Woody Harrelson, lost in Oxford

Woody Harrelson dissects new film Lost in London, comedy, drugs, and global warming with Megan Husain and Olivia Webster

Illustration: Mark De Courcy Ling

If last week you caught sight of a Woody Harrelson wandering around Oxford, or attempting to get into the Radcliffe Camera, your eyes were not deceiving you. Woody descended on Oxford and was taken on a tour by members of the Oxford Guild before showing his new film Lost in London at the Andrew Wiles building.

For an A-List celebrity who had spent his day walking around the most stress-filled university in the country, he was incredibly relaxed. A little too relaxed. Woody remained friendly, and joked away throughout the interview, but as he answered our questions, his laid-back, slightly distracted attitude was a little unnerving.

Maybe this calm manner was really due to how awestruck he’d been by our beautiful city after his tour from members of the Oxford Guild: “I saw a lot of beautiful buildings, it’s great to be in these places that have been around for literally hundreds of years, the vibe is strong, it’s fantastic.” Woody’s new film, Lost in London, has this same sense of the excitement on discovering a city.

The plot follows Woody on a “terrible drastic night” out in London: his wife is on the edge of leaving him, he is taken clubbing by an Iranian Prince, he gets into a fight with his best friend (Owen Wilson), knocks over a disabled man and spends the night in jail for breaking the ashtray of a taxi. At times the film may seem slightly self-indulgent, in simply tracking Woody’s own life, but he assured us of the more meaningful element behind it.

“There’s something of merit to the story which is really a guy who has it all but doesn’t realise until he’s threatened with losing it all, and then he’s give a shot at redemption… at least thematically it is like It’s A Wonderful Life—that’s the kind of message that’s in it”

Yet, what has really grabbed media attention is the added layer of interest that Lost in London is the first live-streamed film to be created. It was shot in real time with one camera for 99 minutes and creates this sensation of following Woody around on his night out.

Surprisingly the shooting itself remains extremely slick, and Woody emphasises how it brings together the immediacy of the stage with the medium of the camera lens: “I was always a big fan of theatre, and then film, and I thought it was a good way to merge the two…This was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It was like theatre but there were a lot of elements I didn’t have control of.”

The start of the film opens with a short explanation of the process of making the work, and it was clearly a difficult task which created numerous technical difficulties. Woody jokes, “boy, I regretted having that idea sometimes, but now I’m happy”. The audience was clearly happy too judging by their laughs throughout the screening.

Laughs is what Woody is famous for due to his acting in comedies such as Kingpin and Zombie Land. Lost in London too, is also extremely funny as we follow Woody’s mishaps and run ins. He explains how comedy like this, is still the most important thing for him: “That’s my favourite thing, making people laugh…I have other movies that I want to direct and they’re all comedies.”

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During Lost in London he jokingly berates that fact that he keeps on getting roped into acting in dramas or other genres, and in the interview he reiterated his frustration with acting in more serious productions:

“The last play I did was on the West End and it was brutal. It was Tennessee Williams and it was heavy and if you did everything right as an audience member you’d feel like you’d be punched in the gut, and that’s if you do everything right… Why do you want that? I’d rather people laugh for 80/90 minutes and then let’s hit the pub!” Woody’s carefree jovial attitude is apparent as he jokes around with us, mocking our English accents and batting off more pressing questions about politics with a grin.

When pressed further on what makes something funny, and how he views comedy in general, Woody continued explaining that for him “comedy is born out of tragedy, or some kind of conflict or difficulty or dramatic thing. What is it they say, comedy is tragedy gone wrong, and tragedy is comedy gone wrong, something like that…”

Perhaps? We’ll let the English students among us decide that. Either way, it is clear that comedies is where he wants to remain for the foreseeable future.  He talked to us about his new screen play The Misfortunes of Mr Fitz, which sounds extremely exciting: “It takes place in Ireland…all in the space of 24 hours. I like slapstick, really kind of believable slapstick.” We’ll certainly look forward to seeing how another UK based film turns out.

However if you’re worried that Woody is swapping the screen for a notepad then fear not. As he assures us: “I’m going to keep acting, you know, until they put me out. I’ll keep doing it. I love it.”

Despite his humorous side however, Woody does have more serious attitude to certain important things. He has been a life-long environmental activist, speaking out about global warming, drug legalisation and veganism. We asked what drives his work – “I guess I’m driven by the fact that I can see we’re a bunch of lemmings heading off a cliff…. I remember when I first understood global warming it was in 1987, and I was just like this is a major problem. Back then they said we have 15 years to deal with this, or there’s no turning back from the cataclysm…we’re still not dealing with it.”

He takes a staunch line against corporations who are not doing anything to help the environment and talks with real feeling on the subject: “Some people are doing something, but the people who need to change, for example the fossil fuel industry, they don’t want to change. Maybe they have a department that are making solar panels or something, but they’re doing everything they can to get every last drop…these giant industries aren’t really thinking about anything but profit.”

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When asked about his attitude towards drugs, we are again met with a very different kind of Woody who takes the question far more seriously. He has previously spoken very publicly in favour of recreational marjuna usage and continues to support the case for freedom of action: “I think that in a free country you should be free to do what you want, unless you’re hurting someone else or hurting their property.  So that’s not just drugs, it’s drugs, gambling anything – I call them victimless crimes or consensual crimes.”

Recently however, he announced that he had given up smoking pot. When we pressed him about this he was keen to explain that this is because he was abusing the substance, not because he is against weed: “I haven’t changed my attitude towards ‘erb’ I think it’s a great thing. My problem was that I was abusing it I ju st think the abuse of its probably not smart …I was literally in a perpetual cloud, not when I worked, I didn’t smoke when I worked, but as soon as I wrapped I smoked, and if I wasn’t working I would smoke, so I was either in a San Francisco fog, or a London fog…I don’t think that was really serving me, and I certainly couldn’t have done this movie if I had been foggy, I had to be really clear.” It is clear though that for Woody, it remains a ‘sacred plant’ – he jokily mentions how much he misses it.

Finally, as his assistant began to make motions for him to go and see his film, we quickly asked him about his experience of being a student at Hanover College and he provides advice that I’m sure many finalists would love to hear:  “I feel like if I went back and did college over again, first of all I wouldn’t stress so hard about my grades because you get out of college and nobody’s cares what your grades were when you go for a job… It’s like the merit of who you are in the room.”

Woody certainly does have a presence in the room, and maybe this is because he is such a daring figure, constantly getting involved in new things: “I do like to scare myself at least once a day, doing something a little bit scary, climb up on something, jump off something.” This feels somewhat to believe when staring at a man so subdued he was 15 minutes late to his own screening. But, his wild side and element of craziness (or idiocy maybe) is unmistakable. His sage wisdom and advice then, was a plea for us stressed students to be as light-hearted and happy-go-lucky as he is.