It seems that former Cheers star Woody Harrelson is back with a vengeance and on a roll these days, beginning with his idealistic lawyer in North Country, the powerful story of a sexual harassment law suit set in the thick of the mining industry. When Josey Aimes [Charlize Theron] returns to her hometown in Northern Minnesota after a failed marriage, she needs a good job.
A single mother with two children to support, she turns to the predominant source of employment in the region – the iron mines. The last thing the miners want is women competing for scarce jobs – women who, in their estimation, have no business driving trucks and hauling rock anyway. When Josey speaks out against the treatment she and her fellow workers face it takes her farther than she ever imagined, ultimately inspiring countless others, and leading to the nation’s first-ever class action lawsuit for sexual harassment. A good natured and constantly bemused Harrelson talked environment, lawyers and acting to Garth Franklin.
Question: What was more challenging, the lawyering or the hockey?
Woody Harrelson: I had a hard time with that hockey. I hadn’t grown up skating, so that was my biggest challenge. We worked on it and worked on it. But then when we first shot it, it was so hard for me. That was the most pressure I’d ever felt. I mean it’s so weird, I just felt so much pressure because I couldn’t really skate that well and I didn’t quite have the accent, so it was horrible. And then fortunately, for various reasons, they had to re-shoot that scene at the end. And so I still kept constantly skating, but it took everything I could just to stand up basically.”
Question: Was this an easy character for you to relate to?
Woody Harrelson: I related to his disillusionment. Thinking that he was going for this big dream. Then he kind of saw through it all at one point and went back home. Then he started a bender, which I can relate to of course.
Question: Have you ever gotten disillusioned with acting to the point that you considered changing gears to another career?
Woody Harrelson: I never was disillusioned with acting because I love acting. But I just felt at one point that I was on a hamster wheel, you know? Just doing movie after movie and thinking so much about career related things and I think missing out on hanging with my friends and family as much I needed to. So I just took some time off. I was maybe going to do two or three years and it turned into five years. But certainly, I’d say it was the best thing I ever did. And now I come back to this whole thing really energized about it.
Question: Did the perception of you change thanks to taking so much time off?
Woody Harrelson: I look at it as kind of starting over from ground zero. Just trying to slowly get my way back into the game. Perceptions… I don’t know about all that. But I just know that having not done it for so long, it’s just a slow process getting it going again.
Question: How important is the political aspect of the story to you?
Woody Harrelson: Well I love the story and I think it’s a powerful story about people standing up for their rights. I think it’s a great film. It’s a great story. Even though there’s an entertainment value to the film, I think it’s very important because you can’t really separate the impact of that political message from it. It’s rare that you get films like that I think; that really have an important message and are also entertaining. So when you have both like this, it’s really cool.
Question: What were some of Niki’s strongest qualities as a director?
Woody Harrelson: I already knew she was really talented from Whale Rider. Of course you never know. Some people make a great film and then they can’t follow up. But here she just hit it out of the park again. Niki is amazing. I don’t know if this is a distinction between the genders, but when she’d some and talk with you about what it is she wanted, she really had a way of communicating from the heart, not just from the intellect. I thought that was really a great key, to really look at everything from the heart. And of course that’s what shines through in the movie. It’s just full of heart.
Question: Were you attracted to the fact that there wasn’t a cliché love story between you and Charlize’s character?
Woody Harrelson: They cut out the love scene… Just kidding. I liked that it’s a real fine line. In fact, there was an interesting choice from Niki. I saw the movie twice. The first time I saw it, there was something in it that wasn’t in it when I saw it again in Toronto. Which is right at the end, when we’re saying goodbye to each other, there was a thing where I say, “So, I’ll call you later.” And Charlize looks back and she goes, “Yeah.” And we kind of smile at each other. And Niki cut that. She didn’t even want that. That was too far. I thought that was an interesting choice. There’s clearly initially some attraction between our characters, but it rides the line. It doesn’t go over.
Question: How did the Scanner Darkly shoot go?
Woody Harrelson: It was very interesting. I read that book and I honestly had no idea what the hell was going on. Then I did the movie because I just wanted to do it. I wanted to work with Richard Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder. I wanted to do it, but I really still don’t know what the hell that film is about. But I just know it’s really interesting.
Question: How did you shoot the film?
Woody Harrelson: We shot it hi-def. And so Rick [Linklater] is doing it just like Waking Life, and animating over the film. But it was cool shooting it, because he’d have like six camera lined up everywhere. It was cool because I hadn’t really shot that much hi-def and because there was a little bit of spontaneity. And of course Downey will go off. He really is a genius. One time we did this scene where the four of us are all around in the living room, talking about this bike, and Downey just went off on this great tirade. And then Rick cut, and me and Winona just looked at each other and she says, “I am so glad we got to see that.” And I said, “Me too. That was amazing.”
Question: Have you gotten to see any of the completed footage yet?
Woody Harrelson: I haven’t. They sent the clips, but it was all still just us. It wasn’t animated yet. Although I think they’ve got a lot of it animated by now.
Question: What else do you have coming up?
Woody Harrelson: The Big White, with Robin Williams and Holly Hunter. We shot that in Alaska. I think that’s a really great movie. More in the style of something like a Coen Bros movie. And this movie The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio that’s coming out now. I hope you get to check that one out. It’s nice to finally play an alcoholic!
Question: Do you like going back and forth between doing films and doing TV shows like Will & Grace?
Woody Harrelson: I did like seven or eight episodes of Will & Grace. Shit man, I love that show. I love James Burrows and the cast. It couldn’t be much better writing. But I don’t necessarily want to go do a television series.
Question: Do you miss the security of the steady job that TV brings and getting up in the morning knowing you have a job for a year?
Woody Harrelson: No, I hate getting up in the morning! Maybe it’s just from getting used to living the life of Riley, and not having too many responsibilities. Well that’s not true, I’ve got some responsibilities. I gotta be the guy who can crack open the coconuts in the morning. I’ve got all kinds of things you wouldn’t believe. But there’s something cool about doing a TV show too I guess. You get to do it and you always know you’re right here and you’ll be with your family for the next seven or eight months. Because sometimes with a movie you’re going to be away. Though usually no more then three weeks, because then I’ll have them come out.
Question: When you were cast in Cheers, did you imagine it would lead to where you’ve gone in your career?
Woody Harrelson: Well for six years during Cheers I couldn’t get another job. So I was getting to the mindset of, “Wow, so this is it. I thought the career was just starting and apparently it’s just over.” Fortunately then, I got a role in Doc Hollywood and then White Men Can’t Jump. Those I was doing during my hiatus from Cheers, and then I did Indecent Proposal during my last hiatus. And then Indecent Proposal came out literally the day after we wrapped Cheers. And then I started work on Natural Born Killers. So I was fortunately able to segue, but for awhile I thought, “Jeez, this is it.” And I felt that I could do so much more. I really wanted to express myself a little more. Not to say that Woody Boyd was not a great role!
Question: What are you focusing on in the environmental movement these days and what do you think the status of the environmental movement is?
Woody Harrelson: I remember hearing someone saying something to the effect of, “If environmentalists were not worried about taking credit for saving the world, we would have saved it a long time ago.” I do feel like there’s a real need for all the environmentalists to get together. You look at the oil companies, who I guess would be the arch nemesis of the environmental movement. Those guys, when the gas goes up half a cent at Chevron, it goes up half a cent at Shell. I mean they’ve got every move coordinated. They’re totally in control. And they’re working in unison. And I think that’s what needs to happen in the environmental movement. And it is to some degree. Bur I think all the environmental groups have to focus on at least one main issue together. That’s the move we need to do right now. And now is the time. Because you have something like Hurricane Katrina, which is a direct byproduct of global warming. Scientists 20 years ago were saying we’ll get increased severity of storms and bigger and bigger hurricanes. We’ll have more flooding with the melting of the polar ice caps, etc. It’s all happening exactly the way they predicted except a little bit faster. So now’s the time for all of us to get together and I think that’s a good issue.
I made a book about how to go further, which is just coming into bookstores. I just did my first book signing up in Toronto. And that’s kind of based on a documentary called Go Further with me and my friends going down the coast from Seattle to Santa Barbara and talking to people about how to leave a lighter footprint. I know it sounds like heavy lifting, but both the book and documentary are entertaining. And then I’ve got a website with my wife called voiceyourself.com and that’s really the heart of what we’re doing in terms of our activism. You should look at “Thoughts From Within” there. It’s a poem I wrote, putting pictures to it, and that will tell you exactly where my head is at. And then if you want to join forces, just send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: What are you up to over there?
Woody Harrelson: People whose eyes I can’t catch I always get a little suspicious of. That reminds me, I was going through the airport the other day and this guy kind of looks at me. And I had already observed him. He was an older guy. And I watched him as he grabbed some water and he tipped it back and I thought, “He’s smart! He’s hydrating all day.” And then he comes up to me and he looks at me. And I go, “Hi.” And he goes, “Do you have your boarding pass.” And I go, “Yeah.” I check and couldn’t find it. I ask my wife, “Honey, do you have my boarding pass.” She says, “Yeah.” We hand him the boarding pass. He looks at it and goes, “Suspicious, but satisfied.”