Cheers, fans: Woody Harrelson greets followers at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Live from Mill Valley: Woody Harrelson and Uma Thurman

Dennis Harvey October 19, 2009

Woody Harrelson is a treasure whom the Mill Valley Film Festival, according to founder/executive director Mark Fishkin, had been pursuing some years. They certainly lucked out with the eventual timing, however, since the festival’s tribute Thursday occurred amidst an unprecedented high-profile period for the busy but seldom spotlight-seeking actor.

He’s currently sitting atop box office charts as the biggest marquee name in splatstick comedy Zombieland, in which he’s hilarious. He earned raves at Toronto last month playing a damaged, delusional loner who thinks he’s a superhero in Defendor, which Sony Classics picked up for distribution. He’s got a sizable part in the imminent 2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest world-destroying spectacular. And he’s certainly got some awards heat going for his powerful turn as a U.S. Army lifer delivering "casualty notification" to soldiers’ families in The Messenger, the excellent drama that is scenarist (Married Life, I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son) Oren Moverman’s directorial debut.

The latter was screened during Harrelson’s tribute at the Rafael Film Center. In a brief onstage chat with MVFF senior programmer Zoe Elton beforehand, he called it "probably the movie I’m most proud of being a part of . . . a real masterpiece, and I’m not saying that in a self-aggrandizing way." He gave all credit to Moverman, who "was up against a lot of difficult odds shooting this film in 28 days." But more about The Messenger (which opens at Bay Area theaters November 20) later.

An opening clip reel captured examples of the offbeat choices Harrelson has made throughout his career. Missing were such key moments as White Men Can’t Jump, Kingpin, The Thin Red Line (one among many small roles he’s been content to dazzle in), Paul Schrader’s underseen 2007 The Walker, or even Cheers.

But there was room for Natural Born Killers and The People vs. Larry Flynt, as well as briefer, goofier appearances in the likes of Wag the Dog, Altman’s Prairie Home Companion and Adam Sandler vehicle Anger Management, wherein he played a transvestite prostitute. (Asked about prepping for that, Woody said "I learned why it takes women so long to get ready [to go out].")

Prompted by Rafael Center patrons, he sang a snatch of "The Kelly Song" from Cheers. He said "I was never so terrified in my life" as when first going before that sitcom’s live studio audience—knowing there would be an eventual viewership of millions—at age 24.

Yet of all the types of media he’s worked in, it’s live performance "I love the most. Theater is my first love, it’s the reason I became an actor." He’s revisited it in recent years, notably via the 2000 S.F. premiere of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss with Nick Nolte and Sean Penn, as well as a couple West End appearances including Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana. When English-born Elton noted his flattering reviews for the latter, Harrelson drawled "Actually I thought I kinda sucked in that."

In The Messenger he plays a veteran Army officer whose deep-dyed cynicism steels him as a Casualty Notification Officer. (Moverman, joining the actor onstage afterward, said "This is considered by many to be the toughest job in the military. We’ve talked to people who’ve done notifications and combat, and they’ve said ‘I’d rather go to war.’"

As new coworker he’s handed a much younger, decorated Iraq "war hero" played by Ben Foster. While the latter’s character does become somewhat involved with a widow (Samantha Morton), it’s the relationship between the two men—both portrayed subtly and dynamically—that provides Messenger its vivid, unpredictable heart.

Woody is all about heart, as far as career choices go. "Even with Zombieland, I thought it had a lot of heart," he said. "This Messenger had an enormous beating heart . . . . I thought it was the most beautiful, amazing, powerful script I’d ever read." Shooting his part was "a very intense three weeks" that left him feeling while "It’s impossible to know what that [informing families of their dead] is really like, I at least felt I could imagine it."

To heighten that emotionality, Moverman shot the notification scenes with handheld camera, in single takes, encouraging the actors to improvise and "keep it as raw as possible." He added, "The Army fully supported this movie. They felt we were portraying a certain tradition which was honorable and were willing to show it, warts and all." Among those warts are myriad personal foibles demonstrated by Harrelson’s character, a semi-recovered alcoholic who spectacularly falls off the wagon during the film’s progress.

"He mixes comedy and intensity in a way no one else can do," the director said of his star, whom he’d initially offered another, smaller role.

Live at the Rafael, however, the very laconic, yoga-practicing Woody seemed way more comic than intense. Handed his Mill Valley award for contribution to cinematic arts from Fishkin, he pondered the abstract statuette and mused, "Hmm, no head and no genitalia." Reports were he had a very good time at the official afterparty, staying till the wee hours.

Thurman’s legend grows

Uma Thurman hasn’t looked particularly tall onscreen—perhaps in deference to male costars, the magic of the movies has kept that factor tamped down. But every inch of her six-foot stature was felt as she towered over Mill Valley Film Festival founder and executive director Mark Fishkin on MVFF’s first Saturday night.

At the Rafael Film Center to accept a career-honoring award, she said her "tall and gawky" stature—emphasized by a severe neck-to-knuckles-to-ankles black dress—fostered an awkwardness "I tried to overcome for years."

Her live tribute followed indie feature Motherhood, opening at local theaters next Friday. It’s a dramedy about one particularly harried day in the life of a Manhattan mother/blogger struggling to eke out some room for creative expression while raising two small children with a somewhat distracted husband (Anthony Edwards). Writer/director Katherine Diekmann (Diggers) introduced the film, which she said wouldn’t have been made without star Thurman’s eager participation.

Afterward, the requisite highlight reel skimmed two decades of work to date. There was her naked Venus in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen; the seduced ingenue in Dangerous Liasons; 1930s women of adventure in Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June and Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown; singing and dancing in The Producers; with ex-husband Ethan Hawke in sci-fi romance Gattaca; and of course Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, her celebrated roles for Quentin Tarantino.

It was an all-too-brief overview of a busy career—she’s made over 40 films so far—that, as MVFF senior programmer Zoe Elton noted, is distinguished by diversity of role and project. Especially for one so famously gorgeous. (Tarantino calls her a goddess in the tradition of Garbo and Dietrich.)

Joining Elton onstage, Thurman immediately cracked "I dunno about you, but watching that clip reel made me feel kinda tired." Having started out in movies at age 16 (after some modeling), she said she originally thought acting would be just a brief interruption to her formal education. But the roles just kept coming, turning into their own kind of school.

"I saw myself as being a student, not just trying to be a star. Because I was humble and so interested, I was a sponge," soaking up the expertise of early costars like Robert DeNiro (Mad Dog and Glory). Grateful to have arrived just as "the Brat Pack was fading out," thus escaping "incorporation into a teen genre," she attributes her unpredictable choices even then to "the blessing and curse of having some exterior intellect, plus a lot of naivete. . . . I think I know what’s good."

Asked how Buddhism might relate to the acting profession—her father is famous Tibetan Buddhist scholar/activist Robert Thurman— she first qualified that her parents didn’t impose any religious views on their children. Then, admitting "I never thought of it" before, she mused, "Certainly the idea of impermanence works in a creative life. [This profession] is so ephemeral. Yet you have to be absolutely disciplined and always experiencing it anew.

Having worked on projects small as Motherhood and as jumbo-popcorn as Batman & Robin, Thurman admitted she usually preferred the former, saying, "You’d be amazed by the amount of privilege and waste on most big-budgeted pictures." She also said, "People pigeonhole you so badly—you wouldn’t want to be an actor if you had to live up to their low expectations," fingering mainstream executives and filmmakers who view actors in casting terms solely based on their last role or two.

One filmmaker willing to view her outside that box is Tarantino, with whom she jokingly hinted at a sparring as well as mutually appreciative working relationship. She called his "an organic intelligence. He strikes oil just hitting the ground. He’s very unconscious about huge aspects [of his art]."

With Diekmann now sitting beside her, Thurman politely declined to answer the inevitable "favorite movie you’ve done" question, saying “As an actor anything you do is the most important thing you’ve done. Sometimes even things that go badly end up being very instructive."

Would she want her children follow the same professional path? She’d tell them, "The one thing you need to be an actor is a high threshold for pain—you have to rebuild yourself after being sort of shredded over and over." Nonetheless, she said, "It’s a wonderful life."

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