Woody Harrelson last worked with Rampart director Oren Moverman on 2009’s The Messenger, which scored two Oscar nominations: Moverman and his co-writer for Best Original Screenplay, and Harrelson for Best Supporting Actor. There was buzz that Harrelson’s portrayal of corrupt, violent LAPD officer Dave Brown in Rampart would merit similar recognition, but perhaps the Academy didn’t appreciate his complete inhabiting of an abusive, racist, womanizing deadbeat dad and generally unrepentant bad person. Both Moverman’s film and Harrelson’s performance (he’s in every scene) are unsettling and relentlessly downbeat. Not since Natural Born Killers or The People Vs. Larry Flynt has the 50-year-old actor and upcoming co-star of The Hunger Games and Game Change been this inside a role, or this out of his mind onscreen. In a recent talk with The A.V. Club, Harrelson discussed the emotional toll of playing Dave Brown, why he’d walk on fire for Moverman, and how he’s never seen anything like the frenzy surrounding Hunger Games.
The A.V. Club: Rampart takes place just after the massive LAPD corruption scandal of the late 1990s, but it’s ultimately a simple story about one man at one moment in time. Is that how the part was presented to you?
Woody Harrelson: I just thought it was a really powerful script, and I almost didn’t need to read it to say “I’m gonna do it,” cause it’s Oren Moverman, and I’ll pretty much do anything he wants to do. It’s the joy of working with Oren. I can’t call it a fun experience, although there are pockets of fun, but it’s always very intense.
AVC: You’ve said in interviews that Moverman’s your favorite director to act for, even though you’ve worked with the Coen brothers, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and so on. Is that because those bigger names are more traditional authority figures on set?
WH: It’s not about authority. It has to do with the methodology. The way Oren works is, he’ll give you great words to say, he’ll give you all the tools, great direction, help you with the backstory and get you into the character, set you up in a space, and give you no rehearsal. You don’t even hang out with the actor ahead of time. You come with what you have, they come with what they have, and [smacks hands together] you meet in the middle. Inside of that, there’s a great deal of freedom. There’s improvisation. You don’t know what the blocking’s gonna be, you don’t know if I’m gonna come over and sit next to you and [reaches across the table] grab you by the arm and pull you over here. It’s a fuckin’ great, exciting, visceral experience for an actor to have that kind of freedom, and to have a guy like Oren… I’ve tried to fail, but Oren won’t let me fail. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did the fact that Dave Brown was written as a Vietnam vet make it easier to understand his unhinged behavior?
WH: Oh yeah, I feel like Vietnam had a huge influence on who he became. Regardless of that, when he came to be a policeman, I think he really was trying to do his level best, and he got led astray and shown some ways to make some extra money, so he just ended up where he ended up. I think in his worldview, his philosophy, he’s doing bad things to bad people, and he’s trying to get some extra money together. He’s got two wives and kids to support, so he really thinks he’s doing right by the world.
AVC: Do you view the character as a bit of a sociopath?
WH: No. I mean, he can interact. I remember early on in the process, coming to Oren and saying, “You know, I really see Dave Brown as kind of a dandy.” [Laughs.] Oren was a little nervous when I was saying that, but you can see, even in the early scenes when he’s talking with other people, he has this grandiose sense of his ability to communicate, and his ability to tell a story. He’s able to communicate and interact, whereas a sociopath [tendency] maybe comes when he’s upset with someone in the line of doing police work or some of his “extracurricular” police work.
AVC: You do occasionally see Dave trying to be sensitive, especially around his family, but does that make up for all his awful behavior?
WH: That’s the thing that makes me care about him, is that he cares about his family. That’s the thing I connect to; the core of me connecting to the core of him.
AVC: As you’ve gotten older and started your own family, has that become something that generally attracts you to a part?
WH: I have a really good relationship with my girls, so I can’t really relate to that aspect of his ability to communicate with his kids, but on the other hand, that’s where the imagination kicks in. It’s very much me with my kid when I’m dealing with [co-star] Brie [Larson]. Even though I’ve never had those kinds of exchanges, I can put myself in that place. You would as an actor, right? We’d cut and I’d start bawling.
AVC: Did you sometimes question why you’d endure that kind of emotional havoc for a role?
WH: [Laughs.] Yeah, definitely.
AVC: Did you take that emotion with you off the set?
WH: Never by the time I got home, but right after [a scene]. I’m one who’s done my level best to avoid pain. I hop, skip, and jump around that shit. So when you’re sitting there doing it on purpose to yourself, you gotta wonder, “This is not part of my cosmology,” if that’s the right word.
AVC: Moverman has said he’s drawn to you as an actor because you go “dark really fast.” Do you feel like that’s a fair assessment?
WH: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, absolutely. I try to get myself into a really, really relaxed state. I do yoga before I do a scene, get as relaxed as I can be, and just let things flow as appropriate. So yeah, that dark side is right there.
AVC: You had a chance to ride along with the LAPD, but do you expect the average person to be sympathetic when they hear about police corruption and violence?
WH: No, absolutely not. I remember my first run-in with cops. It took me really getting to hang, well after that, with cops who were cool, and realizing, “Okay, there are some bad ones.” I ran into some bad ones in Columbus, Ohio, but they’re not all bad.
AVC: One thing Rampart does illustrate is how terrifying police work can be. Why would a Vietnam vet like Dave Brown choose that line of work after the war?
WH: There’s a lot of veterans in the police force, particularly LAPD. In some cases, I see [where] the architects of it were coming from. You look at what’s going on in Iraq now, or Afghanistan, we’re using military people to police the population. It’s not just whatever other things they’re doing. A big component of what they’re doing is policing.
AVC: Is it necessary for you to accept a lighter role after a movie like Rampart?
WH: Yeah, I think it would have been very hard to go into some other dark, heavy thing after that. That would have been tough.
AVC: Your next part is as John McCain’s former campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, in Game Change. What was it like slipping into that character after Rampart?
WH: That came right after I was directing this play [Bullet For Adolf] in Toronto, and it was ready to open, and then I left to go to Baltimore to start shooting Game Change. I really felt like I had a family [in Toronto], and it was very hard to shift into that mindset of being Steve Schmidt. Two of the toughest roles I’ve been offered have been from Oren: a soldier [in The Messenger] and a policeman, but a Republican? [Laughs.] That’s a stretch.
AVC: You also have a big blockbuster ahead with The Hunger Games, and you’re a pretty private person. How are you steeling yourself for the circus around that?
WH: I don’t know what it’s gonna entail. I’ve never seen this kind of anticipation for any movie I’ve been in. [Laughs.] Never, not close. I don’t know what it will be, but I’ll always keep my privacy and family separate from all that stuff.