Today we have the honor of talking to an actor equally skilled in comedy and drama who is now a playwright and director in his own right, with his new play, BULLET FOR ADOLF, being a New York stage hit - the one and only Woody Harrelson. A huge Hollywood star who has appeared in countless recognizable and beloved film properties over the last twenty-five years - from Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Milos Forman's THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, Robert Altman's A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION and many more notables (not to mention his many comedies, ranging from WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP to ZOMBIELAND), all the way up to his recent, lauded screen appearances in THE MESSENGER, RAMPART and the international smash hit franchise-kick-off THE HUNGER GAMES - casting a special focus on his new Off Broadway play which he co-wrote and directed, BULLET FOR ADOLF - in this chat, Woody and I cover the bases. From an understudying unknown in Neil Simon's BILOXI BLUES on Broadway and his subsequent big break on TV's 1980s hit sitcom CHEERS to his string of iconic film portrayals, Harrelson and I shine a light on his theatrical side while he also elucidates the process that finally brought the story of BULLET FOR ADOLF to the theatrical stage, sharing the true-life tale behind its characters, location, plot and themes and opening up about possibilities for the play's future - West End, perhaps? Maybe a film? Plus, Harrelson also looks ahead to the many exciting projects coming up in the next several weeks and months now that BULLET FOR ADOLF has settled in to an extended run at New World Stages, on sale through September 30 - such as working with fellow InDepth InterView participant Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the starry assortment of players on the highly anticipated THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE and its subsequent sequels (which begin shooting this week in Atlanta, GA); sharing the small screen with Matthew McConaughey on a new HBO thriller/serial-killer-themed anthology series titled TRUE DETECTIVES; starring in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, written and directed by celebrated playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh; even sharing his candid impressions and adoration of his favorite state of the union, Hawaii - all of that and much, much more!
BULLET FOR ADOLF runs through September 30 at New World Stages. More information is available at the official site here.
Houston To Biloxi To Hawaii to Hollywood, With BULLET In Between
PC: Looking back at the summer of 1983 from the tail end of the summer of 2012, could you ever imagine you would end up here?
WH: Well, I mean, I certainly couldn't have predicted things would go quite like this! [Laughs.] But, yeah, that was one incredible summer - 1983; I had just finished college and I was getting ready to move to New York to try to break into actin, and we met all these incredible characters and we really wanted to get them onstage somehow,
PC: How do you compare the world then to now?
WH: Generally, I would say that in a lot of ways it is pretty similar - obviously, culturally, there are some differences; and, you know, musically, too; and, film, too. But, you know, militarily it is pretty similar - still spending ungodly amounts of money on the military industrial complex and still at war, just like we were with Reagan.
PC: Some things never seem to change in the US, unfortunately.
WH: No, politics have not changed much at all - I mean, things haven't changed too much; there are a lot of similarities, really! Too many. [Laughs.]
PC: You had fallen out of contact with Frankie Hyman, your co-writer on BULLET FOR ADOLF. What was your first meeting like, seeing each other after quite a few years, after you appeared on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH Jay Leno in 1993?
WH: I hadn't seen Frank for about ten years - 1983 was the last time I saw him; at the end of that summer. I had talked to him a couple of times on the phone, but ultimately lost track of him - you know, I couldn't find him; he moved out of Houston and he was nowhere to be found.
PC: Missing in action.
WH: Yeah. So, I really liked tried like hell to get a hold of him - I even hired a PI, eventually - but I couldn't track him. They told me that if he was working, he would be using his social security number and they could track him that way, but it turned out that he wasn't working at the time. He had had kind of a rough slide since I saw him, so when I went on LENO, I asked for him by name and his brother was watching, and, then, next thing you know, we're back in touch.
PC: The power of TV.
WH: Yeah, man - he came out to LA and he looked like he was fifty years older! In just ten years he had been through a lot, so we got him into rehab and that helped him a lot. Then, eventually, I got him to write this play with me.
PC: He is so appreciative of all you've done, no doubt - actually, have you two discussed dramatizing your recent story, as well, perhaps?
WH: We actually have started working on that - we've worked on the first scene and haven't done much more since, but we've done the first scene where we get back in touch with each other and all that.
PC: It could be a theatrical concept worth exploring.
WH: Yeah, Frank is a survivor and he's been through a lot - there's a great story to tell there. He's managed to go through quite a lot and he's still going pretty strong.
PC: Are you pleased with the reception BULLET FOR ADOLF has received? It's been extended to September 30, of course.
WH: Oh, yeah - I'm really psyched. I feel like there is still plenty of room for improvement, too - I went back to see it last night for the first time since the opening and I started thinking of different ideas to consider and things to cut and things to change…
PC: The work never ends!
WH: It never does! I want to get back in the rehearsal room! I guess that's just my nature - I just want it to be as good as it can be, and, mostly, with this play, I just want people to laugh as much as they possibly can.
PC: And they are - there are some hilarious lines in it. Is it true the "Half Italian, half Czechoslovakian, a hundred percent…," line is a direct quote?
WH: Yes, it is - the real guy was China-Mex, though. So, he would say, "I'm half Chinese, half Mexican and a hundred percent n*gger." [Laughs.] I mean, he'd just meet you for the first time and tell you that!
PC: Sounds like quite a guy!
WH: He was pretty wild.
PC: And if you of all people are saying that…
WH: [Laughs.] He was a character - he really did talk black and was accepted as a, you know, brother, really. [Pause.] He was just totally ghetto.
PC: Do you think making the N-word taboo gives it more power? Do you think it should be able to be used in context - whether if it is direct quotations used in the news or otherwise?
WH: Well, I think that, in many ways, it being taboo is something a lot of people want - so, you know, you have got to respect that. But, on the other hand, over the course of this play we use it - because we really are pushing up against a lot of boundaries and crossing some of them.
PC: You can say that again.
WH: I don't think we use it too much, though - and, of course, there are consequences for the people that do use it, so I think we kind of handled it responsibly. But, we definitely did not want to cower away from writing it the way that we wrote it.
PC: You wanted it real.
WH: Real - and with an edge. We wanted the jokes to have an edge - and quite a few do.
PC: Frankie has quoted you as having been known to test people's limits yourself - he said you would say, "If you didn't like what I said, then why is it you didn't like what I said?" Do you approach writing and directing that same way?
WH: [Pause.] Yes. Of course, there was a lot of stuff that was cut out or was shifted over the course of previews because the audience tends to kind of let you know where they are at, but there are still some edgy jokes that I myself think are funny enough that they deserve to be kept in, but I'm sure some audiences might disagree. [Laughs.]
PC: A provocateur. Did you ever consider another director to work on the piece?
WH: No. I never did have another director in mind for it - I always wanted to do it. You know, in first conceiving of it, I could have played myself onstage, but now I am too old to play myself in it. [Laughs.]
PC: Whose idea exactly was the ingenuous marketing plan for BULLET FOR ADOLF, complete with body-painted topless girls in Times Square?
WH: [Laughs.] Oh, that was the idea of this English girl who worked on the marketing - she said that's what they wanted to do and I said, [With Brio.] "Why, absolutely!"
PC: Is there a plan to bring BULLET FOR ADOLF to the West End at some point?
WH: Well, I would kind of like to - I mean, it's hard to imagine when that could possibly happen; I feel kind of locked down to so many other things right now. it's not as easy as taking it and plopping it over there somewhere - it would take quite a bit of work, I think. But, yeah, I definitely like the idea of taking it there. Who knows? I think they might laugh and they might also get a little bit shocked, too.
PC: Would you change any of the references for the British audience, do you think?
WH: I don't think so - I probably wouldn't change it too much.
PC: So a film version is a possibility, do you think?
WH: I hadn't really thought about a film version, but maybe - I haven't really thought a lot about the future for the play. I have just been concentrating so hard on this particular production and the play as it is now - like I said, just going back to see it again last night made me think of all of these things that I wanted to shift and edit. I want to go back into rehearsal again - I really do.
PC: You're still barely done with this production, then.
WH: Yeah! I mean, in a way, I feel like there's still so much left to do with this production… but that isn't how it works, I guess. I have to let go.
PC: Did you ever involve Ben Foster in the process, especially since you two work so well together - like in RAMPART and THE MESSENGER - and he looks quite a bit like you?
WH: [Pause.] Oh, I see what you are saying - and, yeah, I really get along great with Ben and I loved doing those two with him. And, I actually did think of him for BULLET FOR ADOLF and I actually talked to him about it, but he ended up being busy - he would have done a great job, though, I think.
PC: He would be great for a film version! His film career is blowing up right now - in dramas and comedies; just like you.
WH: It is, it is - and it couldn't happen to a better guy. What a phenomenal actor.
PC: You can say that again.
WH: And he is funny! He can do both equally well.
PC: You two have a similar kind of wild-eyed intensity, I think. Kindred spirits, it seems.
WH: Yeah, I think I might know what you mean, Pat. [Laughs.]
PC: Another fine actor you have recently worked with is Michael Caine. What can you tell me about your new film together?
WH: Yeah, yeah - we did. It's called NOW YOU SEE ME. It is a magician heist thriller kind of movie.
PC: You are also working on a new series for HBO premiering soon - what can you tell me about TRUE DETECTIVES with Matthew McConaughey?
WH: Oh, it was a phenomenal, phenomenal script! It's really kind of like a miniseries, because we do eight one-hour shows - me and Matthew - and the director, Cary [Fukunaga], is just incredible. The script itself is just so wonderful - I think it really has the ability to be something great.
PC: The limited-season anthology series is taking off - DOWNTON ABBEY and AMERICAN HORROR STORY are hit examples. Do you think it is a more enticing format for busy actors like yourself since it is less commitment than a 22-episode-or-more show like CHEERS was?
WH: Oh, definitely! [Laughs.] I can tell you from experience that it is a lot easier gig. Now, mind you, CHEERS was pretty easy, but in terms of the time you have to commit to it, it is a bit easier of a deal. But, this show, TRUE DETECTIVES, is unique because we are playing these parts for these eight episodes and then next year, if it goes on, it will be two other actors playing two other detectives in another city and it will keep changing each year like that.
PC: Is there a possibility you will return in a later season - even if just for a cameo?
WH: Oh, well, you know - you have to try to keep an open mind!
PC: Another new film you have coming out very soon is SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, written and directed by one of the greatest living playwrights, Martin McDonagh.
WH: I totally agree, man - and, I'll say that he's a great guy and a total gentleman, too. That was a real pleasure to work on that - I can tell you that it turned out phenomenal!
PC: What great news! The early reviews are fantastic. Had you been a fan of his plays and prior films?
WH: Oh, yeah - I had seen several of his plays and I had seen IN BRUGES. I have read every single one of his plays, too - including one that hasn't even been published yet.
PC: We can surely say you are a fan, then.
WH: I am, I am - he's a real master writer.
PC: Was the script for SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS immidiately really impressive on reading? How specific was it? Was it just generally mapped out dialogue-wise or was it a very play-like, finished text?
WH: Well, as you know, Martin does come from the theatre, so it is all fully-formed on the page. He likes you to be word-perfect.
PC: Will you be attending the Emmys this weekend in support of GAME CHANGE and its multiple nominations, including yours for Best Actor In A Movie Made For TV?
WH: Well, I'd like to, but I'm supposed to be filming [THE HUNGER GAMES] in Atlanta all next week, so we'll see how that goes...
PC: Hawaii to Atlanta to LA is quite a flight, but you probably find that it is worth it. Do you enjoy Hawaii?
WH: Oh, I love it more than anything! I can't tell you how much I love it. [Pause.] It's very, very difficult to leave.
PC: Beware of island time!
WH: Oh, the days just roll on - one into the next; hanging out with friends; kite surfing; playing with the kids on the beach; eating the food you grow on your own farm on your land; it's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful life there.
PC: What are your thoughts on the level of racism that is somewhat prevalent in the society, as juxtaposed to what you experienced back in Houston?
WH: Oh, it's very difficult to say - it's so hard to say because, you know, it's not a blanket-type of racism, but there are little pockets of racism all over. It's different there than it is here in the mainland, I would say, though.
PC: With Hawaii being such a progressive state, do you think it will have any influence in the future insofar as many of the issues they are addressing now - like gay rights and drug laws?
WH: Well, they are definitely progressive, but I don't know whether or not Hawaii will ever be like California in being a state that kind of leads the charge on things, but it would be nice if it was.
PC: One last film from your resume that I wanted to touch on was Robert Altman's final film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. I think it is one of the best recent movie musicals and a true masterpiece of his, which is saying something significant.
WH: Oh, thank you! I loved that movie! Not a lot of people saw it, but I thought it was just wonderful - I really did.
PC: Is it true you and John C. Reilly had a hand in writing your musical material?
WH: Well, we definitely had a hand in shaping some of those songs and making them a little different; a little groovier. You know, the script was already really good and Altman made the experience really great because we were actually coming out onstage in front of an audience and doing those performances live in front of the audience - and they ended up using the actual vocal and the guitar and everything in the final edit; so that lends a realness to it all that is kind of cool and special, I think. We were actually doing the whole show in front of a live audience and you can feel it in the film.
PC: Isn't it true that Paul Thomas Anderson was onset as an advisor, shadowing Altman, for much of that film?
WH: Yeah, yeah - he was.
PC: Lindsay Lohan gets a lot of guff, but she more than holds her own singing up a storm with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin in that film. Did you find her talented?
WH: Lindsay is super-super-talented - I think the only question is whether or not she'll be able to ride out the storm.
PC: You came to success at a young age with CHEERS, so you know about the Hollywood machine more than many or most do.
WH: Yeah, I do - it's something that you have to just go with; it's like a bucking bronco and you just have to try to hold on until that last clock, you know?
PC: What a great Woody Harrelson-esque way to put it!
WH: [Big Laugh.]
PC: Last question: what have you experiences like been so far working with your new HUNGER GAMES cast-mate Philip Seymour Hoffman - who has also done this column, incidentally?
WH: Oh, well, I am leaving tomorrow to go to Atlanta to film the new HUNGER GAMES, but I can tell you that there definitely will be some stuff that we have together in the next film. And, I think he is just one of the greats, so I am really looking forward to working with him.
PC: Do you two know each other through Paul Thomas Anderson? Have you and Philip ever worked together?
WH: We've never worked together, I don't think, but we've known each other for a while - and we've hung out a few times. He's a real prince of a guy.
PC: From my experience, it seems that you both are so open and cool and really just all about the work.
WH: That's really nice to hear, so I appreciate you saying it, man.
PC: Jennifer Lawrence is another co-star of yours who is poised to take Hollywood by storm.
WH: Oh, she's so incredibly talented - yeah, she's great. All of them are really great on THE HUNGER GAMES, so I am looking forward to getting back there to Atlanta.
PC: Does this look like it might be your career high next year with such hi-profile stage, small screen and big screen projects?
WH: [Laughs.] Well, you never know for sure about things like that, but I feel really great about how things are right now. Right now, I guess I feel like my main focus is still BULLET FOR ADOLF, but, soon, it will be all about CATCHING FIRE.
PC: This was so interesting. You're the best, Woody. Aloha.
WH: Aloha, my brother! Take care, man. Bye.
Bullet for Adolf Photos by Walter McBride