Woody Harrelson heads north with ‘Defendor’
Woody Harrelson is experiencing a career resurrection to rival that of any comic-book superhero. After shirking Hollywood for a number of years, he returned in 2009, seemingly more prolific and popular than ever, appearing in three films — Zombieland, 2012, and The Messenger — that were released within just a few months of each other. The latter title (which opened in limited release in the U.S. in November; it opens in Canada on February 26) scored him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and he’s got two more movies scheduled for later this year.
But before he walks down the red carpet (and possibly up to the podium) at the Oscars, Harrelson will be hitting the screen again this week with Defendor (opening Friday, February 19), director Peter Stebbings’s small, quirky, Canadian-made vigilante flick,
Harrelson admits the last few months have been a whirlwind compared to the previous six years, which were spent mostly as a family man and an activist, holed up in a self-sustainable community in Maui, hanging out with famous neighbours like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Speaking exclusively with WE during a much-needed break at his Hawaiian home, he says he’s a bit awed to have been welcomed back with open arms.
“I’m really happy with how everything’s going,” Harrelson says with a laugh. “I feel like I took a period of time off, and it takes a long time to really get back in the groove. I made several movies that I thought were fantastic that nobody saw. It’s one thing if the movie sucks — you would expect or hope that people don’t go see it. But when it’s good, you really hope people see it. I feel that way about Defendor.”
A confident directorial debut from Vancouver-based actor Stebbings, Defendor follows Arthur Poppington (Harrelson), a man with learning disabilities who’s obsessed with superhero mythology. Abandoned as a young boy by his addict mother, Arthur grows up vowing revenge against drug pushers and crime bosses. He develops his vigilante persona, Defendor, to help keep the streets safe at night. In the process, he rescues Kat (Kat Dennings), a young prostitute with a drug habit whose supplier is a crooked cop.
Anybody who watched Harrelson make a name for himself on TV’s Cheers knows the actor has a knack for playing an affable and easily confused man-child. But in Defendor, his approach to portraying Arthur is masterfully restrained. Through a series of subtle physical transformations (a jutted jaw, a slightly furrowed brow, the cadence of his voice), Harrelson makes Arthur a fully-realized person — and he’s the first to confess it wasn’t easy.
“I was really nervous about it, because just before starting, we focused in on one type of malady: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” Harrelson says. “I feel like one of the most common things about people with FAS is they’re most childlike. I could have tried to go a little further with it — you know, tried to talk funny or some weird shit like that — but I thought it was better to be more subtle. But I was so nervous. I didn’t wanna seem fake. I guess that’s every actor’s worst fear: being phony.”
“The whole movie hinges on his performance,” says Stebbings. “If there’s a false note there, we’re sunk. We did a lot of research into FAS: I set him up with doctors and a guy with FAS; we spent a lot of time in dive bars, because this was the world Arthur comes from; we shopped for his clothes at Value Village and he picked many of the clothes.
“We had about a week’s worth of rehearsal when he came to town. The night before we went to shoot, he invited me to his place, and he said, ‘I’ve never been more unsure about what I’m going to do than on your [movie], and I’ve never been more okay with that.’ So, he went muckdiving, you know? He just kinda leaped off the bridge and he nailed it.”
For all its dark subject matter, though, Defendor has plenty of hilarious and heartfelt moments, made that much more authentic thanks to Stebbings’s knack for getting the small details right. Arthur’s superhero fixation is executed perfectly, from his tricked-out truck to his homemade uniform, it’s a fully-realized manifestation of creativity conceived within realistic limitations — something Stebbings is familiar with firsthand.
The film was shot in just 20 days, for about three million dollars — a shoestring budget compared to Hollywood fare. Remarkably, Defendor is visually impressive, far exceeding the expectations that usually greet a low-budget Canadian feature. It’s an unusual achievement for a first-time director, but Stebbings stopped at nothing to ensure his film would be a success. That included courting his high-profile actors himself.
“Sandra Oh [who plays Arthur’s therapist] turned me down twice,” Stebbings recalls, laughing. “I sent it to her manager; she turned it down. I brought it up again; she turned it down. Finally, I sort of wrote her a personal letter and offered to sweeten the pot with a handbag of her choice, because I’d read somewhere that she liked handbags, and I think all that did was make her giggle and make her manager giggle, but it kept the dialogue open, so I gave her a more comprehensive overview of how I would treat those scenes. She’s a busy girl at Grey’s Anatomy; she came up on the weekend and flew out on Sunday night. We shot all those scenes in two days.”
Harrelson’s role was originally offered to an unnamed actor who hemmed and hawed before finally backing out. Harrelson’s agent read the script, loved it, and encouraged Stebbings to pitch his client directly.
“[Harreleson and I] played pool in L.A. when he was in town, and hung out and ate some funny-lookin’ food — he has a very specific diet — and I let him beat me at pool for a couple of games,” Stebbings jokes. “His agent said, ‘The great thing about Woody is he likes everybody, the bad thing about Woody is he likes everybody.’ He really wanted to make sure he wasn’t getting in bed with a charlatan. And he said to me, after he met me, ‘You know, when I first saw you, you looked like a serious dude. And I knew right away that you’d have it together.’ Getting him on board really set things in motion.”
But filming wasn’t easy, even if it was blissfully short. The physical challenges are still fresh in Harrelson’s mind, and not simply because his character gets beaten up — a lot. Defendor was shot on location in Hamilton, Ontario, in sub-zero temperatures, which was like a punch to the gut for the avowed environmentalist who lives in a tropical climate.
“You ever been to Hamilton? Don’t bother,” Harrelson says. “It used to be this gloriously beautiful place where Cary Grant and different people would come up to vacation, and then the steel [industry] came in and turned it into what it still is today, which is one of the most polluted places I’ve ever been. Just smoke constantly belching into the atmosphere; you’re just breathing in grey, acrid nastiness constantly. The most challenging thing was, one day we were shooting in this alley. It was incredibly cold, and I had to rest my head in this puddle of the nastiest looking — I don’t know what was in this puddle. It’s not even funny. Then, when I saw it on the screen, you don’t even see it!”