I had flown 4,900 miles from New York City to Hawaii to investigate reports that Woody Harrelson had grown up.
He is 56 now, turning in mature, nuanced performances in lauded films including “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “LBJ” that one may associate with Tommy Lee Jones or the late Sam Shepard. And, of course, he had stopped smoking pot.
That was the news last year, anyway, when Harrelson, a cannabis evangelist on the level of Snoop Dogg, told reporters he had broken off a long-term marriage with his intoxicant of choice. “It was keeping me from being emotionally available,” he told New York magazine.
So it was a somber new Woody I expected when I dropped in on his Maui home in April to discuss his role in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Ron Howard’s splashy film, which opened in May.
That was not the Woody I got.
It was an overcast Thursday morning, and I was seated at the kitchen table of one of Harrelson’s two houses on Maui. The glassy dwelling is perched several thousand feet up the slopes of the massive Haleakala volcano, with sweeping views of Maui’s northeast coastline in the distance.
The plan was to hike the densely wooded property. As I waited for Harrelson to descend from upstairs, his wife, Laura Louie, was in the kitchen preparing a late-morning snack of fresh fruit smeared with spirulina and almond butter. Ten minutes later, the sound of footsteps.
“Dude!” Harrelson said, in that familiar bad-boy drawl. He was wearing white beach pants, his yoga-toned torso draped in a well-worn “Free Willie” T-shirt with an old mug shot of Willie Nelson.
It was not just his attire that made him look like a 1990s slacker. He moves with the lackadaisical ease of a man half his age. He ambles more than he strides, loose limbed and carefree, like a restless teenager looking for mischief.
As he slumped into a wooden chair and planted his elbows on the table, we traded war stories from the afternoon before, when Harrelson lured me into a pickup soccer game. It was a serious game. I lasted 20 minutes and mangled my knee in the process. He went the distance.
“You almost got a goal, though,” he said in the paternal tones of a Little League coach consoling a strikeout victim. Yeah, I said with a shrug. I hit the crossbar and missed by an inch. “A millimeter!” he said.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he reached into his pocket, pulled out two cannabis cartridge pens and slapped them onto the kitchen table.
“I was 20 months off of this, 20 months!” he said, glancing down at the pens as if they were long-lost friends. “And then, Willie happened.”
WILLIE NELSON, ULTIMATE ENABLER
Taking a deep draw on a vape pen, Harrelson launched into the story about his breakup and reunion with marijuana.
It started in 2016, a few weeks before he was to shoot “Billboards” near Asheville, N.C. Wanting to get the partying out of his system, he embarked on a “friendship tour” in Los Angeles, Houston and New York. “That’s the nice way of putting it,” he said. “It’s better than calling it a ‘you’re-going-to-host-me-at-your-house-while-I-have-a-bender tour.’”
The plan was to dry out in Asheville, but it turns out that the picturesque city “has, like, one microbrewery per person,” he said, so he kept partying, “drinking a ton of beer, smoking one reefer after another.”
It took a toll. One night, a “really weird” sensation took over his body, he said, “a crazy restlessness, unable to sleep, my lungs burning.”
He looked up the symptoms and self-diagnosed it as adrenal exhaustion. He took the next day off, then another, then another. “By Thursday, it’s four days” he said. “This is like a record!”
It went on for a year and a half.
Some were happy for him; Willie Nelson was not. The two are poker buddies on Maui with Owen Wilson and Don Nelson, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, and Willie did not take kindly to a weed-free Woody.
It was “a slap in the face,” Harrelson said. “It just unnerved him. He’d keep offering it to me, and I’d say, ‘Willie, you know I don’t smoke anymore.’ He’d always act like it was the first time he’d heard it.”
Then, over one game, Nelson broke out a special blend he called Willie’s Reserve. “That’s not fair because the only way I’m going to taste the Willie’s Reserve is if I smoke it,” Harrelson said. So after winning a huge hand, he caved.
“I take a big draw on it, and Willie says, ‘Welcome home, son,’” he said.
After our snack, Woody slipped on an indica green fleece and led me out on a hike around his lush property.
His reputation as Hollywood’s haute hippie is well deserved. He wore a white Armani tuxedo made of hemp to the 1997 Golden Globes, weaves references to Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” into casual conversation and says he spent only $500 on his 2008 wedding to Louie, with whom he has been together since the “Cheers” days in the 1980s. (They have three children: Deni, 25; Zoe, 21; and Makani, 12.)
So how did an astral voyager manage to claw his way to the top of a cutthroat business? Harrelson seems unsure himself. “I’m a good little worker, a hard worker,” he said. “But I’m also a world-class lollygagger. I really would prefer nutso to do.”
But if Harrelson’s ultimate goal is to do “nutso” (Woody-ese for doing nothing), his life of late is a dismal failure. Harrelson has been reeling off five or six movies a year, while fellow marquee stars like Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr., no slouches, are good for maybe a couple.
This year, he lollygagged his way to a best supporting actor Oscar nod for “Billboards,” qualifying once again as a scene stealer, even in a film for which his fellow stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell took home statues. (Harrelson was nominated in the same category in 2010, for the military drama “The Messenger,” and for best actor in 1997, for “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”)
It is not hard to see the appeal. Whether he is playing a lovelorn misanthrope in last year’s quirky indie “Wilson” or an intergalactic desperado in “Solo,” an innate likability, a folksy decency, shines through. Basically, he has become a stoner Jimmy Stewart.
That is not to say he craves the spotlight. Harrelson said he was originally drawn to Maui in part for its distance from Hollywood. “It’s where Lindbergh moved to, because it was so remote, and he was like the world’s first mega-superstar,” Harrelson said. “He just wanted privacy.”
We continued along the road, talking about his upbringing. His father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, went to prison for the murder of a grain dealer, so Woody was raised as a scripture-quoting Christian by his mother, Diane Lou Oswald.
INTRO TO ACTING
The first time he thought about acting was in high school, when a group of football players goaded him into doing an Elvis Presley impersonation in the school library.
As we strolled down the path, Harrelson, arms swinging merrily, suddenly broke into a throaty rendition of “All Shook Up”:
A well’a bless my soul
What’sa wrong with me.
“I just got louder and louder,” he said, “and then the people started gathering around and clapping along. My inner performer came out.” A girl named Robin Rogers invited him to join the drama club. “I was like, well, if Robin Rogers wants me to do a play, I’m going to do a play.”
Despite steady work in blockbuster franchises including “The Hunger Games,” Harrelson loves art house fare. “With any indie, there’s a 99 percentile chance that people won’t be seeing it,” he said. “But you’re like, ‘Damn, it’s good.’”
Even he seemed surprised to be offered a major role in “Solo,” alongside Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke and Donald Glover. Harrelson plays Tobias Beckett, a grizzled interstellar bandit who adopts the young Han Solo into his outlaw crew.
In a world brimming with “Star Wars” obsessives, Harrelson would not seem to be one. When he was offered the role, he said, “I was kind of psyched, like, ‘Oh, geez, this is really cool, be in a “Star Wars” movie.’ Unexpected.” But he turned it down.
He might not have accepted if it were not for the film’s producer, Allison Shearmur, who also produced the “Hunger Games” films he starred in. “It’s sad Alli Shearmur died,” he said, referring to the producer’s death from lung cancer in January at age 54. “That really broke my heart.”
“She was the one,” he said. “I turned down ‘Hunger Games’ twice. She wouldn’t take ‘no.’ I turned this one down, believe it or not. She wouldn’t take ‘no.’”
Once he was on set at Pinewood Studios in London, brandishing his blaster, Harrelson had no problem connecting to his character. “He’s a criminal,” Harrelson said. “And honestly, if I hadn’t run into Robin Rogers that day in the library, I probably would’ve become a criminal, too.”
FILMING A BENDER
A film that seems to lie a lot closer to his heart is “Lost in London,” released May 25 on Hulu and iTunes.
A cinematic equivalent of primal scream therapy, the film is Woody at his most Woody, a brutally honest mea culpa wrapped up in an experimental black comedy that he wrote, directed and stars in, re-creating a horrible night in 2002 when he ended up in jail.
At the time, his career was in a lull and he was starring in a West End play, when one night, two women approached him, offering a “walk on the wild side.” They were joined by a third. News of his menage a quatre was splashed across a British tabloid.
Harrelson responded with an epic bender. After tossing back drinks at a Soho nightclub with Leonardo DiCaprio, he ended up drunk in a taxi. An ashtray was smashed. A door handle broken. Harrelson led police on a foot chase, got arrested and spent the night in jail.
“I’ve been pretty lucky in life, but that was the time where just everything seemed to be going bad,” he said. His film career was tanking, he was a tabloid laughingstock, and his long-term relationship was in peril. “All the obstacles seemed so insurmountable,” he said.
The guilt from that night lingered.
“I would have wanted the story just to completely die,” he said, but “it wouldn’t leave my consciousness.”
Years later, he decided to work out his bad memories with his most personal film yet. Changing only a few details (like swapping out DiCaprio with Owen Wilson), he attempted to re-create that night in real time, shooting the entire film in a single take across 14 locations in London and streaming it live to 500 theaters around the world.
The film may be a warts-and-all self-portrait, but it also seems to capture a deeper truth about its creator: People expect Woody to be out there, testing boundaries. They would not want it any other way.