In the midst of the Sundance Film Festival, James Woods is having a hard day. “This is tough shit”, he says smilingly as we sit down in a crowded passageway to discuss Woods’ latest film, The Virgin Suicides.
Marking the directorial debut of Sofia Coppola, it’s a chance for Woods fans to see something other than the intensely frenetic characters that we’re used to see him play, such as in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, in which he does his usual stint as a sex-obsessed and corrupt football doctor. “I think I’m going to take a hiatus from working with Stone”, Woods says in his typically frank manner. “He a little over-the-top for me, in terms of the way he treated people.” On Virgin Suicides, based on the acclaimed novel, Woods has no such criticisms to offer.
Here he plays the socially repressed, introspective yet darkly comic high school physics teacher, whose over protectiveness of his beautiful daughters in 70s suburbia, has tragic consequences. It’s not the kind of role one would normally associate with the often-gregarious Woods. “Sofia had seen me at this Martin Scorsese dinner, where instead of making one of those boring speeches, I decided to roast the guy at the spur of the moment. She came up to me afterwards and suggested that I do comedy.” Coppola suggested that this character in Virgin Suicides “was completely different from me, and it would be fun to have you play this kind of repressed, geeky character, and it turned out great. Usually the characters I play are not very much like me – I’m more like the character in Virgin Suicides.”
Set in the mid-seventies, the film follows the Lisbon family, with Woods, a physics teacher at the local high school, as the scatter brained father, and Kathleen Turner as the uncommonly strict mother. Their five daughters are beautiful, naturally blonde, and the desire of every boy in the neighbourhood. When the youngest, Cecilia, mysteriously attempts suicide, psychiatrist Danny DeVito recommends that she be allowed to interact more socially, especially with boys. So the Lisbon girls are introduced to the boys of the neighbourhood, who have already been watching the girls from afar through half-opened window shades, binoculars, and telescopes.
At a party in Cecilia’s honour, the boys witness a tragedy that shocks them out of their wits. As a result, the Lisbons fall into a deep suppression shutting out the rest of the world by retreating into their own inner sanctum. It appears they will never recover until Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the high school heartthrob, pursues the unattainable Lux (Kirsten Dunst). He attempts to ask her to the prom, but the only way her mother will allow him to take Lux is if all the girls go together. For the first time, the girls will venture out of the home to interact socially in an environment other than school.
To tap into this symbol of post-sixties repression, Woods tapped into the outer sweetness that this character finds himself a part of. “The girls are so sweet and in this sweet environment, here’s a guy who doesn’t quite understand it very much, and that’s how I thought about it,” the 53-year old veteran explains. For Woods, it was also a chance to work with “a new and exciting talent” in Sofia Coppola. Woods doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he isn’t necessarily generous with his praise. But regarding Coppola, his enthusiasm was clearly evident.
“She had a vision of how she wanted things to be and didn’t pay much attention to anything that anybody would tell her, like: ‘Oh, you should change the title.’ If they didn’t like it, then tough shit. What I liked about her, was that she’s very decisive.” As the film is, in part, a satire on 70s America, one would imagine that the actor, who was 23 at the turn of the seventies, tapped into that era for this film. “I was a young actor working in the theatre just working every night, and your whole life is about the theatre, so it kind of passed me by. I didn’t pay any attention to it, and didn’t really have a sense of what was happening in the culture, because I lived in New York’s West Village, was in the theatre and was in my own insular world.” So for this movie, he adds, “it was kind of fun to visit it.”
For Woods, the 70s was a professional watershed. His film debut, Elia Kazan’s The Visitors, was released in 1972; a year later, he played Barbra Streisand’s socialist friend in the weepie classic The Way we Were, and his intensity as a screen actor became self-evident through his remarkable work in 1979’s The Onion Field. Since then, Woods has proven an actor of demonstrable diversity and at times, ferocity. From the hard-edged cynical journalist in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, through films such as Citizen Cohn, The Getaway, Ghosts of Mississippi, The General’s Daughter, Another Day in Paradise and John Carpenter’s Vampires, to name just a few, Woods continues to fight for the roles that stretch him as an actor.
With roles in some 70 films, including theatrical and television, today Woods is as passionate about the work as ever, but never mind the sign of the role – it’s quality that’s important. “I just like to pick things that are just different, challenging and that maybe people wouldn’t expect me to do or that I wouldn’t have done before.” He admits that these days he has no need for the money, “so I sort of get offered whatever I want, so I’ll just pick something which is a completely different experience. The money and billing are unimportant; it’s the part I go after ” A recent example of this was Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. “I just thought this was guy with a moral dilemma, so that was interesting for me.”
Woods doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and remains outspoken as always. These days, what he doesn’t like, are those that think they are right but rarely are, in terms of Hollywood interference in the artistic process. “I’ve been at this 30 years, I’ve heard all the experts come and go, they’re ALWAYS wrong, and the only ones who are ever right are the great artists. My philosophy is: Anything an expert says to you in marketing or anything else, they’re dead wrong 100% of the time, always.” After 30 years as one of the industry’s major players, there’s much he loves and hates about Hollywood. “The best of Hollywood is defined by great movies that are actually ABOUT something; as for the worst of Hollywood, I really wouldn’t know because I try not to associate with it.”
James continues to seek out the parts that fuel his passion as an actor, and will next be seen on US Cable TV in the film Dirty Pictures, based on the recent art obscenity controversy. If he’s not acting, he’s getting ready for an impending wedding, or checking his stocks on his mobile phone. “This new internet phone is way to cool”, he says, nodding agreeably as money is made. He remains a passionate supporter of Apple Computers. “I had shares in the company since the eighties”; it’s best not to try and argue Apple vs. Microsoft. James Woods is a welcome anomaly in this industry, and he’s happy to keep it that way. “Life’s too short to deal with idiots.”