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.