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
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on