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.

Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world