James Woods has a wild craving for a cigar, and he has sent a publicist to the hotel suite of Alec Baldwin, his co-star in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” with this message: “Tell Alec . . . if he doesn’t have one I’ll come down and beat the [expletive] out of him.”
Woods is, of course, playing. But few people play nasty and threatening as well as Woods, an actor who has forged a memorable career out of evil, sleaze and moral conflict. With a gift for edgy volatility, and a pair of hard, shifty eyes, he has taken villainy to new levels of subtlety, from his psychotic cop killer in 1979’s “The Onion Field” and his Emmy-winning portrait of Roy Cohn in 1992’s “Citizen Cohn” to his low-life pimp in last year’s “Casino.”
Now Woods adds another classic creep to his collection, playing Byron De La Beckwith, the white-supremacist murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in “Ghosts of Mississippi.” The trial drama follows Assistant Dist. Atty. Bobby DeLaughter, played by Baldwin, as he brings Beckwith back to trial 31 years after the Evers shooting. Woods, now 49, donned masses of latex to play the seventysomething Beckwith, whose two 1964 trials ended in hung juries.
Woods is openly filled with contempt for Beckwith, known to his friends as “Dee-lay.” He says he declined the opportunity to meet the convicted killer, who is kept in a jail infirmary for his own protection. “This guy is scum, and I don’t want to meet scum,” he says. Woods, who was raised in Rhode Island, speaks at a clip, and he can be as brash and politically incorrect in person as he is on screen. He says he aggressively lobbied director Rob Reiner for the role, which Reiner originally meant for an actor in his 70s, like Paul Newman. Once he won Reiner over, during a meeting regarding another role in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” he then had to adjust to playing a man who speaks in a constant stream of racist slurs. “I say to my black friends, ‘Do you think everybody’s going to be [angry] at me?’ And they say, ‘No, they know why you’re doing it.’ ”
The daily presence on the set of Darrell and Reena Evers, Medgar Evers’ children, didn’t make it easier. “They are nice people, and I’m saying this horrible stuff. So in the beginning, we had this little speech where I said, ‘Look, I gotta do this.’ ” Beckwith’s Mississippi accent, which Woods perfected by watching tapes and working with an accent coach, helped him distance himself from the character. “I imagined I was speaking a foreign language.”
He says it helped that Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow, was prone to using the same slurs. “Whoopi says it more than I do, so I got off the hook. I said, ‘Shame on you,’ and she said, ‘I can do it!’ ”
Woods believes it’s important to play evil well, to make people emotionally aware of it. He says he won’t play “cliched or boring” heavies. “I’m so sick of evil being justified. People ask, ‘Why did Beckwith do it?’ Because he’s an evil [expletive]. You know? Period. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. He was a bad guy.”
Because Woods creates such convincing bad guys, audiences often assume he’s feeling the character’s feelings. In other words, to play Beckwith, he needed to get in touch with some inner racism. “You’re so busy building the character,” he says, “that you really don’t think about the things people think you’re thinking about. . . . You think about the walk, the mannerisms, the accent.” He says he tries to find his character’s rationale for evil. “Most bad guys don’t think they’re doing anything bad. Everybody rationalizes what he or she does.”
What he finds trying is playing the victim, he says. “I’ve done parts where I was always getting the [expletive] kicked out of me, and I thought, ‘I hate this.’ I think it’s hard on women in the business, because they’re always playing victims. All those TV movies--the wife is battered, or they have an abortion, or they lose a baby, or the baby is kidnapped. . . . They’re always in a position of being hurt in some way. It’s hard to do that all day long.”
Like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Mississippi Burning” and “A Time to Kill,” “Ghosts of Mississippi” is a story about racial justice that depends on a white hero. Despite the decades-long struggle of Myrlie Evers-Williams to retry Beckwith, the movie revolves around the radicalization of Baldwin’s DeLaughter, who divorces his racist wife as he becomes emotionally entangled in the Evers case. Will that stimulate criticism of “Ghosts of Mississippi,” as it did when “Mississippi Burning” was released in 1988?
“I think I’ll get criticized for doing it,” Reiner says, “but I would have gotten more criticism if I’d done the Medgar Evers story.” Evers, currently the chairwoman of the NAACP, says she supports the film entirely. “I see this as a beginning,” she says.
Woods says he doesn’t understand the criticism. “Why do people think civil rights is a black issue per se? It involves black people being oppressed, or not being elevated as much as other citizens, but certainly--and this is the point of the whole movie--in order for civil rights to be a realized American dream, white people have to change the way they behave in this country. And so this is a great story about that challenge. Bobby DeLaughter is presented as a guy who goes along with the status quo until he’s faced with this, and then suddenly he goes, ‘My God.’ It’s something he hasn’t dealt with in his own life. . . .
“By the way, they’re true stories. Are we supposed to censor ourselves? The D.A. was white. And he stepped up to the plate. He was a white guy who brought justice in a civil rights case involving a black victim.”
Woods grew up in Warwick, R.I., and studied political science with a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the MIT Drama Workshop, and by his senior year he had appeared in many area productions. He left MIT just shy of graduation, and moved to New York in 1968, where he quickly found acting work off-Broadway. By the early 1970s, he was getting small movie roles, including a spot as Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend in “The Way We Were.” His breakthrough came in 1979 with “The Onion Field,” in which he was so good at being bad that he began winning bad-guy roles in movies such as “Eyewitness” and “Once Upon a Time in America.” While he has played the occasional nice/good guy, he has had to struggle against being typecast as the villain.
“If you have to be typed for anything, better for the bad guy than for anything else,” Woods says. “Because you get to do it forever, and they’re more intriguing parts.” His typecasting also protects him from the press, he says. “I play the edgy characters, and I think that keeps people on their toes. Which is good, because I’m not like that at all, but better that they should think I am and approach gingerly.”
The press didn’t approach particularly gingerly in the late 1980s, when Woods became tabloid fodder for what was called a “real-life ‘Fatal Attraction.’ ” People still identify Woods as the actor who was reportedly harassed by Sean Young, the actress with whom he’d had a fling during the filming of “The Boost.” At the time, Woods was engaged to Sarah Owen. Now, Woods has weathered an unpleasant divorce from Owen.
Woods is currently involved with Missy Krider, an actress recently featured on TV’s “Murder One.” “She’s a really nice person,” he says. “It’s one of the things about her that I really like, is how nice she is, how kind she is.” He says his current romantic life is hardly newsworthy. “I was doing a movie, and Missy was doing one at the same time, and she’d come to my house and try to make dinner, and we’d just be falling asleep. We have to get up again at 5:30 the next morning. And for her it’s worse, because girls have to go in earlier for makeup. It’s brutal.
“You don’t have time to be the bad boy everybody in the press wants you to be. I’m 49 years old. What, am I going to be running around to the nightclubs with a bunch of heroin addicts? Hardly.”