He didn’t have much time with his father, who spent most of Harrelson’s childhood in prison: he was a contract killer associated with organised crime. I tentatively ask him about his dad, who died in 2007. He confirms he was in prison for much of his life but he clearly doesn’t want to elaborate. “We were poor,” he says of his childhood. “But my mom always took care of us [and] we always had food. It was a lot to raise three kids on her own as a secretary but she did it and she sure did look after us.”
After school he went to Hanover College in Indiana, where one of his fellow students was one Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s vice-president. “He was two years ahead of me,” he says. “I liked him. He was a pretty nice guy.” Both men were religious and Harrelson, who was studying theology, reveals that Pence once assisted him in arranging a sermon. “We had Wednesday night services and I did a sermon and he helped me with it, just trying to make sure everything was on point and all of it worked.”
I’m going to need something stronger than a mushroom latte to picture the rightwing evangelical vice-president collaborating on anything with one of Hollywood’s most renowned potheads, let alone a religious sermon. Understanding what led to their lives diverging then is also intriguing, given what I know about Harrelson’s longstanding belief in environmentalism (in 1996 he was arrested for scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to protest against the destruction of a Redwood grove) and his politics, having spoken in the past about his belief in anarchism. “Politics is businessmen working for bigger businessmen and it’s never going to be any different,” he says. What about his former fellow student, Pence? “It’s 35 years down the road. One of us still has his soul intact.”
The mac ’n’ cheese arrives and he does not appear to hear the waitress’s warning about the bowl being very hot. “Ow, ow, ow, that’s hot as shit!” he exclaims as he burns himself on it. It looks pretty cheesy for a non-cheesy dish, I say. “Nah, try it man,” he says, taking a forkful. “You’re going to love it.”
As we tuck in, I ask about his other connection with the current US administration. In 2002 he had dinner with Trump, who had invited Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and then governor of Minnesota, to Trump Tower in Manhattan. Ventura, an old friend, asked Harrelson along. Trump, he says “is not afraid of talking. Now, being overly talkative is not an uncommon trait. But he’s one of those people who start talking and literally three hours have gone by and they haven’t noticed that no one else said a word.”
Sounds like tough going, I say. “Yeah, it was heavy sledding. I had to go outside and fire up a hooter to summon the courage just to get back in for the second half.”
We have made short work of the mac ’n’ cheese, which tasted just like the real thing. As the main courses arrive, I ask how he went from Hanover to Hollywood. The more he learnt about religion, the more he realised it was “a man-made construct”, and the theatre was beckoning. He had done some acting at college and a friend asked if he wanted to move to New York. “It was perfect timing. Right as I was moving to New York, I shifted from being a Christian to a hedonist. I wasn’t an atheist... I was an agnostic and a hedonist.”
Almost immediately, he landed some theatrical roles and, in 1985, while visiting Los Angeles, won a part on Cheers playing Woody, an affable naïf from Indiana. He would appear in almost 200 episodes on the hit show, which made stars of its cast and teed up Harrelson’s subsequent career in movies. The cast seems to have been a close-knit group. I tell him I saw Ted Danson, one of his co-stars, on a late-night chat show recently recounting the time he and Harrelson took hallucinogenic mushrooms on a boat trip to Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles. “He said that?” he says, apparently unaware. “There are a lot of stories from back then that I thought would never come out and now one of them’s out, so that’s good.” The boat trip must have “needed some augmentation”.
He spent eight years on Cheers but avoided being typecast, going on to star in a flurry of movies, among them White Men Can’t Jump, Natural Born Killers and The People vs Larry Flynt, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. In the past decade he has hit a real purple patch, from his hired gun in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men in 2007 to his turn as a Louisiana detective hunting a serial killer in HBO’s magnificent True Detective series, to his Oscar-nominated role in Three Billboards.
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