Two years after meeting Frankie Hyman in the summer of 1983 while working construction in Houston, Texas, Woody Harrelson became the breakout star of the hit TV comedy Cheers. Movie-star status soon followed with lead roles in White Men Can’t Jump and Indecent Proposal, but when a chance encounter reunited Harrelson with his old pal, the two began work on Bullet For Adolf, a play dramatizing that fateful summer. Even as he garnered Oscar nods for his riveting performances in The People vs. Larry Flynt and The Messenger, Harrelson kept one eye on the theater, with Broadway stints as an understudy in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues and a star turn in The Rainmaker, plus a directing credit for a Toronto production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. Now Harrelson is making his off-Broadway directorial debut, bringing Bullet to the New World Stages. Broadway.com recently chatted with the star about his meteoric rise to fame and why he works for your laughs only.
Congratulations on your off-Broadway debut as a playwright and director! How does it feel?
It feels really exciting! To present Bullet For Adolf to New York City has long been a dream of Frankie Hyman and mine. To finally be here, oh my God, it’s equal parts excitement and terror.
Bullet For Adolf is based on the summer you met Frankie Hyman. That title begs to be talked about.
It’s hard to tell you too much. Bullet involves the theft of a World War II artifact, and it was based on a real story. In some ways it’s a whodunit. All of the relationships are as they were. There’s a lot in it that is autobiographical, but we didn’t really have a plot. We had to overlay a fictional plot onto this play. People seem to require it [laughs].
You lost touch with Frankie after that summer, but you went to great lengths to find him again. Why?
He’s a deep, philosophical, interesting, heartfelt human being who had so much life experience, and I was fresh out of Hanover College. After that summer, we got involved in our lives, just trying to make it, but I’d call and talk to Frankie sometimes. I eventually lost track of him and felt like, “Oh my god, this guy means so much to me.” I hired a private investigator, and that didn’t work. So finally I gave a shoutout on [The Tonight Show with] Jay Leno and Frankie’s brother happened to be watching.
What was it like to write a play with one of your best buddies?
It was great, but it took a long time. It kept evolving. At first it was more dramatic so we kept knocking out things to make the play lighter and funnier. Ultimately we just want to make people laugh. We finish each other’s sentences—someone will start a joke, and the other guy will finish the joke. He and I have had our ups and downs in our friendship. We are both pretty headstrong, alpha dog-type people but when we're writing, we're usually getting along at our best.
What playwrights inspire you?
It’s changed. I used to like Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. My favorites now are more like August Wilson, and I really like Martin McDonagh. He has a wonderful, twisted sense of humor, and Frankie and I have that too.
Is Bullet For Adolf chock full of that "twisted" humor?
Definitely! If you are easily offended and you don’t like laughing, you shouldn’t see Adolf. But if you like having a great time, '80s music, great acting and genuinely twisted humor then Bullet For Adolf is for you.
Brandon Coffey plays the character based on you in Bullet For Adolf. Ever consider playing yourself? You are Woody Harrelson, after all!
Well, it’s a sad fact when I write material, I sometimes have to tell myself, “Sorry, you’re just too old for this part.” [Laughs.] The part is written for the age that we were at the time. I was 22 years old. And honestly I think Brandon plays me better than I play me. He’s a phenomenal actor. He’s really funny and charismatic on stage.
Could Bullet For Adolf be a movie?
It’s a good question I don’t really see it as a movie. I love theater. That’s my roots. That’s what I came from as an actor and what I’ve always been passionate about. I come into the city two or three times a year, just to check out plays.
People may be surprised to learn that you debuted on Broadway in Neil Simon’s 1985 play Biloxi Blues with Matthew Broderick.
That was my first professional role. Even though I was an understudy, I felt very happy just to be involved. It was a great learning experience to watch [director] Gene Saks, who frequently [worked with] Neil Simon, create what it became. And I did fall in love with Neil Simon’s daughter, which was probably kind of crazy. [On June 29, 1985, Harrelson married Nancy Simon; they divorced the following year.] That was a probably a threat to my longevity as an actor in that play, but she’s still a good friend.
Any plans to come back to Broadway?
Oh yeah! It’s been literally 15 years since I did The Rainmaker, which Scott Ellis directed. It was cool and pretty wonderful. My last experience in theater was five or six years ago in London in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, and I wasn’t really psyched about that experience. I’d love to come back, but only to do a comedy—hopefully something great, like Harvey. That was such a rich experience [for the audience], with beautiful writing and really, really funny. Something cool like that, which my buddy Scott Ellis directed, would be best.
Was it London or The Night of the Iguana that you weren’t really "psyched" about?
It was dramatic. It was one of those things that if everything worked perfectly, the audience walked out at the end feeling like they had been punched in the gut. I just decided I’ll never do another play that’s not a comedy. You won’t see me in Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. I’m just not gonna! You might see me in David Rabe or something, but I’m definitely doing comedy.
You have played so many iconic characters. What role do you hold closest to your heart?
That’s hard to say. There was a great excitement and a great deal of fun on the set of White Men Can’t Jump. On The Messenger, working with [writer] Oren Moverman, [actor] Ben Foster and Lawrence Inglee, the producer, and Bobby Bukowski, the cinematographer, was phenomenal. I loved that experience. I loved doing Zombieland. It would be hard to say, “This was my best experience.” There were a lot of great experiences along the road and hopefully a few more great ones ahead.
One of the most talked about franchises right now has to be The Hunger Games. Tell us about playing Haymitch Abernathy.
That was a pretty cool experience. [Director] Francis Lawrence, who is doing [the second film] Catching Fire, was over at the apartment and I told him this true story: You can’t imagine being the idiot that turned down The Hunger Games, but I actually did. I turned it down. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t feel like there was enough to do in the role. Luckily [director] Gary Ross came back to me. In the meantime I had read all the books and I was like, “Oh my god. This is great!” I felt kind of bad for passing it up. He said, “You gotta do it! I don’t have a second choice.” And I said, “Well, in that case, let’s do it.” What a fool I would have been if I passed it up.
How does it feel to have fans that range from Cheers to The Hunger Games?
It’s kind of that surreal. I guess you can call [fans] “friendly strangers.” It’s like being a hot girl: A lot of people come up and want to talk to you. You don’t really know them, but it’s cool because I like people. It’s been an incredible journey. I feel very lucky that people want shake my hand.
Speaking of hotness: You stay fit with yoga and you lead your cast in yoga too.
I have always been a big believer that as an actor, it’s best to be in a state of relaxation before you get into a scene or an entire play. So we do yoga, sometimes a little meditation and then vocal exercises. Your tools are much more accessible if you are relaxed as opposed to being tense and uptight.
You garnered so many accolades, including two Oscar nominations and six Emmy nominations. Have you ever thought, “Wow, I have officially made it?”
You never really rest on your laurels. I ran into Robert Plant at the Mercer Hotel. I really love Led Zeppelin and I said, “You must feel phenomenal about all that you’ve accomplished.” And he said, “You don’t rest on your laurels. You don’t live on what you did.” If you had made all of the music Led Zepplin did, made you might say, “Hey, I’m moving to an island. I've got all the money I need.” But performers just want to keep performing.
Beyond Bullet For Adolf, what’s next for Woody Harrelson?
I’d like to keep directing. I’ve got three screenplays all about three-quarters written [laughs]. I don’t know which one I want to tackle first. They are all comedies. I love making people laugh. If I get the opportunity to continue to make people laugh, that suits me just fine.
See Woody Harrelson’s Bullet For Adolf at New World Stages.