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Q&A; with Woody Harrelson : He’s Doing It His ‘Way'--Cheerfully

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Woody Harrelson has spent the last few years both perfecting his “Cheers” goofy yokel image--as in “White Men Can’t Jump"--and busting out of the stereotype--as a struggling yuppie husband in “Indecent Proposal.” This summer, he’ll do much to cement both career paths, first as a lusty hayseed rodeo rider in “The Cowboy Way,” co-starring Kiefer Sutherland and opening Friday, and then, in the biggest challenge of his career so far, as a hardened mass murderer in Oliver Stone’s chilling “Natural Born Killers,” which opens in August.

A native of Midland, Texas, the actor, 32, moved in January with his girlfriend, Laura Louie, and their baby daughter, Deni, to a two-room house in Costa Rica where, he says, he mainly surfs. He was recently back in the States, accepting visitors at acquaintance Jackson Browne’s rustic retreat above Santa Barbara.

Barefoot in tie-dyed pants and a hooded sweat shirt and sporting a week’s growth of beard, Harrelson soaked up the spring weather in a lounge chair beneath 100-year-old oaks, speaking in his slow, charmingly sun-baked fashion of subjects silly and serious. *

Question: How much of the riffing that you do in “The Cowboy Way"--the pranks in the bars, the double-entendres--was your creation?

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Answer: Oh, all that stuff. If not me, then Kiefer. That whole thing with the “shiver shots” (in the film, he drinks a shot of tequila from a woman’s cleavage, licks salt from her neck and takes a lime wedge from her mouth) was not in the script. Some girl in New York did that to me. She was a total stranger--she put the lime in my mouth, I was sitting on a stool, she put the shot between my legs, salt on my neck, did this whole thing. I was like, I’ll remember this and use it someday.

Q: Was this before or after “Cheers”?

A: Girls only did that to me after (I started) “Cheers.” Me trying to win girls over with my personality was all I had before.

Q: You had a reputation in those early years at “Cheers” as a brawler. What changed that? A: My last few fights were pretty ugly. I quit during the filming of “Doc Hollywood.” I was playing hoops down in Florida, there’s this big guy on the court. He was in my face yelling at me and I shoved him. He just picked me up and spun me around so my head was upside down. I was like holding onto his thigh, and it was while I was holding on to that tree trunk of a thigh, knowing that I was about to take a few lumps, that I said, “I am done with this. I’m never fighting again.”

Q: You’ve given up a wild lifestyle, too.

A: When I was 28 I went to Machu Picchu with a friend. I was a nocturnal animal who liked to party. My life was shallow. As soon as I got there I just felt, “Wow, I’ve definitely dog-paddled into the deep here.” I’d had every helper I’d wanted, from ‘shrooms to Ecstasy to weed, to everything to boost my spiritual experience, but found that I didn’t really need them. Right after I came back from that, I was a vegetarian. Got rid of my Corvette. Started doing yoga.

Q: Why, after proving you can move from television to major film roles, are you taking off to surf in Costa Rica?

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A: In Hollywood, whatever you have, it is never enough. I was on “Cheers,” doing as well as some people can ever hope. Yet I wanted more--wanted to do movies. Then maybe I want to direct movies, succeed in music, as a playwright. It’s all about this self-destructive desire, self-destructive in the sense it never allows you to be comfortable hanging out having a conversation.

So my decision was, at the end of “Cheers,” I was doing all that press and I was doing a play that I wrote and directed and acted in that nearly killed me, “Furthest From the Sun” (which played in Los Angeles at the Tiffany Theatre last spring). And then went right into doing “Natural Born Killers” with Oliver, then doing “Cowboy Way” right after that. I was ready to be done with it. I moved down to Costa Rica and I haven’t really worked since. I decided I was taking ’94 off. Past that I don’t have any plans.

Q: Your character in “The Cowboy Way,” Pepper, is a simple guy, like Woody Boyd.

A: Yeah, he’s kind of a bon vivant. He’s got a rough side to him that Woody never had. Woody had that simple childlike, loving thing. Pepper Lewis is definitely more of that ribald go-out-and-drink-some-mescal, take-no-prisoners attitude. I don’t mind playing dumb if I can figure out 15 different ways of playing dumb.

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Q: But in “Natural Born Killers,” you’re playing a mass murderer?

A: It’s pretty heavy. But even that character has a sense of humor. And the movie has a great sense of humor. It’s really black comedy. Sometimes you don’t know whether it’s appropriate to laugh.

Q: Did the role force you to explore your darker side?

A: Most assuredly. I had all these books on different serial killers, tapes, interviews. My mind was saturated with it. The movie has humor in it, but there’s some pretty intense stuff. That movie brought up a lot of my shadow elements, my anger, my rage.

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Q: How so?

A: Man, there was a while I was driven by my rage after doing this movie. I had so much anger. I got so angry at the wardrobe person in “Cowboy Way” that I slammed my fist into a wall. Little petty things were sending me off. It came from this re-emergence of my shadow. I found that my temper was just a lot more volatile.

Q: Will people see this dark side of you in “Natural Born Killers”?

A: You could probably still argue that the character’s kind of engaging, charming in a way. A lot of the scariest characters I’ve seen have some charm to them. You check out tapes of Ted Bundy. What scares people the most is he’s charming--very articulate. I don’t know what people’s reaction will be (to the movie). I can only speculate that it’s going to be an extreme reaction.

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Q: People may wonder if there’s any relationship to the character you play and that of your father, Charles, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Marion, Ill., for the 1979 contract murder of federal Judge John Wood. What is your relationship now with your dad?

A: We talk almost every day. I can’t call him, but he can call me. We have an extremely great relationship. He’s a great guy. Hysterical. Loves to laugh.

Q: You’ve said you don’t think he got a fair trial.

A: I’m intent on eventually seeing he gets another trial. I’m not going to run around proclaiming his innocence, but I will steadfastly and intently claim that he did not get a fair trial. And if after a fair trial he is convicted, well, I’d be OK with that.

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Q: That sounds as if you think he might well have killed a federal judge.

A: Well, I think my dad has done a lot of things that he regrets. But I don’t necessarily feel that he’s killed anyone. I know he’s done things that he regrets because I know he used to be with the CIA. All I know is if you sit down with him, spend an hour with him, you’re going to walk away saying this is one hell of an interesting, charming fellow. You can’t help but like him. I’m not convinced he’s ever been a hit man as he’s purported to be. But I’m also open-minded enough to say I don’t know.

I accept him 100%. I love the guy. I don’t know that he was the best of fathers. But when I go in there and I hang out with him, I’m not grading him on his past record. I’m just spending time with a really interesting person. We have a connection.


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