Woody Harrelson on The Messenger, the Next Brando and Vegan Twinkies
Some of us at Movieline tried something a little different this year for Halloween: We found our inner Mariah, our outer Galifianakis, or we just traveled down as ourselves to the Savannah Film Festival. As hipsters from the nearby Savannah College of Art and Design swarmed the streets with go-cups and costumes of their own, the 12th annual event opened with a screening of The Messenger featuring stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in attendance. Oren Moverman's drama (opening Nov. 20) chronicles the homefront grief of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the relationship of two Army casualty-notification officers -- heart-hardened Tony Stone (Harrelson) and sensitive Iraq veteran Will Montogomery (Foster) -- as they stoically alert people that their sons, daughters, husbands and wives have died overseas.
It was sobering, intense stuff for the holiday, lightened up a bit afterward by a Harrelson/Foster Q&A-session, complete with a hand-mic sword fight. I had a chance to talk with Harrelson about The Messenger's politics (or lack thereof), Zombieland's vegan Twinkies, and why Foster reminds him of a young Marlon Brando.
How did making this movie change you in terms of what you felt or learned?
Fortunately, I got to spend a lot of time with soldiers. We started at Walter Reed [Military Hospital]. That was my first experience with any soldiers, really. They'd obviously just come back, injured. I was blown away by the soldiers and the staff. Then I had the opportunity to spend time with other soldiers, went to the national Casualty Notification Office. And we filmed at Fort Dix. So for a person who's generally antiwar in the context of what we've gotten into lately, it's one thing to have that philosophy -- which I think is justified -- but to not really embrace what I think it is the soldiers are going through was my missing element in my life. I needed to spend that time with them, and I've come to admire and respect these soldiers so much. So that, to me, is a huge step in my own philosophy.
When you talked to soldiers who'd returned and their families, was their bitterness that so much of the consequences of these wars, the deaths and injuries and grieving, has happened out of sight of the public at large?
We actually spent the whole day today over at Hunter Army Airfield [in Savannah] meeting the soldiers and their families. But one thing that is amazing is how optimistic and positive they are. I don't notice any kind of bitterness about things. Even the people at Walter Reed; they'd lost their legs and were badly burned.
Did you maybe come out of this experience feeling there should be a draft?
I think a draft would probably be the quickest way to get us out of what we're in. That's what happened in Vietnam. There were too many people in the higher strata of society who were not going to tolerate it. That's what Oren thinks, and I think he might be right.
What is the message of the movie coming out amid talk of a scale-up of U.S. troops in Afghanistan? Is it an antiwar movie?
I don't think it's a political movie. If anything, it wants to shine a light on what it is the soldiers and their families are going through, the consequences of going to war, in a way that's even and nonjudgmental.
But if it illuminates the consequences that most of America is blind to, then isn't it in some ways implicitly antiwar?
You'll have to be the judge of that when you see it. All I can tell you is that soldiers and military people and their families who've seen it have responded amazingly well. I don't think they would feel that way if they thought it was implicitly antiwar.
What was the hardest scene to shoot?
Technically, there was one scene where I had a monologue that I needed to get through while we're walking this block. It's my character talking to Ben's about the do's and don'ts, of notifying, you know, you don't want to ring the doorbell, it's too jarring, you don't want to park out in front. Oren usually gave us certain parameters to work with, but this, we had to be walking at a clip and it'd be weird to slow down. And I remember being annoyed with myself because I'm not a fast-talking guy. I'm from Texas, and I had to increase the pace of this thing to make it happen, get it done without any pauses. But it turned out good!
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