Q&A: Woody Harrelson

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Woody Harrelson continues to surprise. After artfully taking a banjo to an undead redneck's head in September's "Zombieland," the Oscar-nominated, Texas-born pacifist next appears as Army casualty-notification officer Capt. Tony Stone in the indie drama "The Messenger" and as a sky-is-falling pirate-radio DJ in the disaster epic "2012" -- both opening Friday.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you reconcile your personal politics with the nature of "The Messenger" and the character?

Woody Harrelson: I do think probably completely differently than Tony Stone. His big thing is he wants to be in combat. The time I spent with those soldiers, and also at Fort Dix where we shot, and the Casualty Notification Office in Arlington -- all of it had a profound impact on me. Because it's one thing to be anti-war -- and appropriate right now, because like most of the wars we've had since World War II, they're wars based more on spreading capitalism than on spreading democracy ...

THR: Why do you hate America, Woody?

Harrelson: (Laughs.) The one thing that my whole ideology lacked was the compassion for the soldier, and now that's been taken care of. I have a great deal of respect for these people who go over there and risk their lives every day for very little money just because of the love for their country, so I've come to really revere the soldier. I feel like the movie is really a journey you take with your heart, and my part of that journey began with going to Walter Reed. It accessed places in my heart I wasn't necessarily expecting to access. It was important for me, because I'm definitively anti-war, pro-peace. I do think that supporting the troops is a lot bigger question than supporting the war.

THR: Your role in "2012" seems like a more natural fit for you. Do you get dispatched or do you survive?

Harrelson: Dispatched. Oh, it's pretty great, man! It's a volcanic eruption of a big chunk of rock that's on fire. Like a giant chunk of magma taking me out. You'll see.

THR: Your "Cheers" character seems like it was a thousand years ago. How would you describe yourself back then?

Harrelson: I would say I was a lot lazier as an actor. Because it wasn't any heavy lifting. It was a great script, Jimmy Burrows at the helm. It's like doing a Neil Simon play: You walk on the stage, you say the line, you're guaranteed a laugh, you move off. It was pretty simple. And in that way I think I got a little bit lazy. But I like to think I got more energetic and worked a little harder after that.

THR: You were responsible for Bill Murray showing up in "Zombieland." What was that conversation like?

Harrelson: Sometimes you try to get a hold of Bill and you don't hear from him for a month. But luckily, he called me back later that afternoon. I pitched him the concept, and he said maybe. He had wrapped on a movie literally that morning. Then began this process of trying to lure him in, and there were infinite variations of things that we tried to pitch. Finally, last minute, some ideas came together that helped it, and he said, "Now that sounds pretty good." That was mostly improvised, that stuff with him. But it seemed to be a lot of people's favorite part of the film, so that was super lucky.

THR: Are you aware of the image most people in the outside world have of you?

Harrelson: Um, I'm scared to ask. I really don't know. They probably think I'm a hippie, I don't know. (Laughs.) No one's ever laid it out for me. It's a scary concept. I don't want to be scared.

THR: What can you tell me about "Defendor"? That's the next thing you have coming out.

Harrelson: It's a guy who's mildly retarded who thinks he's a superhero, only, of course, bullets don't bounce off and he gets beat up all the time. He's trying to fight crime and falls in love with the girl, played wonderfully by Kat Dennings, who's a crack whore. Peter Stebbings wrote and directed it; he's an actor. I was surprised how good it turned out, and luckily Sony thought so, too, because they picked it up (in Toronto).

THR: So what kind of research did you do to for a semi-retarded guy who thinks he's a superhero?

Harrelson: Well, I had a specific thing in mind for what his condition was. I don't want to make it a movie about that, so I won't say what it was, but I did research on that ad nauseam and met with a lot of people who have that condition. The other part about wanting to be a superhero, I just used imagination.
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