Who’d have thought Woody Harrelson would be primed to snag an Oscar nomination just one month after mowing down hordes of flesh-munchers in Zombieland? For playing an American hero, no less. The self-proclaimed hippie is getting That Buzz—deserved—for his role in Oren Moverman’s Iraq War-at-home drama The Messenger, as a salty U.S. Army captain who takes a reluctant officer (Ben Foster) under his wing for Casualty Notification duty. Sitting down at the well-ventilated Oscilloscope Laboratories office (more on that later), Harrelson spoke with the Voice about becoming a soldier, embracing his pigeonhole, and leaving the tiny violins to someone else.
Did you have any trepidation playing a character in The Messenger that you’re ideologically opposed to? That’s an interesting way to put it. I am opposed to the war, because most of these wars are fought for either land or resources. Even Vietnam, when they talked about the Red Scare, the Pentagon Papers were talking about tin, rubber, and oil. This is obviously no exception. It’s an oil war. But the cool thing about going to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and meeting a lot of extraordinary young men and women is that I found I wasn’t ideologically opposed to the soldiers. They’re putting their life on the line daily over there, and they’re doing it out of a love for the country. They’re certainly not doing it for money—they don’t pay them that much. I came to love the warrior and continue to loathe the war. I probably would’ve turned out some kind of caricature had I not been allowed to experience the humanity of these soldiers.
I read that the notification scenes were unrehearsed and partially improvised. We didn’t meet the [actors playing the next of kin], and we didn’t know where we were going to stand, sit, or walk. Something about that gave a sense of reality that transcended how it would’ve [played] had it been carefully rehearsed and blocked. In the notification scene for Samantha Morton’s character, I was having trouble getting grounded. For whatever reasons, I was distracted or insecure. Ben handed me a bunch of pictures of Army soldiers who had been killed. You’d see them in the pictures, smiling, maybe with their buddies or kids. You could feel the heart and passion, and you’d see: “Born this date, died 2003.” It immediately brought me to tears.
The premise of the film sounds like it has the potential to be an overly calculated tear-jerker, and yet it’s actually quite subtle. Are you still concerned that it’s a tough sell? That’s one of the real issues that exists—getting people to come see it. If I were the general American audience, I would think to myself, Do I want to get depressed? It sounds depressing! [Laughs.] But Oren and Alessandro [Camon] wrote the most beautiful, powerful script I’ve ever read, and the way Oren shaped it probably benefited from his own military experience. [Moverman served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces during the mid-’80s.] He didn’t lay on the violins at the moments where you’re supposed to feel. He kept a soft touch with it, and there’s a lot of humor. You can tell he’s a Hal Ashby fan.
You’re primarily known for comedic roles. Is that something you’d like to overcome? It’s a perception I’d like to reinforce. I really want to just focus on comedy. I’ve been itching to do another play. The last one I did was Tennessee Williams, three or four years ago in London, but I will never do dramatic theater again. Of course, you always say these things. When I was doing theater in college, and even before that, I started making little cracks in school, and pretty soon became a bit of a class clown. I love making people laugh. It’s been the thing that gets me off more than anything.
You’re the only interviewee I’ve ever thought to ask, but: Would you like to smoke a joint? Oh! The problem is I have to do some more interviews. I honestly would love to, but I can’t do interviews stoned. Sometimes, it can open you up to do great creative things, and sometimes, it’s a situation . . . like, I can’t act that way. It absolutely freezes me. I can’t do a talk show because it goes into the paranoia side. Yeah, I better not. That’s a generous offer, but I should be on my game.
The Messenger opens in New York on November 13