No, you're not in a hemp-induced hallucination; Woody Harrelson has been around a lot lately.

He slayed the undead last month in 'Zombieland' and this weekend will try to survive the end of the world in Roland Emmerich's latest disaster flick '2012.' But the Texan had a more serious subject on his mind when we met up with him this week in Manhattan; namely, his other film opening this weekend, 'The Messenger.'

A war film that focuses more on the home front than the battlefield -- in the vein of Hal Ashby's 'Coming Home' or 'The Last Detail' -- Harrelson and Ben Foster ('Pandorum') play two Army officers who have the agonizing responsibility of reporting the death of soldiers to their next of kin. In the process the two build an indelible friendship while battling their own personal demons. No, you're not in a hemp-induced hallucination; Woody Harrelson has been around a lot lately.

He slayed the undead last month in 'Zombieland' and this weekend will try to survive the end of the world in Roland Emmerich's latest disaster flick '2012.' But the Texan had a more serious subject on his mind when we met up with him this week in Manhattan; namely, his other film opening this weekend, 'The Messenger.'

A war film that focuses more on the home front than the battlefield -- in the vein of Hal Ashby's 'Coming Home' or 'The Last Detail' -- Harrelson and Ben Foster ('Pandorum') play two Army officers who have the agonizing responsibility of reporting the death of soldiers to their next of kin. In the process the two build an indelible friendship while battling their own personal demons.

Harrelson calls the film one of the most important experiences of his career, and though vehemently anti-war, as he explains here, he's found a deep-rooted respect for the soldiers who fight it.

You were in Romania shooting 'Bunraku' when filming on 'The Messenger' started. Was it tough to get into the head of your character, Capt. Tony Stone, having just come from another film?
I was completely at sea. I had a lot of self-doubt that I could play a soldier convincingly just because I'm this hippie from Texas, so I talked to [director Oren Moverman] and he sent me some good back story stuff. I was also walking around in my Class A's and my fatigues in Bucharest and reading books, including Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried,' just trying everything I could to get into the mindset of this character. Then when I landed here we went to Walter Reed Hospital and spent time with those soldiers and that was the key day where I felt like I went from just having an image of a soldier in my head to seeing the real thing in front of me.

People in the industry reportedly tried to talk Oren out of hiring you, saying that you were too much of a hippie to play a soldier. Did that drive you to take the role?
It was more of a battle to face my own doubts and fears. I didn't want people to go, "Yeah right, Woody's a soldier? Sure."


You did play a soldier before in 'Wag the Dog,' but that was a little different than this.
Oh, yeah. In that I never had any doubts because I wasn't even thinking of it as being a soldier but just someone who was crazy. But for 'The Messenger' luckily we had this great guy Lt. Col. Paul Sinor who was assigned to us and made sure we did things right. And a lot of times I would go to him to get ideas, like little tidbits that weren't in the script. Like the line, "I'd like to strap her on and wear her like a government-issued gas mask." There were a lot of little things like that.


Though the subject is about war and family loss, there is a lot of comedy in the film, it's almost like a buddy movie.
It is really if anything a love story. A love story of Ben's character falling in love with a widow (played by Samantha Morton) and it's also Ben and my character loving each other. It's a testament of how Oren captured all of these different relationships and deep emotions. I really think in the same way that Ben can be compared to a young James Dean or Marlon Brando I also feel Oren is like today's Hal Ashby.




Did you have to weigh your own objections about war to consider being in the film?
It was crucial for me, because I am anti-war and maybe there are some good wars but certainly an oil war is not one of them and I'm completely justified in being anti-these wars that are going on. The problem was I would just look at the war as everything was all wrong, I wasn't looking at any individual components, I wasn't looking at the soldiers specifically. To go and spend time with these guys and caring about what they've gone though, that was a big deal for me. So while I continue to be anti-war I'm 100 percent sympathetic to the soldiers.


For the notification scenes you and Ben didn't rehearse with the actors you were giving the news to. Steve Buscemi plays one of the next of kin, did you even know he would be in the scene?
We knew that Steve would do the scene that day, but we didn't talk to him and I'd never met him before. But we didn't know how he would react. When he pushes Ben, that was in the moment. That was the first take we did with Steve. All of that was one take. It's really amazing how that scene was captured.


You've done a lot of comedies, most recently 'Zombieland' and the upcoming 'Defendor.' Is this a coincidence?
I really just want to do comedies. But I read a script by Oren two days ago, it's an intense drama, I had to say yes immediately. So maybe I'm just going to do dramas now. [laughs]


So are you more tired of answering questions about being a vegan or being pro-hemp?
Ah, [laughs] both.


Well, let's talk about the environment then. You did the documentary 'Go Further' in 2003. It only played at festivals, but you explored many of the issues that in the last few years have been made into popular documentaries -- global warming ('An Inconvenient Truth'), the food industry ('Food, Inc.'), alternates to gas-powered vehicles ('Who Killed the Electric Car?') -- do you feel you haven't gotten enough credit for being a voice for the environment?
There's no consolation in saying I told you so and it won't be when we all go down in a fiery heap, to me I'm happy that there's more consciousness, but nothing's changed. All the industries that are the root cause of it are still able to do their thing. All these industries that I call The Beast -- oil, coal, nuclear -- these industries are getting huge subsidies and incredible tax breaks and their raping mother earth on a daily basis. It's got to change and that's why I initially got into the whole hemp thing because I see that you can make clothing, fuel, building materials, paper. I think change is coming but The Beast is still out there.


You've worked with so many great directors. Is there one you'd like to work with again?
The Farrellys [who directed Harrelson in 'Kingpin']. I'd love to do something with them again. I love those guys. I actually wrote three quarters of a screenplay of Peter Farrelly's novel, 'The Comedy Writer,' so if I can finish that I wouldn't mind doing that as a movie. I think that would be really funny.




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