[FULL DISCLOSURE: The following interview is old. Two and a half years old. I wrote it back when I was doing Awkward Question Time for Vanity Fair, but my editor declined to run it. Why? Because it isn’t so much an entertainingly awkward conversation as it is a self-flagellating postmortem of a trainwreck Q&A. Or as my editor put it, a bit too “how the sausage gets made,” except when the sausage accidentally gets made with 100% rat feces. Enjoy!]
There’s something inherently false about a celebrity interview. Like most interactions between human beings, famous people aren’t immediately comfortable talking to strangers, and can’t easily be coaxed into sharing intimate details about their lives with somebody they’ve known for just a few minutes. Most celebrity interviews are like getting a handjob from a prostitute. It’s an exchange of goods and services. You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you want. Give me a few quotables and I’ll plug your movie. But how much honesty can you really expect when at least one of the parties involved is there under duress? The best case scenario, which occasionally does happen, is an effortless and mutually gratifying conversation. But worst case scenario, it’s like being the ugly guy at a party hitting on the hot chick that’s way out of his league.
I arranged to interview Woody Harrelson at the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia. He was in town to promote The Messenger, which opens nationwide today, just one week after the premiere of his latest film, the doomsday flick 2012. It may seem like Harrelson is staging a comeback, but it’s actually business as usual for the prolific actor. Over the last three years, he’s averaged one movie every two months. Not bad for a guy who probably knows how to make a bong out of an apple.
I was told to meet Harrelson at the library of SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design). Not surprisingly, he was late. Even when he did show up, he was briefly distracted by an art student, who was sitting in a nearby cubicle and putting the finishing touches on a drawing of a guy stuffing a synthesizer keyboard into his mouth. Harrelson was transfixed by the illustration. “That is so cool,” he declared repeatedly.
The student was understandably nonplussed by Harrelson’s attention. “What are the odds that I’d wake up today and see Woody Harrelson?” he asked, tittering nervously.
Harrelson smiled. “For me?” he asked. “Pretty good.”
At some point, a publicist nudged him and directed his attention towards me.
How did I screw up my interview with Woody Harrelson? Let’s count the ways…
1. Don’t Actually See His Movie, and Be Completely Uninformed About Even the Most General of Details
Vanity Fair: So… having a good day, Woody?
(This may seem like a blandly vague way to begin an interview, but the question was actually quite loaded. It was obvious from the moment I met Harrelson that he was stoned. Well, allegedly, at least. I have no way of confirming this. But his eyes looked like saucers of strawberry milk, and his voice was sluggish and sleepy. Because I’m such a consummate professional, my first thought was, “I wonder if he’ll pull out a joint for me.” Which wasn’t entirely irrational. Harrelson has shared spliffs with journalists before, I can only assume because he believes it loosens him up and acts as a conversational lubricant.
But while the notion of getting stoned with weed’s most famous advocate was thrilling, it also filled with me dread. It’s been years since I was a regular abuser of marijuana, and I’ve heard rumors that it’s become more potent over the years. God only knows what a man of Harrelson’s clout could be holding. One hit of his private stash could be enough to melt my brain. Did I really want to get so messed up that I started asking questions like, “You wanna order a pizza and listen to some early Genesis?” But at the same time, I felt a journalistic responsibility to follow Harrelson down this rabbit hole.)
Woody Harrelson: It’s been good. Today was extraordinary. It was really just incredible. We went over to the Hunter Army Airfield and met so many cool people, so many big-hearted amazing bright lights that I just feel completely energized by it.
VF: What made you decide to visit a military base?
WH: Well, you know… because of the movie.
VF: Oh, yeah, yeah, right. The movie. (Forced laughter.) But I meant, with the movie, do you… you have some personal connection with the military? Like with your family?
WH: Well, everybody’s connected. My brother was in the Army, my dad was in the Navy. But, I’ve never really been very connected except in a really peripheral way.
(I was only two questions in and already I’d made it painfully apparent that I hadn’t seen Harrelson’s movie. He went on to name drop military bases, none of which I was familiar with. He told me about Walter Reed and Fort Dix, and each time I just shook my head in pseudo recognition. But honestly, I had no fucking idea what he was talking about. Walter Reed… is that a guy? A type of tank, maybe? Some post-interview research revealed that’s it an army medical center in Washington. But as a civilian who barely pays attention to the news, how could I have possibly known?
As Harrelson talked about his experiences meeting the troops, his favorite adjectives were “mind-blowing” and “powerful.” In both cases, it just made me think about marijuana again. He told me how much he respects the American soldier, partly because they put themselves in mortal danger and partly because they make no money. I wanted to make a joke about train hobos—who, if you think about it, also don’t make money and have high mortality rates—but I didn’t think the time was right.
I made a clumsy segue into a question about the Iraq War. I did this because I wanted him to think this interview was staying on topic, and I wasn’t going to ask him any of the dozens of questions about zombies that were on the crumbled-up piece of paper in my lap. I gave him a pensive, thoughtful expression that I hoped read as: “You and I are on the same page. Let’s talk about the things that really matter.”
He answered my softball questions in exactly the way you’d expect. I might as well have asked him if he was a fan of cancer or the kidnapping and violent rape of schoolchildren.)
WH: I’ve always thought that the Iraq War was about oil. Unless it’s just a wild coincidence, in spite of all the egregious things that governments are doing around the world, many of them CIA sponsored, and it just so happens that Iraq, where there just so happens to be the second largest oil reserve, happens to be the spot we wanted to liberate.
VF: (Laughs.) Right, right! Bush is such a fucktard!
(Harrelson’s eyebrows arched. His body leaned away from me, in an unmistakably defensive pose. For a fleeting couple of seconds, I actually thought we might be forging a bond. And then I had to go and use the word “fucktard”—the great linguistic divider. He laughed anyway, perhaps because he saw the truth in my crudeness, and I laughed to show him that we shared the same political cynicism. But then his attention began to wander again.)
WH: I think Bush was a… he did a great job in his office… for his friends. (Laughs.) It’s all about oil and money.
(His eyes were drifting across the room, like he was looking for somebody more attractive or interesting to talk to.)
2. Harsh His Buzz
(We were almost three minutes into our interview and Harrelson had neither acknowledged his hallucinogenic state nor offered to share his dope. So of course, my big fear was that he’d pegged me for a narc. Was there something about me—the way I was dressed or my demeanor in general—that came across as judgmental or vice coppy? Also, based on my limited pre-interview research, I knew that most of Harrelson’s clothing is made out of hemp. So if I understood what this means correctly, he was a walking dime-bag. I was trying to listen to the words coming out of his mouth, but I was mostly staring at his feet and wondering how weird it’d be if I tried to smoke his socks.)
VF: With Zombieland and now 2012, you’ve done a string of movies about the end of the world. Have you been feeling fatalistic lately?
WH: No, no, no, not at all. I feel pretty optimistic. I think… look, I did some press for 2012, and people were saying, “Do you think there’s any truth to this Mayan prophecy?”
(Do you see what he did there? He basically told me, “I’ve been asked this question before. You are neither original nor clever. You know that guy Gene Shalit, the movie critic on the Today show with the handlebar mustache? That’s what you sound like to me.”)
WH: First of all, it’s not a prophecy about the end of the world. It’s just that the Mayan calendar ends, and there’s speculation about what that means. But in many ways, if you look at things ecologically, we’re kinda right on target. Even though there’s a heightened awareness about the greenhouse effect and what’s going on ecologically, the big businesses that have caused all this damage aren’t planning on changing anything.
VF: Why hasn’t there been a movie about the swine flu yet? Audiences seem to like zombies, so why wouldn’t they like phlegmy, feverish zombies who don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze?
(I thought this was a pretty good question. And totally topical! But Harrelson looked at me like I’d just interrupted his train of thought with a greasy chili fart. Maybe it’s too soon for H1N1 humor. Or maybe he just doesn’t think that his fan base, whoever they might be, is ready to laugh about a flu epidemic that had yet to turn anybody into a flesh-eating killing machine.)
WH: I’m not sure I’m the guy for that. I don’t want to, it’s like… I’m actually… I don’t want to do too many movies about the end of the world. The apocalyptic territory, I think we’ve already covered that.
VF: What’s your preference in apocalyptic movies? Do you like ’em pre-apocalypse or post-apocalypse?
(I probably should have just left well enough alone. But because I suffer from crippling insecurity and an almost self-sabotaging need to make myself understood, I over-explained my question to the point of mutual embarrassment.)
VF: Do you like to see it coming, where there’s a lead-up to the eve of destruction and there’s still a chance of stopping the end of the world? Or do you prefer a Mad Max-style, “We’re all fucked”, Kevin-Costner-drinking-his-own-piss-for-sustenance wasteland?
WH: Well, I don’t know…. Drinking whose piss?
VF: Not specifically Kevin Costner’s piss, but… you know…
WH: Yeah. (Stilted, mirthless laughter.) All I care about is… you know, whatever’s the good script. (More laughter.)
(Wow. What? Have you ever told a joke that was completely inappropriate and offensive, and somebody looked at you with an expression that pretty clearly translated as, “Dude, that was gross and wrong, please stop” and you realized almost immediately that yeah, he’s probably right, I should just stop talking now? Apparently I’m unfamiliar with that facial expression.)
VF: Yeah, I get you. I was just talking about that Kevin Costner movie, Waterworld. You know, where he drank his own urine and…
WH: (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah.
VF: Not that you…
WH: Yeah, I know… (Laughs.)
(If Harrelson was stoned—which admittedly is only speculation at best—I had effectively sobered him up with one really tasteless, utterly unnecessary urine-drinking movie reference. I was the black cup of coffee to Harrelson’s good time. I was the moment in the party when the cops show up. I was a walking mellow-harsher with a mini-recorder.)
3. Ask Him About Something He Legitimately Cares About, Then Make a Lame Joke, Resulting in a “Why Don’t You Take a Moment and Think About What You Just Said” Pregnant Pause
VF: If the end of the world does come, you’ll probably be okay. Don’t you have a farmhouse in Maui that runs on solar power?
WH: Yeah, that’s true. My house is completely powered by the sun. There are no power lines at all in our community. When I tell people about that, they think it’s a commune. But it’s not that at all. It’s more independent. We all love each other, but it’s not a collective thing. We’re just people who believe in the same thing who happen to live near each other.
VF: So it’s like those guys at Lollapalooza who are like, “You love Jane’s Addiction? Dude, I love Jane’s Addiction!”
VF: But with farming.
WH: (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. Most of the people in our neighborhood grow these great organic farms. So if there’s not any food that we can grow ourselves, we can probably get it from our neighbors. If we run out of avocados, we just go next door. It’s a pretty light footprint.
(He went on for a bit longer, talking about living off the grid and the benefits of solar energy and consuming only what you actually need to survive and blah blah blah. To be fair, I was the one who brought it up in the first place. Asking Woody Harrelson about his thoughts on conservationism is like asking Al Gore if it feels a little hot in here. There’s no way to control what happens next. You just have to shut up and get out of the way.
At this point, I was in panic mode. The clock on our interview was ticking, and he seemed content to use up our allotted time to talk about his hippie-dippy belief system. But watch what happened next, as I try to steer the conversation back into quotable territory…)
VF: I’ve heard that you have a Volkswagen Bug that runs on biodiesel.
WH: That’s right. I didn’t have to make any changes to the engine. It runs entirely on vegetable oil. It’s been running on that for ten years.
VF: If your VW Bug is a-rockin’, should we come a’knockin’?
(Harrelson nodded, as if acknowledging my really unfortunate attempt at Volkswagen humor. But he didn’t answer, and I’m still not sure if it was out of mercy for himself or me. His grin was unflinching, almost daring me to press the subject. But somewhere in his murky, bloodshot eyes, I could see what looked like compassion.)
4. Take His Perfectly Innocent Political Analogy And Twist It Into a Really Weird and Disturbing Sex Analogy
VF: What scares you more, the Rapture or Sarah Palin winning the presidential election in 2012?
(Harrelson seemed earnestly flummoxed by this question. He shifted in his seat and avoided all eye contact with me. The tightness in his face indicated that he was thinking something along the lines of “I wonder how bad it’d be if I just bolted towards the elevators.”)
WH: I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s such an absurd question.
VF: Well, for me, I’m not as worried about the Rapture, because Fox News can’t scare suburban bigots into voting for a biblical doomsday.
WH: The world’s ending seems like possibly the worst scenario to me. Not that I would want Palin to be president. (Laughs.)
VF: If she does get elected, do you think she’ll be more incompetent than Bush?
WH: Well, I mean… blaming Bush is comparable to, you know, blaming a car for an accident.
VF: You can’t blame the car?
WH: No, you can’t. The car isn’t the cause. Bush wasn’t driving the car. He was the car.
VF: So who was driving?
WH: Cheney was. And Rumsfeld. All those guys.
VF: If I understand your analogy correctly, you’re telling me that Cheney was technically… inside Bush?
(Harrelson, for all the THC content in his blood, is no idiot. He could see where this was leading. Within moments, his posture had shifted from “The Dude Abides” to the rigid and attentive stance of a pilot trying to land a plane in a thunderstorm.)
WH: Quite honestly I always think of politicians as businessmen working for bigger businessmen. And generally it’s true. There are some shining examples, like Dennis Kucinich, who really care and are trying to do the right thing. But they tend to be marginalized.
VF: Do you have faith in Obama? Is he driving the car or, you know…?
WH: The real question is whether Obama can be great. Everybody thought when we elected him, this is our guy. But whether or not he’s able to be great, you know, it depends on the powers that be, all the various industries and corporations that really drive American foreign policy, as well as driving our political landscape and our social landscape.
VF: That’s a lot of people in the metaphorical driver’s seat.
WH: (Laughs.) There are, yeah.
VF: So to be president, you’ve got to be… really accommodating?
VF: With all those industries and corporations inside him, as well as the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense, that’s… well, that’s really going to stretch him out.
WH: It depends on… (Tense, totally unamused laughter.)
(Harrelson, despite being incredibly sharp and thoughtful and politically informed, was clearly unprepared for a spirited exchange of butt sex analogies. So what do you do when you’re being interviewed by an idiot making thinly-veiled allusions to the president being a “bottom”? Well of course, you just ignore him and say what you meant to say in the first place.)
WH: Obviously Sarah Palin would carry on the policies of the Bush administration.
5. Run Into Him Later at a Party and Ask Nothing of Any Significance
After our interview, Harrelson was taken across the street for a festival screening of The Messenger. Before the movie, he was presented with an Outstanding Achievement in Cinema Award, which he accepted with a speech that was both hilarious and not in any way visibly stoned. He told the crowd about visiting the Hunter Army Airfield—which, as he’d told me repeatedly, was a “very powerful experience”—and then shared an anecdote about his first attempt piloting an Apache helicopter simulator. “The enemy has never been so safe,” he said, as the audience roared its approval. “It was a complete disaster.” He made jokes about killing zombies in Savannah, and wondered aloud if his award was meant for lifetime achievement, which implied that he was approaching the end of his career relevancy. “I know I’ve reached the comb-over stage of my life,” he said, with just the perfect amount of self-deprecating charm. All in all, he was witty and infinitely likable and entirely lucid.
A few hours later, I spotted Harrelson at the festival’s after party. He was just a few yards away, shaking hands with his admirers and playfully kicking at the exercise balls that’d been provided as the party’s seating. I slowly crept towards him, mentally preparing my follow-up questions. I needed something more from him, something meaty and substantive to give our interview some intellectual girth. But everything that came to mind was just too wordy. I wanted to ask him, “You’re a vegan, you practice yoga, you wear hemp, and you do everything in your power to save the planet. You’re a good human being. Surely you do at least one thing that qualifies you as an asshole. What’s your secret shame? Are you into midget bondage porn? Is the main ingredient in your hummus recipe baby tears?”
I inched closer to him, so close that I could smell the cannabis in the air—as I’d overheard several party guests discussing, Harrelson wasn’t shy about lighting up a “fatty” in public—and when I was almost within poking distance of him, he turned and made eye contact with me. This was my moment.
VF: (Shouting over the crowd.) Woody! Having a good time?!
WH: (Shouting back.) You know it!
I slinked away, my tail between my proverbial legs, and retreated to the bar to get drunk on free festival booze. Because that is what a professional journalist does when he’s out of ideas.