Three Billboards' Woody Harrelson on the joys of working with a genius

The actor talks to The National about working with director Martin McDonagh on the Oscar nomination laden movie

In this Oct. 26, 2017 photo, Woody Harrelson poses for a portrait to promote his upcoming film, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" at The Four Seasons in Los Angeles. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP)
Powered by automated translation

Two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson has been a fixture on screens for more than three decades. He first came to prominence as the dopey, but lovable bartender Woody in the popular US sitcom Cheers, spending eight seasons between 1985 and 1993's series finale serving customers in the fictional Boston bar.

When Cheers pulled down the shutters for the final time, Harrelson could have been forgiven for dedicating his career to the comfort zone of family-friendly sitcoms that had served him so well for eight years. In fact, his first choice of movie following the show's end was Oliver Stone's psychedelic psycho thriller Natural Born Killers. This unexpected change of direction set the tone for a new-look Harrelson, starring in critically acclaimed movies such as 1996's The People vs Larry Flint, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination; Michael Winterbottom's 1997 drama Welcome to Sarajevo, and the Coen brothers' 2007 Best Picture/Director Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.

Harrelson picked up a second Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, in Oren Moverman's Silver Bear-winning The Messenger, and is now in the running for that award once again for his role in Martin McDonagh's critically adored Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards sees Harrelson reunite with Seven Psychopaths director McDonagh to portray Willoughby, the police chief of a sleepy town which is rocked when a local woman, Mildred (Frances McDormand), takes out a series of billboard advertisements accusing him of inaction regarding the murder of her daughter.

From the movie's synopsis, you might expect Chief Willoughby to be the villain of the piece, but the reality is more complex, a fact that Harrelson ascribes to the writing talents of McDonagh, who is also one of Ireland and the UK's best-known playwrights: "I think that's part of Martin's great ability. He makes rich characters," Harrelson explains. "It's weird because in a way you think he [Willoughby]'s done wrong by not following through on this investigation, and then you get to kind of see it from his perspective."

Woody Harrelson in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Woody Harrelson in the film 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Such apparent contradictions are not limited to Three Billboards' characters. The movie as a whole finds a surprising amount of humour in a thoroughly terrible situation. Harrelson agrees: "I don't know if you could call this a comedy, but there's a lot of humour," he says. "You've got this premise that is so brutal, and yet the laughter comes out. It's amazing how Martin gives you hope, dashes your hope, makes you believe, makes you doubt. It's so many emotions in the course of this movie."

Harrelson may be one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, but there’s a touch of the fanboy when he talks of his evident respect for McDonagh as a writer and director: “I think he’s a certified genius, and I thought so when I read [his] plays. I read all his plays and I met him, I guess, close to 15 years ago now,” the actor enthuses.

Read more: Martin McDonagh on how a 20-year journey ends in Ebbing, Missouri


Harrelson also reveals that McDonagh appears aware of the high regard in which the actor holds him and his work: "He said to me last night: 'You know, you don't have to do every movie I offer just because you didn't do [McDonagh's 2003 play] Pillowman.' I didn't do that play with him, like a fool." It's evidently a mistake Harrelson doesn't intend to repeat: "[Now] I say: 'Oh, I'm doing everything you offer me.' He says: 'But you don't know if it's going to be s**t.' I said: 'I don't care. I'm doing it.' He says: 'Good, then I'm going to give you a sh*t thing just to see if you want to do it.' But it's Martin McDonagh. That's not possible. That's why I can safely say I'll do anything he asks me to."

Although McDonagh is clearly high on Harrelson's list of favourite directors, there's one feat of Harrelson's directorial debut, 2017's Lost in London, that neither McDonagh nor any other director in the world can lay claim to. Harrelson's film, which he also wrote and starred in, was the first film to be shot and screened entirely live. The 100-minute movie was shot with one camera in a single take on January 19, 2017, and simultaneously broadcast to more than 500 movie theatres around the world as it filmed. The film, which released in cinemas in traditional, pre-recorded form the following week, was perhaps a little gimmicky, but it was generally well received by critics as a brave experiment, if not a great film, given the extreme filming environment. Harrelson says he's pleased he gave the idea a try, although he sounds like he'll be happy to stick to the more conventional methods of directors like McDonagh in future. "I'm glad I did it, but it was highly stressful," he admits. "I didn't realise how ambitious it was, to shoot and broadcast a feature film live. But it was about as hard as I could imagine. There are just so many things that can go wrong – technical things like sound, and the live feed, and everything that I just had no control over, on top of everything else. It kept me up at night, many, many nights. I had a real struggle with insomnia, which, in spite of all the sinning I've done in my life, I've never had trouble getting a good night's sleep."

Three Billboards has received a total of seven Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for both Harrelson and Sam Rockwell (who plays police officer Jason Dixon), Best Actress for McDormand, Best Original Screenplay for McDonagh and Best Picture. As a man with a reputation for enjoying the occasional party, Harrelson could have another sleepless night or two to look forward to come March 4.

Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri opens in the UAE on February 22

Read more: