I’m taking a short break from the Career Therapist, so instead of offering an actor a few tips on how they can improve their career, this week, I want to commend an actor who, as the title might suggest, is actually doing some pretty cool things right now.
Part of me wonders how many people realize (or remember) that Woody Harrelson got his start showing up a few seasons into the TV show Cheers as the bartender also named Woody in 1983, but he’s come a long way from the fresh-faced and innocent 22-year-old that showed up in Sam Malone’s bar one day.
In the 34 years since then – and it’s really astounding to think it’s even been that long – Harrelson won an Emmy for his role on Cheers and then transitioned into a two-time Oscar nominee, working with some of the best directors in the business making memorable films like Natural Born Killers, The Thin Red Line, White Men Can’t Jump and others. Most of those movies were in the ‘80s and ‘90s and while Harrelson kept busy, the quality of his movies started tapering off through most of the ‘00s. (Except for Zombieland, which is one of my favorite movies from recent decades.)
It’s been twenty years since Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar playing Larry Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, and he shows very little signs of stopping. Last year, Harrelson was terrific in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, which closed the Toronto Film Festival, where Harrelson also could be seen in Rob Reiner’s LBJ (more on that below). That’s led to one of his strongest years in some time. (I should quickly add here that most of Harrelson’s recent roles might have come from after his stint on HBO’s True Detective, for which he really upped his game.)
Now, mind you, I’ve been a pretty big fan of Harrelson for some time, but it was only this year where I started to acknowledge that unlike many other actors his age, Woody isn’t just taken any gig that comes his way. Even when he does studio tentpoles like The Hunger Games, he’s bringing more to the characters he plays than one might normally expect. Part of that is his own personal charm, but he’s also able to play absolutely ruthless and loathsome villains.
But let’s focus on this year, which started with Wilson, the adaptation of Dan Clowes’ graphic novel that premiered at Sundance and was released a few months later. Mind you, not everyone can relate to Clowes’ style of dark humor or his quirky characters, but Harrelson immediately fit right into that world. He brought a charm to the title character’s grouchy personality that made it very hard to hate him.
Probably Woody’s biggest and most high-profile movie of the year was War of the Planet of the Apes, in which he played the Colonel, the film’s main antagonist. The movie received raves over the summer, and maybe mileage varied depending on whether you wanted something more fast-paced, but there’s no question that when Harrelson was on screen as the Colonel with Andy Serkis’ performance-captured Caesar, it was some of the movie’s strongest moments.
Far fewer people saw Dustin Cretton’s adaptation of The Glass Castle, which was mainly being sold based on Brie Larson, but Harrelson was really the heart and soul of the movie as her character’s father. Harrelson’s scenes with Larson were great, but so were his scenes with the young actors playing the younger version of her character. Like with The Edge of Seventeen, it showed how well Harrelson can work with younger less-experienced actors and really bring a lot to a scene.
A few weeks back, Rob Reiner’s LBJ opened to very little acclaim, which is a shame because Woody’s performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson during some of his most trying years is far better than many are giving it credit. In fact, the movie really didn’t get a lot of attention, which may be why it failed to make much of a mark in theaters. (At this point, I have no idea if LBJ is still playing anywhere or has been dumped for Justice League.) The movie isn’t by any means perfect, but Reiner seems to have a good handle on the material, as does Woody, which is why he was such a good pick to play the former President.
That brings us to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, the one movie that’s still playing in theaters and probably will get quite a bit of Oscar buzz after playing a few festivals. Much of the attention Martin (In Bruges) McDonagh’s movie has been getting has been for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell’s performances, but Harrelson plays the town’s well-liked sheriff who is the heart and soul of an otherwise fairly dark movie. Not sure I want to say too much about his role in the story, but his character has a terrific and unexpected subplot that gives Woody more to do than one might expect from an otherwise small role.
The point is that Harrelson played five very different roles this year, and he isn’t getting anywhere near the amount of credit or critical raves he should be getting for what he brought to the above five movies. Maybe we’ve just gotten to used to Woody being great at everything he does that we’re not able to appreciate the subtleties in his performances, but I can’t imagine any other actor being able to pull off what Harrelson did this year.
And then next year, Harrelson is appearing in Solo: A Star Wars Story, which will probably be one of the bigger movies of 2018. Although that movie lost its original directors, I’m sure Ron Howard will know what Woody is capable of and will give him lots of juicy scenes, and hopefully Woody will continue to make fascinating choices in the roles he takes.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor