Woody Harrelson: Playing soldier a challenge

'The Messenger' star talks about indie drama and portraying a 'gung-ho guy'

Two action-packed studio releases — “2012” and the Atlanta-made “Zombieland” — are shaping up to be among this year’s biggest hits. But it’s the character-driven indie drama “The Messenger” that seems closer to Harrelson’s heart. He and Ben Foster play members of the military’s Casualty Notification Office, whose job it is to inform families about the deaths of their loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harrelson, 48, spoke about the film, which opens in Atlanta on Wednesday, during a recent telephone interview.

Q: First off, how did you enjoy shooting “Zombieland” in Atlanta?

A: It was great. I really like Atlanta. I didn’t get out much, but on my off days, I shot a lot of hoops over at Atlantic Station, so that was good. There’s being in shape, and then there’s being in basketball shape, you know? I’m hoping I’ll get to go back.

Q: Why, is there talk of a sequel?

A: There’s talk — there’s always talk, when the movie’s a hit — so we’ll see.

Q: It’s easy to imagine a movie like “Zombieland” being fun to make, but what’s the equivalent when you’re doing something like “The Messenger”? That can’t be very much “fun,” can it?

A: Well, maybe not fun, necessarily, but I did enjoy working with people I really liked and admired. Working with Ben Foster was almost like a James Dean thing, getting to experience this great actor before anybody else sees it for themselves. His talent is that big. Owen Moverman was a first-time director, but he’d written “I’m Not There” and “Jesus Son,” some really interesting scripts.

Q: What drew you to this one?

A: It was one of the most beautiful and powerful scripts I’d ever read, and I was eager to play a character that was so unlike me. There are only two parts that I’ve always felt I wasn’t right for or couldn’t play — soldiers and policemen. Maybe it has to do with my feelings about authority figures, but it’s mainly because those characters look at things from such a totally different mind-set than mine. I’m this fun-loving hippie and peacenik, a world-class slacker, so it was a great challenge playing this gung-ho guy in “The Messenger,” whose whole life is the Army and wanting to be in combat.

Q: How did you research the role?

A: We met with soldiers at the Walter Reed VA Hospital, which was really moving. Over the course of that day, I found myself finally being able to make a distinction between this war and these soldiers, instead of just putting them in the same category. They’re out there risking their lives, working so hard for so little money, just out of their love of country. How amazing is that? I still loathe the war, but I’ve come to love the warriors.

Q: Did you meet with any actual casualty notification officers?

A: I talked to several of them, thinking I’d glean all sorts of personal information, but it was pretty hard for them to describe or talk about. They weren’t really effusive. It’s considered the hardest job in the military, and there’s a really high turnover rate, understandably. When family members are imploding with grief, it’s pretty intense. Owen had the great idea of not rehearsing those notification scenes, shooting them in single-camera shots. Ben and I never met with the other actors ahead of time, so there was a level of spontaneity and unpredictability that was really helpful.

Q: The war is in the news every day. Are you worried that “The Messenger” might be a hard sell?

A: I can understand that. Hearing the premise, you’d think it was this thoroughly depressing film, but in fact there’s a lot of humor in it and it’s ultimately very uplifting. In a sense, it’s a love story between these two guys, stoic tough guys on the surface who are dealing with the same emotional issues. I really hope people go see it, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. All we can do is make as good a movie as we possibly can, and then try to get the word out.

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