of-the-world tales. “I think all of us have a notion that there might be some kind of apocalyptic reckoning coming. The ice is melting, the weather is changing and we’re just going on like f*cking lemmings. There’s something very apocalyptic about this moment in time, so stories dealing with that kind of situation are bound to resonate.”
How optimistic is he of a Hollywood-style ending, of some klutzy-yet-sexy scientist coming through with a deus ex machina at the last moment? “Not terribly. I believe we’ll survive, but we’ll lose a lot of our species. It’ll be survival of the fittest. But I don’t think it’ll be war, radiation or even global warming – it’ll be viruses. We’re eliminating so many species, and the viruses they carry will start finding new hosts because of that. I’m not some fanatical doomsday advocate, but I just don’t see how it can end up being otherwise.”
While that’s probably one of the darker quotes you’ve read from an A-list star in a while, it’s important to put it in context. Hearing, say, Tilda Swinton or Anthony Hopkins gravely intone those words would leave you shuddering for hours. But when delivered by Woody Harrelson – shoeless, grinning, Texas-twang Woody Harrelson, idly gazing out of a car window as a sun-baked west London flies by – even the prospect of humanity being decimated by a phalanx of super-viruses doesn’t seem, like, quite such a bummer, y’know?
Woody has a history of speaking out on topics – environmentalism, veganism, marijuana, the 2003 invasion of Iraq – that’ve brought sh*t-storms of varying sizes down on him.
“With the herb thing, I just believe in freedom, y’know?” he sighs, recalling the pearl-clutching reaction to his pro-marijuana statements. “I just spoke my mind about it when people asked, and from the very first time I did so, there was a big blowback. Biiig blowback. Now everyone accepts it, but at the time? Nobody spoke about it. It was a stupid move, probably.”
He never intended to become the poster boy for the legalise-weed movement in the way that he did. “I wouldn’t count myself as a big activist. It takes away from other activists to say I was an activist.” He no longer smokes weed, he says – although he does still “party hard”.
Some 32 years after breaking through as corn-fed lummox Woody Boyd on Cheers, 55-year-old Harrelson’s career is peaking – at the very least, he’s never been busier. And for an actor currently averaging four or five roles a year, he has a remarkably high winner-to-stinker ratio. In the main, he has a canny knack for backing champs while seamlessly flitting between cineplex and arthouse: he may be heading up the bazillion-dollar Apes franchise this month, but last month you could’ve caught him playing a tragicomic loner in a low-key adaption of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel, Wilson. So, does he subscribe to the ‘one for them, one for me’ system many A-listers use to justify their more commercial roles?
“No, man – not at all!” he responds, perturbed by the very idea. “I feel like every movie I do is ‘one for me’. I don’t do movies just to try to make a hit. I mean, sure… You could point out that I’m doing Star Wars, I’m doing Apes, and I get that. But, y’know, I really like Star Wars, I really like Apes.
“Look, I had the opportunity to star in this big movie, the Kong movie, uhhh,” – he’s clicking his fingers, searching for the name – “Skull Island! Skull Island. Big movie, big payday, all that stuff. But I just thought, ‘I don’t care about King Kong.’ And in the end I was so glad I turned it down – because one week later, along comes Apes.
“I saw that first Apes movie, and I thought, ‘Man, that was un-bee-lievable, I can’t wait to see the second one.’ Then I see the second one, and I thought, ‘Now I can’t wait to see the third one’ – without realising I’d actually get to be in it!” It’s endearing to see Harrelson boyishly giddy about getting to be in a film – actually in the movie, dude! – that he was previously excited about simply seeing.
“Did you like it?” asks Woody eagerly. I tell him that I loved it – I mean, I’d have told him that anyway, because we’re sitting right next to each other in a car and it’d be pitilessly awkward if I said otherwise. But I really did love it – it’s every bit as good as the first two Apes movies, which were both excellent. (And if you’ve seen neither Rise… nor Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and are currently pulling a ‘come off it mate, talking chimps?’ face, allow me to gesture at their Rotten Tomatoes scores as validation: 81 per cent and 90 per cent, respectively. They’re good!)
Things are going swell for Woody right now – but over the course of that three-decade career there must’ve been a few ‘ones that got away’?
“Jerry Maguire,” he responds, with a swiftness that suggests an abiding sting. “[Producer] Jim Brooks asked me to do it. And I said, ‘Jim, I just don’t think anybody’s gonna care about an agent.’ And he said, ‘Well, I think you’re wrong!’ Next thing I know, I hear Tom Cruise is doing the movie and I’m like, ‘Oh f*ck. Oops!’”
Yep, that’s a wounder. Any others?
“Dumb & Dumber.” He sighs. “It was shot by one of my best buddies – my onetime roommate, in fact – Peter Farrelly, along with his brother Bobby. They’d had no success at that time, but really wanted me to do the movie. Pete’s a good pool player, so I challenged him to a game and said, ‘If I lose this game, I’ll do your movie; if I win, I’m not gonna do it.’
“The game came down to the eightball – and I’ve never been so disappointed to sink an eightball in my life. Although, I dunno if I could’ve played that part as well as Jeff Daniels did anyway.”
At least you got to be in Kingpin, though, right? “Yeah, well, that was the Farrellys’ second movie – and their third was There’s Something About Mary. So mine was that little movie in the middle that nobody saw!”
It’s a cult classic now, though.
“Oh sure, and people have seen it since, which is good – but nobody saw it at the time!” It may be the most wilfully stoopid movie of his career, but Woody values Kingpin as much as anything else on his IMDb page. “I really like to make people laugh,” he says, with an in-all-seriousness surety. “Doing something that you find funny, and then finding that other people find it funny, too – it’s one of the most gratifying feelings I’ve ever experienced.”
So those lapses in judgement, those missed opportunities – do they ever keep Harrelson awake at night? Snapping the lid shut on his Tupperware box, he shoots me a raised-eyebrow smile that’s pure ‘whadda you think?’. So no, then.
We’re nearly at Woody’s Primrose Hill home-from-home. Before he goes, I want to know if he finds it odd, this whole process: he makes a movie and that inexorably leads, 12 months later, to some nosy journalist asking him a load of intrusive questions.
“Well, probably the oddest thing is that I answer those personal questions,” he shrugs. “Julianne Moore gave me some advice: ‘When you get those questions in an interview you just steer the conversation away and send it back to whatever your project is.’ And I went, ‘Huh, okaaay.’” He chuckles wryly, apparently at his own whatever-bro inability to follow this sage advice.
“And, y’know, she’s smart. You don’t know that much about Julianne Moore because she doesn’t talk about herself, and probably I shouldn’t either. Maybe the less well you know an actor, the easier it is to pull this stuff off, to believably play characters.”
But Woody can’t help himself. He’s pathologically open, and it’s hard to imagine him pulling off frosty, enigmatic opaqueness. “Look,” he shrugs, “you wanna know the personal stuff? I’m a simple guy and I’m a hippy and I live in Hawaii and I’m an anarchist and I like to wear no shoes. And that’s, like, basically it.” Mile-wide grin.