In his three decades of acting, Woody Harrelson has gleefully taken on the roles of serial killers, psychopathic zombie hunters, and criminally stupid bartenders, but in his 50th year of life, he finally took a role that forced him to exhibit his greatest demons: a uniformed officer of the LAPD.
And not only a police officer, but a very, very bad one, teetering on the edge of sanity and lawlessness in Rampart, a new movie by director Oren Moverman. The film is a rematch for Harrelson and Moverman, who previously took the actor to other dark places in The Messenger. In that 2009 film, Harrelson—often thought of as a comic talent because of his Cheers beginnings—showed again he could be a Serious Actor, as a soldier who brings the news to families that their son or husband has been killed in combat. “He said he never wanted to play a soldier and he never wanted to play a cop,” said Moverman in an interview. “So I cast him as a soldier and now I’ve cast him as a cop.”
The Messenger earned Harrelson a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and there is a chance his performance in Rampart could bring another nod (he has already been nominated for Best Actor, in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt). Moverman said, “I knew he would be uncomfortable playing a cop, and I thought that would be great to get him out of his comfort zone. And when Woody’s out of his comfort zone, he works harder to convince himself that he’s true to the part.”
Moverman’s plans for him aside, Harrelson initially recoiled at such a step. An outspoken marijuana-rights activist with at least three arrests to his name, Harrelson’s easy Texas drawl becomes sharp and hard when he recalls his first reaction to the character upon reading the script, “I thought he was an asshole,” he said. “And I was like, Jesus. I don’t want to play this guy.”