Press Conference With...WOODY HARRELSON

By Rob McGibbon
Woody Harrelson became a star playing loveable barman Woody Boyd for eight years in the TV sitcom Cheers. Since then he has successfully made that rare transition from the small screen to the big silver one. He has wrapped up dozens of movies with some memorable hits, such as Indecent Proposal (1993) with Demi Moore, Oliver Stone’s violently controversial Natural Born Killers (1994) and The People vs Larry Flint (1996), for which he received an Oscar nomination.

But Woody is no conventional Hollywood player. Now 45, he maintains a safe distance from La La Land by living in Hawaii with his wife and their two daughters, aged nine and 12. A third child is on the way. He is a passionate ecological campaigner and is vehemently anti-establishment. He also admits to enjoying the odd spliff.

He is in London to appear in a play. When someone like Woody comes to the West End, the interview requests form a deep begging pile. By the time his Hollywood publicist had finished, just four print media nominations were off their knees – barely enough to fill an Oscar-night envelope. I felt like putting on a tux to celebrate.

When arrangements get messed up, Woody and I hastily meet at the Mariott Hotel off the Edgware Road.

Very Beverly Hills. He is exhausted from rehearsals, but poses patiently for photos in the street before we adjourn to a seventh-floor room.

His only rider is that he gets to sit by a window. If all stars were so easily pleased, Earth might already be a nicer place. He eases off his yogi slippers, sinks into his chair and dreamily talks me through Woody’s world in a slow, Southern drawl. If he was any more chilled, Woody would need defrosting.

Clearly, you prefer to keep press to a minimum at the moment? Why is that and what is the selection process?

Well, to be honest, I don’t really much like doing press, it is my least favourite part of the business.

I talk about myself enough to my friends and, if anything, I should talk less. Also, the focus tends to be on the more sensational aspects of my life, which I accept, but it can be difficult. But I have a duty to do this and I understand that. I am pretty much guided by publicists by what I do and the time I have.

In many ways, I am a very private person, but I am also an open guy with some strong opinions, so when I get asked a question I can’t help but give an honest answer. Nine times out of 10, I get myself into trouble. Things just pop out and I do myself a disservice because it is not possible to substantiate certain views in a few minutes of conversation and when they appear in an article it can just sound like lunacy.

Is there an example of that, when you have spoken out and caused a heap of trouble for yourself?

Well, yeah, my views on pot for one. One thing I don’t like is that I have become the poster boy for marijuana, certainly in the States, I don’t know about here so much. It all came from a TV show I went on years ago and said a few things about the bullshit laws banning marijuana. The main thrust of my argument is not just its legalisation – which I think should happen – but that the war against drugs is unwinnable. Millions of people use pot and always will, so it is a war against the people. It all comes down to freedom. You should be free to do anything, even if it is self destructive, as long as it is not hurting someone else or their property. I absolutely believe that.

But because I am about the only celebrity speaking up, I get characterised in such a way and once the media fans a flame like that, it’s real hard to dampen it down. This is not something I harp on about too much, but it does bug me because there are many things I care about more than legalising pot, such as ecological issues, which I believe in with all my heart.

Has this press image been a burden or damaged you in any way?

Well, I don’t think it has. I meet a lot of people, which I like because I am pretty gregarious, and I generally get a positive reaction. But there are also a vast number of people who think I am this crazy stoner hippie. What bothers me most is that they sometimes see me in a movie or in an interview and they say, "Oh, yeah, he’s stoned right now." It needs to be said – I never work stoned, I would never do an interview stoned under any circumstances and I try never to appear publicly stoned, although sometimes you get caught off guard. I have a certain integrity, so it bothers me if I am perceived this way. But, hey… I actually had this problem when I was teenager, before I’d even had my first smoke. I used to meet parents of girls I was dating and they wouldn’t like me because they thought I was high. I did not even try pot until I was 21 – much later than most people – but I have always had this laid back personality and a whacky way of presenting myself. I did then, still do.

I haven’t been smoking for a while now, I am on a sabbatical, so I do have plenty of discipline. I am not out of control with it by any stretch. I have a smoke in a similar way most people have a drink, just as a way to relax after a hard day and that’s it. I have just done six movies in two years and I tell ya, you can’t work like that if you’re getting high all the time. The only time I might go a bit crazy is if I visit a place like Amsterdam. Then… man… For someone who is not keen on interviews, it must drive you nuts promoting a major movie?

For some movies, I have to do a junket that is three days solid press. I will do about 60 interviews for hours on end. After doing that, I feel I have to re-attach my soul to my body because it just feels like selling my soul. I expect it to be a living hell, so I accept my own contribution in making the process a drag and worse than it need be. To be honest, I feel for the journalists, too. Some guys get about four minutes with me and I think, ‘Hey, man, this can’t be easy for you’, so I try and liven it up and vary things as best I can.

I have just done a press junket for a new movie: North Country, which is out in the States. That is a great movie – and I don’t throw that word around lightly. I admit I even enjoyed doing those interviews, that was a good experience, and this is cool, talking to you. Maybe I just need to shift my mentality toward it all.

You had a run-in with a taxi driver and the tabloids last time you were here for a play in 2002. How was that ride?

Well, it was pretty tough and it bugged me a bit. The guy did all these interviews and his perspective had actually nothing to do with what really happened.

According to him, I went berserk for no reason – I just self-combusted and asked him to stop the cab.

The one question no one asked was, ‘Why didn’t he stop and let me out right away?’ He kept driving and shouting at me. I did not much care for that story because it painted me badly. It went all over the States and some guy on the radio in Philadelphia said that I was probably on PCP and all these crazy things.

But I was totally sober – not high, or drunk.

I messed up the ashtray unintentionally and this guy started screaming at me. It was him screaming at me continually that got me mad, which is why I got out.

I started running. It was weirdest thing and I should have just stopped because I had done nothing wrong.

It was bizarre. But, hey, I love London and it is a privilege to be back here doing a play again.

What newspapers do you read?

The main paper I read is The Guardian. That to me is one of the great newspapers. I get that all the time when I am in the UK and I read it online at home, or wherever I am. I also think The Independent is quality journalism, and I sometimes like the Telegraph. Mostly I get my news from the internet.

While I am here, a day rarely goes by when I don’t pick up one newspaper or another. There is something I tend to like about European journalists, they seem to dig a little deeper.

So, you are an American who prefers British newspapers. What is your view of American newspapers generally?

Over the years, I have read the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post a lot. There are some great journalists on these papers doing a good job, but I feel that the media generally in America should ask more questions – particularly about the oil war that has just happened. I think that our media have dropped the ball on a lot of things lately. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about 9/11, but things just immediately faded. My gut feeling is that the Bush administration has used those events to the fullest and even I would never have thought something that horrible about this administration.

We need answers, but unfortunately one of the big problems with the media in the United States is that it is owned by very few corporations with interests that are mostly in line with the government. My government is not functioning for the good of the people, but for the good of the corporations. The government also has a trump card for any journalist who gets rebellious, they take away his access to the White House.

I think journalism can be an amazing tool and I meet many American journalists who really care and want to bring subjects like the environment to the agenda, but they get frustrated.

What saddens me is the overall cynicism and sarcasm that has become the big way to communicate in American papers. It has become a fine art. So much fluff dominates the papers. People are more concerned with what celebrities are wearing than major ecological issues. In five years time our planet will be in a dire situation, but it is being ignored by large sections of the media. A lot of the superficial stuff you read is deleterious for the mind, it is like ingesting fast food. We need to get serious.

A lot of the time I am afraid to read the newspapers because I get bummed out, I internalise what is going on in the world. But it is not too late – I am very hopeful and optimistic – but I do think our ecological situation is comparable to being on the Titanic: we’re clinking our champagne glasses, enjoying the band while we are taking on water.

Natural Born Killers created a wave of backlash publicity. What was it like being at the centre of that kind of furore?

It was pretty weird and it was unfortunate because I thought it was an amazing, innovative movie and was really a romantic comedy and satire. I know that is what Oliver [Stone] was going for, but it got misunderstood and was seen as glorification of violence.

Even now, I know when there has been a school shooting or something bad, because the clips from Natural Born Killers will be running on TV to illustrate how violence in movies has created this madness in our kids. They always hold it up as one of the more violent movies, but I think there are plenty worse ones.

Do you go along with the theory that violent movies cause violence, and do you have any regrets about that movie?

Well, if it really did contribute to any of those things happening, then I do regret it. If it didn’t, then I don’t. It is as simple as that. It would seem odd to me that someone could watch a two-hour movie and go out and start killing people. There are too many other factors to getting into that primal dysfunctional state. Every single one of those kids was on some kind of heavy pharmaceutical drug, so there are other issues here.

How did the publicity from that play out for you, and what are your bad experiences of the press?

So much stuff spun out from that movie, but the worst I heard about was that I was into Satan worshipping. That story sprung up in the Mid-west, the Bible Belt, and I was a bit alarmed something as twisted as that got going. Legitimate journalists gave it no credence. How a story like that gets legs, I have not idea, but I vaguely remember saying to a journalist that in my head I was more like Mickey Knox than Woody Boyd, so maybe it came from that.

The main bad experience I had was with the paparazzi at Martha’s Vineyard once. I asked them to stop taking pictures of my family, and when they wouldn’t stop I grabbed the camera. I didn’t cause them any harm, but they sued me and it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend the case.

But, on the whole, I think I have a helleva lot of good publicity, so I really have nothing at all to complain about.



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Copyright Rob McGibbon 2005. All Rights Reserved

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