At first, Woody Harrelson appears to fit the primary stereotype about him: He seems like he’s stoned. While chatting with Vulture at Manhattan’s Whitby Hotel over the weekend, he declined to sit in the interview chair selected by his publicist, opting instead to lie on his king-sized bed, stretching his legs by grabbing his shoeless feet. Harrelson spoke in between long pauses, stretching his words like taffy and squinting his eyes to ponder each point he made. His Texas drawl floated in the air like smoke from a joint. But no, that’s just how he is. Woody’s not stoned. Indeed, he hasn’t been for nearly a year.
Harrelson was in town to promote his latest film, Craig Johnson’s comic adaptation, Wilson, in which he plays the title character — a socially awkward malcontent who insists on discussing the universe with total strangers and convincing his ex-wife to join him in pursuing their long-lost daughter. At the movie’s press day, he spoke to Vulture about his own social awkwardness, the status of his LBJ biopic, and why he’s decided to quit pot for the time being.
Let’s get to the most important question: What was it like working with Pepper, Wilson’s dog?
It’s cool. [Laughs] That dog was very interested in getting treats, so that was his big deal. Getting those treats. Loved getting ’em. Well, I guess most dogs are like that.
Your co-stars told me your trailer is a decked-out bus called the Mothership. Did the dog get to visit the Mothership?
[A long pause] No.
No dogs allowed on the Mothership.
Never went on the Mothership. That’s true, yeah.
How long have you had the Mothership?
The same bus all that time?
Well, no. I’ve redone it entirely three times: the interior, redone the undercarriage a couple of times, the engine, everything. It’s just a giant money pit, but I still love it. I love her.
“Her.” So she’s like a sailing vessel.
That’s right. The Mothership. [Laughs.]
Why take this role? Why did this movie appeal to you?
Well, I’m really more or less in the habit of … Having had some experiences where I was just like, That was stupid that I did that movie, I learned one thing — the most important thing is the director. The second most important thing? The director. [Laughs.] The third most important thing? The director. My god, if you don’t have a great director … And I’ve watched [Craig Johnson’s previous film] Skeleton Twins and I was really impressed by that.
What parts of you are in Wilson, and vice versa?
Well, I consider myself very gregarious. I do love people. I get touched by people. Even people I just meet really briefly. I just kind of size ’em up and be like … I get a sense of who they are, and their life, and something about it touches me. But I think part of that is in Wilson, and I do think also, sometimes I’m a little socially awkward, you know?
You? That seems unlikely.
I like to think of myself as cool and calm and collected and really a good communicator, but I gotta say, sometimes I’m just absolutely terrible. If there’s some pressure, you know what I mean? If it’s a thing where I feel like, Uh, I have to … Say, my daughter’s school. I’ll just be standing there with some people that I don’t really know very well, or just very peripherally, and trying to make conversation. Maybe I try too hard or I … You know what I mean? I don’t know if you ever have that.
Of course I do.
If there’s no expectation, then I can usually be okay.
So you must hate press days like this one.
Yeah, that’s a good example. I do sometimes get quite awkward in press situations. For example: talk shows. I do tend to try to avoid ’em. I mean you have to do ’em, sometimes you just have to. I’m doing it tomorrow.
What’s a misconception that people have about you?
[Another long pause.] They think I’m a party animal, which … I am a party animal. I mean, that might be one thing. But I am a party animal. But on the other hand, I haven’t … I’m now extremely moderate and … I actually stopped smoking pot almost a year ago.
Mazel tov. That’s not easy. I’m also in the process of trying to quit.
Yeah, I had a problem with it.
Why? Just too much?
It messes with my head and makes me less productive.
Yeah, that was a little bit of my issue. Just 30 solid years of just partying too fucking hard.
What do you do to keep from relapsing?
Well, like, last night, someone had — not just good herb but sativa; really good sativa. There’s a joint, and beautifully rolled. I like a beautifully rolled … and I just was like, I mean, I’ve gone this long. It would be weird to just be like, “Okay, let me have a hit off that,” and then suddenly go back to smoking too much, which is … I don’t have a problem at all with smoking. I think it’s great. I think it’s a great drug, in terms of … Even cops say that the side effect is euphoria. Or the … what do you call it?
Right. The effect of it is euphoria. But when you’re doing it all the time, it just becomes … Well, you know. I feel like it was keeping me from being emotionally available. I really don’t want this interview to turn into a whole thing about that.
Well, congratulations. It’s not easy.
I still drink. But I try to be moderate with the drinking, too.
Back to the movie. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Wilson is sitting with his daughter and looking out at nature and a little frog comes by and he talks about how beautiful it is. What do you remember of shooting that?
That joke that we make is — my daughter came up with that joke.
Yeah. “What did the frog say to the fly? ‘Slurp!’”
Your daughter has a future in comedy.
I thought it was pretty good! [Laughs.] Yeah, she’s only like 8, and she came up with that. I’m like, “That’s pretty good, man.” So I used it.
What’s the status of the movie where you play LBJ, the one directed by Rob Reiner? Last I heard, it was still in want of a distributor.
I haven’t checked back on that lately. They were talking to some distributor. Another LBJ movie came out just before us, so it’s a little bit …
The one with Bryan Cranston.
Yeah, and Bryan Cranston was phenomenal. So I don’t know. I think it’s a terrific movie. I mean, I thought it’d be good, it’s Rob Reiner, but I didn’t think it’d be that good. I thought it turned out fantastic. It’s like, to me, in terms of a political … I guess you could call it a drama, but there’s quite a bit of comedy. But in terms of political drama, I thought it was one of the best I’d seen, about a fascinating character. Maybe even more relevant now than ever, probably, in light of our current situation.
You’ve been in the hustle for a long time. What’s something you only recently learned about yourself as an actor?
I remember hearing this thing that … I think it was Brando who said [does Marlon Brando impression], “Just because I say action doesn’t mean I have to do anything.” That statement really hit me. Brando’s ability to just say, This is me in action. Not rushing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my strengths, but I do think it’s something I’d like to be able to just … working with Hailee Steinfeld [in The Edge of Seventeen] — she’s a very young actress but I think she’s super fucking talented and I love how she can just take a long time before she [long pause] does anything. It’s something I want to learn. By the way, you still want to try and make your performance compelling. You don’t want it to be full of the most boring pauses.
You want to make the pauses not boring?
Yeah. There’s so much to nonverbal communication that I have yet to really understand as an actor, and maybe as a person. Just like the beats between the lines of a poem having so much import. The times where you’re saying nothing, but there’s that something going on that makes it compelling. That, to me, is pretty interesting. You’re asking good questions, because I really don’t how to answer them.
That’s how you know you’ve done your job as an interviewer. One last thing: I notice you keep stretching. Are you okay?
Yeah, I’ve been working out but I haven’t been stretching enough. So I just gotta do it. Y’know?
This interview has been edited and condensed.