“I’m an A personality and a B facade,” says Woody Harrelson, and that’s as good an explanation for his charm and success as you’re likely to find. The actor has carved out a lovable public persona as a down-home new-agey stoner, but no one too laid-back could have had the career that he’s had. Simply put, the industrious Harrelson is one of film’s greatest character actors. I could name a million things he has done — from big moneymakers (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Zombieland”) to TV classics (“Cheers,” “True Detective”) to indie gems (“The Messenger,” “Triangle of Sadness,” which is an Academy Award nominee this year for best picture) — but let’s just say he’s one of those actors who, when they show up onscreen, well, you know you’re in good hands. That certainly holds true for the new “Champions,” which is directed by Bobby Farrelly and is in theaters March 10. In this feel-good underdog comedy, a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” Harrelson plays a disgraced minor-league-basketball coach who is forced to lead a community-center team of players with intellectual disabilities. It’s a tricky part, with potential pitfalls of taste and tone, but Harrelson, as he seemingly always and unerringly does, lends the proceedings a naturalistic ease and comfort. “I feel like I’m in a place where I could tackle almost anything,” he says, a mischievous gleam dancing across his eyes. “I could play Oprah!”
The thing I liked the most about “Champions” is the real sense of affection and camaraderie that comes through between you and the actors playing the basketball team, some of whom were first-timers. What was most interesting or surprising about acting with them? Well, the scene when I first meet the Friends, Bobby Farrelly made it so that was actually my first time meeting them — it was onscreen! I had so much trepidation the night before. When he told me, “Maybe we’ll go with the script, maybe we’ll go off it, maybe we just throw the script out,” I was like, “Holy [expletive].” As an actor, I’m maybe too rigid, but I’ve always thought you kind of need that script, even if you’re going to improvise. But as with most fears, it was completely illusory. These guys are so cool, so funny, so honest. They’ll never tell you a lie. They’ll tell you a fib — “your shoe’s untied” — but their kindness and warmth, within a couple of hours I was hook, line and sinker a part of them. I haven’t had much experience with people with disabilities, so I didn’t know what to expect and I’ve got to say, it was probably the most enjoyable experience I ever had making a movie.
It’s interesting to hear you say that maybe you’re too rigid an actor, because I think one of the most appealing things about your performances is that they never come off as mechanical or mannered. Is that just part of the illusion? When things are going right, I don’t feel rigid. But there are performances where I was like, why couldn’t I just get outside whatever I was doing. Ten years later, I’ll think of something I should have done in a scene, and I want to tear my head off. “Planet of the Apes” — that’s one of those times where there was so much technology involved in what we were doing, I was a little daunted. If I did that part again, I could do it 20 times better. There’s several roles that I go back and think: Why didn’t I try this? Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I step into a whole ’nother character? But it’s probably best to let those things drop. They can haunt you.
Another thought I had when I was watching “Champions” was that it reminded me so much of the kinds of movies that were all over theaters in the ’90s. Basically, midbudget studio movies like the Farrelly brothers used to make. Some of your peers, guys like Matt Damon, have said that those movies, which you all made your bones on, are disappearing because of the way the business has changed. But you never seem to be lacking for good work. So how do you see the movie business as having evolved? The business obviously changed. Those movies that go into the theaters, people want to see action: Marvel or the Tom Cruise thing. Which doesn’t necessarily bode well for a movie like “Champions,” but I’m hopeful that people go see it. I don’t know. I’ve been lucky. I was glad to do “Carnage” and such, but my heart is more with movies like this and the indies. Now to get an indie done? Especially with all the Covid protocols — which, to me, are rather absurd. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What’s absurd about the Covid protocols? The fact that they’re still going on! I don’t think that anybody should have the right to demand that you’re forced to do the testing, forced to wear the mask and forced to get vaccinated three years on. I’m just like, Let’s be done with this nonsense. It’s not fair to the crews. I don’t have to wear the mask. Why should they? Why should they have to be vaccinated? How’s that not up to the individual? I shouldn’t be talking about this [expletive]. It makes me angry for the crew. The anarchist part of me, I don’t feel that we should have forced testing, forced masking and forced vaccination. That’s not a free country. Really I’m talking about the crew. Because I can get out of wearing a mask. I can test less. I’m not in the same position they’re in, but it’s wrong. It’s three years. Stop.
The one thing I’ll say about that is that a big lesson of the pandemic is that it turns out most of us are pretty bad at rationally assessing risk and at handling one another’s different comfort levels with risk. Yeah, anyway, as an anarchist, I don’t do well with mandates.
There was a time in your career when you did a fair bit of public activism. You did the campus tours, the Go Further thing, you protested at the Golden Gate Bridge, you planted the hemp seeds. But you don’t do much of that anymore. Why not? I did do a documentary called “Kiss the Ground.” That would be the most recent kind of advocacy, which is distinctive because I feel like that helped people look at regenerative agriculture differently. Whereas climbing the Golden Gate Bridge? At the time I was fired up about it because they were cutting down old-growth forests. But what I realized is it makes zero difference. I could go protest, and maybe it raises the awareness but doesn’t stop the thing. I could go hang off one of those big mountaintop-remover coal things, but that’s not going to stop it. Because there isn’t the political will. I’m still interested in activism, but it would have to be very precise and helpful. I mean, getting arrested for protesting the murder of ancient trees? All it did was get me arrested. It didn’t slow the murder.
I think around that same time, when you were doing more activism, it was also the one period in your career when your productivity slowed down. You’ve always worked a ton, except for those few years in the late ’90s, early 2000s. What was going on then? Around ’97 I had done maybe five movies in a row, and I was so burned out. It was my own fault. I could have easily turned down some of those projects, but at the end of it I had lost my mojo. Whatever it was that made me keen on acting was just gone. And right at the end of that time, my second daughter was born, and I wanted to spend time with those gals. But I’d be foolish if I didn’t admit that probably my popularity was lower. I did five bombs in a row. You do one movie that doesn’t succeed, ugh. But two, three and then five? Then — I don’t remember if it was 2001 or 2002 — when I said, OK, I’m ready to get back into it, I’m thinking, I don’t know if there’ll be a ticker-tape parade, but certainly there’s going to be some warm response. Nothing. No response. I even agreed to do this movie that was not good. I won’t get into any specifics, but it was a stupid thing. I meet with the director, and I’m going to do it — they’re making it for like $500,000 — then the guy just goes with someone else! Didn’t call me. Nothing. I’m like, whoa, man, things have gotten tough. But slowly and surely I started getting back into it, and things started going better. I remember watching a screening of “Zombieland.” It was a huge theater, and, man, it was like being at the best rock concert you could imagine. I was like, this is going to do well. After that I started feeling like, OK, I’ve still got some work to do until I get to a time where I can take a year or two off, but everything was happening.
I was thinking about how you referred to yourself as an anarchist before, which I’ve seen you do in other interviews. I understand theoretically what it means to call yourself that, but how does that show up practically? I’m not a pure anarchist, for sure. I’m more of an anarchist/Marxist/capitalist/redneck hippie. But government is always in the hands of big business. It’s like big businessmen working for bigger businessmen. There are exceptions. A friend of mine, after Trump was elected, said, “I’ve got to do something.” So he did. He got elected to Congress in a district in Minnesota where they hadn’t had a Democrat in office in quite a long time. Dean Phillips is his name. That guy is pure. He really cares. So I’m recognizing that there are those people out there, but in my life I don’t look at authority with great fondness. It just feels like the government’s never like, Hey, can I lend you hand? Even the social programs they do are begrudging, and they’re constantly trying to nick money out of it. Do you see the government really reaching out a hand to the little fellow? No. Especially the United States government. I look at the United States government as fascism with a smiley face.
It’s interesting to me that a guy like you grew up culturally conservative. I mean, you went to the same college as Mike Pence, you canvassed for Ronald Reagan. What flipped the switch and made you interested in other ways of thinking? I’ve always been a student. I study life, and as an actor, you’re studying. You’re playing a doctor, you study a doctor. Even outside of that, I love reading and learning. But a big thing happened for me when I was 23, I think. I was on a bus going from St. Louis to Oklahoma City — don’t recommend that on Greyhound — and this gal next to me sees me blowing my nose. And I had all this acne, and she goes, “You’re lactose intolerant.” What? “You stop dairy, and all these things are going to go away.” You’re telling me it’s dairy, which does a body good? So I did it, and days later those symptoms were gone. It was like, Wow, so what else is not true? Reagan, the great communicator? This guy was awful! I started seeing it for what it was. I started understanding the ecological impact of things, the heavy footprint of the beast, as I call it. All these various industries that are raping Mother Earth, getting giant tax breaks. I started getting that this is how the world actually works and that being a Republican ain’t going to help things. Being a Democrat ain’t going to help either. I did vote for Biden though, just because.
You’re obviously interested in the workings of your own consciousness and how it can change. Are you able to articulate the ways that fame affects one’s mind? It’s not a good thing. I don’t think fame is ever an evolving consciousness. It’s fine and dandy for people to tell you you’re great. Nothing wrong with that. Moment you start believing it, that’s when things are getting [expletive] up. When everybody opens the door for you — here’s the best table, here’s whatever you need — and people bend over backward, if your mind starts to believe, yeah, I deserve this, it’s not good. I’m still going through my trip with fame, but even without fame, to deal with one’s ego is a powerful tussle. When Krishna talks to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, that’s what it is all about. It’s about being more in the spiritual self and less about the sensory self. If your world is caught up in sensory experience, that’s understandable. There’s a lot of sensory elements to the world. But when you throw in the added veneer of fame, how do you then segue over to, OK, I want to be the part of me that is my heart, my loving nature? I could go on about this.
I asked because I’m interested. It’s just very much in my mind now. In every aspect that my ego has grown outsized, I admonish myself. I have such anger with myself for allowing it. I want to see the kid I was, that 12-year-old who’s so full of love for everybody. Even into my 20s, I was the most loving person. I had such kindness. And then once fame came along, that started [expletive] with those good attributes. I do feel like I’m in a much better place now than I was even five years ago. My kids have always let me know what an idiot I am. Let’s just say they don’t pat me on the back unnecessarily. They’ve helped me to be a kinder, gentler soul. I’m generally a kind person, but I’d be impatient, you know? I don’t like incompetent people. I can be hard on someone who’s not doing their job right. I hate myself for it. Luckily, I’ve had experiences lately that have encouraged me to want to be a better person. Even last year, like seven months out of the year, I didn’t drink. I do like to drink, but I realize too much is not good for anybody. It can make you more moody or aggro. I’m drinking now, but I’m much more moderate. Last night I think I had half a glass of wine, as opposed to four, maybe five. I start every morning with Wim Hof. It’s possible to shift some of the negatives: Drink less, eat less, all of those sensory things that a guy like me craves. I have a gluttonous side, and I know that’s not going to help me be a spiritually better person.
How does weed fit into that? Is it helpful? Probably no more helpful than alcohol. There’s no real help to it, but I’m addicted! I’m a first-rate addict. But I do have the dispensary, the Woods, and it wouldn’t be right to go in there and not have a puff. [Laughs.] But listen, I want to smoke less, and I do smoke less. I’m trying to evolve in as many ways as I can. I know I should just stop smoking, stop drinking, just eat raw food. All those things, I should do. But I’m the year of the ox — slow, trudging along. I’m going to get there though.
Are there ways in which acting helps you understand or improve yourself? Yeah. Even when you’re studying to do some barbaric type of character, like in “Natural Born Killers” — not a comfortable place to be in, but all of us have this dark side. You have your shadow, these things that in some way define an aspect of your character that is not your prettiest self. I think there’s a great deal of benefit to exploring that. Jung and some of these other guys think you should embrace your shadow, almost love your shadow. Maybe that is imperative to your overall growth: to accept yourself as you are, with all your faults.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Lynda Barry about the value of childlike thinking, Father Mike Schmitz about religious belief and Jerrod Carmichael on comedy and honesty.