Woody Harrelson Talks Post-'Rampart' Depression (Q&A)

Woody Harrelson
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Harrelson will play John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt in HBO’s "Game Change" about the 2008 presidential election. 

The actor tells THR about his transformation from a "happy hippie living in Hawaii" into a tough Los Angeles cop, and his initial despair over the results.

Woody Harrelson, who portrays a corrupt police officer and Vietnam vet in the Oren Moverman-directed drama Rampart, talks to The Hollywood Reporter's executive features editor Stephen Galloway about training for the intense role, and getting into trouble in his youth.

The Hollywood Reporter: You've said you didn’t like the movie when you first saw it. Why?

Woody Harrelson: Yeah, that’s true. I saw it in May and it wasn't finished till August. I think I didn’t like it for a number of reasons: One is, it’s very different from what was in the script and what we shot — there are probably 36 scenes expunged from that movie and a lot of big scenes too, but it would have been a fricking four-hour epic. But it devastated me because I knew when I was shooting it that it was going to be a great movie, for sure. [Seeing it] was probably one of the worst periods in my professional life — the depression over it. I was so depressed over it and didn’t know how to deal with it. I felt the editor had swayed Oren [Moverman, the director]. I felt he had been misled, and he was saying, "Trust me, these are my decisions, the editor is great." There were a couple of months of this weird energy between us, and he said, "I don’t want this to wreck our friendship." So I said to him, "I promise you, dude, nothing will destroy our friendship. Our friendship means more to me than any movie or any project. I fricking love you and that will never change." Because, in a lot of instances, relationships would have dissolved over this.

Then the movie gets accepted to Toronto and I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to go and support a movie I don’t believe in." They said, “You have to see it." I was shooting Hunger Games in North Carolina and I’d written a play, Bullet for Adolf, so I came into New York to look for a theater and then I got to go and see the movie again — and I just know this is going to be a disaster — and Oren’s there and there was a lot of pressure for me to sit and watch this thing. And after the first 10 minutes I go, "Whoa, this is good!" And it just kept being amazing. I was really wrong. The movie did change for sure; it got tighter and better. But it was also the fact that I didn’t have the same expectations going in. That freed me. We hugged and cried and were just so happy to be on the same page.

THR: What’s been your worst experience with a cop?

WH: Oh, I’ve had several. The worst was [when] I was a senior in college and went to visit my brother at Ohio State. We went out to drink and at one point, it was after an Ohio State game, I was crossing the street with my friend, saying goodbye to my brother, and a cop stopped us for jaywalking and he was really rough — one of those cops with a really bad attitude that gives cops a bad name. He asked me for my ID, and I said I didn’t have it. Then he said, "You must have" — and I found it and he goes to grab my license and says, "Don't lie to me again, punk!" and grabbed my license, and that made me pull it away and he grabbed me and slammed me against this brick wall a couple of times, hard. I’m like 21, and then I pushed him off and started running. And that became a real bad experience because he put out an officer-in-distress signal and immediately I got converged on in the sidewalk in Columbus by all these cops. One had his knee in my throat, another was in my stomach, and they were treating me badly and a bunch of the students around were protesting, and [the cops] started threatening them. These were not good cops, and at the time, the cops in Columbus were legendary for being rough.

Then it got worse. I got in their van, and then the same dude grabs me — he just smashed my head against the van. Then they stopped to pick someone up who was peeing on the sidewalk; so the van stops to pick him up — and when the doors opened, I jumped out and started running, and I am handcuffed behind my back, wearing boots, which are not exactly great sport utility shoes — and next thing you know, I am running across this park and the cops are running behind me and I see this car and I hit it and it flipped me up in the air. I spun completely forward, landed on the back of my head, and then they had me and maced the shit out of me. After the mace, that was it; you’ll do anything. Then they threw me in jail. I was in jail just a night and the next day my mom drove up from Lebanon and bailed me out. That put a real negative thought in my mind about cops. That's a part of what made it hard for me to imagine [playing one], though for the last several years of my life I've had a remarkably good relationship with cops.

THR: Would you make a good cop?

WH: I think I would be a good cop, but you never know. The thing I did learn is, the shit they don't like about being cops a lot of times comes down from the higher-ups instituting some policy they might not agree with. But I think I would be a good cop; I like the type of policing where the guy is in the community and that’s the kind of cops I was working with. They’d bring turkeys around on Thanksgiving and spend time to get to know people. They are tough but fair. But so much policing is about policing victimless crimes or consensual crimes. And I would have a hard time having to deal with that.

THR: Would you be tough? Are you tough?

WH: I don’t know. If you put me alongside my 5-year-old daughter, I'd say no! That’s the toughest person I've ever met.

THR: How did you prepare to play a cop?

WH: I read lot of books relating to cops, including one that related to the history of the LAPD. And I was really interested in one, Boot, because I was interested in the early part of [his character] Dave Brown’s entry into the LAPD. They’ve got to do a few simple tests and then they get accepted to the academy, go through that, then have a year’s probation where they are not fully cops yet. Then they get to slowly move up the ranks. And it's pretty rigorous physically. I went down there to the academy and saw them doing different things where they were shown how to handcuff people: You get their hands on their heads and have them intertwine their fingers, and you grab their index fingers and hold them and put the cuffs on. There is so much to learn. And I got to do undercover stuff in an unmarked van [where I] followed one guy around for a long time — he was doing some weird, erratic driving in circles — and they had me get the binoculars out and tell them what he was doing. They checked to see if the car was stolen, but it wasn't. Then the next day his car was found burned.

THR: Were you ever in danger?

WH: No, I don't think so. I'd be in the car and they'd pull over several gangbangers and frisk them and have them facing the wall, and then they'd motion to me to come out and say, "We are going to have someone talk to you now." So not only did I meet a lot of cops, I met a lot of gangbangers who I thought were pretty cool people, too. I remember outside a liquor store, I was talking to this guy for quite a bit, then they tell me he's a cold-blooded murderer and one of the higher-ups in this gang. It just blew my mind. He seemed like the nicest guy you'd ever meet — interesting, vulnerable. It was a fascinating period. I was with them more than a month; I came into L.A. quite a while before filming started to try to get into my head to become a cop, because that was my hardest thing: I had a hard time believing myself as a cop. I am a happy hippie living in Hawaii. I knew if I didn't believe it nobody would.

THR: When did you shoot the film?

WH: It was about a year ago and we finished just before Christmas. It was about a 35-day shoot.

THR: You also had to lose weight for the role.

WH: I lost 29 pounds. I was 189 and went to 160, and then tried to keep it down during the filming. Now I'm about 175. ... I did two and a half weeks of fasting and daily exercise. I wouldn't eat, but I would take liquid stuff. I've done a lot of fasting over the years and I find it really puts you in the best mood. When you give everybody less stuff to process and digest, it's very liberating to the body.

THR: You also had to learn to use firearms. Was that a new experience?

WH: I’d shot guns before. And I used to do really well with the skeet shooting: I did go probably three times to the shooting range. But I really don't much like guns, to be honest.

THR: Do you have a gun yourself?

WH: No. I did years ago. I got held up with a gun held to my head and the next day I went out and got three guns. That was when I first got the news I was doing Cheers; I had bought a Porsche, like the one Tom Cruise had in Risky Business, and I got held up around Bronson and Franklin [in Hollywood] at around 4 in the morning. Me and my brother and two girls were in the car and the girl I was with had run inside the building she was staying in to get something and, while we were waiting, I got the stereo blasting, and this guy pulled up behind and walked up by the window and I felt there was going to be trouble, and he pulled out a gun and put it to my head and said to give him money. Then it was wild because he wanted the keys and I couldn’t find them — someone had told me to take the keys out of the ignition — and he started to count down that he was going to shoot me — "Five, four, three" — and I guess I had dropped them — and then he’s down to “two," and the girl came out of the door and he ran away. He got away with, like, $26. But it sure had us rattled. [Afterward] it was amazing how easy it was to get a gun. I don’t know what happened to them. They just dematerialized.

THR: What was the toughest scene in the movie?

WH: The whole thing was very intense. That's the thing about Oren. Emotionally, it was the stuff with my daughter, played by Brie Larson. That was very tough because that was all close to the bone. I obviously connected to my own relationship with my daughters — I have three. I have a phenomenal relationship with them, but when you are in that situation, it feels very real. Oren has an amazing style — he'll give you great space to create. A scene in a hotel room [started out as] one page, and that ended up being an eight-page scene. In the scene when they [Harrelson's character's family] walk out the door — I just in the moment went after them to the elevator, and they’re trying to pull cables out of the way and people out of the way and follow me out to the elevators! That's why these scenes have a real quality to them. You have to be very present.

THR: Did playing that kind of cop impact you personally?

WH: That definitely happened. I remember at one point blowing up at my buddy over something, and he said, "I can’t wait for you to be done with this movie!" And I did have that from a few people. Because a big part of what's going on in the internal life of the character is paranoia and I did let myself get into that state.