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Woody Harrelson interview: ‘We live in a completely corrupted world’

Xan Brooks

It’s November in London and it’s cold in the room, but Woody Harrelsonhas brought the Texas heat with him. His eyes are alight and he speaks in warm gusts, like a hill-country preacher after a shot of straight bourbon. He’s talking peace and love, freedom and repentance. He reckons he’s found an alternative path, towards a land of clean air, raw food and legalised marijuana. How cool it would be if America came too.

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While I’d think twice before hitching my wagon to so wayward a star, I’m always delighted to see Harrelson on the screen. His very presence guarantees that the ride will be interesting – and often actively wild. I loved him in his corn-fed, handsome youth, playing the dopey junior bartender in Cheers, and I adore him in his dented, haunted middle age, lost in the bayou on True Detective. In person, too, the man can be devilishly good company, a natural born spellbinder. Sometimes to the point where he bamboozles himself.

“It would not be unfair to call me an anarchist,” he declares at one point, after the herbal tea has kicked in and the air-con has been switched off. “Because I am really not a believer in big government. If you mention big government, that sends up a lot of red flags.” He frowns at his hands, mentally re-weighs the evidence. “I suppose, in a limited way, big government is necessary.”

The actor is in town to plug his role in Mockingjay – Part 2, the stentorian final stanza of the Hunger Games franchise, in which rebels unseat the old order in a parallel US. He has also just played Lyndon B Johnson, the great bear of big government, in a new film for Rob Reiner called LBJ. He was in Dallas last week; they re-created the motorcade by the old book depository. What with LBJ and The Hunger Games,he’s been thinking a lot about politics and power, and how noble ideals can be turned inside out.Play VideoPlayCurrent Time 0:00/Duration Time0:00Loaded: 0%Progress: 0%FullscreenMuteFacebookTwitterPinterest

He arranges himself on the couch, a vision in autumnal browns, clad in lightweight hemp fabric that can’t quite keep out the chill. “Of course, we live in a completely corrupted world where every government is just a bunch of businessmen working for a bunch of bigger businessmen and none of them give a shit about the people,” he says. “The sad fact is no one knows how to change it, because no one knows how to take on the corporations. So I guess we’re stuck with this system until the oil runs out.”

LBJ is a case in point. Harrelson loved playing the man; he became obsessed with the role. He has spent most of this morning still reading about him. “Now Johnson was a colourful character, and he did a lot of good things. Civil rights, war on poverty, endowments for the arts. But then he gets bogged down in Vietnam and becomes like every other president. He has to go along to get along. That’s the tragedy.”

He takes a mouthful of tea and shakes his head. He suspects there are wider factors at work and that the rot set in early; some vital connection was lost. “In the US, when white folks came on to the land and declared they discovered it in spite of the millions of people who inhabited it already, they actually adopted a lot of what became our government from the Iroquois confederacy.” He draws a breath. “But the crucial thing they left out was something called the council of women elders. And I really like the idea of a council of women elders. These people who have nothing to gain and who aren’t influenced by money and do good for the people. It would be nice to get something like that going again now.”

Harrelson was born at the start of the 60s, in Midland, Texas, then relocated to Ohio on the cusp of his teens. The family was devoutly religious. Harrelson was a schoolboy preacher and attended a Presbyterian college. I’ve read that he was raised by his mother, his grandmother and his great-grandmother, Polly. It sounds like his own personal council of women elders.

“That’s right, I suppose it was. It was very matriarchal in my family. And it still is, very similar. I’ve got three daughters, the goddesses. And there’s my wife. And the dog is female. And so is the cat. Females, females everywhere. I like a lot of yin energy. I’m very appreciative of women. I’m talking generally, not in the romantic sense, that’s a whole separate thing.” Another breath. “Although it’s true I’m appreciative of them in that sense as well.”

Where was his father in all this? Was he ever discussed? But raising the subject of his dad pulls Harrelson up short. He turns very still. His blue eyes freeze over. “Umm,” he says. “I guess I should have seen that segue was coming.”

Charles Harrelson was a contract killer, convicted for the murder of a grain dealer and then later for the shooting of a federal judge. He once bragged that he had had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy theorists put him as the youngest of the three tramps in the railyards near Dealey Plaza. It’s a dark and curious tale, but not one the actor is keen to revisit in public.

“Well, he was gone,” he says simply. “He was gone much of the time, since he was in prison from the time I was seven, except for a year and a half respite, right through to his death. It sounds pretty sad and pathetic, but that’s just how life was. Kids don’t walk around saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got this terrible situation.’ They just get on with being kids.”Advertisement

Does he find he thinks about his father more now that he’s older? “Umm. I do think about him, sure. But those aren’t the things that preoccupy me. I mean, that’s the past. You don’t forget the past. You carry it with you, and hopefully learn from it. But you live in the present.”

Harrelson, like America, was born out of bloodshed and religion. Like America, too, he grew too big too quickly, when he was young, brash and headstrong. Not long out of college, he landed his breakthrough gig in Cheers, a lovable sitcom about losers and boozers in a Boston bar “where everybody knows your name”. After that came roles as a psycho-killer in Natural Born Killers and a paraplegic pornographer in The People vs Larry Flynt. But stardom spun his head. He drank too deeply, sowed his oats too freely, and had a number of run-ins with the police. It took time to straighten out and settle down.

“I was 24 when I became famous,” he says. “And that’s a big adjustment. Even the most amazing people get tainted. And I got drunk on success. My ego flared up. There’s a lot of asshole things that I did that I can never take back. I carry a whole fricking boatload of regrets – too many to mention. We’d be here all day.”

An assistant glides in to drape a fleece over his shoulders. He says: “The principal trouble with the entertainment industry – and I’ve seen it a lot, I’ve been hanging around 30 years and I’ve met everybody – is ego.” Another pause. “You have a person who has a hole in their life and they want it to be filled with attention and love. Maybe they didn’t get enough love as a kid. Maybe they’re a glutton for love. Or maybe we all just want love, period.

“So you become a famous rock star or actor, and you’re getting all this love from people who don’t know you. And it’s just a total head trip. It solves the initial problem, but the hole is not going to be filled up with that silly putty. It needs something real. It’s been a long enough journey that I feel I’ve evolved into a much better person. But I still feel I’ve got a hell of a long way to go.”

He credits his wife, Laura, and the three goddesses (two of whom have now departed for college) with providing a solid foundation. He credits his home in Hawaii for keeping Hollywood at arm’s length. “Oh, Hawaii,” he enthuses. “That’s the most amazing oasis. An incredible community of people who love each other and look out for each other and you don’t worry when the kids play out in the neighbourhood. Everybody knows everybody.”

He’s making it sound like the bar back in Cheers. “Well, I guess,” shrugs Harrelson. “But, you know, real.”

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