In his own words, the 'War for the Planet of the Apes' villain reveals a painful path from "anonymous and poor" to 'Cheers,' two Oscar noms, a stint in jail, a drunken foursome and lessons learned along the way: "I'm not George Clooney, but it's still a pretty amazing life."
The rain is dribbling over one of the fancier parts of London, Chalk Farm, at 9 on a mid-May morning as Woody Harrelson, 55, eases down the stairs of the narrow house he has been renting from a friend, publicist and former Rupert Murdoch son-in-law Matthew Freud, and yawns.
He's lean and fit, and rather taller than one might expect, but clearly not an early riser, having just been woken by his assistant and reminded that a guest has arrived. Rubbing his eyes, he glances warily at the reporter sitting in his living room and, after the briefest of handshakes, ambles toward the kitchen. "You had breakfast?" he asks, then proceeds to mix a mysterious blend of hemp, fiber, cocoa powder and berries from an array of bottles that looks like it might better belong to a Hogwarts graduate than the villain of Fox's July 14 release War for the Planet of the Apes, one of the better reviewed studio tentpoles so far this summer.
For more than three decades, the actor has carved a unique place for himself in the entertainment pantheon, one that defies characterization. He has gone from being the affable barman of NBC's Cheers to the Hollywood heavyweight toplining such movies as White Men Can't Jump (1992), Natural Born Killers (1994), 1997's The People vs. Larry Flynt (which earned him his first Oscar nomination; he got a second for 2010's The Messenger), leapfrogging from shoestring indies to major franchises, including The Hunger Games and his current untitled Star Wars project (in which he plays young Han Solo's mentor).
The Star Wars film is the reason he's now in London, where he'll remain for the next few months; it's also the one subject that's verboten during this interview and a subsequent phone call — or, at least, largely. ("Oh, man, I can't talk about that," he says weeks later when asked about the late June firing of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, "but I do love those guys.")
Easing aside books, magazines and pillows, he slumps on a couch and starts strumming a guitar, at first avoiding eye contact, until little by little his hesitation melts away and he opens up in a way stars rarely do — about his Bible Belt upbringing in Texas and Ohio, his ultra-religious mother and con man father (a convicted murderer who died in prison after he was found guilty of assassinating a federal judge in 1979), his long history of smoking pot (he gave it up 14 months ago) and the time in 2002 when he got caught in bed with three women by a British tabloid photographer and had to explain it to his wife, Laura Louie, the mother of their three daughters, ages 11, 20 and 24. Harrelson turned that pain into art, making the incident the subject of his first feature as a writer-director, Lost in London, an experimental film that was streamed into theaters in January even as it was being shot.
Over the next three hours, Harrelson engages in a candid and occasionally confessional conversation that's as original as it is unexpected, as delicious, in fact, as his unique breakfast. "I'm not George Clooney," he notes, "but it's still a pretty amazing life."
I. 'THAT GUY IS AN ASSHOLE'
You rarely see a person change. Their personality stays very similar, unless it gets more cynical. But rarely do you see a person who is uncomfortable or unhappy transform and metamorphose into a happy person, unless they have some life-threatening illness and manage to overcome it. But I would say that I have changed, and pretty late into my life. I look back at myself and say, "That guy is an asshole," to be perfectly frank.
I was a pretty happy guy, but I also had a lot of rage. When I was a kid, I had real emotional problems. I would have these tantrums. [Later] I used to fight a lot. I used to go to bars and fight the guys I thought were bullies. I've got scars everywhere. But it's like my buddy says: "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room." And I guess I do live on the edge.
My mom was always very much a loner. She was a secretary to lawyers. She's a very religious lady. Presbyterian. Lives in Lebanon, Ohio. If you look for the buckle on the Bible Belt, you'll find it right there. She was going to be a lawyer — she graduated in 1955 from high school, and she was voted most likely to succeed. She was the valedictorian; she was also the best athlete. She never did tell me any of this stuff — I looked at her yearbook. Anyway, she went to college, to Rice University in Houston. She was a very hardworking student and very smart, but she went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and she was coming back and met my dad on the plane and got married 10 days later.
The longest relationship my mom had was with my dad. That was seven years. I remember being 6, going over to my father's girlfriend's place — and he was gone all the time anyway, before that — so I don't think they were really together for very long.
He was quite a charming fellow and a gambler. He made a lot of money gambling. He cheated, but he was more of a con artist. He'd find out where they had poker games and eventually invite a guy out on his boat — "I have a boat. Do you want to come out?" After a while, there's nothing to do, maybe fish a little. And then he'd say, "Want to play a couple hands?" And before you know it, the guy's completely fleeced.
He was a great storyteller. I sometimes wonder if I'm a good storyteller, too, 'cause sometimes I get lost in the middle of the story and go off on tangents. You could say my dad was a bad boy, but he was pretty extraordinary in many ways. He had an incredible intellect, but he went down the wrong path. He spent a long time incarcerated for, well, murder. He was incarcerated from '68 to '79, and then he got out for a year and was put back in prison and never left. He wasn't a great dad, and he did a lot wrong, but I'm still in many ways quite proud of him.
My dad's main thing to me and my brother, growing up, was: Keep an open mind. That's what he said: "All I'm asking is, keep an open mind." That's pretty good advice from a father.
II. 'SO, YEAH, I WENT TO JAIL'
I've gotten in trouble, too. I've been busted a few times. My first arrest, the police were really brutal. I was 20 or 21, and I was jaywalking, me and a friend, and this cop flags us over, asks to see our ID. My friend showed his ID, but I said, "I don't have my ID," which I did, of course. And he says, "Have you been out to some of these bars? Then you had to have an ID to get in." I go, "Oh, good point." So I pull it out, and as I pull it out, he goes, "Don't lie to me again, punk!" And then he grabbed me, smashed me against the wall a couple of times.
I knocked his hands off, pushed him away and started running. And that was the beginning of a real dire episode. He put out an officer-in-distress signal, and soon I'm just surrounded by blue, and they had me down on the ground, knee in my throat. It was so brutal, the way they were handling me. A bunch of students gathered around and were complaining to the cops, and the cops were vicious to them, too. Then they threw me in a paddy wagon, and I'm handcuffed behind my back, and I asked one of the cops, "Why are you treating me like this?" And he slammed my head against the van. They stopped to pick up this other poor bastard peeing on the sidewalk, and when they opened those back doors, I just shot out of there.
I'm handcuffed, and I'm wearing boots, and I'm running. But I was a runner — I did track and stuff. I was running as fast as I could across the parking lot. And I can hear them all shouting and running after me, and there is a car going across this parking lot. I hit the car, did a complete flip, landed on the back of my head, kept rolling, and then they were on me and they maced the fuck out of me. And when they mace you, you're done, that's the end of the story. So yeah, I went to jail, they rough you up a little more, and before it was over, they had six counts against me. My mom came and got me the next day. That was brutal.
That was a real eye-opener — and an eye-closer at the same time because it really fucked my eyes. I had to wear sunglasses for a long time. [My skin] became all scaly and red and swollen and really nasty. I looked like some kind of weird reptile. And that was my first experience with the long arm of the law, and it had a big impact on me 'cause I really had rose-colored glasses on [in terms of] what I thought the world was. And at that time, I was still entertaining the notion of becoming a cop — either a cop or FBI or Secret Service. I stopped wanting to be a cop, for sure. But by then I was probably more interested in being an actor.
III. 'I WAS ANONYMOUS AND POOR BEFORE THAT SHOW'
My buddy got accepted to Juilliard and asked if I would move to New York with him, and I said, "OK." I thought, "I'm a slow mover. I'll just try to get into some summer stock" — which I didn't. You go to a thing, it's like a cattle call. Zero offers. I figured I'd try to segue into some regional theater, just work my way into production. [Instead] probably 14 months later, I got my first job as an understudy in a Neil Simon play, then the guys who did it got fired, and I was expecting to do that when I auditioned for Cheers.
I was 23, and I kind of had an idea that I didn't want to do television because I generally didn't like the quality. But eventually I went in and I read for [the casting director]. I was really carefree because I knew I was going back to New York, and they'd pretty much decided on this one guy, but they were just doing a few more auditions, so I went in and I could tell right away — she was like, "Aha! Hang on." She says, "I want you to come in and do this for the boys," right? Well, it turned out she was taking me in to meet the writers. I didn't know this. I'm following behind her, and I needed to blow my nose. I'm going down the hallway, through a door, into where everybody is, and I just happened to be blowing my nose, and then everybody laughed before I said a word. And as [director] Jimmy Burrows said, "You had the part right then."
It was phenomenal all the way through. Just the best people. And everybody watched, not like a lot of times when you'll do a movie and you'll be like, "Will anybody see it?" I couldn't have imagined leaving because, really, that show made me. I mean, I was anonymous and poor before that show.
I did three movies while I was doing Cheers. One was Doc Hollywood, and I credit Michael J. Fox because he wanted me for that part, and that was my first break in the movies. And then Ron Shelton went to bat for me on White Men Can't Jump. You know, back then it was just different because people in television were all wanting to do movies, and people in movies didn't really do television. And once I did Indecent Proposal, that really helped me make the jump.
I spent a lot of time [in 1995] with Larry Flynt on The People vs. Larry Flynt. He's one of my good buddies now. If I hadn't liked him, I wouldn't have played the part because when I was growing up in Texas and Ohio, he was very much what you would call vilified in the media. I don't like the whole pornography thing, but I went and met him up at his offices over on Wilshire Boulevard, and I really liked him. A more candid fellow you will not meet. I went to the Caymans with Larry and just went through the whole script.
Then came the Gloria Steinem piece in The New York Times and this big backlash. It's interesting to me because she went on a moral crusade and went all around the country doing talk shows in different states [against the movie]. I can tell you, it was very disappointing. I wanted to take some time off after that. I needed to back away from this job. It became close to five years.
IV. 'IT WAS LIKE AN ITCH INSIDE MY TEETH'
I never believed in the concept of [marriage]. I just never believed that it made any sense, this long-term monogamy thing that humans do. Also, relationships do tend to get very proprietary. And so you end up, before you realize it, in a cage — maybe a very comfortable cage, but still a cage — and you can't be the person you want. Obviously, you can't have sex with anyone else, but many times you can't even be the person that you were before. I just was incapable of long-term relationships. I was with whoever would have me. Then I met my wife.
This media workshop came to see Cheers. I was there eight years, and in all that time, we only talked to one group, and it just happened to be this group. UCLA put it on, but it was people from all over. And at some point, I was like, "Hey, does anybody here have secretarial skills? 'Cause I could really use an assistant." And this young woman, Laura Louie, raised her hand.
I asked her to come down 'cause she was up in the stands. So she came down, and I said, "We'll meet tomorrow. Come out to my place in Marina del Rey." It's funny 'cause I don't think I remembered the exact address — I just knew it was Outrigger and whatever that is, Ocean — so I told her the intersection, and she parked, and she wasn't quite sure where she was going, and then she hears this music blasting. I had on Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend," which segues into "Love Lies Bleeding." We had one of the greatest conversations I ever had, so she became my assistant. She was so great that every other person in Cheers got an assistant after that. She became my assistant the day after I met her and for the next three years.
It was one of those things I wouldn't admit to myself: I didn't want to be attracted to my amazing assistant. But there was no connubial bliss.
Cut to three years later. I went to Africa over Christmas — I went to Peter Beard's Hog Ranch outside of Nairobi, Kenya, just to go and see. I used to wander around, take a lot of trips by myself. I would always outlast everyone. They'd all go to bed, and I'd still be up. And there was this guard named Matua. And he'd be rolling up another spliff, and I'd be sitting there strumming the guitar. And I remember I just started thinking about Laura, fantasizing about her. I mean, talk about forbidden fruit! It was, "Do not have these thoughts!" But I'd have the thoughts, and they would tantalize me in such a way, I remember it was as if my teeth were itching, like an unscratchable itch inside the teeth. That's how much it was suffusing my being.
So I come back to L.A. I ask all of my friends, "Do you think I should follow through on what I'm feeling?" And 100 percent of them said, "No!" because they knew my track record — I mostly just had one-night stands.
I'd written this song for her. And we were up around Mulholland [Drive, above Los Angeles], where I'd bought a house — I still have that place — and you could see both sides of the city and everything's nice and perfect. And I wrote her this song. I remember I was 28, and there's a line in it: "I'm only 28, but I'm bored with everything I do. / I've got nothing when I'm not next to you. … Are you thinking about me, baby? / 'Cause I'm thinking about you." It was pretty direct. I play her the song, and afterward she says, "Woody, I've been in love with you for the last two and a half years." The insecure actor in me is like, "What about the other six months?!" But I moved through that, and I picked her up and carried her inside to my bedroom, and we made love, and we began a great relationship.
I got the most amazing wife I could imagine. But did marriage calm me down? I don't think anything will ever calm me down.
V. 'THE FORCE IS STILL VERY MUCH WITH IT'
I turned down Hunger Games twice. I didn't have any idea it would be that big, but I didn't think it was a good part. I was wrong. It was a terrific part, and it was a terrific thing, but thank God [director] Gary Ross called me. And [executive] Alli Shearmur, too. I turned [the Han Solo movie] down twice, too, and the same person, Alli, wouldn't take no for an answer.
Definitely [Star Wars] has more secrecy than anything ever. You get an e-reader; you don't get a script. They give it to you, and you give it back after you read it. But I was like, "I've got to be with my family, I got to go home." I'd been home in Maui one week since November. But I met with [directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller] one night, and we hung out and we went over to Matthew Freud's and played pingpong and just had a great time. They were really good guys. I've been enjoying it [since then], especially because we just went to [shoot at] the Dolomites in Italy. [Co-star] Thandie Newton said, "It's like being at camp 'cause you got everybody together," and we had a couple of epic parties.
Alli gave me the word on [Ron Howard replacing the directors]. He's a wonderful guy. And we did shoot one day with him — we had to shoot because Thandie had to leave. We start again July 12. I think I read some stuff where people were worried about the fate of this movie. I wouldn't worry. The Force is still very much with it.
VI. 'EVERYBODY WANTS TO HAVE A SHOT WITH YOU'
My problem is, I'll drink, and then I'll drink too much. I stopped smoking pot [14 months ago]. I had some weird reaction, which I looked up later, and it was adrenal exhaustion. I still drink, but I try just to drink on weekends. I mostly just drink wine now, but a few years ago I got into cognac for a while — you know, I'd do shots. I'm a happy drunk, but sometimes I drink to the point where I'm not really thinking very clearly. And one of the bad things about celebrity — there's a lot of positives, but one of the bad things is everybody wants to have a shot with you. It's dangerous to go into a regular bar because I can end up doing a lot of shots, depending on the charity of the [other people].
[In 2002] I went to this bar in London, and afterward these girls came up to me, these two girls, and asked me, "So you want to take a walk on the wild side?" So I said, "I guess I do." And then I hopped in the car, and another girl I didn't even know hopped in. We went to my place, and one of the girls was a razzi [paparazzi] or worked for them, worked for the rags. And she got a photographer to come out. That one girl manipulated the other two. I was bummed when they all left together 'cause I knew it was going to happen [an article]. News of the World, it was. I never read it 'cause I didn't want to read it.
I'm not sure how Laura found out, but she did. I was kind of hoping she wouldn't see it. I can't remember the details; I've doubtless repressed it. She never saw the thing. But someone told her.
Laura — this really gives you a sense of the depth of her compassion — what she said to me after finding out was, "That must be really hard for you, to have this shit exposed." She just said that. Now that doesn't mean she wasn't upset. How did I apologize? You know, just your standard Texan grovel. But she forgave me, and we're still together.
That same week [of the tabloid incident], I went to this club and went to get in a taxi. I was trying to pull out the ashtray, and it came out with this screeching eerrrrch. And then I couldn't get it back in, and the driver's screaming at me, and finally I got pissed at him screaming, so I was screaming back. And then the next thing you know, he wouldn't let me out, but I got the door open. Then the guy stopped. He was on the phone — I didn't know if he was calling his mates or the cops, but I didn't want to meet either one of those groups. It turned out it was the cops. I got out, and the guy came after me, and he's on the phone the whole time. And then the cops came, and I was running from the cops. I went to jail. Laura got me out.
It stayed with me because it was one of the worst nights of my life. I wanted to repress it, I wanted to erase it. I would've paid a large sum to just excise that week from my life — the tabloid thing, the incident with the cops. It all happened around the same time. It does happen to me in spurts, trouble.
But I started thinking, there is some merit to this story. Thematically, you have a guy who has it all, doesn't realize he has it all, gets reminded how lucky he is and then has a shot at redemption. There's something about that theme that really resonates with me.
At some point, I wrote a draft of a screenplay, and I merged the two things into one night. Then I put it in a drawer, didn't read it for two years, read it, put it back in the drawer. It was terrible. It was very slow. And Laura was the first to type it up — I wrote it longhand — and she typed up every draft all the way through. I had the idea to shoot it [Lost in London] in real time. But I never thought, my very first time out, I'm going to do a single-camera, one-take deal. Then, once I decided to do that, I thought, "Well, why not just go for it?" Then came the idea: If we're shooting this single-camera in one take, why couldn't we also live-stream it? Is it possible?
It was this big catharsis. It actually did shift something in me, getting that film done. I feel like it was a purging or a letting go and a letting go of some of the guilt. I know that Laura really loves the movie, and that probably means more than anything. Because in a way, it's a love letter to Laura, a weird love letter to Laura.
I frequently think of my situation. Just having this family who has been so loving and so kind to me — like, more than I deserve, maybe. And in some ways I think that has mellowed me. Maybe "mellowed" isn't the right word, but it has softened those areas that were too hard.
I guess there has been a change in me. If I'm honest, I have to say that something has shifted, some kind of basic core disturbance. It's like some post that you're trying to get out of the ground, and it's just so wedged there, you have to push it every which direction, and you can finally lift it out.
This story first appeared in the July 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.