Woody Harrelson, Part 2: When War Comes Home

Woody Harrelson close up i i

Just the facts: Woody Harrelson's Capt. Tony Stone is a career soldier and reco--ring alcoholic — with a strict set of rules about what and what not to do when delivering bad news to the families of fallen soldiers. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Laboratories
Woody Harrelson close up

Just the facts: Woody Harrelson's Capt. Tony Stone is a career soldier and reco--ring alcoholic — with a strict set of rules about what and what not to do when delivering bad news to the families of fallen soldiers.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Note: This is the second part of a two-part conversation. The first segment aired Nov. 10.

Woody Harrelson stars in two new films this month: 2012 and The Messenger. The former is a post-apocalyptic fable in which Harrelson plays a sort of mad prophet. The latter, directed by Oren Moverman, is a sober drama about two American soldiers delivering death notices to the families of their fallen comrades.

Harrelson plays Capt. Tony Stone, a feisty veteran of the Army's Casualty Notification service. He's partnered with Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who's just returned from Iraq — and as bearers of the worst news, the two soldiers form a cathartic bond.

The film opened Nov. 13, and Harrelson's performance is already generating Oscar talk. (Read Bob Mondello's review.) Harrelson joined Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies for a conversation about the film.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Last week, Woody Harrelson told us about his new film "The Messenger." Now we have part two of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies. For eight seasons, Harrelson played a lovable and naive bartender in the TV series "Cheers." Then he made the films "White Man Can't Jump," "Indecent Proposal," "Natural Born Killers," "Kingpin" and "The People versus Larry Flynt," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

He moved to Costa Rica for a while to flee celebrity, then settled in Hawaii with his family and took five years off from acting. He's become a vegan and an outspoken advocate of environmental causes. But he's back in movies. He had a memorable supporting role in "No Country for Old Men," and he's now in the comedy "Zombieland" and the drama, "The Messenger," in which he and Ben Foster play soldiers assigned to tell family members that a loved one has died in action. Let's start with a clip from his first scene on "Cheers." The scene starts with Ted Danson as Sam Malone.

(Soundbite of TV show "Cheers")

Mr. TED DANSON (Actor): (As Sam Malone) Woody, did you say you're looking for work?

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (As Woody Boyd) Well, actually, I came to Boston on a fact-finding tour. See, I tend bar back home in Indiana. Well, it's not a bar, exactly. It's more like a pigsty with a jukebox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Woody Boyd) If we had a jukebox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (As Sam Malone) Carla...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANSON: (As Sam Malone) ...I'd like you to meet Woody Boyd. Woody, this is Carla Tortelli.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Woody Boyd) Hi, ma'am.

Ms. RHEA PERLMAN (Actress): (As Carla Tortelli) Ma'am?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RHEA PERLMAN (Actress): (As Carla Tortelli) What's that supposed to mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Woody Boyd) I believe it's a term of respect.

Ms. PERLMAN: (As Carla Tortelli) No wonder it sounded so weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The character that you played, Woody Boyd, was sort of this lovable, naive hayseed from Indiana. And, you know, it occurred to me that you got this huge role at a pretty early time in your acting career - not like you didn't pay some dues. I know that you did, you know, plays in New York. But you had lot more success in your 20s than a lot of people did. And I'm wondering if being in Hollywood then - you grew up in Ohio, I guess. And...

Mr. HARRELSON: Texas and Ohio.

DAVIES: Texas and Ohio, right. And that being in Hollywood then and having that role, were you a little wide-eyed, like Woody Boyd?

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah, I suppose I was. I was - you know, I'd just turned 24 when they started. I was 23 when I auditioned for it, but it was right just before my birthday. And then, I don't know - doing it - I got to say I didn't have the full realization of, well, I'm replacing this beloved character. I mean, I kind of knew that, but I hadn't watched the show. So, I didn't really know, you know, that much. I think it would have been a lot more of a daunting task had I been watching the show.

But certainly, I remember standing back offstage, waiting for that red light to go on and, you know, I could hear the dialogue and I could tell I was getting closer. And then, boom, the red light goes on and I'm entering into the bar, in front of a live audience, and obviously a show that's going to be seen by a lot of people. So it was pretty - I was nervous, I got to say. But thankfully, you know, I'd done enough theater in college that I think it really helped me get through that.

DAVIES: After "Cheers," you made a transition to movies on a way that not that many TV actors do as successfully. And one of your early films was "White Men Can't Jump," and I thought we'd listen to that. That really - I think, it really put you on the map as a movie actor, and I thought we would listen to a clip from that. And this is you and your costar, Wesley Snipes.

I mean, those who know the film know that you guys are basketball hustlers. You go onto a playground and provoke games and fool people and take their money. And in this scene, you're about to compete with Wesley as a partner in a two-on-two basketball tournament, and you suddenly start talking trash to a couple of guys on the court whom you might have to play later. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "White Men Can't Jump)

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Hey, chump. Yeah, you, potato head. You know who I'm talking about.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) If that's your best game you've got? Because if it is, you better just grab that free T-shirt and head home.

Mr. WESLEY SNIPES (Actor): (As Sidney Deane) Hey, man. What the hell are you doing, man?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) You hear? What did you bring over here? Mighty Mouse? You know something? You're too pretty to play basketball. You know that? You got that big Z in your fro, man.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sidney Deane) Come on, would you stop already?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Hey man, what are you? Are you the black Zorro?

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sidney Deane) Oh man, look, that's enough.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Hey, no, seriously. You get your haircut at the Braille institute?

Unidentified Man #2 (beep) What's Opie Taylor talking about, anyway, huh?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Opie Taylor? Opie - hey, I got your Opie, you big bad Gomer Pyle droopy-eyed son of a bitch.

Unidentified Man #2: You and your cream-of-wheat ass take your ass back to Mayberry and tell Aunt Bee she better have my bean pies, or I'm going to kick her ass.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) What are you doing?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Hey, Lurch and Morticia.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) What the (beep) are you doing?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Hey, I'm doing two things.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) What? What are you doing?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) I'm making them mad. Most guys don't play good when they're mad.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) Look, you know, you're embarrassing me. That's what you're doing.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Yeah, that's the other thing I'm doing.

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) You know, you're not embarrassing me. You're pissing me off. That's what you are doing.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Well, good because unlike those guys, I assume you play better when you're mad. Am I right?

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. SNIPES: (As Sydney Deane) I'm not listening to you.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Billy Hoyle) Yeah. But you are hearing me.

DAVIES: And that is my guest Woody Harrelson with Wesley Snipes from the movie "White Men Can't Jump." A lot of fun, macho trash talk there, but, you know, a character really different from Woody Boyd on "Cheers." And, you know, I have to say, when I think of a Woody Harrelson role, what I think of is a guy who brings enormous self confidence, just not a moment of self doubt, I mean, a kind of guy that could start trash talking on the basketball court. Is that closer to you than this naive kid from "Cheers"?

Mr. HARRELSON: You know, maybe somewhere right in the middle. I don't feel as confident as that. I don't remember. Well, I guess I do some trash talking, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRELSON: You know, I guess - I feel a lot like that character, Billy Hoyle. Yeah, I guess so.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk a little bit about "The People vs. Larry Flynt." This was a role that got you an Oscar nomination. I mean, Larry Flynt was, of course, the publisher of Hustler magazine, who was shot and paralyzed from the waist down - I believe the assailant was never actually caught. And you played him in this film about his battles against censorship, as well as, it's, you know, a profile of his - his very interesting life. We should listen to a cut here. In a way, you kind of had two - there were sort of two roles here. I mean, he had to play the Larry Flynt before he was injured and the one after.

And the one after, the gunshot wounds affected his speech. And in this cut from the film, you've just come back to Hustler magazine, after being either in jail for contempt in one of the court cases or in the hospital - I'm not sure which. But you've come back to the magazine and sort of taken charge. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "The People vs. Larry Flynt")

Unidentified Woman: The pervert is back. The pervert is back.

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (As Larry Flynt) Circulation is down by a third. Color reproduction is horrible. Models look like they're three-dollar whores. The writing is by some moronic idiot.

Mr. SCOTT WILLIAM WINTERS (Actor): (As Blow Dried Jerk) Mr. Flynt? I don't want to step on your toes, but things have changed since you were actively running the company. I mean, I look back at the stuff you did in the '70s and it was sort of racy and crazy, but the country is different now. Reagan has rebuilt America and the Moral Majority is gaining power.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) You're fired.

Mr. WINTERS: (As Blow Dried Jerk) Excuse me?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) You get the (bleep) out of my building. Doug, get him out of here. You blow dried jerk (bleep). Take him out of here and throw him in the incinerator, cut him to little pieces and feed him to the animals out there. Get out of here.

Mr. BRETT HARRELSON (Actor): (As Jimmy Flynt) Larry. Larry, you can't do that. I mean, he's our vice president. He's the VP of marketing.

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Hey, Jimbo, are you trying to challenge my authority? You see that on the wall? LFP, that's Larry Flynt Publications. Not JFP. Okay? I'm the big kahuna here. Do you have a problem with that?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Jimmy Flynt) No, Larry. You're the boss. So, Larry, what's the plan?

Mr. HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Plan. The plan is simple. The establishment took my manhood from me, but they left the half of me. They left the half with the brain and I'm going to use it to get back.

DAVIES: And that's - my guest, Woody Harrelson, making his mark as Larry Flynt, the porn publisher, in the film "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Tell us what interested you about doing this film?

Mr. HARRELSON: Well, you know, when they offered it to me, I was - I kind of had a similar opinion, most people had, which - when they heard, they said, well, why would you want to do a movie about this guy? And yet, you know, they were, and Milos Forman was going to direct it. So, it really seemed like something, you got to pay attention to. So I went and met with Larry. And my feeling was, if I didn't like him I just wasn't going to play the part. But I was kind of amazed by him, you know, he is a brilliantly funny, interesting guy who likes to stir things up and yet, you know, whether or not agree with what he does, he's a kind of a fascinating character.

So, I was glad to get time with him. And when we start to make it, there was a lot of work to be done, because the script just needed a lot of work and there ended up being a lot of improv in it. And that was fun, listening to that scene because there was my brother in that scene. He played Jimmy Flynt.

DAVIES: Do you identify with Larry Flynt in any way? I mean, you're both people who sort of aren't afraid of stirring things up and setting your own course?

Mr. HARRELSON: Well, I think probably during the course of it he kind of activated me more, just for having played him, it made me, you know, it was after that that I did things where I had brushes with the law and so forth that, you know, probably I never would have done that.

DAVIES: May be you should explain what you mean by brushes with the law.

Mr. HARRELSON: Well, for example, I was upset by the fact that there was no distinction made between hemp and marijuana, where I think in a free country you should be free to grow whatever. But I'm not going to pretend this is a free country. But, however, I went to Kentucky and along with my buddy, Joe Hickey, there. We kind of set up this thing where I planted hemp seeds and got arrested. And then the concept of it was to go to trial, which we ultimately did, and hopefully the jury would see the distinction between the two, and, you know, farmers would be free to grow hemp which you can use for paper, or clothing, or, you know, it's a sustainable material. So, that's what ended up happening. And doing things like that or climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, I don't know if I would have done that kind of thing had I not played Larry, just because it made me look at things differently. I - before, the thought of getting arrested was just an impossible thought and I would never intentionally do that. And after playing the part, I looked at it as a way to kind of get my point across, you know.

DAVIES: Right because Larry Flynt, in fact, actively provoked the authorities, and including - assaulting judges in courtrooms at times, we should mention that the - you mention climbing the Golden Gate Bridge, that was - I think the string of banner protesting the eradications of redwoods, right?

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah, we were protesting the logging of the ancient redwoods in Northern California. And I'm not sure we helped any, but, you know, we tried to bring some attention to it.

DAVIES: I read too, that there was a time when you're having a rough time with your - with Laura Louie, your wife - although, then I guess you weren't married - and you spoke to Larry about it. And I think he even might have spoken to her?

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah, Larry took it upon himself, unbeknownst to me, and called up Laura and got together with her and actually was giving relationship advice, because I guess he considered her, you know, being my wife, comparable to what it would be like to be Larry's wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRELSON: I'm not sure why? But it was really - it was one of those incredible, you know, things that a true friend does, you know, that you just, I was really grateful for that. And I think it did help.

DAVIES: Do you want to share the advice you got?

Mr. HARRELSON: No, not at all.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Woody Harrelson. His new film with Ben Foster is called "The Messenger." We will talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us we're speaking with actor Woody Harrelson. He stars in a new film with Ben Foster where they portray military officers who have to give word to loved ones that a service member has died in action. The new film is called "The Messenger."

People who know you well know that your father, who I guess divorced from your mom at an early age, was imprisoned. He was convicted of killing a federal judge. And I know that you had a relationship with him and visited him in prison and tried to help him get a new trial, �cause you felt that he did not have a fair trial - died two years ago. But it's interesting to me, as I've read what you've said about him, that he was a charming, well-read, really interesting guy. And it struck me that, you know, one might say a lot of those same things about you, and you're both guys who aren't afraid to break some rules. Do you feel like you're like your dad in some way?

Mr. HARRELSON: Well, I guess you could say, you know, they have this saying -the Japanese - there's some kind of Japanese philosophy that when you're born on your father's birthday, you're not like your father - You are your father. So, I don't know, I remember hearing that. And it's kind of interesting, one time. And I do think there are a lot of similarities. I think he had a much different kind of sense about what he needed to do to make money in life. And who knows what would happen to me if hadn't fallen into acting.

So, in that sense we might have been exactly the same. But fortunately, I ran down this alleyway. And what about him? You know, he was an incredible guy in many ways. And, you know, he did a lot that probably nobody could be proud of, but so be it, you know? I still loved him and it was really sad for me that he died in prison and we never got to go hang out and have a beer together and, you know, just shoot the (beep) without being on telephones or having or having things monitored, you know?

DAVIES: Mm-hmm. You had to stretch for a few years where you weren't making films, right? You've made several recently. What made you want to take sometime away from movie making?

Mr. HARRELSON: Well, I mean a part of it was - it was after Larry Flynt and this whole debacle where the movie was kind of destined to do quite well. And then whole campaign against it destroyed any chance of that. And the studio at the time didn't really fight it. They just of kind of let it go. And it was really devastating because that movie meant a lot. And myself and Ed Norton and Courtney Love and Milos, we - I mean we put tons of work into that and tons of ourselves into that. And that was kind of a devastating blow.

Also, I was just - I'd done movies back to back to back, and I was just - I was not enjoying it. Like this is a job you should be enjoying. So, it was a good opportunity to do another important thing, which was - and the most important of all of it - which was to hang more with my family. And, so that's what I did. You know, we moved off grid and out of sight, and just had a ball together. So, one of my better decisions. I didn't think it was going to be five years, but I thought it would be couple - three years. And then it was just fun. And, you know, I'll say this, I'm a good worker and a hard worker, but I'm world class vacationer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Good to have that talent.

Mr. HARRELSON: And a slacker.

DAVIES: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Are you having fun with the job again?

Mr. HARRELSON: Oh, yeah. I'm really enjoying it now. And I've just wanted to make sure that every movie that comes along, I just try to do my very best, and also that the movie has every chance of being great. In this case, with "The Messenger," I think it's the best movie I've been a part of. I think it's truly great and Oren Moverman is like a young Hal Ashby, and he just truly, you know, one of the most visionary directors I've ever worked with. And Ben Foster, I think, delivers just a searing, beautiful, eloquent performance. And it's great to be a part of it.

DAVIES: We are about out of time, but Woody Harrelson, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HARRELSON: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure being on your show.

GROSS: Woody Harrelson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Dave is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Woody Harrelson stars with Ben Foster in the new movie, "The Messenger."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

I'm Terry Gross.

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