He grew up poor, hyperactive, dyslexic, permanently drunk or drugged – and the son of a convicted contract killer. Now he’s a Hollywood star and an environmental activist. So how did Woody Harrelson finally get his life together…
Woody Harrelson’s mother is relieved. Her son has finally broken away from portraying white trash characters to play a doctor in his latest movie Sunchaser.
“I usually play guys who are a lot like me – poor white trash coming up in the world,” he readily agrees. “Actually, my mother won’t allow me to refer to myself as poor white trash any more as she says it reflects badly on the family! So I’ve now started calling myself Beverly Hill Billy,” he laughs, slapping his thigh.
Woodrow Tracy Harrelson’s background is most definitely of the white trash variety. He was born into a dirt-poor redneck Texan family, had a troubled childhood and hell-raising years of drugs, drink and “more fights than Mohammad Ali,” and he’s the son of a convicted murderer. But one wonders if Woody always reefers to himself as white trash because he has a major chip on his shoulder, or because snobby Hollywood won’t let him forget his roots.
“It is ironic that every movie role I get offered is to play poor white trash,” he says. “Except now for Sunchaser. This is my first stab at a blue – or is it a white – collar character.” The answer is “white”.
Controversial roles as a serial killer in Natural Born Killers and a porn king in The People Vs Larry Flynt have ensured Woody’s star has soared, outstripping his Cheers co-stars, whose movie careers have more or less floundered (remember Shelley Whatsit, or Kirtsie Thingumabob…)
Yet no matter how far up in the world Woody moves, he will never fit snugly into the standard celebrity mould.
Look at him today. Although he’s staying in London’s top hotel, and despite the hugely expensive Versace suit he’s wearing he looks as though he’s just struggled out of a thorn bush. He’s living proof that you can take the boy out of the bush, but not the bush out of the boy.
Thank goodness. If Woody had allowed fame and fortune to transform him, he’d be just another superficial star, giving lip service to causes but not really giving a damn.
Instead, this guy cares about saving the planet with every bone in his 45-year-old body. He switches off the air-conditioning in the suite to save energy, and he’s used the millions he’s made from movies to buy 400 hectares of rainforest in Costa Rica to protect the trees from getting the chop. Recently he was arrested for dangling with a group of environmental activists on a cable underneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. He was protesting the destruction of redwood trees in California.
“Think about it – they’re cutting down redwoods that have been around since the time Jesus was walking the earth. They’re 2 000 years old. They’re big, huge trees and they cut them down. You know it makes me sad, makes you so sad,” he laments.
Mankind has an alternative, reckons Woody. Instead of chopping down ancient trees to make paper, we should be planting industrial hemp (which some countries already do). This belief has also got him into a spot of bother. Last June he planted four hemp seeds in his Kentucky garden. The cops arrested him.
“When I planted those seeds I was trying to establish the distinction between hemp and marijuana. You can smoke a football field of hemp and you’ll just get a headache. Hemp is a miracle product – you can make paper and plastic from hemp. My shirt and shoes are even made from hemp, but the problem is that the Government won’t let us grow it because they say it looks too much like marijuana – which is like saying I shouldn’t carry around this bottled water because it looks too much like vodka.” He clutches onto his Evian, shaking his head in dismay.
Woody’s outraged by the hypocrisy of pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and coffee being legal while marijuana isn’t, but swears he’s not fighting to legalize dope. “Though you can probably guess my personal views on it,” he chuckles, adding in his best Bill Clinton impersonation: “I do smoke it but I never inhale.”
His mother, Diane, who divorced his dad when Woody was three, shudders every time she reads confessions like that. She’s a devoutly religious legal secretary who battled to rear her hyperactive, dyslexic middle son. She thought things would work out OK when Woody was diagnosed as “psychologically disturbed” and was sent to a special school.
He settled down, became extremely religious and promised her he’d never touch drugs. He decided to study theology and was awarded a scholarship by his local church. Then, in 1978, his father Charles was convicted of his second contract murder, and Woody spun out of control. Drugs, drink, fights and sleeping with three girls a day became de rigeur. But Woody, who visits his dad regularly in jail, refuses to lay the blame for his promiscuity of his father’s feet.
“A lot of my sexual madness stemmed from the fact that I grew up very religious and my sexuality was repressed,” he claims. Now he can’t bear the thought of a one-night stand and practices tantric sex with his “life partner”, Laura Louie.
“It means controlling your orgasm so the power goes to your heard,” he grins. Laura, the mother of his two daughters, has no complaints. She’s been with him for nine years, ever since he plucked her out of a Cheers studio audience to become his personal assistant. She also doesn’t mind that he’s anti-marriage.
“I think monogamy’s a completely unrealistic ultimatum,” he states, “though I must admit my attitude is evolving.”
Woody’s evolved a lot in the past 10 years. He’s now a strict vegan with a passion for yoga and a zest for spirituality. “I pray to God or to spirits,” he says earnestly. “I feel there are cosmic ears out there, but I’m not sure what kind of head they’re attached to. I’m not locked into any organised religions, but I am fascinated more by Eastern spirituality. I think the way is inward.”
On many a night he prays that his father will be released from jail. “It’s hard talking about Dad,” he whispers almost inaudibly. “I’m convinced, having done a lot of investigating, that he didn’t commit the crime.”
The crime in question occurred when Harrleson’s father was allegedly paid by a cocaine dealer to murder a judge. Woody claims his dad was in fact a CIA operative. “Obviously I would like to see the old man on the outside, and I think it’s possible. I’m a very optimistic guy.”
Woody’s mind tracks back to his life before Cheers, before the tabloids and the public were interested in knowing the gruesome details of his early promiscuity or his father’s conviction.
When he starts speaking again there’s not a trace of bitterness in his voice. He understands the hunger for scandal. He also understands that the good ol’ days weren’t always that good.
“There were some hard times, realizing you cannot get an agent unless you’ve done something and you can’t do anything unless you have an agent. Lying in bed looking up at the ceiling and just feeling hopeless.
“I was gloomy about moving to New York from Ohio, but then again I had some good times, too. I liked anonymity. It’s understandable that a lot of people want to be rich and famous because of the way it’s painted, but you never know how it’s going to change you.”
So how has fame changed Woody Harrelson?
“It’s made me considerably more arrogant!” he laughs. “No! That’s not true. Please write I was just kidding.”
He was just kidding.
“You know, fame is a funny thing. The hardest part is being in a room and feeling self-conscious because everyone’s looking at you and you don’t feel worthy. So there you are wishing you could be invisible again so you could watch people like you used to, then suddenly Mick Jagger walks into the room and, my God, you’re upset. You’re thinking ‘I was the biggest star in the room until he walked in!'”
Like most movie stars, Woody yearns to return to the stage, where his acting career began, but his motives are far simpler than most. It’s not to gain credibility. It’s to hear the audience’s applause.
“You don’t get that when you make a film. Maybe once in a while, at the end of a take, the crew will clap. But it’s so rare that you realize all the other scenes weren’t worthy of applause.”
Woody’s really hard on himself. It’s as though he’ll never believe he’s quite good enough. he has two upcoming movies – Sarajevo and Wag The Dog – and in his typical self-deprecating style, he only flippantly mentions his role as a TV reporter in the former. Instead he emphasizes that in Wag The Dog he plays, “a salivating psycho-nutter – you see, white trash again, back to form!”
He just won’t let the white trash thing lie. At one point during our interview he espouses a theory that people should be able to express their opinions no matter how abhorrent, in order for our species to evolve, but quickly dismisses it with “anyway, that’s a poor man’s philosophy”.
In Sunchaser, Woody’s character, Dr Michael Reynolds, is only spiritually poor. He’s a wealthy, zealous overachiever who manipulates his career and family.
On the surface Dr Reynolds is the antithesis of Woody, but in their souls they share a similarity. Both were once escaping their pasts, and while Dr Reynolds is kidnapped and forced to take a journey by a dying prisoner before he finds thecourage to face his past, Woody Harrelson’s fame and success have forced him to confront his past. He’s a man on a journey to finding a peace within himself.
Woody’s life has also been enriched by the birth of his two daughters – Deni (3) and Zoe (6 months). He laughs like a child as he recounts tales about his girls – how he bluffed his “in-laws” he was naming his youngest Woowina Magus, how certain he is that Deni is psychic and what fun they have on set together.
Just then the publicist walks in to tell us our time’s up.
“Can I just tell one more story, please?” he pleads. This is a first! Most stars are out of the door the second their time’s up. Woody just wants to reminisce all day. Permission’s granted and Woody launches into a tale about his daughter crying during ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first-ever solo performance in Prague.
Giving an ear-piercing rendition of a baby screaming, he says: “We were sitting in the hottest seat in the house and the high society of Prague were vehemently staring over at us. She was loud – the acoustics in the place are good.
“Afterwards I went to say hi to Baryshnikov and he says: ‘First I thought I was going mad when I heard the screaming in my head, and then I realized that has to be Woody’s baby.'”
The publicist makes moves to usher Woody away, but then he remembers another embarrassing theater story about the time he took his Larry Flynt co-star Courtney Love, to see Arthur Miller’s famous Death Of A Salesman.
“She fell asleep right next to the theater owner and was snoring loudly, with her legs up on the chair in front. Every now and then one leg would fall with a huge thud!” he laughs, demonstrating with his own leg.
Half an hour later the publicist drags Woody and his bottle of water out of the room.
The following evening we’re at Tom Cruise’s premiere party for Jerry Maguire. Woody spots me in the crowd and comes strolling over and prods me in the stomach. “South Africa!” he beams, proud to remember where I’m from. “Hey, what’s it like there in South Africa?”
I tell him the surf is pretty great in Durban.
“Yeah, that’s what I hear,” he says. “I love to surf, so I’ll be down there. You know, surfing’s important. I’m simplifying my life – I’m living in a two-roomed house in Costa Rica. Life is about what time the surf is up… and then you gotta get your vegetables…”
PERSONALITY May 30 1997