Few performers dedicate themselves as wholly to a character as Woody Harrelson. Whether it's the kill-crazy madman Mickey Knox in "Natural Born Killers," pornographer Larry Flynt in "People Vs. Larry Flynt," or that weird doomsday fanatic in "2012," he is almost always totally full tilt. But he brings a new level of intensity to his new role as corrupt LAPD officer Dave Brown in Oren Moverman's powerful "Rampart" (opening in limited release for a week in New York and LA starting on Wednesday. Paradoxically menacing and sad, Brown is a bad dude who managed to survive the Rodney King scandal of the mid-90s and continues on the police force, occasionally doing seriously criminal activities for his mentor/go-between Ned Beatty (just as evil as he was in "Toy Story 3" but less strawberry-scented) and coming under fire for his brutal tactics. We got to speak to Harrelson about the character, his relationship with "Rampart" director Moverman, his thoughts on the forthcoming "The Hunger Games."
We wondered how Harrelson initially got involved in the project, and he said he was there pretty much from the beginning. "Quite a while before we commenced, I got that script, which I thought was phenomenal," he said. Not that he was sure he was right for the role. " It was a really compelling character but I was concerned about being able to play a cop. At the time I couldn't picture myself as a cop. But of course I wanted to do it and accept the challenge. And also to work with Oren, I just can't pass that opportunity up."
Even though Harrelson describes his relationship with Moverman as "fused together in such a way, it's the kind of friendship only death can separate," he still wasn't totally sold on "Rampart," even after the film was finished. "I had a period where I saw an early cut of the movie and didn't go for it, mainly because it was so different from the script and what we shot," Harrelson told us. "And even in that impasse of a period – that was in May and I saw it again in August – it was a strain but never a question of our friendship soldiering on. I'm glad to say that when I watched it again in August, which I kind of had to do because I wouldn't have been able to support it or anything and I couldn't believe how wrong I was – I love this movie!"
While recounting this he sounded as though this was a transformative, magical experience. "It was kind of cool," he said. "It was one of the greatest things to ever happen to me in my career, because I went from as bad a situation in my mind, as it could be, to as good a situation as it could be. And it was just by virtue of the fact that I saw it again and realized I was wrong."
An ever-evolving process is the way that Harrelson describes the majority of his "Rampart" experience. The script was originally written by the self-proclaimed Mad Dog of American Crime Fiction James Ellroy, but "substantially rewritten by Oren." And that loose sense of play continued throughout the shoot. "That's just the nature of how we work together – there's a lot of play, a lot of spontaneity, a lot of improvisation, inside the structure." One of the more fascinating aspects of "Rampart" is that it suggests a much larger universe, with whole plot threads that could be spun off from the central narrative, but is mercifully free of such clutter. Harrelson told us that originally there was much more.
"Even after what we did shoot it changed substantially – there were a lot of characters that either were reduced substantially or cut out completely," Harrelson said. "There was a couple dozen scenes cut out. And the ending was changed. It was remarkable what he sculpted out of what was there."
Visually the playfulness continued with the relationship between Moverman and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. "The camera was not locked down, it was on a bungee cord and there were all kinds of ways that the camera had to be controlled by Bobby," Harrelson explained. "So it was cool because Bobby is very improvisational with the way he moves the camera, and it's great – you've already got a good scene on the page and inside of that you can experiment and play." In short: he loved it. "As an actor it's about as ideal as it gets," he said.
As startling as Harrelson's performance is, the physicality he brings to the role is equally remarkable. Dave Brown is gaunt, drawn, thin to an almost skeletal degree. We wondered what his psychological process was behind the physical transformation. "The thinking was, and I don't like to get into too much into the bullshit acting mindgame stuff because it's pretty boring, but in my mind, I lost 30 pounds and a part of it was that I felt like he would have this relationship to food which is very similar to his relationship with women," he said, citing the problematic relationship he has with several women in the film (including Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright and Anne Heche). "He can't really accept love, and if the food were representative of love. It's his inability to take that affection and nourishment."
We wondered too if that kind of frenzied role took its toll psychically, and it turns out it did. "I would say if one emotion that is most at play with Dave Brown it would be paranoia. So that emotion was kind of with me quite a bit during the filming and bleeds into my life all too much," Harrelson said. Before half-jokingly noting that, "My friends were quite happy for me to be done with that character."
While he hopes people enjoy his performance, he's prepared if not everybody takes to the unlikeable character he portrays on screen. "I remember sitting in the theater when 'Natural Born Killers' first came out and watching several people get up and leave the theater!" he recalled.
Moveman and Harrelson got along so swimmingly on "The Messenger" and "Rampart" that the actor is eager to work with him again, even though nothing has been discussed specifically. "I'd do pretty much anything he wanted. If he wanted me to play Sarah Palin, I'd try it," Harrelson said. His admiration goes beyond their friendship, too. "I think he's one of the all-time great people as a person but I also think he's one of the all-time great directors."
And while Harrelson said he's tentatively attached to magician bank robber romp "Now You See Me" ("I'll probably do it"), one thing he's genuinely excited about is his role in the upcoming YA phenomenon "The Hunger Games."
"It was a lot of fun," Harrelson said. "That whole group…from the set decorators, costumers, make-up, everybody was as good as they get at their profession; truly amazing people to work with." He thinks it's going to be genuinely special, well, most likely. "And I do think that movie is going to turn out great…But on the other hand: you never know," he said, laughing.
But you don't have to wait until "The Hunger Games" spring debut to see a truly stellar Woody Harrelson performance. "Rampart" opens in New York and LA for an Oscar-qualifying one-week run starting on Wednesday before opening wide in January. Don't miss it.