No matter what he does with his life and career, we will always remember Woody Harrelson as the simple and genial bartender Woody Boyd from Cheers. So it always comes as a bit of a surprise when the 50-year-old actor takes on a disturbing role, as he did playing a serial murderer in Natural Born Killers (1994) and has does again now, portraying a detestable corrupt cop in Rampart.
In the film, his second with director Oren Moverman, with whom he made The Messenger, Harrelson gives an intense and unnerving performance as Dave Brown, a racist, sexist, homophobic, alcoholic, womanizing mess of an LAPD officer whose personal and professional life begins to unravel when he's caught on film brutally beating a black suspect. Complex sat with Harrelson recently and discussed going to the dark side of law enforcement, how and why he dropped weight for the role, what Jack Nicholson taught him about smoking, and his experience sharing scenes with Ice Cube.
Written by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
What made you want to play such a vile character?
Well, I thought that the character would be a great challenge. To play a likable character is... I don’t know if it’s as much of a challenge. I think there are things that are likable about him and I also think there are a lot of things that are not, and to me that's more intriguing.
Also it seemed like a great script and it was just freakin’ great to work with Oren [Moverman] again, who I really love and admire. He’s my brother and I’d do anything for him. It’s clear I mean that because I don’t get paid from these fuckin' movies. If I only did his movies I’d be on the poverty line.
The movie never explains why Dave is who he is, simply showing how his darkness is causing his world to fall apart. Did you feel you needed to determine the source of his bigotry and rage for yourself in order to play him?
Yeah, I mean, obviously I gotta know as many colors of his rainbow as I can. [Laughs.] "Colors of his rainbow"… It’s hard to think of Dave Brown as a rainbow but, really, you gotta know every color on your palate.
What were the positives that allowed you to see him as more than a monster?
He loves his family, he loves his children. I think he sometimes has a skewed way of expressing his affection maybe, but that, to me, was the core of the character that I related to the most.
Dave conspicuously doesn't eat, ingesting only cigarette smoke, alcohol, and pills—aside from a burrito he ravages while high, before vomiting it up. Where did that trait originate and what was the significance of his not eating for you?
Well, originally the character was meant to be kind of a cheeseburger eating, heavy-set guy but I didn’t wanna put on 40, 50 lbs., so... You know, I like to think I'm a dedicated actor but I'm not that dedicated. [Laughs.] I'm not De Niro dedicated.
I also thought it would be interesting—it's really connected to his inability to accept love, his is inability to take in food. It almost nauseates him. So I lost 29 lbs. instead of gaining 50 and I thought it was a more interesting take on the character. Or maybe you know necessity is the mother of invention. Ultimately Oren thought that was a good idea too.
The guy was actually taking a beating. I didn’t like doing it, especially because we did it over and over and there was paparazzi all around capturing it on film, which really bugged me…
I read that you asked Christian Bale, who went skeletal for The Machinist, how to lose all that weight. What advice did he give you?
He said don’t eat, just run and run and run, there’s no short cuts. And he was right.
How long did it take you to lose the weight?
About a month and a half. I started it fasting and then ultimately I adopted a very low caloric intake.
What effect did the diet have on you?
It was another thing that put me into the mind-set of the character more, 'cause there is real hunger to this guy, there is an an insatiable appetite that can’t be satiated with food or anything else. My hunger could have been satiated with food. [Laughs.]
Also, it gave him that wiry kind of energy—it’s hard to describe but it’s different. I really actually wanted it to be more like Christian Bale in The Machinist but then I realized later that that would not have fit. He would have been too distracting, so I've rationalized my inability to do what Christian Bale did.
What police training went into the role?
I spent a lot of time on ride-alongs with these cops in L.A., agents Bob and Jerry—but they call Bob "Boston" 'cause he’s from Boston and he has this great accent. Really interesting, cool guys who had a lot of a great insights into being cops. There is a lot of stuff that they taught me and even stuff that we used but never made it into the film. That helped really more than anything 'cause I was having trouble believing that I could be a cop. I just couldn’t see it, so it helped to spend time with those guys and find the humanity in them.
How did they feel about this corrupt cop character and revisiting this really shameful period of LAPD history?
Well, interestingly, I was told we would be going by the name End Of Watch and I was not supposed to say anything about Rampart. Just don't mention it. [Laughs.] It's obviously a very controversial thing. Of course, about the second, maybe the third ride along with those guys, I accidentally said, “You know, Rampart is a…” and they were like “What?” “Oh, I mean the movie...” “Oh wait, it’s about Rampart?” “Well no, not really…but it is called Rampart.” “Oh, I thought it was called End Of Watch.” “Well, no…um…” [Laughs.]
It was kind of weird for a minute but then these guys are really cool and they were just totally cool with it. I told them it’s not a historical account of Rampart. I'm not even sure it would have bothered them if it was.
You're a raw vegan and generally very health conscious. What was it like to be constantly puffing on cigarettes for this role?
That was weird. It was something that I didn’t even know if I could pull off 'cause you see people smoke who don’t smoke and it looks fake. So I got a little tutorial from Jack Nicholson which helped me. He showed me about the holding of the cigarette and the tapping of the pack, several little things that I needed to try to absorb. And that [tutorial] is probably also why I smoke so much; he explained to me that you smoke after you have sex, you smoke after a meal, you smoke after a movie. You're always smoking, I realized. [Laughs.] And you certainly smoke when you're anxious, and there’s a lot of anxiety going on with Dave.
How did putting on a police officer’s uniform make you feel?
I felt like a cop! [Laughs.] I really did. There was a time where I was riding around wherever I wanted—there’s cameras in the car but you can’t really see them—and some stuff was set up around the neighborhood. You see it a little bit in the beginning where I [pull up to a dice game of illegal immigrants] and all these guys run.
It was interesting the level of compassion [the cops I did ride-alongs with] had for the character because they see the temptation, they see that every cop has to deal with that in his own way.
But then there was also stuff that happened where I would stop and talk to a guy for a while who was working on some house and he had no idea I wasn’t a cop. He didn’t realize he was in a movie until they came back later and asked him to sign a waiver. Those moments were great. It was really amazing to feel that, like what it must feel like to be a cop cause, wow, what a thing to be a cop. It’s an amazing, kinda heady position, 'cause you are really the ultimate authority, period. Like, even a senator is gonna put his hands on his head and do what he’s told by to a cop.
Dave erupts in violence at several points in the film. How much of that physical brutality was improvised?
There is a great deal of improv but there is no choreography because the way [cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski shoots things, he lights the area and it's really wide open. It’s amazing how wide open it is. And that’s the beauty of working with Oren, because it’s kind of like anything can happen, and many times really unexpected things did happen. And yet you feel really safe because this freaking genius named Oren Moverman, you trust more than your brother and he really takes care of you, so it's a pretty cool way to work.
There's a scene early on where Dave beats and nearly kills a fleeing suspect. How difficult was filming that for you?
I didn’t much like shooting that scene. It’s hard because if you are kicking someone and you are not really kicking them then it looks fake, so you gotta try to make it look real. Although he is a stunt guy who used to be a Navy SEAL and he was very padded up it’s still no joke. The guy was actually taking a beating. I didn’t like doing it, especially because we did it over and over and there was paparazzi all around capturing it on film, which really bugged me… Yeah, that wasn’t my favorite scene. [Laughs.]
There's another brief physical altercation during an emotional scene with Brie Larson, who plays Dave's disapproving lesbian daughter, that seems like it would also be very uncomfortable.
I didn’t know she was gonna hit me and I didn’t know I was going to react like that but it’s exciting. Those scenes with the kids were the most difficult ones—in particularly that one with Brie. That was her first day and she came in and delivered.
That girl, the sky’s the limit for her. I think she’s a really great actress. Her part was not that big but she was so good. She’s good at improv, too; every scene with her grew into something better and bigger. The movie was not as focused on the family as it became but Oren went in the editing room and saw these are the most compelling scenes.
What was it like working with Ice Cube, who plays an investigator for the D.A.?
I really liked working with him. He is really good. When [Oren] first told me, I was like, “Ice Cube to play a D.A. investigator? What?” I didn’t have the big picture the way Oren does, and then once we were on the set doing it, I was like, you couldn’t have a better person playing this part. I thought it was perfect casting. I thought he was a really good actor. I mean, I thought that before but it was really a pleasure working with him. Totally professional, totally prepared and ready to go, and up for improv as well.
This one scene where he is saying get your stuff packed 'cause you're going up river, I ran back at him and fucking grabbed him. He didn’t know that was coming, that wasn’t in the script; as far as he was concerned I was gonna say it from across the street, and then I fucking grabbed him and got up in his face, “I been up river motherfucker!” and the way he responds... He's up for anything and he is really versatile actor. A lot of flexibility.
Dave lives next to his two ex wives, sisters (played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) with whom he has a daughter each. As a married man with three daughters of your own, was there anything that you brought of your personal relationships into the dysfunctional relationships that Dave has with this world of women he inhabits?
Yeah, I'm in a world of women, I'm surrounded by women—my three daughters, my wife, my dog. One fine bitch she is. You can use that term in that situation! [Laughs.] I have a great relationship with my daughters but certainly the level of love and caring that we have kinda played into my relationship with my on-screen daughters and I really felt like those were some intense scenes. I was bawling after those scenes, just bawling, really. It touched on a real emotional nerve.
Have you gotten any feedback on the movie and character from the cops you rode with or other police officers?
Yeah, some cops have really responded well. I mean, the two cops who I was mostly doing my ride-alongs with liked the movie but they said they thought there was gonna be more action and violence. [Laughs.] I thought that was cool. It was interesting the level of compassion they had for the character because they see that stuff—neither of them are corrupt but they see the temptation for it, they see that every cop has to deal with that in his own way, and then they see this guy spiral out of control and they say, you know, it’s just too bad. [Laughs.]
Written by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)