Woody Harrelson Adds Playwright-Director to His List of Life's Roles
By Stuart Miller
Film and TV star Woody Harrelson sought a long-lost friend to co-write the new fact-inspired Off-Broadway comedy, Bullet for Adolf. Years after "Cheers," Woody still likes to make people laugh.
In the 95-degree heat, Woody Harrelson slides back into a lawn chair, puts his bare feet up and takes a sip of water. No, Harrelson is not relaxing at home with his wife and children in Hawaii. He's in the rehearsal room at the Snapple Theatre Center, directing Bullet for Adolf, a sharp-tongued comedy on race, trust and friendship he also co-wrote. The play opens at Off-Broadway's New World Stages on Aug. 8 following previews from July 19.
The room is stifling because it's a mid-July heat wave and Woody — he's one of those rare movie stars who is so friendly and low-key it seems too formal to call him by his last name — doesn't like air-conditioning. He assuages the cast by reminding them that the play is set in Houston "where it's always this hot." The chair, meanwhile, is part of the set and has been giving one of the actors trouble. In life, the serene star doesn't sweat the details but as a director "I find myself being interested in everything."
Forever beloved as Woody from "Cheers," he evolved into a movie star tackling riveting roles from "Natural Born Killers" to "Ramparts." But he never lost his school-age love for theatre that led him to a Broadway understudy role in Biloxi Blues before he was cast in "Cheers."
As his career took off, he wrote a basketball drama called 2 on 2 and starred in new works like Boys Next Door and classics like Edward Albee's Zoo Story. In 1999, he returned to Broadway to star in The Rainmaker and soon after starred with Sean Penn and Nick Nolte in San Francisco in Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss and twice in London's West End, including Night of the Iguana. He also directed Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth in Toronto.
But he always wanted to tell the story of that summer working construction in Houston in 1983. There, the Texas-born, Ohio-raised Woody became friends and roommates with Frankie Hyman, who came from Harlem and says, "I hadn't had white friends and Woody hadn't had any black friends."
Woody couldn't tell the Houston story without Hyman. "He's brilliant and has a terrific sense of humor," he says. Yet they lost touch once Woody went west. From Hollywood he hired a private investigator who hit dead ends. Finally, he "put a shout out" on the "Tonight Show."
Hyman's brother, who hadn't believed Hyman's proclamation of friendship with this celebrity, happened to be watching. "He called me up and said, 'I think that Woody you say you're friends with just mentioned your name,'" Hyman recalls.
Two years ago, they introduced one new character — their former boss Jurgen — as the catalyst, hosting a dinner party in which a "World War II artifact" disappears (both authors prefer maintaining some mystery); Bullet for Adolf finally took shape. (Hyman and others involved hated that name initially but Woody won them over.)
Even then, they only had the show "three-quarters finished — and it's generous to say that," Woody chuckles, until he found a theatre in Toronto to stage it last year. The deadline forced them to finish, though that led Woody to believe that the New York version would be a simple reproduction. "Nothing works like that," he laughs about the changes in lines, props, and blocking.
Woody has final say as director — and as the marquee name and the one with theatre experience — but he says "we get along best when we're writing together. Everything is fluid and we finish each other's sentences."
"The play is really good but there's always room for improvement," he says. "It's all about nuance — making moments a little richer, developing characters a little more or building the laughs."
While the play started as autobiography, it has become increasingly fictionalized, and Woody says, "the characters stand on their own now," allowing them to be ruthless about changes. He and Hyman added about three pages worth of new material but with three weeks to go he cut an entire scene. He's still looking to trim the two-hour play but that, he acknowledges, is mostly force of Hollywood habit, where comedies shouldn't stray beyond 90 minutes.
After this? Well, hard to say. Numerous films, of course, including "Hunger Games" sequels. He'd love to act on stage again but after an unsatisfying London experience with Night of the Iguana, it would have to be a comedy, "the right play, with the right director and the right cast."
Whatever the medium or his role, Woody wants more funny stuff. "The thing that makes me happiest in life is making people laugh."
He has discovered he loves writing and directing. "As an actor, even on a good project with a good director it's someone else's vision," he says. "I've always wanted to present what I think is funny and see if people laugh. I have twisted sense of humor — some might find it offensive."
The problem isn't conceiving projects, it's finishing them. "They say 'Hunger is the best sauce when it comes to eating,' and it's true for writers but I'm not hungry, I have too easy a life," he says. "I love just hanging out with my family in Maui. I'm doing nothing in the sense of not completing projects — I'm not getting work done, I'm getting life done."
He and Hyman are working two more plays, one a Bullet sequel, though that one is barely a scene so far ("three-quarters of one," he admits). And he has three screenplays that are "three-quarters written," he says, before confessing that one is "half-written. Okay, maybe a quarter."
But after a busy 2012, shifting from movies to theatre, acting to directing, he feels like he's on a roll. "Right now I'm in the mode of getting things done," he says.
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