Actor Woody Harrelson stars in "Rampart." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Woody Harrelson wants the windows down. "Do you mind if we go old style on this? I don't like air conditioning." The journalist at the wheel of the Honda Accord jabs a button and the famous passenger gets a face full of Sunset Strip. Harrelson is used to breathing in paradise — he lives in Maui most of the time — but even West Hollywood tastes sweet when you feel like you're smothering. "Yeah," the 50-year-old star said, "that's better already."
It's understandable if Harrelson needs to remind himself to breath deeply right about now. A few months ago he was viewed as a likely Oscar and Golden Globe contender for playing an unhinged LAPD cop in the new drama "Rampart," but any chances he had for a nomination got lost in the mail. The DVD screeners of the film sent to awards voters had been compressed and replicated incorrectly and were, essentially, unwatchable.
"It's just frustrating," Harrelson said. "They send out the screeners and they're defective; 3,500 defective screeners. They couldn't just re-send, either. There's a policy with the academy that, unless someone asks — like, specifically writes a letter to ask — it doesn't happen. Look, if I'm watching a screener and one them is defective I just toss it aside, there's plenty more to watch. It's a bit of a bummer."
"Rampart" opens in commercial release this weekend (it had a one-week run in November in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the trophy season) as something of a cinematic hot mess. Some movie critics are conflicted about the film's accomplishments but almost all admired director Oren Moverman's risks and the work of Harrelson. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, for instance, praised the "intricate demonic force" that Harrelson invested in bad-cop Dave Brown but also acknowledged that the movie "won't be for everyone."
Early on, Harrelson wasn't completely sure the movie was him, either. As a "happy hippie from Hawaii," as he describes himself, wearing the uniform and scowl of a racist renegade cop was a challenge, but he very much wanted to reunite with director Moverman and costar Ben Foster, the team that worked on "The Messenger," the 2009 film which did net Harrelson an Oscar nomination.
Harrelson dropped 30 pounds, spent two weeks on ride-alongs with cops and former cops and hit the gun range, all to take aim at something authentic in his portrayal.
"The first time I put on the uniform it just didn't feel real to me, it felt like Halloween, just a costume," Harrelson said. "But Oren saw me and was like, 'Yes!' He could see it, but I just couldn't at that point. That was a month before shooting. Eventually I started to feel I was in the spin of this guy. It's amazing how things can shift. The thing is I have to make myself believe it or nobody else will."
Harrelson has played characters with deranged charisma — his work in "Natural Born Killers," "Zombieland" and "No Country for Old Men" spring to mind — but none of them affected him the way this role did, he said during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
Friends picked up on "this sort of perpetual paranoia and anger at the world" that was bouncing around inside the actor's cranium during the seven-week shoot and they were relieved after he took off the uniform. Harrelson said he found that dark energy in the script and in his investigations of the hard-edged lawman mentality.
"Aside from all the other research — reading every book or watching documentaries, movies, anything to do with cops and just trying to absorb as much as I could about cops and also specifically about the LAPD and the history of it — I felt like the thing that helped the most was riding along with these guys," Harrelson said. "And going from being a little nervous and shocked at what I was seeing to, you know, really respecting these guys and feeling the humanity in these guys and feeling like, 'I could be a cop.'"
Harrelson said that he gained fresh insight into their culture and level of commitment — things that helped him understand what the young version of Dave Brown might have been like, the uncorrupted one that joined the force with intention to do good.
Harrelson's politics and liberal stand toward marijuana don't make him the kind of actor that cops ask for autographs so there were uneasy looks on both sides when the actor was introduced to the veteran officers who took him on patrol to research his role. Chic Daniel, who retired from the LAPD after 26 years on the job, was one of the veterans who took Harrelson on patrol of the city's meaner streets.