Woody Harrelson & Laura Dern
Being Brutally Honest About Wilson
by Jay S. Jacobs
We all know a guy like Wilson, a jaded eccentric who is as fascinated by people as his is offended by them. When casting Daniel (Ghost World) Clowes’ popular graphic novel about a middle-aged curmudgeon trying to find a reason in life by tracking down his ex-wife, and then the adult daughter he never knew he had, director Craig Johnson immediately thought of Woody Harrelson. Of course, he didn’t think he’d get Woody, it was just his ideal choice. He was pleasantly surprised when Harrelson signed on the dotted line.
Harrelson has been an interestingly offbeat presence in Hollywood in the three decades since he first gained notice as a young bartender in the classic TV series Cheers. Since then he has played a dizzying variety of roles in everything from Natural Born Killers, White Men Can’t Jump, The Hunger Games movies, The People vs. Larry Flynt, No Country for Old Men, The Messenger, Zombieland and the recent hit The Edge of Seventeen. Harrelson also returned to TV series work in 2014, co-starring with Matthew McConaughey in the acclaimed first season of HBO’s True Detective.
Playing his ex-wife is Laura Dern, the terrific actress who has followed an eccentric path – from blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Little Fockers and the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to crowd favorites like Mask, Wild and The Fault of Our Stars to indie art favorites like Citizen Ruth, The Master and Blue Velvet. She is currently on a bit of a winning streak. Beyond playing Pippi here, in recent months Dern has had fascinating roles like Ray Kroc’s first wife in The Founder and a terrific, vital role in HBO’s star-studded new series Big Little Lies.
The second you see them together, you can tell that Harrelson and Dern have become fast friends; joking, flirting, pouring each other’s drinks. “The only thing that bugs me is that we don’t have the same name, because we are the same person,” Dern acknowledged good-naturedly as she and Harrelson sat down to talk with us and several other journalists at the Whitby Hotel in New York, less than a week before the film’s opening date.
I saw in the research that you were both going to be the leads in Benny & Joon years ago. Laura dropped out of the movie to do something else, and then Woody took a walk. (Their roles were taken over by Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson.) How long has this friendship between the two of you been going on? How was it to do this movie today?
Laura Dern: As you can see, I only go where Woody goes. (laughs) That answers that.
Woody Harrelson: Yeah, once I knew you weren’t in that, I was not.
So was that like twenty years that you’ve known each other?
Woody Harrelson: More than that, I think.
Laura Dern: Yeah, we did a play together.
In New York? Right here in the city?
Woody Harrelson: In LA.
Laura Dern: In LA. Yeah, with Jim Brooks.
Woody Harrelson: Yeah, at the Coronet Theatre, I believe it was, on La Cienega. She was great. (ed. note: The play was called Brooklyn Laundry and ran in 1991.)
Laura Dern: He was great.
Woody Harrelson: I don’t know, I felt like we were destined to be together. Then it didn’t happen, so I ended up with [a wife named Laura]. I wouldn’t be with anyone else except a Laura, in honor of Laura Dern.
Did that make it easier for you guys to work together on this? Were you able to be more obsessive between each other that way?
Laura Dern: Yes.
Woody Harrelson: I think if we had just met it would’ve been much different.
Laura Dern: Yeah.
Which of you guys was cast first? Or did you just come together?
Laura Dern: You were cast first, right?
Woody Harrelson: Really? Yeah, yeah. I think that’s true, I was cast first.
Were you familiar with Daniel’s graphic novels before getting involved with the project?
Woody Harrelson: No, in fact I never read a graphic novel before that.
So did you do it for this?
Woody Harrelson: Yeah of course, yeah I did. Well, figured I better read it (laughs). It’s nice to have that actually, because it’s so rich. It gives you all the clues you need for how to play it, right.
Laura Dern: It’s incredible! And it’s not just the characters or of course his brilliant, subversive writing. It’s these pieces of art where he has created this very banal world, and there’s this seeming banal character. In the case of myself and Claire’s character [Isabella Amara] also, these three people who seemingly are as thrown away as the space he has painted, but in fact, they overwhelm the space. As you get to know them more, I fell in love with them, because they all have this depth of longing. In fact, instead of being castaways, they’re people who are just trying to connect, and have human connection. Somehow, just seeing imagery, you feel it in such a deep way. That’s just like, an incredible invitation as an actor to have that.
Is that how you see Wilson?
Woody Harrelson: Well, yes I just wanted to say that, just in one relatively short answer, she has shamed every response I’ve had in every interview (laughs). Literally, I don’t know how… I can’t talk like you, I should give up trying, but it’s so beautiful.
Well, do you see Wilson as a guy out of step with the world? Or is he crazy? Or is he just on his own wave-length?
Woody Harrelson: Well, I think you could look at him as crazy in the sense that he has some… I don’t want to say antisocial, because I think he’s a very gregarious person, he really wants to connect with people… but I do think that you can see how he has no censors. He’ll speak the truth as he knows it. I mean think about it, how many times in a day that if you just spoke the truth, you would be in deep shit. Like, “Do you really like my dress?” “No.” Just basic stuff like that, you could be in really hot water all the time. I do admire that he speaks the truth. Then I also feel like he has a high expectation, like he wants people to be their best selves. If he feels like they’re not meeting that – (to Laura) I think you mentioned that last night too – if they’re not being their best selves, he gets very disappointed. Whether it be something they’re doing or saying, or their job, or whatever.
But he can be so cruel. Like the scene with Margo Martindale when he just says “Not you…,” or something….
Woody Harrelson: Yeah I know. On the other hand, it’s not his intention to be cruel. It’s just he’s…
Laura Dern: … Being honest…
Woody Harrelson: … He’s being honest. Yeah, and it is cruel. Honesty sometimes is super cruel.
Wilson and Pippi obviously in the past had a really bad relationship, and yet, when they got back together, they were not good for each other and they push each other’s buttons, but there’s some sort of a connection there. What do you think it is that they see in each other?
Woody Harrelson: I feel like he has never lost his love for her, which is very much parallels to my relationship with Laura. He has never lost his mad and powerful infatuation and passion for her. You see the movie really takes off the minute we get together. It’s like building, building, then BOOM. Once we’re together is when this movie clicks. By contrast, when we’re losing each other, that’s painful. To me watching it is very painful. But I just loved every minute of working with this lady here. I think she’s one of the great actresses that we have, and I have been very, very lucky to….
Was it literally painful in the scene where she hits you with her purse?
Laura Dern: Yeah, that’s literally painful. No, he was begging for more. Like go, go further, you can do it.
Woody Harrelson: Hit me harder!
Hollywood seems so obsessed with reboots and sequels. How thrilling it is to as an artist receive a script that’s so original, and to be able to create these characters from the floor up?
Laura Dern: Incredible. I think I speak for both of us to say these are the kinds of characters you dream of playing. For me, being raised by actors in the 70s [her parents are Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd], watching them work with the directors that would have made Wilson, like Hal Ashby and others. [They] were looking for flawed, broken people who had a sense of longing and were trying to find their way home. That was what made all of us want to be a part of [the film.] Talking about storytelling that’s very magical and very rare, and incredibly subversive. Just going back to your question talking about the truth, and honesty. This idea that honesty can be hurtful is super interesting as it sits here. Then underneath the surface, the question is why does that seem more hurtful than liars? Because more recently than ever, we buy into con men. Somehow America is more comfortable with con men than a Wilson. I prefer someone who goes, which by the way, (to Woody) you could’ve just told me you didn’t like my dress. (laughs) You didn’t have to do it in an interview. But someone who is direct and available to you in love, and in politics, I’m up for that ride. I don’t want to believe in the lies anymore. It has gotten too many people in trouble, and too many countries in trouble. That longing to be a part of that kind of storytelling more than ever, when I read this I was just like “oh my God!” And to sign up with him, (motions to Woody) I mean Woody is the bravest, most beautifully open actor I could’ve ever dreamt up. He is in my dream of if I got to be Ginger Rogers who my Fred Astaire would be. Beyond all of that, the physical comedy is just mind-blowing. The fact that we both got to play out these very physical characters. How they use their bodies. To find the humanity within that, not just the joke, that’s like the most delicious gift ever.
Woody, you’ve got six movies I think in IMDB that are coming out just this year. I just wonder, are you a compulsive workaholic who never wants to say no to a script? Didn’t you just direct a movie in Sundance?
Woody Harrelson: No, I directed a movie, it wasn’t in Sundance. I went to Sundance directly after for this. But yeah, I directed a movie in London called Lost in London which Laura was nice enough to go see. It was an autobiographical event that happened and so I wrote it. I had this dream, because I love theatre and I wanted to merge theatre and film. How do you merge theatre and film? Well okay, shoot it in real time. You’ve probably seen Victoria, great. That’s shot in real time. Phenomenal. Then I was thinking, “Wow, just shooting it in real time doesn’t really make it theatre. There needs to be an audience.” So I shot it and simultaneously live-streamed it into theatres here in the states. I mean, I didn’t do enough press, (laughs) because obviously none of you have ever heard about this, but still it turned out fantastic.
You’ve got a Planet of the Apes movie coming this summer?
Woody Harrelson: Yeah, yeah. That one is coming out.
How comfortable are you with the dog? I thought that the beginning of the first act was all about you and the dog, and I just loved that. Obviously, you are comfortable with dogs, but did you know the dog beforehand? How did that come about? Are you still buddies?
Woody Harrelson: We haven’t been hanging out since I made the movie. He’s been still in Minnesota, and here I am. But, very cool dog. Very much likes his treats. (to Laura) Remember? LOVED those treats. If you have a treat, that dog is on you. That dog is a big part of the story too.
Woody, if you had ended up in prison like he did, he adapted pretty well actually in a weird way he seemed to fit and managed himself. Would you manage yourself as well?
Woody Harrelson: I think I would. I’ve been in prison. Not as an inmate, but I’ve been in prison a few times shooting and stuff, and had these interactions with some of the inmates. Some not good interactions, which probably was not smart of me. I’m going to get shanked or something for the way I’m behaving right now, but that’s just natural. One of the times I had my head shaved, and they were yelling at me, and calling me a skinhead, which pissed me off, so I was yelling shit back at them. But I spent some time hanging with some of these inmates. It’s interesting because a lot of the ones I’ve hung out with have done the worst crimes, like murder… I remember one guy who seemed like such a sweet, docile man, and I asked something about him to one of the guards and he said “Oh, he murdered his whole family.” I did a thing actually one time, I did a yoga class for the inmates. It was really cool, man. It was like, I don’t know, I understand that when someone has done something so horrible, something as bad as murder there needs to be repercussions. But unfortunately, those repercussions then end up [so] they have no life ever again after that, even if they get out. They’re just always the guy who did that, so I feel a certain compassion for them.
Although they didn’t have compassion for their victims…
Woody Harrelson: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
Do both of you see your movies as having social relevance to speak to something? Is that always a factor if you’re going to say yes? I mean, this is a comedy, but you could say it’s a serious comedy.
Laura Dern: I long for that, but there’s relevance in every opportunity, depending upon how you see it. It may not be of obvious cultural significance, but the beauty of what we get to do is, again, reflecting human nature. It can be something as magical and otherworldly as Star Wars, or something as pointedly subversive and perhaps of more cultural significance obviously as Wilson. But, it’s all about the dream, and waking up aspects of yourself. If you think about any mythology for kids, that’s the beginning of the wakeup call for them to think about what is the hero? What is the villain? Could they both be the same person?
Where does your HBO series fit into that? Is this woman horrible or is she…?
Laura Dern: You tell me. You’ll have to wait and see. Yeah, she’s horrible, and complicated, and surface, and deep, and loving, and sexual, and tough. We were shooting during this most recent election, so it was a really interesting time to think about projection on a powerful female. This idea that “Oh, she’s powerful, so she must be frigid.” Or “She’s always working so she can’t be a mom.” As a mom, I know I live mostly in guilt about “Oh my God, I didn’t get to pick them up.’’ Or “I’m not doing enough.” That’s what we mothers do; we worry all the time that we’re not enough. I like that Renata is that part of that story. Getting to play that character is as interesting and specific for women as any other character.
You both seem to have reserved judgement when it comes to your characters here. Is that really important to you to find your way in; that you have to have compassion to understand them?
Woody Harrelson: Well, I think I can speak for both of us when I say yes. That is important. You’ve got to see the rationale for what your character does.
One of Wilson’s more interesting quirks is that he’ll go into a crowded restaurant, or train, or even a men’s room, and start talking to the one person who’s there; he’ll just bring up a conversation. Have you guys ever had anything like that happen, and how would you feel on the other side?
Woody Harrelson: Never done that in a restroom, but what I do like to do and I actually do sometimes just to be weird, like I’ll go into an elevator, and there’s just one person in the elevator. I go and stand next to the person. (He stands up and mimes leaning into someone, then laughs) It’s weird, you know.
Do they even notice, or are they staring at their phone?
Woody Harrelson: No, they notice. If you are in an elevator and someone just crowds up on you, you’d notice.
Do they know it’s you?
Woody Harrelson: I don’t know. I haven’t noticed that they knew it was me, or not. I just thought that they were just like “What the….”
You understand Wilson better than we realize then.
Woody Harrelson: Might’ve been since Wilson that I’ve started doing that.
Next week is the 25th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump, and there was talk about a remake. What do you think about that?
Woody Harrelson: A remake? I think it’s great they’re doing a remake. I hope it’s great.
Who could step into those shoes?
Woody Harrelson: No, those shoes, no. Those were Michael Jordan Nikes back then. But I think it’s really cool. Ron [Shelton]’s not directing it right?
No, Kenya Barris is writing it, from Black-ish. I don’t know who’s directing yet.
Woody Harrelson: Well, I don’t know, I wish them luck. I mean, I find it great that they want to do a remake. I hope it’s freaking [terrific]. I’m going to go see it.
Do roles ever stick with either of you after they say we’re done and you go on to your next thing?
Laura Dern: This has stuck with me.
Woody Harrelson: Yeah, definitely. I really noticed that I was saying stuff I shouldn’t be saying, remember?
Laura Dern: Oh yeah!
Woody Harrelson: I was saying stuff like “Oh my God, pull back the reins there.”
Laura Dern: We both were. We got into it.
Woody Harrelson: That uncensored quality where you actually say the thing that comes into your head. I bet that happens to you guys at least three times today after this, where something will come into your head, and you will remember this, and be like “What? I did not just say that.” I was transgressing that general line in the saying that I was crossing it while I was doing this. And then you were, remember when you were shooting up and…?
Laura Dern: Yeah, yeah. Now I’m actually remembering real memories that were actually pretty wild. What I’ve been doing lately, which is my own Wilson which is so fun, is living in LA with road ragers. Now I’ve realized that instead of meeting them, if you do the opposite it shocks them out of their rage. I was with my daughter and I didn’t want her to get freaked out. This guy was so enraged. As I was parallel parking, he came out of nowhere, got out of his car, and was in the middle of the street yelling “You took my spot!” And I went “Oh my God! I’m so happy you got out of your car, so I can meet you. Did I take your spot?” Like so overly happy. He got so hysterical that he got back into his car. He didn’t know what to do with it. I think we should meet rage with so much joy.
And your daughter said, “Mom, you rock.”
Laura Dern: No, she said “Mom, you’re crazy.”
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 24, 2017.
Photos 1-4 © 2017 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Photos 5-8 © 2017. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.