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.