“Look at the first word at the top of the page. You see it? Got it?”
Woody Harrelson is in his penthouse suite at the Soho Grand. He’s got a yellowing dime-store paperback in my face. He’s asked me to pick the first word on the page and is trying to conjure up a little magic.
“Now, what I want you to do is focus on that word and project it on a giant white screen, almost as if you’re painting it.”
The natural light is fading as the midwinter Manhattan evening turns to night, but Harrelson hasn’t seen fit to turn the incandescents on just yet. In the almost-dark, standing before me in a hooded sweatshirt and turtleneck, arm outstretched, there’s something almost mystical about him. A mad monk in a Louis Vuitton night-watchman’s knit.
“OK, now, I get a sense already it’s not a short word…probably anywhere from five to eight letters, I would say. I would say it’s closer to eight than it is to five. Between seven and eight letters….OK, now just try not to show any reaction. I’m just going to go through the vowels. A. E. I.…”
He goes on like this, scanning my face for clues as he tries to divine my word one letter at a time.
“There’s an S? Is S the first letter? It’s not?”
He gives a down-home chuckle as he registers his mistake.
“I can’t read it all necessarily.”
Woodrow Tracy Harrelson is 50 years old and yoga fit, still balding handsomely and still in possession of the rogue’s gallery of teeth that constitute his smile, which he can’t suppress when his Jedi mind trick fails. He’s in New York on break from filming a bank-heist flick in New Orleans in which he plays a mentalist (thus the magic), and he’s just wrapped a long day of promotional rounds for Rampart, a dirty-cop drama that, had it been timed a little better, might have earned him his third Academy Award nomination.
Harrelson is nearly three decades removed from stumbling into millions of American living rooms as Woody Boyd on Cheers. And though he’s aged out of his leading-man prime of White Men Can’t Jump and Indecent Proposal, he’s as in demand as ever, typically in two types of roles. First there is the cog in the system that winds up asking some pretty serious questions, explicitly or otherwise, about the tattered state of the American moral fabric. See his 2009 performance as an Army casualty notification officer in 2009’s The Messenger; a tortured, crooked cop in Rampart (both films directed by talented upstart Oren Moverman), and, earlier this month, as Steve Schmidt in HBO’s Game Change, the oft-aghast Republican operative at the center of the 2008 McCain-Palin ticket. Second, there is Harrelson’s work in the mentor-figure, comic-relief, post-apocalyptic visionary category. See Zombieland and, later this month, his go as Haymitch, the boozy, beloved trainer to the teenage gladiators of The Hunger Games.