American actor Woody Harrelson has established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood and has, to date, enjoyed a stellar career. Starting from his role as bartender Woody Boyd on the NBC sitcom Cheers in the 1980s, an effort that got him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, Harrelson has since won multiple Academy Award Nominations and is famous for his appearances in outstanding films like Seven Psychopaths, No Country for Old Men and many more.
In an interview, Harrelson said: “I was a pretty happy guy, but I also had a lot of rage. When I was a kid, I had real emotional problems. I would have these tantrums. [Later] I used to fight a lot. I used to go to bars and fight the guys I thought were bullies. I’ve got scars everywhere. But it’s like my buddy says: ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.’ And I guess I do live on the edge.”
While talking about his experience in jail, he added: “That was my first experience with the long arm of the law, and it had a big impact on me ’cause I really had rose-coloured glasses on [in terms of] what I thought the world was. And at that time, I was still entertaining the notion of becoming a cop — either a cop or FBI or Secret Service. I stopped wanting to be a cop, for sure. But by then I was probably more interested in being an actor.”
On his 60th birthday, we take a look back at the twenty best films that he has ever appeared in.
Woody Harrelson’s 20 Best Performances:
20. Rampart – Oren Moverman (2011)
Featuring a star-studded cast including the likes of Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, Moverman’s 2011 drama is based on the Rampart Scandal of the ’90s and follows the misadventures of a corrupt police officer (played by Harrelson). While the film was less than perfect, Harrelson’s performance earned him critical acclaim.
Harrelson spoke of friction with Moverman due to disagreements about the final cut: “There were a couple of months of this weird energy between us, and he said, ‘I don’t want this to wreck our friendship.’ So I said to him, ‘I promise you, dude, nothing will destroy our friendship. Our friendship means more to me than any movie or any project. I fricking love you and that will never change.’ Because, in a lot of instances, relationships would have dissolved over this.”
19. North Country – Niki Caro (2005)
Inspired by real events, North Country is a striking evaluation of the highly problematic patriarchal framework within which women are forced to shape their professional lives. Harrelson plays the role of Bill White, a lawyer who takes on a traumatic sexual harassment case in order to get justice for those involved.
The actor stated: “I loved the story. I think it’s a powerful story. People standing up for their rights – I think it’s a great film, and very important. You can’t really separate, even though there’s an entertainment value to the film, you can’t separate the political impact of the message. It’s rare that you get a film with a political message that’s also entertaining. When you get both like this, it’s really cool.”
18. Out of the Furnace – Scott Cooper (2013)
Starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as the Baze brothers, Out of the Furnace paints a compelling portrait of two siblings who get lost in the terrifying labyrinths of life. In the dark world of crime and vice, Harrelson’s performance as a sociopathic criminal is unforgettable.
Cooper commented: “Directors go their whole career without being able to tell personal stories and to work with a cast as talented as they are. I don’t even consider it work. I honestly and sincerely consider it a privilege to see the type of work and the preparation and the care that these actors put into helping me realise my vision. There was no ego on the set. They were always questioning.”
17. The Hi-Lo Country – Stephen Frears (1998)
Based on Max Evans’ novel, Frears’ 1998 western is a re-evaluation of the mythology of cowboys in a rapidly changing world. It features Harrelson and Billy Crudup as best friends who return home only to find that the ideals they grew up with now face existential threats.
Produced with the help of veteran filmmaker Martin Scorsese, The Hi-Lo Country won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. “It was an odd time to be a cowboy,” Frears reflected. ”They still had their toughness, but there wasn’t as much for them to do.”
16. The Glass Castle – Destin Daniel Cretton (2017)
This biographical drama is a notable film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ famous memoir in which she recalls the her poverty-stricken childhood. Harrelson plays the complex role of her father who struggles to strike a balance between his own desires and family responsibilities.
Harrelson explained: “The way this movie works, it jumps back and forth over different time frames. … So we got, you know, all these kids from three different age groups that cover this whole span. … It was incredible the way [director Destin Daniel Cretton] could make it all work and where it was just completely seamless.”
15. The Sunchaser – Michael Cimino (1996)
Michael Cimino’s last feature is now largely forgotten but it certainly contained one of Harrelson’s finest performances. He stars as an oncologist who embarks on a spiritual journey with a teenaged juvenile offender (played by Jon Seda) dying of cancer.
Cimino once said: “I give everything I have to the actors. One of my primary jobs is to make them look as good as they’ve ever looked, to give the best performance they’ve ever given. I don’t personally like this idea of the adulation that directors receive. I don’t like it. Directors should be faceless. They’re behind the camera, they’re not in the front of the camera. The people in front of the camera, OK, put their pictures up on the wall, put them on the theatre, do documentaries about them, shoot stuff.”
14. White Men Can’t Jump – Ron Shelton (1992)
This 1992 cult-classic is a memorable sports comedy in which Harrelson takes on local basketball players who assume that he cannot play just because he is white. The film ended up becoming a commercial success and was nominated by the American Film Institute as one of the top Sports films.
In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Shelton revealed: “He came in, I liked him, we tried different combinations, I put Woody and Wesley in a room, it was magic, I called Joe and said: ‘This is it.’ He said: ‘I love it. Go!’ He didn’t need to see anything, he just trusted my instincts.”
13. Kingpin – Farrelly Brothers (1996)
In yet another classic sports comedy film, Harrelson stars as an alcoholic who was once a professional bowler but now works as a manager for other promising talents. Although it was critically panned, Kingpin has definitely established its status a crowd favourite.
Bobby Farrelly said: “We happened to have known Woody Harrelson beforehand and we loved him. When Pete and I moved out to LA, we had another friend from Rhode Island, a guy named Rob Moran, an actor who is also in the movie. He was a fellow Rhode Islander who had gone out to LA to try his hand at acting. Rob and Woody had spent a little bit of time together in New York.”
Adding, “So when Woody moved out to LA, he called Rob. Rob said ‘Hey, my buddy Woody’s coming over,’ and then we met. He hadn’t had any success in the industry at all. We knew him before he even got the role on Cheers. He was just one of the guys that we’d hang out with and play basketball. He was a funny guy and we were fast friends, and we’ve stayed friends ever since.”
12. The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick (1998)
A cinematic rendition of the eponymous novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line was Malick’s glorious return to cinema after a hiatus that lasted 20 years. In this cynical war epic, Harrelson only has a cameo as Sgt. Keck but it is an iconic one with him shouting: “I blew my butt off!”
Co-star Jim Caviezel recalled, “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, ‘Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.’ I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.”
11. Natural Born Killers – Oliver Stone (1994)
Based on Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay (who denounced the film), Natural Born Killers stars Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a married couple who take their childhood frustrations out on the world by embarking on a mass murder spree. The film faced intense critical backlash when it came out but is now regarded as a true cult-classic.
Stone had this to say about the controversial reputation of the film and its relationship with violence: “Its violence was satiric. I had a history of making films with realistic violence, and I thought it was clearly not literal, but metaphoric, over-the-top, not even close to real.”
10. Zombieland – Ruben Fleischer (2009)
A fast-paced and witty zombie-infested pop-culture romp, Zombieland features Jesse Eisenberg as an anxious shut-in and Woody Harrelson as a veteran zombie slayer. Critics describe the character of Harrelson as “a redneck from hell who is out to kill zombies”. Harrelson steals the show with his confident and hilarious performance that makes 80 minutes of watching wart-riddled zombies being blown to smithereens an enjoyable experience.
Harrelson was never a fan of the genre but the script convinced him to do the film, “Yeah, I thought the script was phenomenal,” he said. Speaking of the director, Ruben Fleischer, Harrelson added, “And then I met Reuben and really liked him and I thought this guy is a go-getter. He’s really going to make a terrific movie and so far I’m really impressed with him.”
9. Welcome to Sarajevo – Michael Winterbottom (1997)
This critically acclaimed docu-drama is set in a Bosnian war zone and it conducts a powerful investigation of the limits of journalistic detachment, trying to figure out where our human compassion takes hold of us. Woody Harrelson plays the role of Flynn, a top journalist who joins Michael Henderson (played by Stephen Dillane) in his humanitarian quest to smuggle orphans out of the conflict zone.
The film was shot on location and documentary footage was weaved into it beautifully. Welcome to Sarajevo highlights the intensity of war correspondence and all the high-octane anxieties that come with the job. Roger Ebert noted that Harrelson is “an interesting, intense actor, and a good choice for a character living recklessly under fire.”
8. Wag the Dog – Barry Levinson (1997)
In Barry Levinson’s political satire, Woody Harrelson plays a small but important role as Sergeant William Schumann, an insane former soldier whose death complicates contingent plans that the President’s team had prepared. Although Harrelson does not get a lot of screen time, he shows that he has the talent to deliver a memorable performance in the few scenes he has.
The film is amusing but the issues it addresses are extremely serious. Its quality is such that viewers today will still relate to it and appreciate the incisive criticism of political mechanisms. Barry Levinson made a very engaging, entertaining political comedy and Woody Harrelson puts up a memorable performance in it.
7. Transsiberian – Brad Anderson (2008)
Brad Anderson’s 2008 thriller takes place on an express train that runs between China and Moscow where Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a couple of missionaries. Transsiberian is a deranged version of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express and Harrelson delivers a compelling performance that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Co-star Kata Mara spoke highly of Harrelson, “Woody Harrelson has no fear, or at least he certainly acts like he has no fear. He’ll do anything, he’ll try anything in front of the camera. He’s so cool.” She commended his contribution to the film as well, “I thought he was brilliant.”
6. The Messenger – Oren Moverman (2009)
Harrelson plays the character of Army Captain Tony Stone in Oren Moverman’s thoughtful war drama that explores the problematic nuances of the American conscience. It is philosophical and authentic in its message. Woody Harrelson’s brilliant performance in The Messenger won him his second Oscar nomination.
Harrelson explained his character, saying, “He’s got a lot of pain and rage inside of him and, you know, kind of keeps it all under wraps when he goes and does his notifications. But during the course of the film, we get to know him a little better through Ben Foster’s character, Will Montgomery.”
5. A Prairie Home Companion – Robert Altman (2006)
Robert Altman’s wonderful 2006 film features an ensemble of a star-studded cast, with the likes of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline and of course, Woody Harrelson. It’s about a radio talk show that has managed to survive in the age of television. It was completed just months before Altman’s demise and is an appropriate farewell to the acclaimed filmmaker.
Altman was known for working with ensemble casts and he explained why he liked doing it, “Well, I revel in the opportunity of confusion. I allow that to develop, to happen, to grow. We all come together and use it. We’re aware of what we are doing and we each do our part. If someone’s not aware of what we’re doing, they have to learn.”
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh (2017)
From the immensely talented director of the 2008 film In Bruges, we get this 2017 dark comic drama that features Woody Harrelson as a revered local police chief, Sheriff William Willoughby. The critically acclaimed film earned seven Academy Award nominations, winning in two of those categories.
Reflecting on the film, director Martin McDonagh revealed, “One of my favourite scenes is when [Woody and Frances] are in the police station, and it goes from this confrontational and funny head-to-head, where they’re both locking horns and both believe they’re completely in the right, to tenderness and humanity. I didn’t know that that was going to happen, as much as the audience isn’t going to know that’s going to happen.”
3. The People vs. Larry Flynt – Milos Forman (1996)
Milos Forman’s 1996 biopic is a funny and fascinating protest against institutional censorship where Woody Harrelson plays the role of Larry Flynt, one of America’s most infamous pornographers. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success, the director of 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest managed to make this a thoughtful drama which earned Harrelson his first Academy Award nomination.
“When I was preparing for this role, I had to go back through tons of these old Hustlers,” Harrelson reminisced. “I would look at these Hustlers and go, ‘I remember that picture; I remember being very turned on by this when I was 16.’”
2. Seven Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh (2012)
Arguably Martin McDonagh’s best film, this 2012 masterpiece is a violently funny dark comedy and Woody Harrelson is unquestionably brilliant in it, displaying his penchant for portraying unpredictably aggressive characters. Harrelson plays Charlie, a psychopathic gangster who goes on a rampage to find his stolen dog.
Speaking of the ending of his film, Martin McDonagh said, “If you play with those conventions enough, the audience gets to a place where they don’t know whether the conventions are going to be obeyed or not. In any dramatic story, there’s always a payoff or some kind of ending that’s worthwhile or exciting or truthful. There has to be an ending; I can’t think of any good film that just dribbled out to some weird place.”
1. No Country For Old Men – The Coen Brothers (2007)
One of the best films of the 21st century, No Country For Old Men is a modern-day western thriller based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Woody Harrelson’s character is a menacing hitman who is brought on to tame the loose cannon that is Anton (played by Javier Bardem). Bardem delivers the best performance of his noteworthy career but Harrelson’s talent remains undiminished in the scenes he is in.
No Country For Old Men is a tense thriller set in a desolate landscape. This film is where the Coen Brothers are at their finest, with subtle camera work and perfect sound design. The character of Woody Harrelson, Carson Wells, adds an interesting dimension to the film and even works in tandem with Anton Chigurh because Wells seems to be the only one who understands the mysterious Anton.