You can practically hear Woody Harrelson’s grin sneaking up behind you. A tap on your shoulder, a swivel of your chair, and there it is in all its familiar glory: waggish, dimpled, gap-toothed. Despite his knack for playing tortured malcontents—he’s terrifying as a corrupt cop in his new movie, Rampart—Harrelson perpetually bears the expression of a kid who just farted.
Around that impish smile, everything else turns to soft focus, including a loud blur of people accompanying Harrelson as he enters the rooftop garden at the Soho House West Hollywood. Has he known them forever, or did they just meet? It’s hard to tell; he’s the same amount of friendly to everybody. The gang drops him off at our table in a flurry of hugs so chaotic I have to ask what just happened. “You know who that is,” he says. I suddenly realize that one of the gang members is Julia Roberts.
Harrelson ran in to her on his way in. “She hasn’t aged since the last time I saw her, fifteen years ago. It’s incredible!” he says. It seems chance meetings with Julia Roberts just happen when you’re a self-described “happy hippie,” taking life one wave at a time. Or maybe just when you’re visiting Soho House on Golden Globes weekend.
The waitress arrives. “Tap water, or you got some of your crazy-town water on you?” she asks. Harrelson came on his motorcycle, so he couldn’t bring a jug of distilled water from home like he usually does. “Someone asked Julie Andrews, ‘How have you stayed so young and vibrant?’ and she said, ‘I take my own water with me wherever I go.’ I always remembered that,” he says. (Harrelson, who collaborated last summer with friend Ziggy Marley on the pro-cannabis song “Wild and Free,” sometimes carries something else with him; when I inquire, too late, why we didn’t smoke pot together, he says, “You didn’t ask.”) Another waitress takes our food order. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” says Harrelson, and then orders five vegan dishes.
Harrelson is in town from Maui, where he spends his days beach-bumming with his wife, Laura; their three daughters, Deni, Zoe, and Makani; and poker-buddy neighbors Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson. But over the past few years, he has forged another brotherhood, with director Oren Moverman and actor Ben Foster, beginning with 2009’s The Messenger. He earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as an Army captain who delivers the bad news to families of dead soldiers. (It was his second nod, following a Best Actor nomination for The People vs. Larry Flynt in 1997.) Now Rampart, also directed by Moverman and co-starring Foster, has given Harrelson his most sinister role since Oliver Stone sent him on a serial-murdering spree in Natural Born Killers. In it, he’s David Brown, an LAPD officer who may have murdered a rapist but was definitely caught on videotape beating a black motorist.
Harrelson’s ability to play dark might have something to do with growing up the son of a contract killer who served life in prison for murdering a federal judge. Harrelson has had a few of his own minor brushes with the law, like the times he planted hemp seeds in Kentucky in protest of the state’s pot laws and scaled the Golden Gate Bridge carrying a banner condemning deforestation. He was nervous about convincingly playing a cop, so he went on ride-alongs and dropped nearly 30 pounds. “One-sixty was the glass floor,” he says. “I couldn’t break it. I wanted to get to 150. I was thinking The Machinist—Christian Bale, you know—borderline anorexic.”
Our food arrives. “Wow! This is a freakin’ feast!” cries Harrelson. “Have some more of these broccolinis,” he says, piling them onto my plate. “I just love that term: broccolini. Dig it!”
His excitement over fibrous greens is a temporary salve for Rampart’s disappointing awards snubs. Neither Harrelson nor the movie was nominated for Oscars or Golden Globes—perhaps because of the faulty, staticky DVD screeners that were mailed to awards voters. “Not to say we would have been nominated anyway,” says Harrelson, “but defective screeners are kind of a shot in the foot. I don’t care about awards. I just think it’s a great movie, and I want people to see it.”
Not too long ago, though, he wasn’t so high on Rampart and even talked openly about falling into a “depression” after watching a rough cut. “Just unwatchable,” says Harrelson. “I didn’t like the movie. I didn’t like my performance. I wanted to kill myself.” He was worried his trusted friend Moverman had been led astray by an editor, and Harrelson only agreed to attend the movie’s Toronto Film Festival premiere last September after Foster made him watch a more complete version. “I loved it,” Harrelson says. “I went up to Oren and said, ‘It takes a man to admit he’s wrong, and I was dead wrong.’ And we hugged and started crying.”
As we finish our food, Harrelson tells me he’s gained back 25 of the pounds he lost for Rampart, owing to what he calls “rich living—you know, eating heavy foods and going on benders, blazing through Europe drinking wine. I had a week and a half off in England, Amsterdam, and Spain and just went on a tear.”
The weight gain may have been accidental, but it served as preparation for Harrelson’s next job, in the film adaptation of the postapocalyptic teen-novel trilogy The Hunger Games. Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, drunken mentor to a young heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) competing with other teenagers in a televised battle to the death. It’s Harrelson’s first franchise role, and he’s learning the hard way to handle the scrutiny. He recently landed himself in trouble for accidentally divulging to an interviewer Lionsgate’s tentative plans to make four Hunger Games movies instead of three. “I don’t remember saying what they said I said, but I guess it happened,” he tells me, backtracking. But what was it that they said he said? “I ain’t gonna reveal it twice!”
We’re discussing the Republican debates—“Frightening,” says Harrelson, who plays McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt in HBO’s Game Change next month—when Roberts stops by again. “I felt bad eating that burger while you could see me,” she says. “I thought, ‘God, I hope he’s not looking over here while I’m chewing!’ ”
Another friend says hello. It’s Cameron Diaz. They joke briefly about things that might get their Soho House memberships revoked. (Harrelson: “You could chop down that tree over there.” Diaz: “Or dangle someone over the side of the building.”) After insisting that I take home our leftovers and promise they won’t go to waste, he’s out the door and back on his motorcycle.
From there it’s home to Hawaii for a few days before shooting the heist-thriller Now You See Me (he’ll be a bank-robbing magician). He’ll also soon appear in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy Seven Psychopaths (he’ll play another mental case). This fall he plans to come to New York to direct a semi-autobiographical play he co-wrote called Bullet for Adolf, inspired by his pre-fame life in Houston. “I just want to keep trying, because if I ever phone it in, I’m done,” he says. Now that he’s 50, though, he does hope he can start trying a little less. “It’s nice not to have to push anymore,” he says. “Now I’ve got a nice little downward coast.”