Oliver Stone: Less Crazy After All These Years
This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The first time I met Oliver Stone, he tried to pick up my girlfriend. It was nearly 20 years ago, and she’d stuck her head into his Natural Born Killers editing room; he promised her a role in his next film. He didn’t seem bothered that there was no role, much less that she had a boyfriend. By then, the hard-living director of films such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street infamously had had his first sexual experience with a call girl (procured by his father); done a stint in Vietnam; frequented hordes of women in Saigon (paid and unpaid); been thrown in a Mexican jail for marijuana possession then been arrested again in Los Angeles in 2005; incensed the entire Turkish population for his portrayal of its prisons in Midnight Express; and spent years in a drug-induced haze.
His reputation as the baddest of Hollywood bad boys dwarfed even that of his closest rival, Top Gun producer Don Simpson, who reportedly died while sitting on a toilet reading a Stone biography.
Nearly two decades have passed since the now-65-year-old filmmaker reached his nadir; still, it is with some trepidation that I approach his West Los Angeles offices for lunch May 10. After I wait a while near a painting of Che Guevara and an artwork inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s death certificate, Stone lopes in, casually dressed in a blue jacket and jeans, his black hair thinning, but as charismatic as any movie star. He’s grinning from ear to ear, warm and welcoming and nothing like the dark figure of lore.
“Jesus, you’re early!” he exclaims in mock protest. (He’s notorious for being late.) Then he pulls up a chair at an unpretentious table in his office, littered with books and scripts, and we munch on sandwiches.
“I was crazy for many years,” he admits. “So is everybody, you know. But now, I’m pretty sane. There’s been so much craziness in my life — and there still is — but it gets out through the work.”
Perhaps getting older has mellowed him. Perhaps it’s the daily meditation he practices. Or perhaps it’s his third marriage, to Chong Stone, 57, a South Korean immigrant he met when she was working at a New York restaurant.
“She came from a very poor background,” says Stone. “She had an arranged marriage. She didn’t see a car until she was 15, she didn’t see a television. She was one of six or seven children. Her mother brought her out of school so that she would help with the house; she was the oldest sister. She grew up in another world, you have to understand — it’s just a different tonality: the culture, the way they speak, the way they listen. She’s the opposite of everything I am. She flows with the East. I go back and see her face, and it’s very calm. She comes from another place of graciousness, transparency, selflessness. That’s why I love her.” Stone says his wife had been thinking of returning to Korea when they met: “We were gonna break up — I told her I didn’t want to get married because I’d been married and it wasn’t working for me, and the only reason I’d marry is to have a kid. I swear to God, she just said, ‘Yes, that would be wonderful.’ And she comes back six weeks later and says, ‘I’m pregnant.’ It was unbelievable.”
The couple has a 16-year-old daughter, Tara, Stone’s third child after two boys, who has turned the once-wild patriarch into a domestic disci- plinarian. “I’m the tough guy now,” he smiles. “Sometimes I gotta crack the whip.”
Thanks to all this — the wife, the meditation, the child — Stone is very different today from the crash-and-burn figure of the 1990s.
Sure, he likes to party. But when he’s not working, he mostly spends time at his “Tudor/ Chinese” home in L.A.’s Mandeville Canyon (he also has apartments in Manhattan and Beijing); reads history books (among them Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 and Seymour Topping’s The Peking Letter: A Novel of the Chinese Civil War); watches TV series from Mad Men to Homeland to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart; and keeps up with movies as diverse as Snow White and the Huntsman and Argentina’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes — both of which he unabashedly enjoyed.
Yet controversy sticks to him like glue. “The controversies hurt,” he says ruefully. “People thought I was going after them, but they don’t help the movies.” Still, Stone does little to diminish their root cause, his reputation as a conspiracy nut. “There are so many conspiracies in history, it is ridiculous to defend yourself on those lines,” he says.
His oldest child, Sean, 27, a documentary filmmaker (one of two sons with his second wife), recently converted to Islam and changed his name to Ali. Stone isn’t fazed. “He decided for himself, and he is doing it for philosophical purposes,” he shrugs. “At that age, I did a lot crazier things.” Then there’s his protege Charlie Sheen’s outlandish behavior. “Oh boy, you’re going to get me in trouble,” groans Stone, jokingly bury- ing his face in his hands and noting the two are not close; indeed, the only time they’ve gotten together in years was at a recent THR photo shoot. “Fame did it to him, not me. He got wild. Listen, he’s one of the richest actors in the world. He wanted money. He loved money. Maybe he was more like the Wall Street boy than we knew.”
He’s less amused by Richard Dreyfuss, who played Dick Cheney in Stone’s 2008 biopic W and lambasted his director as a “fascist.” “That was probably the single worst experience I’ve ever had with an actor in my life,” the helmer shoots back, saying Dreyfuss couldn’t remember his lines. “I walked him outside, and I read him the Riot Act. I said, ‘You’re going to read these f—ing cue cards, and if you don’t read them, this scene is over.’ So, yeah, I was a fascist.” Beyond Dreyfuss, the filmmaker inflamed much of Hollywood in 2010 when he complained of Jewish “domination” of the media and U.S. foreign policy. “I apologized for it,” he notes, adding he is half-Jewish on his father’s side. “I meant that the state of Israel and its policy have a very undue influence on American media.”
Lately, Stone also has raised eyebrows by declaring support for right-wing Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential bid: “I like Ron Paul’s magnetism, his decency, his honor and his foreign policy,” he argues. “Obama’s doing his best. He’s got his problems, and I think he made certain promises he hasn’t kept.” He remains undecided about whether to vote for the president because “Obama has carried on the Bush war on terror and has not addressed all the things he promised he would do to curtail the hype and fear that pervade this country.” Still, he says, “It’s hard for me to vote Republican.” As for Mitt Romney, “I’m not going to vote for that idiot.”
By contrast, Stone is surprisingly restrained about the most maligned of media moguls, Rupert Murdoch: “He’s very personable, charming. I don’t think he has all the facts sometimes. But he’s a battler. He’s one of the only big news guys I know who has fun.”
So does Stone these days — if admittedly helped by the occasional illicit substance. “I’m like Willie Nelson,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I believe the grass is God’s gift. California makes the best in the world now. When I was a kid, it was Vietnamese, it was Thai, Jamaican for a while. All my life I’ve been doing it, off and on. I can stop marijuana. I can [go without it] for weeks and weeks. I’m not addicted, but I enjoy it. I also enjoy alcohol.”
As for heavy drugs: “Cocaine, I stay away from. But I believe in LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, ayahuasca. You ever heard of ayahuasca? It’s a very strong juice that comes from the rubber trees. Ecstasy is great, too.”
Then he looks at me, amused. “I bet you didn’t ask Ridley this stuff,” he says, referring to a recent profile on Prometheus director Ridley Scott by this same writer. When I assure him Scott got his share of tough questions, he laughs gleefully. “God, you’re insane!”