Woody Harrelson made a stop at the BFI London Film Festival this week to chat at one of the festival’s many Screen Talks, where actors and directors at the festival sit down to discuss their careers in front of an audience.
Harrelson was at the festival promoting “Rampart,” his second teaming with director Oren Moverman (following “The Messenger”). In the film, he gives an arguably career-defining performance as Dave Brown, a corrupt cop struggling to cope with family commitments while under intense scrutiny from the LAPD.
Admittedly hungover at the talk (the film had premiered the night before), Harrelson charmed the London crowd to no end. At one point he teased a man who was leaving the audience, asking him if it was a “number 1 or a number 2” when he declared he was simply going to the bathroom and not bored with the event. When the man came back a minute or two later, Harrelson quipped: “I guess it was a number 1.”
But jokes aside, Harrelson offered a sincere and humble side of himself at the event, where topics at hand expanded well beyond “Rampart,” even way back to his pre-“Cheers” days.
Here are 10 tidbits from the talk:
1. Jerry Lewis is his hero. When asked if he had any screen heroes, Harrelson had only one answer. “Jerry Lewis,” he replied. “Um… yep. That’s it.”
2. He’s not a good waiter. “I couldn’t really keep a job,” he said of his pre-“Cheers” days in the early 1980s. “I had trouble with authority. They’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, someone threw up on table six. Go clean it up.’ And I’d be like ‘you clean it up.’ So I couldn’t keep a job very well. That was difficult. Being broke in New York is not always the best way to spend time in that city.”
3. He initially didn’t want to audition for “Cheers.” “I hasn’t seen the show,” he said. “And I really had this highfalutin concept that I was not going to do television. My agent was like, ‘We’re gonna send you to this audition for this show.’ And I said, ‘You don’t need to send me, I’m not going to do television.’ But they said, ‘You might want to do this one, this is a helluva show.’ Then I watched a couple episodes and realized it really was good and that I’d at least go to the audition.”
4. His advice to struggling actors? Make a snotty entrance. “There’s probably some actors here, right?” he asked. “Well, this is a good thing to do. And I didn’t do it on purpose. But at the time [of auditioning for “Cheers”] I was still in love with dairy so I was quite mucousy. So I’m following the casting director and she’s taking me into the room with all the big guys: Jim Burrows and the Charles brothers. But I don’t realize this because we’re walking through a series of doors. And I’m blowing my nose as she opens the door to the room all these guys are in. They just burst out laughing. And Jim Burrows said later, ‘I knew you had the part right then.'”
5. He thinks “Natural Born Killers” was really misunderstood. “It became like a symbol of violence in media,” he said. “I remember reading this letter Bob Dole had sent out trying to get money. It started out with, “I just watched all I could stand of ‘Natural Born Killers.'” And there was a whole treatise on violence in the media and how as president he would try and curb that kind of nonsense. He didn’t seem to be concerned with violence as a national pastime or violence in foreign policy… But anyway, it did cause quite a stir and I felt like people really didn’t get the fact that it was a satire. There’s a real violence in it, but it was meant to be a commentary on violence in the media and the media’s role of perpetuating violence in society. And then it became the symbol of violence in the media.”
He deadpans: “In fact, it was just a misunderstood romantic comedy.”
6. He’s still friends with Larry Flynt, who once helped save his marriage. “The thing I like most about him is that he’s completely candid,” Harrelson said of Flynt. “There’s nothing he won’t say. He’s absolutely fearless. He’ll tell you anything, and he did. I started liking him right away. We’ve been friends for years. I still see him quite frequently. One time, my wife and I were having trouble. I left town and he called her up and met with her. He tried to help sort through all the nonsense that was going on. He really has proved to be a good friend.”
7. Making movies isn’t his top priority. “I think it’s more important to have a great life,” Harrelson said. “It’s important to have fun with your friends. I don’t want to do a movie that’s not fun. I’ve done that and I hated it. I don’t want to be involved with egomaniacs who make it difficult. There’s certain people — very successful people — in this industry who I would never work with because I know. I’m not going to go have a bad time making a movie. If I’m going to make a movie, I’m still going to let life be fun.”
8. He doesn’t think marijuana will ever get legalized in America. “I never really got that into [marijuana law reform],” he said. “I just spoke my mind on the issue. But in terms of trying to get the laws changed, I’ve never believed they would change. I think the war on non-corporate drugs is almost like any other war. Because it’s so lucrative, they’re going to keep doing it.”
9. “The Messenger” changed the way he viewed American troops. “It was a great experience for me,” he said of working on “The Messenger.” “Not just to be able to hang out with Ben and Oren… these guys that became so much an important part of my life. But also because I used to kind lumped the warriors in with the war. It wasn’t that I had a thing against the soldiers. But when they said ‘support the troops,’ I was always thought that was a message of ‘support our war.’ Which it really is. That’s the establishment. They want you to support the troops because they want you to support the war. Even though in many ways they don’t support the troops. Especially after they come home. But in many ways it was an important thing for me because I started hanging out with all these service people. I really came to believe that they are extraordinary people. They are working for peanuts and their commitment is really to their country. They really believe in what they are doing. They don’t mandate policy. They don’t decide who we’re going to war with. So it all really made me separate the warrior from the war and find a great appreciation for them.”
10. The awards circuit is not a friend to Woody’s liver. “When we were going through the awards circuit [with ‘The Messenger’] and all the parties that are part of that… The thing that I discovered about being on that circuit is that you really need to pace yourself,” he said. “Actually, I wish I had of paced myself last night even for today… But during the awards season, it was hard for me to pace myself because they just have party after party. And you’re hanging with some fun and interesting people. Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges and all these cool people. But your liver is just screaming: ‘Stop!’ But it was a great experience.”