n the 25 years since he charmed audiences across the globe with his long-running performance in the US sitcom Cheers, Woody Harrelson has emerged as an actor with an incredibly diverse CV that’s seen him work with a string of leading directors, including the likes of Robert Altman, Stephen Frears, the Coen brothers, Michael Winterbottom, Spike Lee, Paul Schrader, Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick and Milos Forman, to name but a few.
He earned Academy Award nominations for his turns in 1996’s The People vs Larry Flynt, and 13 years for The Messenger, with director Oren Moverman. Earlier this year he starred in the smash hit The Hunger Games, an adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, in which he plays former Games champion Haymitch.
In Rampart, his second film with Oren Moverman, he plays Dave Brown, a misanthropic cop whose unruly behaviour helps ignite the real-life Rampart police scandal that rocked West Coast law enforcement
- Did Oren have to persuade you to take the role?
He didn’t say that much. It was Lawrence [Inglee], the producer. It was Lawrence who was the guy who gave me that script. He said, ‘Get ready. Buckle up.’ And it was a very, very intense and cool script.
- What are your own recollections of the real-life Rampart scandal?
I didn’t have much recollection of it. I do remember [LA police chief] Bernard Parks getting fired. I wasn’t living in Los Angeles at the time. I did remember a little bit of it going down but I wasn’t steeped in like the whole thing.
I didn’t remember that much but I did obviously study it quite a bit so I realised that it was quite an incredible thing that went down there.
- What are your memories of hanging out with the writer, James Ellroy?
I did meet James Ellroy. It was a really cool, interesting meeting. I met him over at this health food restaurant in Hollywood.
He was a very interesting guy and a very intelligent man. We talked about the character, there was a bit of that.
And when you are talking about the character, he idolizes women but he has all these different, disparate emotions around women. The same was, and is, true of Ellroy. That was fascinating.
- When did you start to enjoy acting?
I guess in college I really started to enjoy it although I was a terrible actor. I remember one time I went up to one of the guys who was playing the lead in this play called The Madwoman of Challiot.
I had a small part as a police sergeant or something, and I went to this guy and said, ‘I don’t know what I am doing, it is terrible and it is bad and I don’t know what to do.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you try and change something? Change your voice, your clothes, try some shit.’
So I started trying these external changes, like that thing of bringing up your pant leg up so that you can see the white socks underneath and I started talking in this funny voice.
And so come the night of the first show I did these changes quickly, and then my first entrance I kind of come on and look at the mad woman. I just come on stage and kind of walk off down stage left. And I get an ovation! Not a word spoken.
Just from walking funny and doing a charactery thing, an ovation. The other actors came off and said, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know but I will be doing it again tomorrow for sure!’
- At school were you like the class clown?
A bit, because I was very shy when I was younger. I had moved from Texas to Ohio and so I was in school at eleven when I was in Ohio. That is where my mum was from. I can remember, I would hear the teacher say something or another student and I would have these lines going through my head and they were hysterical.
I’d say to myself, ‘Godammit, that’s funny,’ but I didn’t say anything as I didn’t have the wherewithal to say it.
I didn’t have the courage, really, and it just kept happening, all the time. Then one time an opportunity came and I said something and, nothing. And then there was an eruption of laughter. At first I thought, ‘Oh, my God I will never do this again.’
And then there was a big laugh and I was hooked. That was it. I would never answer the question but just keep spewing out this bullshit until finally, everybody was laughing and I got out of answering the question.
I tell you what, it really did help me through school because I was actually a good student but I would be falling asleep. I didn’t know that sugar was doing that to me and it was having a profound effect!
- Why did you want to do The Hunger Games, which is a big blockbuster for young audiences? Was it to shoot something that your kids could enjoy?
The reason to do it didn’t have to do with my kids. I wish I could say that is what it was. They do love the books but I did it because I wanted to work with [the director] Gary Ross.
And when I agreed to do it I had not even read the books. I wanted to work with Gary Ross. Now I can’t believe I’ve signed up for a whole bunch of movies. I thought it was just one!
Rampart is out on DVD & Blu-Ray is out now