The white-trash element WOODY HARRELSON : SHOW PEOPLE - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

The white-trash element WOODY HARRELSON : SHOW PEOPLE

THERE comes a tide in the affairs of actors which . . . means they can't keep their private lives out of the press any longer. While Woody Harrelson was "into light comedy" - like Cheers - he could shame some of the journalists, some of the time, out of asking about his father's imprisonment for murder: "That's certainly the sensationalist way to go". But it's not going to work when the film you are publicising is called Natural Born Killers, and your director insists on discussing violence as a hereditary characteristic.

Charles Voyde Harrelson - enforcer, gambler, and man of education and charm - was first convicted of killing for hire when Woody was seven. Ten years later, in Texas, he was imprisoned for murdering federal judge John H Wood in what the FBI described as "the crime of the century". The father protests his innocence. The son believes it while acknowledging that Harrel-son senior has done "a lot of illegal stuff". As if anything were lacking from the story, he reportedly also confessed to having killed John F Ken-nedy, though he later withdrew that statement.

Charles Harrelson walked out on his family in 1968, but in adulthood Woody has rebuilt the relationship. "I don't see him as a murderer. I see him as Dad."

He's running late, but that's par for the course at a film festival - Venice - for an actor who spent most of the night in the hotel bar. He's drinking what looks like lemon juice now. "I'm definitely in the low gear," he complains, grabbing at a buzzing fly. "One more hour's sleep and I'd have caught it." His voice has a Texan twang.

At 33, he's less substantial in the flesh than he appears on the screen. Blond, with blue eyes not too close together; friendly, though edgy. But anyone in his position would be. Personal stuff apart, NBK (as the cast call it) caused a furore. Harrelson plays one of a pair of lovers on a killing spree, made into heroes by the (fictional) media. It has been suggested that the film provided a role model for 10 real-life killings in the States. Though the links were later shown to be unfounded, that led to a delay in the film's being given a British certificate. And concern remains not only about the sheer scale of the film's violence but as to whether Stone himself isn't guilty of glamorising his protagonists.

Echoing (or quoting) Stone, Harrelson claims the film's message, on the contrary, is that "love conquers the demon". He pronounces it "lurve". He says the film reflects the "chaos and madness" of young people's lives and claims to see "redemptive qualities" in the finished product which were missing from Quentin Tarantino's original script. (Tarantino later disowned the film, claiming that his screenplay had been altered beyond recognition.)

Life on the set, he says, "was like an MTV video. Oliver would jam on the music, the lights would be wild, sometimes they'd shoot shotgun blasts to get up the energy. In a movie about violence you have to show what you're attacking."

His character, Mickey, "is on a collision course with his own psyche". It's tempting to say the same of Harrelson. "My life has been this really strong push-pull," he once said. "I'm grappling between myself and my shadows." Professionally, from the sweet bar-mascot of Cheers onwards, his work shows a progression of which NBK is the logical conclusion.

He joined Cheers in 1985 and the part later won him an Emmy. At the same time he was pressing forward with a stage career, and it wasn't long before he was finding movie work too.

In Doc Hollywood, he was just a hick to Michael J Fox's city slicker, but in the basketball movie White Men Can't Jump he was half conman and half mark, playing off his own dopiness. The duality was used more strikingly in Indecent Proposal, where he sold his wife's body to Robert Redford and still managed to emerge as the romantic hero. But there was - rightly for the part - something weird about him in that film. Even playing a professional, an architect, "the white-trash element" in Harrelson (as Oliver Stone calls it) comes through very clearly.

Harrelson was raised in Houston and Ohio by his mother, a devoutly Presbyterian legal secretary. Diagnosed as hyperactive, dyslexic and emotionally disturbed, he was sent to a school for slow learners and prescribed the controversial drug Ritalin. He learnt to act in high school. He learnt to loosen up in college, where he arrived as a Bible-basher studying theology and left to look for work on Broadway.

But strange stories cluster about his family. Last autumn, for instance, a step-sister he was about to meet for the first time disappeared off a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico, amid suggestions she may have faked her own death to leave an abusive boyfriend. Harrelson himself once said he felt trapped in a relationship after more than three hours. A chain of girlfriends included Glenn Close, Carol Kane, Moon Zappa (daughter of Frank) and Brooke Shields, and there was a brief marriage to Neil Simon's daughter Nancy. Today he has a toddler by his former personal assistant Laura Louie.

He's a vegan who openly advocates recreational drug use. A practitioner of yoga, an environmentalist, a writer of poetry, a New Age teepee-dweller and a sitter on mountain tops in search of visions. Literally. He took a stand against the Gulf war, at real risk to his career, and played in a band called Urban Masaya. Rather than the fashionable Buddhism, he studies Hindu. "What I love is that there's destruction and then regeneration, know what I mean?"

He works on the elimination of desire - for women, for money - and practises non-ejaculatory Tantric sex, supposed to preserve energy. "I wasn't coming for three months making NBK." It would be easy to make him out an amiable fruitcake but his rapid rise suggests an element of toughness, and of calculation too.

"We have a 10-minute conversation and you say, `Oh, he's so open, so honest'. But I have definite walls at a certain point. I've had a lot of violence in my life. I've been in a lot of fights and had a lot of rage. I was hurt as a child, I guess a lot of us are, and rage is related to fear."

There is, Oliver Stone says, "a degree of violence that is buried in Woody. You see it in the eyes. He's not a goofball sweet charming guy all the way. Anybody who does yoga for sometimes eight hours a day has got to be suppressing something." A valid point. But it's only fair to say, by way of a retort, that Harrelson claims his NBK character is modelled on Oliver Stone.

Sarah Gristwood

! `Natural Born Killers' (18): Odeon West End (0426 915574) and nationwide from Friday.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week