has been characterized as a stoner, he's been no slacker lately, having
worked hard on three movies coming out virtually back to back – films
that might help get him beyond his past. From starring in the hit
to a film like
White Men Can't Jump,
Harrelson created such iconic characters that he's had a hard time
escaping from them. No matter how well he immerses himself into
characters unlike himself, he has struggled to get audiences to see past
those cynosures with which he saddled himself.
Through his gonzo character
Tallahassee, Harrelson helped propel
on to be an unexpectedly huge commercial success. The mega-feature
– which opened recently – is likely to be a sci-fi blockbuster, and
though Harrelson only provides a supporting role his character plays a
crucial part in moving the story forward.
But it's with
– a film also being released this winter – that Harrelson tests himself
and shines. The 48-year-old former Ohioan plays Captain Tony Stone, a
hard-assed soldier who has chosen to deliver death notifications to the
families of soldiers killed in Iraq. When it debuted at the Sundance
Film Festival early this year, it garnered Oscar buzz even then. That
only amplified its powerful message, that we can best understand the
sacrifices being made by our troops by seeing it through the eyes of
those who have been most affected – the families of fallen.
three movies coming out deal with death in one way or another. Did you
notice that commonality and what do you think about that?
I hadn't really thought
about that commonality until now. I guess that's kind of true. [Zombieland]
is not really dealing with death as much as just it's post-apocalyptic
and the end is nigh for everybody. I hadn't really thought about that,
end of the world is a death in a way.
Yeah, that's true.
you deal with films that deal with death, how does that make you think
about it, talk about it or accept
Well, the most
confrontation that I've had with death is when people told me about
close people to me passing and it's one of those things, of course I
guess that we've all had where it's an impossible task. The person can
just deliver the news and get out of the way. There's nothing more
horrible than losing someone you love. Even losing yourself is not as
big a deal as losing someone that you love. In the context of this
movie, it was really intense because, thanks to Oren [Moverman, the
director] as well as Ben [Foster, his young co-star who is his fellow
notification officer] – they really helped make the whole scenario seem
real. It was very emotional for me. [While] I was playing Captain Tony
Stone I had to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they'd say cut, I'd
just start bawling. I was so moved by those experiences.
what sold you on the idea of doing it?
I thought it was one of the
more beautiful scripts I'd ever read; really powerful, full of emotion
and humor. It was one of those things after meeting with Oren where I
thought, “Well this guy is a sharp customer.” He was so prepared and
just on top of everything. I thought he could make a good movie here,
but I didn't expect him to knock it out of the park the way he did. I
talked to some of the soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and to a
Notification Officer; was it hard talk to them or ask questions about
With every person I've met
that's done notification – which is quite a number now because there's
people I've met since who have seen [the movie] and not just the people
I talked to before – there's no real way to describe it. You're walking
in and breaking someone's heart; there are certain protocols that they
obviously have in the Army and in the rest of the military, but I don't
think there's any easy way to do it. In this case, they just say, “The
Secretary of the Army regrets to inform bop, bop, bop.” For all of those
guys, it's the hardest job in the Army. Even people in combat or the
people I'd met at Walter Reed who've lost their leg, arm or whatever,
when I tell them what the movie is about, they go, “Oh, God. I'd much
rather go back into combat than do that.” Nobody wants that job.
the context of a million Iraqis who have been killed based on an
invasion that was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, what
do you feel about the film? And did you know that there are now more
soldiers from there that are killed by suicide than by combat?
I hadn't heard that
statistic. Well, my feeling for quite a while was always more concerned
with the victims of war. I was getting images because I wasn't just
going to the standard press and so I was getting images from the first
day of the Bush War II. I saw all kinds of horrifying images, of
children, that nobody in the United States was seeing unless they really
went kind of a different route, but people in Europe were seeing them, I
think. So I have a great deal of sympathy for them and always thought of
the war as the biggest cost being for them. Perhaps that's appropriate.
So it's appropriate to be anti-war or pro-peace, especially when wars
are being fought for resources and land. But the big missing piece to my
whole philosophy or understanding was to find out what's going on with
the soldiers, so having spent time with these soldiers and hearing their
stories was really a great thing for me because it really made me start
to care for them. Before I had always just lumped them with the war at
large. Now I do support the troops and think that a part of supporting
them is not getting behind the concept of having to send them into
harm's way for resources, for oil, etc. But I didn't know about that
last thing, the suicides. That really makes me sad.
way, your character had to set himself aside to deliver the
notifications; is this a role where you put aside your beliefs or
philosophies to play it?
Definitely. With this film,
I can never imagine being a soldier. I never would've have imagined it
if I hadn't played this part. I never would've really gotten into the
mindset of it and I don't do well with authority. There's a lot of
reasons why I think I'd make a lousy soldier, but it's nice to try to
fit your mindset into another framework. I did this movie,
Battle in Seattle.
I didn't play a protestor, which would've been obvious I think, but I
played a cop during the WTO [riot]. That was the backdrop of it, the
whole WTO thing in Seattle. I find it intriguing to try and explore the
thoughts and mindset of another [kind of] character.
must have been tough to imagine yourselves in these roles.
There were two types of
roles that I always felt I didn't know if I could play them, one being a
cop, and the other being a soldier. There's something very interestingly
complex about trying to take on a role of a guy who's hard core. The
Army's his family, he's a lifer, he's just as gung ho as they get, longs
to be in combat. So part of that was intriguing but challenging to a
hippie peacenik from Hawaii. Well, I'm from Texas, but I live in Hawaii.
do you feel that a war movie that's not really
a war movie can have more emotional impact
than an out-and-out war movie?
I feel great about it. I
think the response that we've had to this movie has been incredible.
Also the response by soldiers has been amazing, particularly – Oren
might've told you – the Vietnam vets who have responded. It's
incredible. Tim O'Brien [author of the Vietnam War novel,
Going After Cacciato],
loved it and had a real emotional response. That's great. I know that
it's going to be a hard movie to sell because people don't want to go
see something that at least, on the surface, is so depressing. But I do
think that it's actually a very uplifting and hopeful movie in many
ways. There's a lot of intense stuff in there but it's one of those
things where if you're not prepared to feel something or get emotional
then this is definitely not the movie to go see.
have been some of the reactions of the Vietnam vets?
They really just felt
connected, particularly with the notifications, to the families. It
brought up a lot of stuff that had maybe been dormant for a while.
you go out and see any of the war films along the way, particularly the
late director Hal Ashby's films?
I love Hal Ashby [director
of such classics as Coming
The Last Detail,
Harold and Maude].
He's one of my favorite directors, but now, so is Oren. Actually, Oren
and I are going to do another movie together,
you talk to Oren about his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli
I think his whole vantage
point really helped our character development a lot. He's a guy who's
actually been in war theaters, as they call them. I think he's one of
the greatest directors I've worked with. I keep referring to him as a
young Hal Ashby and yet he's got his own vision. It's not like he's Hal
Ashby but I think his vision, and the way he managed to create a film
that is shot very uniquely, as with that nine-minute scene between Ben
and Samantha Morton, it's just breathtaking that he was able to shoot
this thing the way that he did. I think his own sensibilities coupled
with his experience in Israel, or really in Lebanon, that really helped
him a lot.
that help you in prepare; didn't you only have a week to prepare for the
film due to working on another movie,
that you were shooting in Bucharest before this?
Yeah. He really helped with
that. I had asked him. I was coming in a few days before we started
shooting and feeling really at sea and was actually scared to death that
I was going to botch this thing. I asked him to give me the background
of Tony Stone and he sent a couple of pages that were really helpful,
stuff from his past. He also had me go to Bucharest with my Class A's
and my fatigues. So I'm walking around Bucharest in Army clothes, boots,
people are looking at me like, “There's an actor who wishes he was in
the Army.” It was that and he sent me a book called
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien which also helped, and a couple of other books [as well].
So while I was there, even though I was working intently on this other
thing, I was thinking, “Okay, there's something, a big focused thing
that's coming up.” I really wanted to focus early on and then once we
got there he took us to Walter Reed and that was just an incredible
experience because for me this whole thing has been a journey of the
heart and an opening to what's going on with those soldiers.
this film changed your opinion in any way?
There have been a number of
people who've seen it who have talked about the fact that prior to
seeing it they looked at the war more statistically, more in terms of
numbers and figures. Particularly in the United States, other than
recently with the President, we tend not to really show the cost side of
war. It's a good thing that it helps people look at the war that way and
maybe have a discussion about it.
do you hope people will take away from this?
Certainly their Coca-Cola
cups and whatever they have in the theater; it's best not to litter.
People are now talking about this as an Oscar-worthy role. How does that
make you feel?
I guess it's better that
they talk about it than don't but I can't get all emotionally charged
about it. I don't think there's any actor who wouldn't want that kind of
thing. To me, I'm just happy that the film turned out great and I
honestly mean I think I did an okay job. I don't know that it's award
worthy but I do think that Ben did an Oscar-worthy performance. I think
his performance in this is so seeringly beautiful and so calculated and
perfectly rendered, and I can tell that although I have seen others
who've maybe done as good I've never seen anyone more fully commit to
any part than him. He just completely immersed himself in the character.
it change anything for you if you did win an Oscar because you've been
I'm always more interested
in what kind of reaction I'll have when I lose. It's easy to be a winner
seem to be making some interesting choices.
was a great film;
was a big hit. Did you expect that?
No. I didn't when we made
it. I really thought that this was so swinging for the fences but the
odds of it were just astronomical. But the first time I saw it was in
Orange County with a huge audience, a thousand people and it was like
going to a rock concert. It was incredible, the response. Then I
thought, 'Yeah, this thing is going to do okay.'
that happen with
- another genre type of
It was made for
like $2.5 million but it turned out fantastic. The direction was really
good but I don't think it's going to have that kind of [reaction]. I
don't think it could play like that because it's not a comedy although
there is comedy in it. This thing,
was just a lot of laughs.
close is your wacky long-haired doomsaying character in
to the real Woody Harrelson?
I don't think the end of
the world is nigh. I do think though, ecologically speaking from what
I've gleaned over the last several years of looking into it, that we're
pretty much right on target. But I still have hope. I'm kind of hopeful
that we're going to survive as a species. I guess it involves some kind
of intense transformation that some people think might be a mental
transformation but I'm almost certain that it's a transformation of the
heart that needs to take place because it's really about starting to
care more about each other and our plight if you will.
as a person, since you are both an actor and political activist.
I think there are probably
Are you more like Tony Stone or Tallahassee? At least you're not hoping
for a zombie plague.
Well, we had eight years of
would happen if Tallahassee had to do notifications?
Jeez. I don't want to
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