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The two Woodys seen on-screen of late are a sort of strange amalgam of the real thing: An amateur American philosopher who also happens to have a world-class sense of humor that continues to function when the going gets really bad.
Over a couple of hours on a New York Friday night, Harrelson has it all on display. He’s been cooped up all day and is just now shaking it off. The remains of a raw-food feast are scattered on a dark wood table in the suite’s dining area: leafy greens and an orange-ish dressing, two large glass—and they’ve got to be glass—bottles of still water, a plate of honey crackers that taste shockingly great for having not been cooked, a half-finished glass of white wine. A heavy-looking coffee table is tipped on its side and shoved against a wall. Woody takes questions as he paces the living room, tries to flip a baseball cap onto his head using his foot and attempts, knees-to-chest, to crack his back on the ottoman.
No dice, Woody?
“A little bit. Some dice. One die.”
His mind’s all over the place. One minute he’s talking Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov, the next he’s spinning a yarn about the fight he got into on his last day of work as a short-order cook, before his acting career took off. It’s a long story that includes the following gem: “And so knowing that I’m gonna die, I figure: Oh well, let’s take an eye on the way out. So I reach back and I shove my finger in his eye socket....”
Harrelson would be almost avuncular if his own pale blue eyes, the dangerous-looking type, didn’t lase into you every few minutes. Without those eyes it would be easy to dismiss him as something of an eccentric uncle, the kind of guy who is quick with a card trick and might have bought his nephew a beer before he hit 21. But even a brief encounter with Harrelson reveals him to be a kind of searcher, the type of idiosyncratic soul that tends to serve as the protagonist in better Westerns or kung-fu flicks.
“Woody is a wise man,” says Jay Roach, who directed him in Game Change. “It’s a word that’s so obvious and a very general thing to say about someone, but he’s been through a lot. He cares deeply about people, and he’s always looking for meaning and is, I think, a deeply philosophical person. I seriously doubt he would describe himself that way…he, on the outside, doesn’t strike you as that thoughtful, because he is so laid-back. But two or three minutes into a conversation [with him], you’re in some deep territory.”
Harrelson is indeed prone to wax, at length, on any number of pet topics: his rigorous (but not militant) raw-food diet, his eco-activism and, of course, his unabashed stoner tendencies. But he also lacks much self-possession, a rare trick in an aging bohemian, and a quality that keeps any preachy tendencies in delightful check.
“Being in New York can certainly incline you a little bit more toward having a drink,” Harrelson says with an aw-shucks grin as he compares his current digs to the home he keeps in Hawaii, the one that’s around the corner from his buddies, and fellow travelers, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson. “I’m really doing more wholesome activities. I set them up so I’m not just left to my own devices, which might just be going out on the prowl in the Village, just looking for places to drink myself stupid—depending on what buddies I’m with.”
He explains that he has plans to venture to Williamsburg the following night but is a bit confused about the neighborhood demographic.
“Lot of hippies, right?” he asks.
“Hipsters! That’s what they said! They didn’t say hippies! Well, as long as they like jazz. I’m not quite a hippie, either. I’m more of a, you know, what do you call it? A style of poetry? Beat….”
You’re a beatnik, Woody?
“I think so.”