Woody Harrelson's forearm is bloody, after a brutal three-on-three basketball game on Bill Maher's slippery home court. His face is ruddy as he chows down on a robust vegan meal at Soho House to talk about his tour-de-force portrait of a corrupt but righteous L.A. cop in Oren Moverman's "Rampart" (my Q & A with Moverman is here). He's acting opposite a top-flight ensemble including Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi (in the exclusive clip below).
Harrelson, who earned a surprise supporting actor nomination the last time out with Moverman in "The Messenger," delivers a tightrope act in "Rampart." At the start of the movie, he has no idea that his life is about to unravel. "I'm living in a Shangri La," he says, "in between two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), loved by each, I have everything I need, a wonderful family." His comfortable lifestyle is made possible by skimming extra money out of his Rampart police beat, which he rationalizes. "I do bad things to bad people," says Harrelson. "I don't hurt good people." Slowly, inexorably, after he is videotaped beating a motorist, as outside forces move in on him, he denies reality and acts as if he can get his old life, ex-wives, and two daughters back by sheer force of will.
Moverman originally wanted the buff actor to pack on 40 pounds, but Harrelson told him that given his healthy diet preferences, that would be a challenge: why not go underweight instead? He lost 29 pounds to play this cop who can neither accept affection or absorb food and nourishment. He barely eats at all–but he ingests plenty of drugs and alcohol. Harrelson stopped short of going all the way to skeletal Christian Bale in "The Machinist," because he didn't want to call attention to it.
Harrelson read every book about LA cops he could find, "but none of it helped me as much as riding around every day for a month with my guys Bob and Jerry," he says. These Rampart-adjacent Newton LAPD cops were "anything but cartoon characters. At first it was daunting, the things they were showing me, it was such another world."
An infamous pot smoker, Harrelson approaches acting by getting "super clear and relaxed," he says. "Even though I am in a state of dynamic relaxation, it allows me to put on the tension." More than any other role, he became this cop, via hair, and fake teeth and plumpers. He moved from not seeing himself as a cop to "I'm the guy. And I'm derailing emotionally, full of paranoia, this feeling was in me that I was going to lose the whole world. I'm still dealing with that." He isn't Daniel Day Lewis, he cautions, but this is as close as he ever got to that level of total immersion in a character.
Director Moverman and Bobby Bukowski's digital cameras shot Harrelson with long, uninterrupted takes, giving him the freedom and space to roam safely, he said. At the end of the movie, an "uncomfortable, tense" hotel scene with his daughters was improvised, as cameras and grips running with lights followed them into an unplanned confrontation in the hallway. "He gives you that courage to just jump," Harrelson says.
Dean Martin was another inspiration for his cop, not only his wardrobe but his drink, vodka with two olives. Harrelson breaks into a Martin song: "It's Almost Like Being in Love." Damn you Soho House, for not letting me use my flipcam.