Woody Harrelson exudes absolute naturalism on screen, whether he’s playing a bartender, a one-handed bowler, a serial killer, casualty notification officer or, most recently, a ruthless hillbilly criminal. But sitting across from a reporter in a hotel room to discuss his work in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson seems oddly ill at ease, first fiddling with his Blackberry, and then later, roaming the room to adjust the air conditioning, and finally, opening the balcony door for air.
If I wanted to flatter myself, I might suggest he was intimidated by my unflappable professionalism, but even if I weren’t giggling at all of his fidgeting, the truth is he was simply restless after a long flight, and more likely, a two-part gauntlet of interviews for both director Scott Cooper’s new thriller and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which started a week earlier.
Nevertheless Harrelson sat down and offered a candid discussion of his work in Out of the Furnace, where he plays a character that could be described not unfairly as the personification of evil. In addition to talking about embracing a character’s unlikeability, Harrelson explored the cues that help him find the core of his characters, and reflected on the choices he faced not just in the film, but in his life that set him on the path to play such an amazing and eclectic variety of characters.
Spinoff Online: Just to get started --
Woody Harrelson: Oh, that’s Stan. He’s my buddy – he came out with me. We took the red eye from Maui today, tonight, last night … this morning we got here (laughs). I thought I did a big until I was talking to Christian [Bale], who just flew in from fucking Spain, a 13-hour flight, and got here at four-something.
Wow. Well, maybe just to get started, you seem to have a clear understanding of Harlan DeGroat, but how much do you need to empathize or identify with him in order to play him?
Well, I do think you need to empathize with the character, because otherwise it would be very hard to play. Like, you see the delicate shit that created the person who’s there, and if you don’t see that picture, maybe it’s harder. But I don’t know – that’s helpful to me. And I think even if you were playing freakin’ Hitler, you would have to start to somehow care about the guy, or I don’t know how you’d play him. And it’s not a bad example in the sense that this guy, you can’t see one redeeming quality about the guy.
Do you have to create one? Or what do you see about him that’s redeemable?
Well, yeah, you manufacture a back story and, uh— [Harrelson starts fiddling with the air conditioning]. Or in this case, Scott helps you with the back story, and you see all of the – [Harrelson opens door to the sound of a bus roaring by, drowning him out]. That’s not indicative of what’s … It’s one of those huge tour buses. Diesel. But anyway, so that helps you feel something you might not otherwise feel. Certainly, just looking at the guy on the screen, you don’t think, hey, you can’t think of any positivity.
How much does the deep bench of the cast of a film like this or Hunger Games draw you to something, and then how tough is it to find your place in the midst of what they’re contributing?
I mean, you know, Christian Bale is one of the finest actors who ever lived, and it would be absurd for me to suggest that wasn’t a part of wanting to do this, wanting to be in the ring with him. That’s pretty exciting. However, all of these actors are so amazing. It really does add to the appeal, for sure. But I like to think that I would have done it to work with Scott Cooper – that was really the main appeal. And I think I would have done – I’ll do whatever he wants to do. Like, that guy is truly great. You know, there’s good directors out there, there’s a lot of good directors, and a lot of guys who get the job done. But that guy is the real deal.
There’s an interesting moment in the film where Christian’s character explains who he is to yours, and there’s a moment where he seems to understand and accept it, and it shows a humanity that the rest of his behavior doesn’t. How important is a moment like that in decoding the rest of your performance?
I did like that moment. That moment was kind of – there was a little bit of improv in that and also that thing just came on that take. None of the other takes. I mean, you could hear the birds, and I was like, “hear dem birds?” It’s so quiet you can hardly tell what I’m saying. But I thought that just adds a little complexity to the moment, and another maybe kind of vantage point to the character. But how important? (laughs) I don’t know how important it is. But it just seemed a lot better than sitting there and him hating me, and me hating him, you know?
Well, when you are playing a character at his most reprehensible, you’re clearly not trying to engender audience sympathy, but how tough or easy is it to give yourself over to that moment and be truly awful?
Well, it’s so funny that you’ve said that about engendering audience sympathy, because I think probably for a long period in my life, I can’t even imagine playing a character where I didn’t try to encourage them to like me, you know? And that was kind of a cool thing – that was one of the things right off the bat where I was like, I’m going to not try any of these tricks or try to be charming in a way that’ll make the audience care about me. I just really want to play this guy without that concern at all. Like literally let him be completely unlikeable, and that’s kind of freeing, honestly. Freeing. Because, I don’t know, there’s a lot of parts I’ve played, like Natural Born Killers or something, where I’d see myself trying to be a little more charming than I should be – or maybe the character deserves to be. Because, let’s face it, we all want to be liked, so it is kind of cool to be in a situation like, OK, I don’t care if people like me, I’m not going to try make people like me. In fact, I’m going to try to play this character to the hilt and hopefully they won’t like me at all. So I’d like to say I achieved that.
Absolutely. When he says to Russell, “I have a problem with everybody,” that seems to encapsulate him so well. Where do you find the core of a character – just in what he does in the story? Or do you spend time going into a backstory that may or may not be seen on screen?
Well, I always ask the directors, and a great director like Scott, or Oren Moverman, and they give you backstory. If you can give me 10 pages, great. If you can give me two pages, great. But it’s something to go on, because it's the spine of the character. You know, you can’t see any of that on the screen, necessarily, I don’t know, but it does help me just psychologically.
One of the ideas the movie flirts with is that we have key moments or choices that send us on a different trajectory than we expected. Have you ever felt that way – like there was a specific moment you remember where you made a choice that steered your life in a new direction?
Oh, for sure. I mean, I’ve made decisions to do a movie that I wished I’d never done, or not to do a movie that I should have done, or vice versa – doing something that turned out just great for me. But I mean probably the biggest choice was when I was working as an understudy in a Neil Simon play in New York, and I got the opportunity to do this little part in a Goldie Hawn movie [Wildcats], which ultimately, we shot it in Chicago and we were finishing it in L.A., and they fired the two guys I was understudying. My dream was to do Broadway, so now I’m going back to play in Biloxi Blues, a Neil Simon play, on Broadway, and I auditioned for Cheers. And then it came down to, OK, when you sign with the networks, you kind of sign your life away, and I was like, OK, if I do this, it was really one of those things where I had to think and think, do I want [this] life? I was living in New York prior to that, and now I’m going to move to Los Angeles and I’m going to have a whole new group of friends? I mean, literally my life will change so dramatically. Or do I stay in New York, do Broadway, which I was thinking at the time was a much more purist way to do things. But everybody and their brother was telling me, “Go do that show! Don’t give me this purity bullshit! So I ultimately decided – it was peer pressure (laughs), but I decided to move to L.A. and my life did change obviously very dramatically from that.
After you’ve played a role like that where people associate you so strongly with the role, how long did it take for you to get more comfortable with that association after leaving the show?
Oh, Cheers? I don’t know – I’ve never really had, I love Cheers. It was an incredible, wonderful, magical time for me. And, fuck – I wish I could go back and do it again! I still have dreams sometimes of we all get together, Jimmy Burrows calls, and we’re going to get the gang back together and do a reunion. I mean, it was wonderful. But you know, it’s definitely the distant past now, but I don’t think I’ve been uncomfortable thinking about it. And if people just associate me with Woody Boyd and they haven’t seen any of the movies, sure, it hurts (laughs). I’d like to say, “You know, I did do 60 movies!” But on the other hand, hey, it is not a bad thing to be associated with.
How much do you feel like movies have to say, or can say, about the world around us, even more than telling a great story?
I think it’s great when that happens, but I think it’s very rare that it can be seamless and not feel like you’re getting preached to or being didactic. If you can do that and can kind of be delivering a message where it’s wildly entertaining at the same time, like with Hunger Games, I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Out of the Furnace opens today.