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Lately, Woody Harrelson has been offering up some larger than life characters on the screen: Tallahassee the Twinkie-lovin’ killer of the undead in Zombieland and Charlie Frost the end-of-the-world prophet in 2012 among them. But it’s his understated performance as a casualty notification officer in The Messenger that’s giving the actor his first major Oscar buzz since The People vs. Larry Flynt. Harrelson explains what he did to prepare for the role, how it changed his view on the military, and how being the bearer of bad news is never easy …
Q: You’ll have three movies out — Zombieland, 2012, and now The Messenger — and all of them are about death in a way.
A: I hadn’t really thought about that commonality until now, but that’s kind of true. The others aren’t really dealing with death as much as the death of the world, post-apocalyptic and “the end is nigh” for everybody. The most confrontation I’ve had with death is when people have had to tell me about someone close to me passing. We’ve all had that. It’s an impossible task, and the person delivering the news has to just get out of
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the way. There are certain protocols they have in the Army and the rest of the military, but there’s no easy way to do it. You just say, “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you…” And it’s the hardest job in the Army. Even people I met at Walter Reed who had lost an arm or a leg would say, “Oh, no, I don’t want to do that. I’d much rather go back into combat.” Nobody wants that job, because you’re walking in and breaking someone’s heart.
Q: How did you prepare for the role?
A: I was actually scared to death that I was going to botch this
thing, so I asked [director] Oren [Moverman] to give me some background
of Captain Tony Stone, and he sent me a couple of pages that were
really helpful, stuff in his past. He sent me Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried,
and a couple of other books. He also had me walk around in my Class As
and my fatigues. One thing I used to do was run around the park,
plodding around in my own harmless way, and then I’d start thinking
about how would Tony Stone run? And then I’d just pick up the pace and
be more strong and confident.
Q: Your character has to put his own emotions and beliefs
aside in order to do his job. Was there a parallel for you, as an
A: As my character, I have to be stoic, but in reality, as soon
as they say, “Cut,” I’d start bawling. And it was fairly chaotic how we
shot the notification scenes, because we didn’t rehearse or meet the
actors on the other side until we shot the scene. So it was really
unpredictable. We didn’t know who was going to open the door, if they
would let us in, and if they did let us in, where would we stand? I
thought it was a really smart way to shoot it. It gave it a sense of
believability. I mean, there was a script, but there were still a still
a lot of things we didn’t know how it would turn out — maybe you’d get
slapped. There was a real spontaneity.
Q: Did you put aside your own beliefs, considering you’re playing a soldier when you’re anti-war/pro-peace?
A: For me, this whole thing has been a journey of the heart, and
an opening to what’s going on with those soldiers. I’ve always been
concerned with the victims of war. But the big missing piece of my
understanding was to find out what’s going on with the soldiers. Having
spent time with the soldiers and hearing their stories was a great
thing for me, because I used to just lump the men into the war at
large. And so now I do support the troops, and I think part of
supporting them is not getting behind the concept of sending them into
harm’s way for resources.
Before this film, I could never imagine being a soldier. There
are a lot of reasons I think I’d make a lousy soldier — I don’t do
well with authority, for one — and it was nice to try to fit your
mindset into another framework. Like when I did Battle in Seattle,
about the WTO protests, I didn’t play a protester, which would have
been the more obvious choice. I played a cop. And then there’s my
character in 2012. I don’t think the end of the world is nigh,
although ecologically speaking, we’re pretty much right on target. But
I still have hope that we’re going to survive as a species.
Q: Is this a tougher sell than 2012?
A: I feel great about this film, and the response has been
incredible — especially the response by soldiers and Vietnam vets. Tim
O’Brien loved it. I know it’s going to be a hard movie to sell, because
on the surface it seems depressing, but I think it’s uplifting in many
ways. But if you’re not prepared to feel something, then this is
definitely not the movie to go see.