'Three Billboards': Why Woody Harrelson Was "Embarrassed" Over the Film's Standing Ovation

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI - Still 1 - Woody Harrelson - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Oscar-nominated actor talks about the "extraordinary" reception at the Venice Film Festival and why he wanted to work with Martin McDonagh.

Harrelson, 56, earned his third Oscar nomination after reteaming with his Seven Psychopaths director, Martin McDonagh, for Three Billboards, this time playing a police chief who goes up against a grief-stricken mother (Frances McDormand).

What was your first introduction to this script?

I have this unwritten rule in my life that I’ll do anything Martin asks. Years ago I met him because I was writing this screenplay that takes place entirely in Ireland, so I was looking up great contemporary Irish playwrights. So I met Martin in Dublin. We ended up spending a lot of time together because I did a play over there. He was writing this play The Pillowman, and he offered it to me, but I read it and I said, “Well, finally with Martin the darkness has overcome the light.” Usually, he has a perfect little balance, but this one — he’s crucifying a kid onstage. So I didn’t do it. Then I went and watched it. 

Billy Crudup played the part and it was like one of the greatest productions I’ve ever seen. After that, I said, “I’ll never make this blunder again.” And thank God, because I really liked Seven Psychopaths. With this one, I read it, I thought it was very good, and then I was just in.

What did you think when you first saw the film?

I had no idea it would be so powerful. I saw it at the public viewing in Venice. The response afterward was a seven-minute standing ovation. I’ve never seen anything like that, because after one minute you’re embarrassed. After two minutes, you’re just out of there. And then of course the head of the festival’s like, “No, stay.” It was amazing. Then afterward we all took a boat ride together out to this little island and walked around it. I just remember all of us having the feeling like we had really experienced something extraordinary.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.