Despite his best efforts, this is sometimes how it goes for Woody Harrelson. He's in New Orleans making a movie, sitting outside a fair-trade-type coffeehouse, happily sucking a blood-red, beet-based concoction called a Vampiro through a straw. He's telling about his morning – woke up around eight, took a leak, brushed his teeth, practiced a little tai chi ("just to get the organs moving"), went on an hour-long bike ride (wearing a borrowed helmet that "smelled like old sweat"), met with some movie people, and ended up here, hanging out around a little metal table, 72 degrees in the sun, just about perfect. So far, so good.
And I got a good night's sleep last night too," he says, stretching back. "For a few days before, I was in L.A. working but then, afterward, hanging with people, cool parties and stuff, until all hours. Alcohol is one of my downfalls." He frowns. He didn't mean it like that. "I mean, I'm not addicted to it, but when I'm in a social situation, I tend to drink – it was St-Germain and vodka, goes down so easy – and the fact that I did it four nights in a row...well, maybe it was three, but anyway it was brutal." He thinks about that. "Yeah," he says, lighting up with a goofy, Woody-from-'Cheers' smile. "I've come to New Orleans to dry out."
And to work, because he's always working – even though this time he almost turned the part down. "I waffled and waffled," he says, stirring his Vampiro. "I've never had a harder time leaving home, where it just felt like ripping my heart out. I cried the day I left. Maui is heaven. My family is there" – he has three kids, five, 15, and 18, with wife and 25-year partner Laura Louie – "and my buddies...the good times never stop. A year could pass and you wouldn't even notice. Kitesurfing, soccer, living off the grid, eating fruit from your trees." He throws his arms open. "That's my heaven. That's how life is meant to be lived."
Yet leave heaven he did, for reasons even he doesn't know. "It's not like I feel a compulsion to work," he goes on, "because, honestly, I feel a compulsion to be the laziest bastard you ever met, and yet I can't..."
He doesn't finish the sentence. He just lets the words, delivered in his slow Texas drawl, hang there and returns to sucking up red stuff through his straw, looking none too upset anyway, even deeply OK, which, it seems, is kind of a habitual state with him. "He likes to talk about himself as the 'happy hippie,' and I'd say most of the time, that's what he is," says Oren Moverman, who directed Harrelson in 'The Messenger,' a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 2009, as well as in the recent 'Rampart,' as a dirty cop on one heck of a serious decline.
And for much of today, Harrelson is indeed just that, the happy hippie, laid-back, grinning, a fun fellow to hang around with as he holds forth on his love of sports (favorites include but are not limited to tennis, basketball, ping-pong, soccer, kitesurfing, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, bocce, darts, and foosball – "I love foosball!") and his penchant for gambling ("I'll gamble on most anything") and how funny it is that Chihuahuas shiver so often ("I don't know why they do that, but it's funny!"). In this regard, as has often been noted, he is among the most affable of men.
But then later, after he's smoked half a joint at his hotel, it goes a different way for him. The topic is his late father, Charles Harrelson. "He was very loving, never hit us," he says. "He was one of the most charming people you ever met, incredibly bright and articulate." He was also a ladies' man, a gambler, an encyclopedia salesman, and a hit man for Texas lowlifes. He spent close to 30 years in prison, which is where he died in 2007. Naturally, Harrelson doesn't like talking about him. He'd rather everyone kept their noses out of it. But as a fact of Harrelson's life, it's hard to ignore. And yet if you don't, be forewarned. Darkness will fall.
Of all the great things about Harrelson, perhaps the most unexpected is how great an actor he has turned out to be. During his time on 'Cheers,' playing Woody Boyd, from 1985 to 1993 – five Emmy nominations, one win, not bad for his first Hollywood outing – it seemed crazy to think that he could do more than lovable and dim-witted. His name was Woody; he was Woody. But then in 1991, while casting 'White Men Can't Jump,' director Ron Shelton decided that since Keanu Reeves, his first choice for the lead, couldn't shoot hoops worth a damn, he'd go with Harrelson, who could indeed jump. For the first time, audiences got to see an indication of his range. He proved himself more than adept at cracking wise, faking innocence, and displaying the sting of betrayal, not to mention laying hands on Rosie Perez at her finest.
After that, he went on a tear, making a name for himself in some of the decade's most controversial movies, including 'Indecent Proposal,' as a broke yuppie architect willing to pimp his beloved for $1 million; Oliver Stone's 'Natural Born Killers,' as a media-mad serial killer; and 'The People vs. Larry Flynt,' doing the near impossible – making Flynt a sympathetic human being – which earned him an Oscar nomination. Along the way, he has done buddy movies ('The Cowboy Way,' 'Money Train'), slapstick comedy ('Kingpin,' eminently rewatchable), horror comedy ('Zombieland'), and even the occasional total bomb ('Surfer, Dude'). Only once has he ever been at odds with Hollywood: In 1996, after the Larry Flynt movie created a political firestorm, offers dried up, and Harrelson semiretired to Maui, to try out the laziest-bastard-ever lifestyle. He couldn't hack it, and soon enough he was back.
Now he's got three new movies out, all about as different as you might expect from a guy like Harrelson. In 'The Hunger Games,' he's Haymitch, stringy-haired mentor to the kids about to do battle. It's a small part but pivotal enough that it may warrant reprising should the flick, which is based on the first of Suzanne Collins' young-adult books, turn into a blockbuster franchise. "I turned it down," he says. "But then the director, Gary Ross, called and said, 'I don't have a second choice, you're the part. You have to do this.' And I said, 'In that case, let's do it.'"
In 'Game Change,' the HBO movie about the John McCain-Sarah Palin fiasco,
Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt, the political consultant who put forth the idea of Palin as a viable running mate and then realized she was both a nutcase and a basket case. At one point, to get a better sense of Schmidt, he hung out with him and had his expectations totally upended. "I wouldn't imagine myself wanting to have anything to do with the guy, but I really found myself liking him. He's a political animal, but I feel like he's an idealist and not bogged down in all the bullshit. Let's face it. Obama was a phenomenon. They knew they were going to get beat, so choosing Palin was just a Hail Mary pass. It was just a wild idea." So is he more sympathetic toward Republicans now? His eyes boggle. "Fuck, no! The shit those people say just makes me weep for humanity!"
And then there's 'Rampart,' with Harrelson playing a down-and-dirty cop during the LAPD's Rampart scandal, in the late Nineties. It's brutal stuff. "Yeah, it's heavy, man," says Harrelson, still working over that Vampiro at the coffee shop. "Just because what the guy's going through is intense, the emotions he's feeling, as everything starts to break down around him and paranoia becomes almost his leading, primary emotion." Yet what Harrelson is able to do in that movie, as violent as his cop character is, he does in a way that makes you honestly care about the guy's fate. When he grins, you grin; when he frowns, you frown; when he lights up a cigarette and blows away some innocent guy, you wish you still smoked and at least owned a gun.
His pal Owen Wilson once called him "a beloved figure in our culture." Much of that still derives from misty recollection of Cheers, of course, but it also comes from the wide-open way Harrelson has lived his life – the pot smoking, the hemp clothes and hemp-as-a-cash-crop proselytizing, his acts of civil disobedience (refusing to pay taxes in 1995, scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to protest redwood logging in 1996), the whole vegan-and-raw-food lifestyle, his avoidance of talking on a cellphone, his joining ranks with PETA to win the release of 14 research chimpanzees, the occasional thumping of a paparazzo, etc. He does what he wants to do, consequences (lawsuits and arrests, mostly) be damned, and has done so for a long time.
"We'd have staged arguments on the subway," recalls Clint Allen, his best friend in college and New York roommate. "This girl he dated, we'd be in a restaurant and they'd just start making out, like disgusting making out. He just didn't care. The day we moved to New York, our car got towed. He actually went down and tried to steal it out of the impound lot. He was definitely a loose cannon, a total free spirit, and like lots of people, I was addicted to him from the word go."
"He's determined to get as much out of life as he can," says Ted Danson, who played Sam on 'Cheers.' "I remember showing up for rehearsals and Woody wouldn't be there, and then we'd get a message, 'Sorry, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and I just have to be there.' 'Sorry, Bill Clinton just won, and I have to go to Little Rock for the party.' I love that about him. He's kind of fearless."
Says Moverman: "I don't know anyone like him. In many ways, he doesn't have filters. He's a guy who embraces all the contradictions of the state of being alive."
But he is 50 now, and he does seem to have slowed down a little. He once was a proud sexual profligate who made no bones about it to the women in his life, telling them monogamy and marriage were out of the question. "I once watched Woody pick up a New York City Ballet prima ballerina in less than a minute," says Courtney Love, his costar in 'The People vs. Larry Flynt.' "He's like, 'I've had a lot of conversations, sweetheart, but I ain't never had one that ended with an orgasm. And let me tell you about my orgasms, OK, because I don't have them [he really didn't, because he'd mastered the yogic art of the ejaculation-free orgasm], but you will have a lot of them.' And then he made it very clear that he had a family and an open marriage with a commitment. And it was supercharming. And it was all honest. And off she went to have an adventure."
But four years ago, Harrelson changed his tune on his brand of sexual revolution and got hitched to Laura Louie. ("Eventually you cater to the needs of those you love." Pause. Grin. "Did I say cater or kowtow?") He was once almost fanatical about wearing only hemp, but today he admits to wearing "embarrassingly little of it." And the activism that used to be such a big part of his life is much smaller. He has become disillusioned. "If you manage to stop the timber industry from cutting this forest," he says, "they'll cut that forest. If you stop oil drilling here, they'll go drill there."
He sighs. "Coming up as a kid, you don't think about that shit. You feel unending optimism for the country. But there are a lot of heavy realizations you come to about the way our world works."
For the most part though, he's still the same old gap-toothed Woody. As he's driven to his New Orleans hotel that afternoon, he's got the window down, his arm hanging out, and his mind on short, punchy jokes. He tells the old one about what the blind man said when he entered the fish shop ("Evening, ladies!") and shouts, "That's one I hope my wife doesn't hear!" Then he tells a few jokes first heard from his Maui pal Willie Nelson. "A doctor tells a guy he's dying, and the guy says, 'Doc, is there anything I can do?' And the doctor says, 'You could take two to three mud baths a day.' And he goes, 'Do you think it'll help?' And the doctor goes, 'Nope, but it will help you get used to the dirt.'" He whoops up a laugh and shakes his head happily. "It's such a rough ending." And on he goes, reeling them out. At one point, it becomes apparent that he's reading from his BlackBerry and trying not to let anyone see him doing it. It's kind of odd. Then again, he is kind of odd, but only, like now, in the most endearing ways.
Before he was Woody, he was Tracy. That's Harrelson's middle name and what he went by growing up in Texas, mostly around Houston. By the time he was seven, his father had vanished from his life, leaving no forwarding address. He had two brothers – one younger, one older – and their mom raised them solidly in the Presbyterian faith. "I used to have Bible studies at my house," he says. "I was in the choir. I was mischievous but also a real mama's boy. It was a pretty happy childhood."
It must have been a very unusual kind of happy. Before entering the first grade, Tracy had already been kicked out of at least three schools. A typical story involves Tracy being bullied by some kindergarten tough, Tracy squealing to the teacher, the teacher calling Tracy a crybaby, Tracy kicking her in the shin, the teacher telling the rest of the class to "get him," and him having to whip a belt around to keep them at bay. Expulsion followed. In another, a teacher accused him of stealing her purse; feeling falsely accused, he sassed her; she slapped him; "and before you know it, three teachers are all kind of whaling on me," after which he went outside and set about breaking every school window he could, bloodying himself as he went, not caring.
"Things like that did happen," he says, sounding almost puzzled. "Weird shit."
Around that time, he was labeled an emotionally disturbed hyperactive dyslexic and was put on Ritalin. At one point, he was placed in a school for kids with learning disabilities. Tracy loved the place. Finally, he wasn't the only one with issues. And the teachers genuinely cared. After three years, though, he left for another school and found himself having to deal with kids who knew all about his father – in 1973, Charles was convicted of the 1968 contract killing of a Texas grain dealer, a fact that Harrelson learned about from the radio – and taunted him about it mercilessly. Shortly thereafter, his mom moved the family to Lebanon, Ohio, to start over.
And that's when Tracy became Woody. "Why? I wanted to get away from...whatever," he says, a little uneasily. "It was almost like changing personalities, and I kind of did change personalities. I decided, as an act of will, to be more outgoing. I mean, there were still a lot of fights at school. The biggest one I got into was in junior high, with a bully named Tim. In the locker room, he had told me, 'Punch me in the mouth. Come on, hit me, you pussy.' I said, 'I'm not going to hit you; you hit me.' And he goes 'Bam!' I got a bloody mouth. So from that day on it was constant taunts, him calling me a pussy, a fag. He'd follow me home. He knew I was weak – not weak, but afraid. And one day I couldn't take it anymore. I threw down my books, charged him, tackled him, got him down on the ground, and just started beating the shit out of him. He never fucked with me again."
He stops for a bit, thinking about his history of fighting, which in earlier years, he seems to have engaged in with considerable gusto, once going so far as to say, "I think there's many times that if I'd been holding a weapon, I would have killed somebody" and that he possessed "an unearthly violence that just came out in spurts" and to call violence an "aphrodisiac."
"I don't know why I always seem to elicit someone's need to mock or ridicule or give me shit," he says today. "I didn't feel like it was something I was searching out. I don't know why."
For the most part, though, things got better. Harrelson was a good athlete, playing on the track and football teams, and then, shortly after Elvis died in 1977, he got up on a table in the school library, belted out a version of "All Shook Up" – "Well, bless my soul/What's wrong with me?" – to thunderous applause. Afterward, a girl he liked told him he should try out for theater. He did and found that, as much as anything, he loved the attention. And he got the girl.
He attended Hanover College in Indiana, where he began losing his religion in his second year, drank his first drink in his third year, and took his first hit of weed in his fourth year, before leaving with a degree in theater arts and English. Then it was off to New York, to lose 17 jobs almost as fast as he got them, party like crazy, drink like crazy, smoke pot like crazy, sleep with all the women he could, and try to become an actor. After two frustrating years, he finally landed a part as an understudy in the Neil Simon play 'Biloxi Blues;' shortly thereafter, an acting buddy told him that Cheers was looking to replace Nicholas Colasanto, who had played Coach and recently died, with a character who would be a country rube. And his name would be Woody. Perfect. Harrelson auditioned, got the part, and was soon showing everyone what he was all about.
"Woody," Diane Chambers says to him in an early episode, "I want to speak metaphysically."
"And you need money for the language lessons," says Woody. "No problem."
Woody Boyd sure wasn't smart, but like Woody Harrelson, he sure could be sweet.
Back in his penthouse hotel room, he kicks off his shoes, and goes into the bathroom. A bicycle is in the living area and a number of the things that make up the Harrelson experience are on a nearby table. There are various bottles of vitamins or vitaminlike substances (Insomnitrol, Vitamineral Green, vitamin C), a helping of cacao nibs, $100 in twenties, a couple of children's books, two New Orleans Saints lighters, and a single tiny marijuana bud ("Ha, ha!").
Harrelson digs up a joint and sits at a table on the balcony. Evening is coming on, with a spectacular sky about to bloom on the horizon and big bunches of birds fluttering through the air. He lights up.
"Did you have role models growing up?" I ask.
"When I was a kid, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, mostly. He was the man, for sure."
"Did you ever idolize your dad?"
"Yeah, I did. When I was a kid." He tilts his head. "Nice segue, by the way."
"Did he take you fishing or camping?"
"None of it. That never happened." He takes another hit.
"Did you ever live life the way you wanted with your dad?"
"No. In terms of our relationship, no, because I never...I would have liked to have a period of time which.... An ironic thing happened. I never told this story, but fuck it. When I was a senior in high school, I came back from a track meet and saw him sitting on the living room couch. He'd been in jail since I was seven, so for 10 years. I didn't even know he was out. I saw him, and I just started bawling. The next day, we were in his car, and my dad picked up a roach clip with a little roach in it, lit it, and offered it to me. Well, to me, this was a terrible thing. I had a really intolerant attitude about that drug, which is the ironic thing. I got so furious with him that I didn't go out with him that night, and he left the next day, and the next time I saw him, he was in prison again." He was in prison because he killed a federal judge on behalf of a drug dealer and was sentenced to two life terms plus five years. He died of a heart attack in 2007, in a supermax prison in Colorado. But why Harrelson has never told this story is not exactly clear. There's nothing in it to damage him or his father. Maybe it's because it forces him to deal with the memory of the last time he saw his dad as a free man, and it still hurts.
"Did he give you any parental advice?"
"He always said, 'Son, all I ask is you keep an open mind.' He was speaking generally. His big thing was to encourage me to keep my mind open. Also, he loathed organized religion. When I was 19, I saw him, and he said, 'Within two years, all those things you believe about religion, you're not going to believe anymore.' I thought he was out of his mind, but he was right."
"Did that lead to the party Woody?"
He smiles. "It led very directly."
He eats a few kale chips.
"Do you look more like your mom or your dad?"
"My dad. I look just like him. Well, not just like him but . . . pictures of him when he was a newlywed with my mom. We look just the same when I was that age. We have the same space between our front teeth."
And then he just sits there, staring off, with more birds collecting in the distance.
Lots of actors, when called upon to plump a fellow actor, do so perfunctorily, if at all. In Harrelson's case, the difference is palpable.
"Oh, his stony little nature!" says Juliette Lewis, his costar in Natural Born Killers. "He's disarming. He's funny as hell. But he also has this other side, this intensity and a stillness. He has everything. I think he's great."
"He'd get into fights, he'd get his car stolen. There wasn't a woman in town he hadn't, um, met," recalls Ted Danson. "At the same time, he'd write poetry and plays. He's just got this huge heart. You could never pigeonhole him. He's just a wonderful combination of, I don't know, I just love him. I love him from the bottom of my heart, almost irrationally so."
"There's only one Woody Harrelson," says 'Natural Born Killers' director Oliver Stone. "I can just see him at the age of 95, with a Nick Nolte voice, hanging out in Tucson, at a bus station with a blanket on him, squaw man. He's an original."
"He's what we in Brooklyn call a stand-up guy," says Rosie Perez, his costar in 'White Men Can't Jump.' "He's just so laid-back and fucking hilarious. But if you were to piss him off, get ready, because he would go there. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong. There's not one phony bone in his body."
All these people obviously care, and care deeply, about Harrelson. He's loved. He's loved a lot. And all just for who he is.
Later on, a mist begins to settle on the balcony. Harrelson grabs his lighter and pads inside, flops down on a couch, lights the same joint again, does the second half. A moment later, he's up again and standing by the glass door. Across the way, starlings, hundreds of them, maybe even thousands, have gathered into a murmuration and are sweeping across the sky as one. "Wow," he says, "that's incredible. Now watch. They're going to come back around. It's almost like they're doing a circle." But then they break the circle, flinging themselves up and across, fanning out, like brushstrokes on canvas. Harrelson is enthralled.
"They're going on a little joyride. I bet it really is that. Like just a fun thing for them." They reverse directions. "Oh, dude. Oh, my. Oh, you guys are showing off now. I guess I would too if I was you."
He stands there for a while longer, happy in the mystery, ascribing to the starlings what has often been ascribed to him, the way he approaches life as a kind of joyride, doing what he does just because he wants to, with others standing back and watching, thinking they would too if they were him. Wouldn't that be nice. But what's born in a bird is both born and bred in a man.
He sits back down, doesn't turn on the lights. It's almost dark in the room. He seems to be quite stoned, the cadence of his voice slowing almost to drops of molasses. Although he doesn't like to talk about his father, he will, for a while longer. "One cool thing that happened: He was, at the time, in Huntsville – no, I think it was Atlanta. They'd vote on what to watch, and they used to always vote for this other show that was on at the same time 'Cheers' was on. My father never told anybody I was on it. Somehow, someone got wind of it, told everybody, and every Thursday night after that, they voted 'Cheers' unanimously. That's one of the cool things that happened."
"Was he a guy who could say he loved you?"
"Oh, yeah, every single time I saw him, every letter he sent me." Another instance of love. He lets that settle and narrows his eyes, their centers turning hard as BBs. Something in him has shifted. "How much of this is going to be about my dad?" he says. "I feel like it's going for sensationalism, plain and simple." And just like that, all the light that had surrounded Woody just a few hours earlier falls away. He sits in the shadows and stares right straight ahead, straight through what's in front of him, and shuts down almost entirely, brushing off all attempts at day-saving frivolity.
"So, Woody, are you ticklish?"
"All the typical places."
The air becomes so thick with weirdness that the only thing you can do is blink and try to address the situation half directly. "Woody, what kind of mood are you in right now?"
He doesn't answer. Lifetimes come and go. Eons pass. At last, he says, "Fair." And frankly, when he says that, the way he says it – flatly, blankly, with no emotion whatsoever – it's almost enough to make you jump out of your skin and flee.
Harrelson is wrong, though. Nothing about all this is about his father. It's about him and how he has managed. And just how he has managed – he once said he'd been through stuff that would crush most men – is one of the greatest of great things about him. Look at him now, suffering memories in an unlit room, having successfully overcome the urge, no doubt, to beat the shit out of somebody. All those fights, that quick-sprung temper, remanded to corners elsewhere. Later, he draws a self-portrait. He draws himself in profile, just a few scattered lines, a nose, a chin, an eye, with the rest of himself hidden from view. "I didn't put that stuff in there," he says plainly. "Just pretend it's inside a doorway. Just pretend there's a doorway there." The way Harrelson seems to see it, anything is possible. All he asks is that you keep an open mind.