INTERVIEW: Woody Harrelson On The Hunger Games: 'I Wanted To Make Haymitch More Drunk And Debauched'

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Woody Harrelson has been famous for 25 years - strange but true. It's that long since he charmed audiences as the dimwitted but good-hearted Woody in Cheers, a straightforward role that belied his diverse acting skills.

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Woody Harrelson with Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Since then he's been Oscar-nominated twice, and worked with directors from Robert Altman to the Coen Brothers, Michael Winterbottom to Oliver Stone.

His latest film is The Hunger Games, an adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy, in which he plays former Games champion Haymitch Abernathy. Set in a dystopian future in which teenagers are forced to battle to the death, The Hunger Games also stars Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz.

Q: Could you briefly describe your character in The Hunger Games?

Haymitch is a mentor for the two characters who are going into the Games. He is grizzled and not exactly a teetotaller. In some ways he's a little bit jaded, but under all that he is a wonderful person. To begin with, though, there is definitely a conflict with Katniss, the main character. That's true. That is how it starts out.

Q: Haymitch looks like one of the most enjoyable characters to play...

I think he is a pretty fine character. I can't think of any other character I have played like him. He is quite a unique character. Also he's interesting because he's one thing on the surface but then you find he is a little bit different, further down the road. He has that thing of people not being able to quantify him. I'm not sure if it required anything new of me as an actor. It is hard to say. You're going to have to watch it and tell me the answer to that. Deep down there probably isn't anything new [laughs]. It's just me doing the same old sh*t!

Q: That's not true! He's not a very a social character, though, and does like a tipple. How did you pitch that into your performance?

That was kind of a discussion between Gary [Ross, the director] and I, because I always wanted to make Haymitch more drunk and debauched, but Gary wanted to keep a rein on it so that it wasn't too much like that. In other words there are times when he had to get down to business so, yes, that had to be properly pitched. Me, I am always in general ready to go over the top with it, so it is helpful to have a director like Gary bringing me back.

Q: Presumably you got to inject some levity into the performance?

I certainly did. I tried and we will see if it comes off!

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The Hunger Games starring Elizabeth Banks, Harrelson and Lawrence, has caught the imagination of young fans around the world, both in book form and now on the big screen

Q: What did you think of Jennifer Lawrence, your talented leading lady?

I think she is an amazing girl. She is incredibly funny. I was impressed with her wit. She is a fun-loving person, as is Josh Hutcherson. I know there's going to be a lot of success for them in the future. I get a feeling that they're going to be able to keep a handle on it and not change their personalities, though, as sometimes happens.

Q: Why do you think The Hunger Games books are so popular?

I think there's something about the main character Katniss that everybody relates to. It's really a story of survival and family and in that kind of way it speaks to everyone. Almost all the people I have talked to -- those who have read the books -- were profoundly impacted by them. Something resonates.

Q: Have your two eldest daughters read the novels?

Yes. They read the books. They loved the books.

Q: Has your casting in the franchise made you cooler with their friends?

No, I'm still the same old dirk to them! Everybody in my family started to read them when I decided to do the role, so we all got into the books at the same time and I think they are pretty psyched that I am in it. I will say there hasn't been anything I have been involved in where I have had so many kids come up to me. Well, first of all, I have never done a movie that you could consider a kids' movie but this has been incredible because I have been in different places all round this country and I have had kids coming up and saying, 'Are you playing Haymitch?' It's as exciting as hell how kids are so into this movie.

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Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch in The Hunger Games

Q: It's not a kids' movie though, really, is it? It reaches out to way older audiences...

Yeah, I mean kids killing kids. It is quite an intense thing. It's not just a kids' movie though, or a tweens' movie. It's actually a P.G. rating in the States, but there is a good deal of violence in it.

Q: Which of your own movies have a special place in your heart?

Most definitely The People vs Larry Flint, and I love The Messenger, working with Oren [Moverman, the director]. I put them right up there. You can do a movie and hope it may be great but until you have seen it, you don't know. I loved Rampart. I love that one called The Hi-Low Country that Steven Frears shot. I thought that was really great. It was Penelope Cruz's first role in an American production. I'm just talking here about the quality of the film. I would also probably put Natural Born Killers up there as one of my favourites, as that was great fun to make, too.

Q: Your relationship with Oren Moverman, on both The Messenger and now Rampart, seems quite vital?

Probably he has encouraged me to do some of my best work. On The Messenger, just imagining playing the part of a soldier in that movie was kind of hard for me. And in Rampart, the idea of playing a cop was even harder. It was hard to imagine myself as a cop. It was a great challenge, but I will say Oren lifts you to the challenge. It raises your confidence level just by being with him. Gary Ross is like that too.

The Hunger Games is out now on DVD. Watch the trailer below...