Woody Harrelson: From 'Cheers' To 'The Messenger' Actor Woody Harrelson has played a happy-go-lucky bartender on the TV series Cheers, a serial killer in Natural Born Killers and an Army officer assigned the task of delivering death notices to families of fallen soldiers in The Messenger. He discusses his career and characters with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

Woody Harrelson: From 'Cheers' To 'The Messenger'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Our next guest is actor Woody Harrelson. He first became known for his role in the long-running TV series "Cheers." After "Cheers," Harrelson concentrated on films, including "Natural Born Killers," "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "No Country for Old Men."

Last year, Harrelson earned an Oscar nomination for his role in "The Messenger." It's out on DVD next week. In "The Messenger," Harrelson and Ben Foster co-star as Army casualty notification officers, those assigned to visit family members and tell them their loved one has died in combat.

I spoke to Harrelson last year when "The Messenger" was released. In this clip from the film, Harrelson is Captain Tony Stone, a veteran of casualty notification. He's instructing Foster's character, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, who's new to the assignment, explaining what is and isn't done when delivering the tragic news of a combat death.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Messenger")

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (as Captain Tony Stone) You do not speak with anybody other than the next of kin - no friend, no neighbor, no co-worker or mistress. Hours of operation are 0600 to 2200 hours and we don't want to wake anybody up in the middle of the night. Though if you ask me, hitting them with the news at the crack of dawn is not exactly a great way to start their day, breakfast-wise.

Mr. BEN FOSTER (Actor): (as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) What do we do if the next of kin isn't around?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Captain Tony Stone) We leave. We don't wait. We don't lurk. We come back later. This is a zero-defect mission, a pure hit-and-get operation.

Mr. FOSTER: (as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) Is that it, sir?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Captain Tony Stone) One more thing: You do not touch the N.O.K. Avoid physical contact with the next of kin, unless it's a medical emergency, like if they're having a heart attack or something. You are representing the secretary of the Army, not Will Montgomery. So in case you feel like offering a hug or something - don't. It will only get you in trouble.

DAVIES: Woody Harrelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I don't remember you playing a soldier a lot in the past. Talk a little about getting into that character of Captain Tony Stone - I mean, the physical transformation, the way you carry yourself as an Army captain.

Mr. HARRELSON: A lot of it has to do with Oren Moverman, the director. He really helped me because, well, for one thing, he was in the Israeli military for a while and he has a familiarity with the military. And honestly, as I told Oren, there's really two particular occupations I thought I could never play: one being a soldier and the other being a policeman, just because I just don't feel like - I don't know what it is, maybe it's something to do with authority or something, but - so this one I was really nervous about and I only had a few days prep.

Part of what helped me was Oren sent, you know, some back story to the character because, you know, otherwise I didn't feel like I had enough time to just use my imagination to try to figure it out. So luckily he sent me some pages of back story to help me think in terms of Tony Stone. He sent me with my class A's and my fatigues, so I'm marching around Bucharest in my boots and, you know, probably an odd sight, but...

DAVIES: And you shaved your head for this role, right?

Mr. HARRELSON: And yeah, he asked me to shave my head. So, yeah, I did that. And, I mean, just did the most - and reading a book, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carry," really helped. And, you know, there were a lot of things, but nothing really helped as much as just spending time with the soldiers. I felt like that really helped me humanize them in such a way that I felt like, oh, you know, they're not that much different from me, you know, so...

DAVIES: And this character of yours is also carrying some personal baggage. He's a, what, a reformed alcoholic, kind of hiding from the pain in his life and maybe that which he is bringing to these loved ones.

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah, I think that's true. He's got a lot of pain and rage inside of him and, you know, kind of keeps it all under wraps when he goes and does his notifications. But during the course of the film, we get to know him a little better through Ben Foster's character, Will Montgomery. And - who's also kind of a stoic guy who, it takes a lot to get underneath his emotions. And that's one of the beauties of the way this movie was made because you really come to know both of these characters in a slow, but very effective way. And they really come to love each other. It's an unlikely friendship that develops.

DAVIES: Right. And there's sort of a hard-bitten exterior that they both put on. And then they have to go into some of the most emotionally wrenching circumstances any of us will ever have to in notifying these loved ones of the death of a serviceman. And you know, as I thought about this, it occurred to me that all of us know what it's like to have a phone call that we dread, you know, to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or deliver uncomfortable news to somebody we know. These people who do this job have to walk up and deliver this life-shattering news to a total stranger. And I'm wondering, as you played that, where you get out of the car with Ben Foster and you're walking up to these people, are you thinking about how you steel yourself for that kind of an experience?

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. Everything on the set was kind of perfectly laid out to make it the best or the realest possible experience, you know? It was shot with one camera, one take. We didn't meet the people ahead of time who we were doing the scene with. We didn't arrange it or block it or rehearse it. So we did all have the, you know, the dialogue, but inside of that there was still a lot of unpredictable things. And emotionally it was very charged and even if sometimes I didn't feel connected emotionally, Ben Foster would show me, you know, pictures of some of the young men and women who had served and been killed in the action and it would just - immediately the emotion of it would come flooding back. And the actors we were with were phenomenal. So they really made it an emotional experience.

DAVIES: So these - if I understand this correctly, there was no rehearsal. You were going up to people you had literally never seen before as if you were carrying this news and then you encountered their reactions.

Mr. HARRELSON: Yeah. I mean, there were six notifications. Two of them were, you know, Samantha Morton and Steve Buscemi. So we had seen them before, but we didn't see them before doing this and we didn't - I'd never met Samantha Morton. So yeah, I think it was a good way to do it, but it was, you know, intense.

DAVIES: Actor Woody Harrelson. His film "The Messenger" is out on DVD next week.

More after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Our guest is actor Woody Harrelson. He earned an Oscar nomination for his film "The Messenger." It's out on DVD next week. Here's his first appearance on the TV series "Cheers."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Cheers")

Mr. TED DANSON (Actor): (as Sam Malone) Woody, did you say youre looking for work?

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON: (as Woody Boyd) Well, actually I came to Boston on a fact-finding tour. See, I tend bar back home in Indiana. Well, its 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.

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? 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)

DAVIES: The character that you played, Woody Boyd, was sort of this lovable, na�ve 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 didnt pay some dues. I know that you did, you know, plays in New York, but you had a lot more success in your 20s than a lot of people did, and I'm wondering if being in Hollywood then now, you grew up in Ohio, I guess, and playing...

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 a, 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 dont know, doing it I got to say, I didnt 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 didnt really know, you know, that much.

I think it would've been a lot more of a daunting task had I been watching the show. But certainly, I remember standing back off-stage waiting for that red light to go on and, you know, I could hear the dialogue and I could tell it 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 in 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. 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 co-star, Wesley Snipes. I mean those who know the film know that you guys are basketball hustlers. You go on the playground and provoke games and fool people and take their money.

And in this scene, youre 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 Boys Can't Jump")

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle): Hey, chump. Yeah. You. Tater head. You know who I'm talking about. Yeah. Is that the best game you got 'cause if it is, you better just grab that free T-shirt and head home.

Mr. WESLEY SNIPES (Actor): (as Sydney Dean) Yo man, what the hell are you doing, man?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) You hear? Who'd you bring over here, Mighty Mouse? You know something, youre too pretty to play basketball, you know that? You got that big Z in your for, man.

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Come on. Won't you stop already?

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

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Oh man. Look. That's enough.

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Hey no. Seriously. You get your hair done at the Braille Institute?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): What the (bleep) is Opie Taylor talking about anyway, huh?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) Opie Taylor? Opie? Hey, I got your Opie. You big bad Gomer Pyle goofy-eyed son of a bitch.

Unidentified Man: You and your Cream of Wheat, man, take your ass back to Mayberry. And tell Aunt Bee she better have my bean pies or Im going to kick her ass. Hey.

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

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) What the (bleep) are you doing?

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

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) What? What are you doing?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Billy Hoyle) I'm making them mad. Most guys dont play good when they're mad.

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) Look, you know, youre embarrassing me, that's what youre doing.

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

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) You know, youre not embarrassing me. Youre pissing me off, that's what youre doing.

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

Mr. SNIPES: (as Sydney Dean) 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 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 the kind of guy that could start trash talking on the basketball court. Is that closer to you than this na�ve kid from "Cheers"?

Mr. HARRELSON: You know, maybe somewhere right in the middle. I don't feel as confident as that. I dont 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. I thought we should listen to a cut here. In a way, you kind of had two - there were sort of two roles here. I mean, you 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. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) Circulation is down by a third. Color reproduction is horrible. The models look like they're three-dollar whores. The writing is by some moronic idiot.

Unidentified Man #2: 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's different now. Reagan has rebuilt America, and the Moral Majority is gaining power.

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

Unidentified Man #2: Excuse me?

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) You get the (bleep) out of my building. Doug, get him out of here. He's a blow dried jerk (bleep).

Unidentified Woman: Bye-bye.

Mr. HARRELSON: (as Larry Flynt) 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. 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. BRETT 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 half of me. They left the half with a 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's 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 then, when we started 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 ever 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: I read, too, that there was a time when you were 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: We're 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.

DAVIES: Woody Harrelson, recorded last year when his film "The Messenger" was released. It's out on DVD next week.

Coming up: David Edelstein on the new film "Mother and Child."

This is FRESH AIR.

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