A lot of people are trying to get Woody Harrelson on the phone with me. There's one team in New York and another in Toronto. We're scheduled for Monday at 1:15 p.m. Then 1:45. Then 4, then 5. I go to bed with a promise that we'll talk on Tuesday at 1:30.
I've interviewed Harrelson a few times over the years. If I asked you to name a star who's got life figured out, who found and walks a path of happiness, chances are you wouldn't say Woody Harrelson. But stay with me here.
When we first met in 1991, he was starring on the sitcom Cheers and transitioning to film roles. We spent time on the Florida set of Doc Hollywood, where he and co-star Michael J. Fox razzed each other with the put-down "TV actor." He was learning about environmentalism and healthier food (turkey sausage was a revelation), advocating for hemp legalization, planning a trip to Machu Picchu.
With hundreds of others, I went to his 30th birthday party at his spread in Malibu, Calif., where he had a tepee in the backyard. (He tried sleeping in it, but his lawn sprinklers kept waking him at dawn, splashing against the canvas.) Melissa Etheridge sang on a stage, leading the crowd in Happy Birthday.
But despite Harrelson's chill exterior, he had a dark streak. He'd gone through a fundamentalist Christian phase, delivering hellfire sermons. His father died in prison, after murdering a federal judge for money. He spoke openly about his struggle to control his "reptile brain." In 2002 he was arrested in London after a police chase; he later paid £550 to the cabbie who said Harrelson smashed his door lock and ashtray. In 2008 a paparazzo accused him of grabbing his camera in anger; that case was dismissed in 2010.
Now though, at 55, Harrelson is a long-married father of three daughters, aged 23, 21 and 11. (His wife, Laura Louie, a co-founder of the organic food-delivery service Yoganics, used to be his assistant. "I gave her a promotion," Harrelson said to me dryly, after they began dating.) They lived for a time in Costa Rica and now live in Maui, Hawaii. He eats only vegan raw organic, does a lot of yoga, has a lot of friends. He works steadily on projects big and small, for directors including Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Robert Altman and Terrence Malick.
He's starred in two colossally successful franchises, the Now You See Me magician movies, and a little something called The Hunger Games. He's about to add two more: In July he'll appear in War for the Planet of the Apes; in May, 2018, he'll play Beckett, Han's mentor (and a criminal) in Han Solo, a standalone Star Wars prequel.
In his down time, Harrelson wrote a film about his taxi misadventure, Lost in London, and then directed, starred in and shot it in one 99-minute take, which he broadcast – live – to cinemas in England and the United States on Jan. 19. (He's now tweaking it for a proper theatrical release.) His leading role in LBJ, the biopic of former president Lyndon B. Johnson directed by Rob Reiner, will arrive this November, smack in the middle of Oscar season. And his latest film Wilson, based on Daniel Clowes's graphic novel about a gregarious misanthrope's Hail Mary attempt to grow up, opens on Friday.
We first meet Wilson as he's literally waking up, fiftysomething and alone. Eager to connect, he alienates people instead by being too unfiltered. His impulse is good: Look up from your phone, talk to the person next to you. And don't shy away from big-picture subjects – What are we doing with our lives? Where are we going as a society? Does any of it mean anything? Unfortunately, he tends to accost people while they're at urinals or sleeping on trains, and when they recoil he's quick to call them jerks.
While waiting for Harrelson, I speak to Craig Johnson, Wilson's director. "I had one name on my list, and it was him," Johnson says. "Because you can't stay mad at Woody. He's too charming, he's got that twinkle in his eye. Wilson is prickly, difficult to embrace. But we go with him, because there's something so open and warmhearted about Woody."
Shooting last summer in Minneapolis, Minn., Harrelson led Johnson on "PG adventures": going to concerts, learning to paddleboard. Harrelson rented a house on nearby Lake Minnetonka, and on weekends he'd have the cast and crew out for vegan feasts, often with live music. Between takes on location at a suburban cul-de-sac, instead of going to his trailer, Harrelson would plunge into the crowd of rubber-necking neighbours and pose for endless selfies.
Yes, the props department had to concoct raw organic vegan versions of any food Wilson eats on camera, but Harrelson made the shoot "feel like summer camp," Johnson says. Also, he improvised great lines and bits of physical comedy, such as Wilson getting tangled in balloons – "the symbol of fun and happiness," as Johnson says, "yet Wilson has a tortured relationship even with them."
"Wilson has this gentleman-farmer, 'Hello, friend!' style of address," says Clowes, who also wrote the script, in another interview while waiting for Harrelson. "He has to deliver an emotional eulogy to his dog. Those things could come across as grating or ironic, if somebody didn't do them with truthfulness. Woody can dissolve from cracking up to sobbing on the ground in a span of 30 seconds. He's wide open."
On Tuesday at 11:30, my phone rings unexpectedly: Can I speak to Harrelson right now? After 20 anxious minutes, we're finally connected. At this past January's Sundance Film Festival, where Wilson premiered, he told reporters that he's given up smoking weed. Over the phone, I can't help but note that he sounds extremely mellow, thick-voiced. He speaks slowly, choosing words with care. I wonder if he just woke up.
We start with Wilson. Harrelson admits to having much in common with the character: "I'm gregarious. I've said countless things in the past that got me in hot water." He declines to give specific examples. "But when we were shooting it, there was a while there I was inside his mindset, and it was a perfectly natural place to be," he continues. "I noticed myself saying things out loud that I would normally keep in the thought bubble. I don't remember anything in particular. I just remember that it happened way too much. Laura is really funny, she'll say wild stuff, but even she looked at me aghast a few times."
I ask about Lost in London; his response sounds rehearsed: He'd long wanted to blend "my two loves, theatre and film." He hit upon the idea of shooting a movie with a single camera in a single take, while broadcasting it live. "For a while I wished I hadn't, though, because it caused me no end of torment and stress while I was getting it together," he says. "But once it came off I felt great about it."
So uncharacteristically terse are Harrelson's answers, I ask if he's trying to be more careful in interviews these days. "Probably," he replies.
He does relax a little when I ask about U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he met years ago at a dinner with ex-wrestler and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. "I've always thought of politicians as businessmen working for bigger businessmen," Harrelson says. "But this case is much crazier than usual. Trump is probably the most narcissistic man I've ever run into. It's wild that there are people out there who think he's the voice of the people."
Harrelson's not allowed to talk about Han Solo, but when I mention that it's his second major mentor role (after Hunger Games), he chuckles. "I can't imagine anyone thinks I radiate wisdom," he says.
He does confess, however, that he's "made a lot of progress" in conquering the anger that used to plague him – that moving to Hawaii, "off the hamster wheel," was the right thing for him. "I'm feeling much more positive about my life," he says. A handler on the line announces, "Last question." I ask two: Does Harrelson believe in happiness? Would he call himself happy?
His answers are Zen-like in their succinctness. "I do," he says, "and I would."