Actor Woody Harrelson has never shied away from challenging roles, his decision to play Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt earning him his first Oscar nomination in 1996. Harrelson received a second nomination in 2009, starring in Oren Moverman’s drama The Messenger with Ben Foster, and now the three of them have reunited for Rampart. This time, Harrelson plays Dave Brown, an L.A. police officer already embroiled in a department controversy when he’s caught on camera beating a fleeing criminal.
It’s another daring role for Harrelson, because Brown isn’t just another bad cop in the Training Day or Bad Lieutenant vein, and we actually have a chance to see his humanity through his relationship with the women in his life–his two ex-wives and daughters–and those he interacts with while on the job. Harrelson’s performance is once again flawless, as we watch him in scenes with the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty and Ice Cube.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Woody Harrelson last week to talk about the movie–due to his busy schedule, we only got to talk to him briefly but we tried to make the most of it (and we’ll freely admit we were more nervous than usual, since Harrelson can be rather unpredictable.)
ComingSoon.net: As I watched this, I kept thinking you’d played a police officer before and you had, in “Battle in Seattle,” so when you got the script from Oren, was there any trepidation about playing another police officer so soon? Woody Harrelson: Well, I didn’t feel like I really pulled it off in “Battle in Seattle” or that I really got any kind of depth with it, so to me, it was almost like playing a cop for the first time. It was a little bit of a daunting thing to take on.
CS: I never got the impression you were a big fan of authority, so was it strange playing that side of the law. Harrelson: I’m definitely anti-authority.
CS: With that in mind, how did you approach playing a police officer? Did you spend a lot of time with them beforehand? Harrelson: Yeah, riding around with those cops was the most helpful thing of all, I think. Of all the research that was the thing that helped the most, and I really came to respect those guys. I really had an issue of believability, I guess trying to believe myself as a cop, because regardless of “Battle in Seattle,” my mind was not able to get around this being me. It feels like a really different kind of personality, so it really did help to hang with those guys and start to respect them and see the humanity in them. That helped my whole process a lot.
CS: The screenplay by Oren and James Ellroy really gets into his family life. We see a lot of movies and TV shows about police officers but we never really see that much of their family lives,. Did you talk to the police you were with about their own family lives and how that affected them while doing their duty? Harrelson: I didn’t talk that much about their family with them, no. The guys I was with, well they don’t have families. They have girlfriends. (Chuckles) Yeah, I didn’t get into that so much. That was just more imagination.
CS: One of the more interesting things about the movie is Dave’s relationship with women, which is fairly complex. He has a couple of ex-wives, a couple of women he meets at bars, but he’s obviously very protective of women because a lot of the controversy surrounding him is about something he may have done to stop someone who was hurting women. Can you talk about Dave’s relationship with women and how it affects his job and how you played him? Harrelson: I think Dave for various reasons has a hard time accepting love, almost in the same way he has a hard time eating. He just doesn’t want to absorb that nourishment of love, and yet, he’s desperate for it. I suppose there are a number of guys like this in our society who crave love and yet, can’t really accept real love, real affection. I don’t really look at him as a misogynist. I could see if you watch this, you would believe it, but I look at him as someone who just loves women so much, loves his girls the most, but just women in general and yet, in the end, he loves them right up until the point where he’s had sex with them (chuckles) and then his interest starts to wane. I guess that’s a bit misogynist.
CS: I don’t know if I’d use the term “misogynist” but he’s definitely a bit of a womanizer but it always seems mutual, and it’s an interesting character because it’s very dark, and you can think of him as corrupt, but he has a charm to him. You watch this movie and don’t think you can like him but you do end up liking him. How did you find that balance and make him likeable? Harrelson: I don’t know. You could play any character and just try to infuse some charm in them. To me, it was interesting to play him not as likeable, and also, sometimes of course, to the degree that you see his vulnerability or his desperation to connect with his family, you maybe start to care about him a little bit, but that balance was really struck by Oren. He’s the one who set the balance and the tone.
CS: Were you surprised when you first saw the movie? I know there was a lot of improvisation with the different actors you played off of, so were you surprised by the movie and how artistic it was for the genre? Harrelson: I was definitely surprised. There’s three dozen scenes cut out of this movie.
CS: That’s what I heard! Harrelson: I’m not exaggerating, and some big scenes, not all small scenes, but the movie came out much different from the script and at first, it was jarring to me, but not only that, the movie was a long way from finished and when I did finally see the completed version in August last year, I was like, “Okay, I was dead wrong. This is an incredible movie. It’s a really powerful visceral experience, so I walked up to Oren who was sitting at the back of the theater on the floor, just kind of waiting, and said, “It takes a man to admit he’s wrong and I was wrong on this one and I’m sorry, man. So sorry.”
CS: So you were worried about how it might turn out after shooting? Harrelson: No, after shooting it, I knew it was going to be a great movie. It was after seeing it the first time, I had doubts, but like I said, it was a long way from done. There were scenes that went on that needed trimming; there was a lot that’s changed.
CS: You and Oren really have established a great relationship between this and “The Messenger” so do you see doing another movie together? Harrelson: Well, we figure we have to stay with the uniforms, so probably postal worker.
CS: There aren’t that many movies about postal workers, so is that something you pitched to him to write? Harrelson: (laughs) I’m kidding. We gotta find something with a uniform, but no, we’ve already been talking a little bit about it and he’s the writer. He’ll write something f*cking great and I just want to work with Oren again and Ben Foster, and do it right.
CS: It’ll be interesting to see the progression to a third movie after “Rampart.” Harrelson: I’d like to see a bit more of a two-hander with Ben. This one, he was very busy as a producer and really worked his ass off as a producer. He was there every minute that things were being shot, but he only shot two scenes, which was great to do that with him.
CS: The first time I saw the movie I didn’t even recognize him. Harrelson: I know, he’s unrecognizable. He was down there hanging on Skid Row, he really did it. He always does; he’s very extreme, very committed.
CS: You’ve had a really interesting career, even if it ended with being on such a popular show as “Cheers.” But you’ve gone through waves and now you’re in a wave where you’re doing bigger studio movies again with a franchise coming up that many people are excited about. Where do you see yourself going from here? When you make a smaller movie like this, your involvement often will get the movie made, so do you feel the desire to keep doing indies for that reason? Harrelson: I take each thing as it comes and if something really speaks to my heart or my funny bone or is just entertaining, whatever it is, if I connect to it, then I do it. I’m a little bit worried I never want to sell out. I don’t want to just do a movie because I think it’s going to be successful. I’m scared of that, but hopefully we’ll keep integrity. I’m happy to do studio movies as well because at least you know there’s a better chance of those being shown. This is like Sisyphus pushing the rock. It’s just so much work to get people to see an indie movie, you know how it is, so I care a lot about this film. I really hope people see it, but in a way, I have no control over that.
CS: Believe me, I know the frustration and this week, you have a lot of competition with studio movies, and it’s always hard to get people to go to the smaller arthouse theaters to see a movie. What about some of these other movies you’ve been doing? Have you finished shooting “Seven Psychopaths” and “Now You See Me”? Both have really cool directors. Harrelson: Yeah, we finished “Seven Psychopaths.” That’s going to be great, hysterical and great and dark and twisted.
CS: I really liked Martin McDonagh’s previous movie “In Bruges.” Harrelson: Yeah, he’s a brilliant guy, and then we’re shooting “Now You See Me” right now, so that could turn out great, could turn out great.
CS: How have you been dealing with all the “Hunger Games” madness? Have you experienced that or have you been fairly isolated from it while working? Harrelson: Yeah, to some degree. There is a lot of excitement about it. I definitely get a little taste of that, and I think it’s great. I don’t know, because I haven’t seen it, but I would almost guarantee it’s going to be great.
CS: You’ll have a new fanbase of teen girls seeing your movies if they like how you play Hamish. Harrelson: Yeah, just my kids. If they see it and like it, I’m psyched.
Rampart opens in select cities on Friday, February 10. You can read the first part of our interview with director Oren Moverman here and the second part will be out later this week.