Listen to this article
Woody Harrelson is explaining why he recently began smoking pot again after more than a year off. “I gave up giving up,” he says in a slow drawl. Redolent of so many of his movies, it is pitched somewhere between his childhood homes of Texas and Ohio. In interviews last year the Hollywood hellraiser said it was time to quit after three decades of hard partying but Willie Nelson, his close friend and neighbour in Hawaii, where he now lives, seems to have turned his head: the country music star is perhaps America’s most famous stoner (he even has his own cannabis brand, Willie’s Reserve). “He was a corrupting influence,” Harrelson says with a slow, low laugh: even his chuckles seem to be at half-speed. Some people self-medicate with pot to get through the day when life is too hectic, but not Harrelson. “My life is not too hectic now,” the 56-year-old says. “In fairness, it’s pretty great. But everything can be slightly augmented.”
We are in Farmacy, a Notting Hill vegan restaurant filled with plants that is a regular hang-out when he is in London: the owner, Camilla Fayed, daughter of Harrods’ former owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, even comes over to give him a hug when she spots him. A vegan since 1990, he says he likes the place because the food he eats these days is mostly raw. “I got hip to raw food probably more than 20 years ago and was like . . . damn! What a cool thing.” He starts riffing about a book he read on healthy eating and the importance of enzymes. “If you cook or process food then you kill those enzymes.” They are, he says, the “life-force” of food. A raw meal for him it is, then. He laughs again: although he may not be fully baked today he gives the confident impression of being lightly toasted.
Then again, maybe not. Before our lunch I watched clips of interviews he gave during his weed hiatus last year and his manner was just the same: stoned or not, a friend of his later tells me he is like this all the time. We are supposed to meet at 12.30pm and he is there early, wearing a blue T-shirt and a blue baseball cap embossed with Lost in London, the title of the film he produced and starred in last year. The movie was shot in one take and streamed live in cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a fictionalised account of the worst night of his life, bringing together two episodes that happened to him in 2002 when he fell foul of a News of the World sting and was arrested after an altercation with a London cabbie.
Lost in London is being released on iTunes this weekend and on the Hulu streaming service in the US but is likely to be overshadowed by his other new movie, Solo, the latest Star Wars spin-off; in a summer of blockbusters this will be one of the biggest. He had made his fair share of big studio films, such as The Hunger Games series and last year’s War for the Planet of the Apes — not to mention his Oscar-nominated performance this year as a small-town police chief in Martin McDonagh’s sparkling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But nothing tops the scale of Star Wars. It’s “the biggest you could dream of” for its sets and “all the other stuff”, he says. In Solo he plays Beckett, a criminal and mentor of sorts to Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo, with Donald Glover starring as the debonair smuggler Lando Calrissian. Harrelson breaks off from riffing about the movie to salute Glover, whose recent rap video “This is America”, delivered by his persona Childish Gambino, has been widely acclaimed for its searing look at race in America. “It’s got something like 180m views on YouTube. He’s phenomenal. One of those artists who has the ability like Michael Jackson to recognise the pulse of America.”
A waitress has arrived to take orders. Harrelson immediately orders an adaptogenic latte (the menu reveals that its ingredients include reishi and chaga, two types of Chinese mushroom, and the ho shu wu herb). “Don’t worry about all that Chinese herbal stuff, it’s really good,” he says. A round of adaptogenic lattes it is.
He knows the menu well but asks the waitress to recommend something for me, given that I am more of an enzyme-destroying carnivore. She rattles off a list of items and I choose a vegetable quesadilla; he goes for the Asian salad with a side order of avocado. Slightly concerned that the quesadilla may not be enough, I persuade him to share a mac ’n’ cheese with me (made with rice pasta, naturally, and a non-cheese sauce described in the menu as “cheese”). “Some people who actually eat mac ’n’ cheese on a regular basis might say, ‘Well this ain’t mac ’n’ cheese,’ ” he says. “But it’s beyond delicious.”
The waitress asks if we want the dishes to come all at once or the mac ’n’ cheese on its own to start, and Harrelson is momentarily confused. “I never understand when they ask that,” he says when she’s gone. “Do you want this first or that? I’m sitting here and those decisions are way beyond what I understand. Psychologically, I just don’t get it.”
The adaptogenic lattes arrive promptly and I am relieved to discover it tastes more of coconut milk than Chinese funghi. He tells me how much he likes London, having spent a lot of time filming here in recent years. “I even got that registered traveller thing because I’m coming in so much. I dig it.” He also likes the variety of English accents, listing some of his favourite local words, such as “knackered” and “chuffed”.
I want to know about the journey that took him to Hollywood — a journey that would itself be worthy of big-screen treatment. He lives in Maui with his wife, Laura, and their three daughters but was born in Texas and lived there until he was 12, raised by his mother in a Presbyterian household. Presbyterianism “is like Catholic-lite”, he says. “Half the ritual but all the guilt.”
He didn’t have much time with his father, who spent most of Harrelson’s childhood in prison: he was a contract killer associated with organised crime. I tentatively ask him about his dad, who died in 2007. He confirms he was in prison for much of his life but he clearly doesn’t want to elaborate. “We were poor,” he says of his childhood. “But my mom always took care of us [and] we always had food. It was a lot to raise three kids on her own as a secretary but she did it and she sure did look after us.”
After school he went to Hanover College in Indiana, where one of his fellow students was one Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s vice-president. “He was two years ahead of me,” he says. “I liked him. He was a pretty nice guy.” Both men were religious and Harrelson, who was studying theology, reveals that Pence once assisted him in arranging a sermon. “We had Wednesday night services and I did a sermon and he helped me with it, just trying to make sure everything was on point and all of it worked.”
I’m going to need something stronger than a mushroom latte to picture the rightwing evangelical vice-president collaborating on anything with one of Hollywood’s most renowned potheads, let alone a religious sermon. Understanding what led to their lives diverging then is also intriguing, given what I know about Harrelson’s longstanding belief in environmentalism (in 1996 he was arrested for scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to protest against the destruction of a Redwood grove) and his politics, having spoken in the past about his belief in anarchism. “Politics is businessmen working for bigger businessmen and it’s never going to be any different,” he says. What about his former fellow student, Pence? “It’s 35 years down the road. One of us still has his soul intact.”
The mac ’n’ cheese arrives and he does not appear to hear the waitress’s warning about the bowl being very hot. “Ow, ow, ow, that’s hot as shit!” he exclaims as he burns himself on it. It looks pretty cheesy for a non-cheesy dish, I say. “Nah, try it man,” he says, taking a forkful. “You’re going to love it.”
As we tuck in, I ask about his other connection with the current US administration. In 2002 he had dinner with Trump, who had invited Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and then governor of Minnesota, to Trump Tower in Manhattan. Ventura, an old friend, asked Harrelson along. Trump, he says “is not afraid of talking. Now, being overly talkative is not an uncommon trait. But he’s one of those people who start talking and literally three hours have gone by and they haven’t noticed that no one else said a word.”
Sounds like tough going, I say. “Yeah, it was heavy sledding. I had to go outside and fire up a hooter to summon the courage just to get back in for the second half.”
We have made short work of the mac ’n’ cheese, which tasted just like the real thing.As the main courses arrive, I ask how he went from Hanover to Hollywood. The more he learnt about religion, the more he realised it was “a man-made construct”, and the theatre was beckoning. He had done some acting at college and a friend asked if he wanted to move to New York. “It was perfect timing. Right as I was moving to New York, I shifted from being a Christian to a hedonist. I wasn’t an atheist . . . I was an agnostic and a hedonist.”
Almost immediately, he landed some theatrical roles and, in 1985, while visiting Los Angeles, won a part on Cheers playing Woody, an affable naïf from Indiana. He would appear in almost 200 episodes on the hit show, which made stars of its cast and teed up Harrelson’s subsequent career in movies. The cast seems to have been a close-knit group. I tell him I saw Ted Danson, one of his co-stars, on a late-night chat show recently recounting the time he and Harrelson took hallucinogenic mushrooms on a boat trip to Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles. “He said that?” he says, apparently unaware. “There are a lot of stories from back then that I thought would never come out and now one of them’s out, so that’s good.” The boat trip must have “needed some augmentation”.
He spent eight years on Cheers but avoided being typecast, going on to star in a flurry of movies, among them White Men Can’t Jump, Natural Born Killers and The People vs Larry Flynt, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. In the past decade he has hit a real purple patch, from his hired gun in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men in 2007 to his turn as a Louisiana detective hunting a serial killer in HBO’s magnificent True Detective series, to his Oscar-nominated role in Three Billboards.
I haven’t seen Solo yet but ask about the change in directors midway through the production, when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who had been filming for more than two months, were abruptly replaced by Ron Howard. “We’d already been shooting 70-something days and Ron came in. Not an easy thing for him.”
Why did Lord and Miller leave? “It really was creative differences. You hear that a lot but I think they were making a different movie and the powers that be did not necessarily want the kind of movie they were making and they didn’t want to keep butting heads.” He says he loves the film. “I thought there were a couple of things I did, little chuckles that could have been in there that I would have liked but I understand that it needs to be edited.” Still, Howard “made something fantastic”.
I wonder when an actor knows that the film they are making is going to be any good. On Three Billboards, “I don’t think any of us knew. I don’t even think Martin [McDonagh] knew. I thought it was really good writing but I wasn’t madly in love with the part. I would have been psyched to play Sam Rockwell’s part but I wasn’t that psyched about playing Chief Willoughby.”
This is surprising, because his understated performance as the stoic, small-town police chief suffering from cancer — and trying to rein in Frances McDormand’s tyro of a bereaved mother — is one of the film’s highlights. “It turns out the part wasn’t so bad,” he says. “And then as it turns out the whole movie wasn’t just good on the page. You watch it and suddenly — when did Martin McDonagh become one of the Coen Brothers?”
He remembers seeing it for the first time with McDonagh on a tiny monitor in a London editing suite. “I sat there next to him and watched the whole thing and afterwards I just looked at him and said: ‘Martin, I don’t even think you realise how great this is. You’re too close but you have something great.’ I was blown away by it.”
Ninety minutes into chewing our vegetables, I ask if he wants dessert, but he demurs. “I can be very gluttonous with food. I shouldn’t even have had the mac ’n’ cheese.” I wonder how he squares drinking alcohol with his strict rules about food. “It’s one of those little things that doesn’t really sit with my philosophical straightedge healthiness idea,” he says. “There’s just no squaring it. I drink beer but I try to drink the lightest drink possible.” He pauses, considering what he has just said. “On the other hand, sometimes you’ve just got to say, ‘F*** it.’ ”
He is about to embark on a European break. “I’m going to go hang out in Italy, Greece, Norway, Sweden.” That’s a good itinerary, I say. “I like to call it a friendship tour. A sweet name for a bender.” Even Hollywood’s most laid-back star needs some downtime.
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s global media editor
Get alerts on Woody Harrelson when a new story is published