James Woods interview: Leone, Casino, Oliver Stone, Hemdale

In the first of a two part look back at his career, James Woods chats to us about family, Scorsese, Stone, Leone and more...

It took a false start or two before we finally got James Woods on the end of the phone. There was no agent connecting us, no middle person to monitor what we were saying. Just a problem with a charging cable, oddly enough.

When we were connected, we launched into an interview that was intended to last 15 minutes, but as it turned out, it passed the hour mark. And heck, we got through a lot: so much, that we’ve split this interview into two articles. A genuinely fascinating man.

Regular readers will know that we’ve been long-time fans of James Woods – as highlighted by our look at some of his least appreciated films, here – and as our conversation started, he talked about a friend of his who was still busier than ever, while he was close to retirement. So that seemed like a good place to start…

You said just before that your friend was working his ass off and you were ready to retire. But do you really want to retire?

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Well, when I say retire, I say it tongue in cheek. I’m just sort of not interested in what I call ‘service roles’ any more. So much of what Hollywood does now, I’m sorry to say… they’re busy with the political agenda, socially political agenda, and that’s fine. But the older white heterosexual European male is only the villain in movies. Very rarely are we anything but the villain now.

Unless it’s something like Nebraska, which has given Bruce Dern a great role?

Well, once in a while, an Alexander Payne movie comes along though!

Look, I have a car with 200,000 miles on it. An old Jeep. I’ve done very well, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not a material person. I wear cheap shoes and jeans. I don’t really spend money. All I really want are my cameras and my computer stuff and my watches and that’s about it.

The only thing I’d be interested in from a career point of view would be working with a real auteur, like Spike Jonze or Alexander Payne or of course my great friend Oliver Stone. Even though they make big, powerful successful movies, they’re still auteurs in their heart and in their work.

Is that a reason why you’ve regularly been drawn to writer-directors?

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Oh yes. I think what happens is… I’ve had it said to me that you should write and direct more. And I sort of understood that.

You have to understand that I didn’t grow up in a showbiz family. My father was a professional soldier, and he was in service. A very brilliant man, wanted me to go to MIT. They didn’t have a lot of opportunities. They were children of the depression. My mom was a teacher for 28 years. A brilliant woman. My brother was brilliant, God rest his soul.

Look, Michael Douglas acted and produced. We worked together on our very first piece of film for a learning corporation. A video on the American constitution. I was 19, he was 22, 23 or something. But his father was Kirk Douglas. He was a child of Hollywood. He understood producing. He got the rights to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, so he became a really good producer, as well as a wonderful actor, obviously. If I could do it over again, I would have done that.

As an actor of course, I’ve been drawn to people who take a lot of input. So Oliver, when we did Salvador, that wasn’t even in the script that confession scene. I said ‘what do you want me to do?’ and he said ‘well, basically just an improvisation on who you are as a character’. So I said don’t say a word, just stick Ramone off-camera – because we used a cutaway of an extra as the priest, but it was actually Ramone Menendez.

(Here’s that scene…)

The whole thing was an honest, on-camera improvisation, but it was probably the reason that I got nominated for an Oscar. Because Oliver gave me free reign to explore the life of a character that I had been inhabiting at this point for a couple of months. And we did it just before the end. So I had a real collaborator…

And then there was Casino…

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Martin Scorsese! I had five lines in that script when I did it. Nick Pileggi once famously said – and I’ll be forever grateful for him saying it – that ‘I was never so happy to take credit for some wonderful ablibs as Jimmy’s in Casino‘! Which was sweet.

Thelma Schoonmaker [editor] when she got the Hollywood Film Festival lifetime achievement award, I actually presented it to her. And she said it was serendipitous that I had given it to her, because it was a perfect example of editing.

There was a scene in Casino where, at her wedding to De Niro, Sharon Stone – Ginger – he catches her out in the cloakroom on the phone to somebody. In the script, it was her talking, and it just cut to me on the phone hanging up, and that was it.

I said to Marty that I should have a hooker with big tits blowing me, and I’ll be doing cocaine. He said ‘I can’t have someone blowing you in a movie’, and I said yeah, you could. So he got this really lovely actress – she was, I guess, a dancer in Vegas – and she walked around topless. I put on that robe. I have to say I was screaming laughing. I was doing this fake cocaine and stuff. And then he said let’s get Sharon on the phone and we’ll do some improv. We did five reels of improvisation.

And Thelma said they were looking for a score for the wedding, and they couldn’t find music they liked. And she said ‘hey, those improvs that Jimmy has turned in? Those are kind of cool. What don’t we use that as the soundtrack to the wedding’! That’s the perfect example of creating an entire scene. All that stuff about The Elephant Man, that was all improvised.

A wonderful screenplay too. But my point is when you’ve got a wonderful writer like Nick Pileggi, and I’m not taking credit for his script – he and Marty wrote a great screenplay. But guess what? The best writers are not afraid to have you enrich what they do if what you contribute has some viability to it.

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The greatest compliment I ever got was from Sergio Leone [on Once Upon A Time In America]. He said ‘I’ve always worked like an opera director. My actors are props’. Wonderful actors! Henry Fonda, Jason Robards people like that! But he said they’re like props.

He said ‘I have the entire scene worked out, tell them where to stand, the camera moves, I have an image of how they’re going to be, and they’re living storyboards’,

But he called us ‘wild boys’, and I asked him why. He said ‘You guys come in, I say do this, you say no, I want to do this, and I’m now in a position of covering what you do, but it’s more fun than I’ve ever had’.

He said ‘I can plan one thing, but then you do something and I come up with shots that I like even better, because the action makes more sense sometimes than what I’d planned’. It was a great compliment to have Sergio Leone say you make me a better director [laughs]!

Once Upon A Time In America remains one of your most popular films too, of course.

Speaking of that, one of my favourite anecdotes of my entire career… I speak French, and Sergio pretended that he didn’t speak English very well – he had an interpreter! But he did really. One day he was speaking in French, and I started speaking French. And he went, ‘ah, shit’. I said what? He said ‘now that you can speak French with me, I might as well just speak English!’

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One time he said ‘Jimmy, come here’. And I’m talking to him, not really paying attention. He puts his arm around me and it’s me, him and this other fella. We’re walking down the hallway and he says to the other guy ‘this is one of my good actors in the movie’. I said ‘hi, how are you?’. Sergio said ‘do you know Freddy?’, I said ‘no, hi Freddy, how are you?’. And that went on for a while. Then I looked at him and said ‘Freddy? Is your first name Federico?’ ‘Yeah’, he said. ‘Fellini?! Federico Fellini?!’

I thought I’d give a million dollars just to have this photograph: me, walking down the hallway with Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini. This is when you wish you’d had an iPhone!

We’ve written in the best on the site on a series of your films that never really seemed to get the exposure they deserved. And we picked one in particular: Best Seller. You yourself have said that that’s your mum’s favourite of all the films that you did. Your parents weren’t from a film background, but how did she view your film career? Was she supportive?

Oh yes. My dad passed away when I was 12, God rest his soul. My mom, when I was at MIT in my senior year, I called her and said ‘I’m thinking of going to New York and becoming an actor’. There was a long pause. I said ‘how do you feel about that?’.

And I’ve always said that if I ever got an Oscar, my thank you speech would be this story… I never will get one, I’m too old now! But I would say that my mom thought for a while and said to me ‘when I married your father, I was 19 years old. When I had you I was 21’. She had my late brother later. ‘People said you’re too young, but the happiest experience of my life was my family. I loved your father, I loved you…’

I had a phenomenal family. My parents loved each other, loved their kids.

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She said ‘I followed my heart and I did what a lot of people thought would be a mistake’. Not that there was anything wrong with my dad – just that they were too young. And she said ‘it was the greatest thing I ever did’.

But she said ‘I gave all of myself to it. And I’ll tell you what. You go out there and promise me this one thing – just promise me. I don’t care if you succeed or fail, or if you get lost along the way. But every single day of your life, if you’re an actor, you will always try your very best’.

And it’s a promise I’ve kept for 45 years.

That’s lovely. I do love that her favourite of your films was Best Seller, too. It regularly comes up as a favourite of yours amongst our readers as well. You did Best Seller and Cop pretty much back to back, and both are hard films to get hold of now, at least in any decent format…

Yeah, yeah they are.

Why do you think those films particularly resonated? What are your memories of them?

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Well, Jimmy Harris [director, screenwriter, co-producer of Cop] has always been one of my best friends. We did a little odd movie called Fast-Walking. Jimmy’s a quirky guy. We think alike about a lot of stuff.

Oliver Stone was pretty much going to offer me Wall Street, but I was committed to doing Cop. He said ‘don’t be silly, go and do Wall Street‘, and I told him I was going to do Cop. You know, could have been a mistake! But I have no regrets. I think with Jimmy and John Flynn [director of Best Seller] it had as much to do with Hemdale [the production company] at that point.

Best Seller was done by Hemdale. And you know, John [Daly, who formed Hemdale and stayed with it until 1995] was – well, a wonderful fucking criminal! He never paid anybody, he knew how to alienate everybody!

I mean look at this: here’s who John Daly had in the first three films he did. He had Jim Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oliver Stone, Jimmy Woods, John Belushi… at the time they did The Boost with Sean Young, she was very hot at the time. Harold Becker, Arnold Kopelson. All these people were in there, and they just fucked it up because they kept trying to cheat everybody.

But I loved John because he was the real Harvey Weinstein. And you know, Harvey Weinstein is unparalleled in terms of bringing great cinema. I don’t care what people say about him. I’ve actually never worked with him… actually once, I did Scary Movie 2 or something. I’ve always wanted to work with him more, it’s just never happened for some reason. We like each other, we see each other…

Best Seller was such an odd idea, and it also appealed to me because Joe Wambaugh had been instrumental in the launching of my career. And Brian Dennehy is basically playing Joseph Wambaugh. A cop novelist. It was a very clever auterist idea. It reminded me oddly enough of those smaller Kurosawa movies … he’s a great crime director Kurosawa.

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Anyway, the point is that this was like an updated 80s version of film noir. And you hit on something very important. The 80s period was some of the greatest filmmaking ever, and a lot of those films are lost forever.

You wrote a piece for us on that before, about the problem with Salvador?

Yeah. Oliver Stone and I went to the New York Film Festival for Salvador – a fucking film festival! A screening of a seminal Oliver Stone film. Really, his first real film. Here it was, we were both Oscar nominated for that film. So they screened it at the festival [to mark the anniversary of the movie] and I saw Oliver afterwards and told him there were four scenes missing from the film!

I said to him that he’d probably done 50 different edits of the film, and he said ‘yeah’, and I said ‘believe me, in the final film. Things like the boy getting out of the car to go fight for the guerillas’… I went through a whole bunch of scenes. And a lot of that was down to the authorship, whoever owned the negative.

Harold Becker went to take The Onion Fields to a festival and there were four scenes missing from that picture. People buy these fucking negatives and nobody looks after them. Hemdale didn’t even have a fucking vault for their movies! So a lot of times, these things only exist because they’re on DVD or VHS. And it’s horrible.

The big problem with film preservation is in the 80s, and that’s when I was king! I was king of the independent movies.

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So why did you like doing those movies particularly?

I liked doing them because they had a genre overlay for me. In other words, you really had an updated film noir feel, and at the same time the film noir underbelly of the yuppie decade. So while people were out there thinking life was good, because they could drive around in fast cars and have second vacation homes, there were still criminals out there doing their job, in updated, clever ways.

I just loved that the character [in Best Seller] was kind of a believable Superman. He was trained to be an assassin, and you read about these guys who are real hitmen, and they have these techniques that are astonishing. They really are trained to do all that stuff. It’s really a profession. And I just loved the idea of this guy wanting to say that he’s going after another man, but at the same time, though he’s a sociopath on some level, he seems to be interested in writing some moral wrongs.

I always love movies that are about ethical moral dilemmas. Because the only thing that separates the man from the beast is morality and ethics. So movies that are about that are very, very powerful.

Anybody can be a hero, cut everyone up with their swords, machine gun or whatever… what made Lone Survivor such a poignant movie for example for me was that there really was a very genuine and disturbing moral dilemma. Because if you don’t kill them, they’re going to die, and they’re part of this fucking group. It’s a shame, but there’s collateral damage.

On the other hand, you can’t kill a kid in cold blood. Even the Mark Wahlberg character sort of says that’s the kind of shit that’s on CNN. It covered all the bases, from genuine moral conscience and expediency, and bad PR inbetween. It was really great to hear that sort of complex discussion. The consequences of a wrong decision, or a poor decision. Clearly it wasn’t a good one for them.

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Did you ever watch the movie Touching The Void?

The climbers? I did watch that, the documentary? I loved it. I fucking loved it. Where the one guy gets off the mountain the whole way, finally… How about when he’s in that cavern, with no way out? That for me was one of the most chilling images. Can you fucking imagine being down there?!

You know, I approached these films instinctively for a while. And now that I’ve studied this stuff, I realise a fundamental aspect of what makes a movie great which is that moment of death, the all is lost moment in the middle of a character’s evolution. Where they must dig deep inside and find some supernatural solution. There has to be an intervention from within or from without. Where you realise that your quest is one thing, but your journey has in fact become another. That’s the essence of great movie making.

Here was a guy, in Best Seller for example, who’s trying to use another man for his needs, and in fact makes the only friend he’s ever had in his whole life. It’s very complex.

I told my mother a funny story about it. She just loved that he was so suave, and such a great character. I said to her, ‘you know, he’s ruthless’, and she said ‘you know, I don’t know how much different he is to half the politicians in the White House!’ I thought you know what, you’re 100% right. It’s like that great line in The Godfather – ‘Presidents and senators don’t have people killed’, ‘Oh, who’s being naive?’.

So there was a scene where you’re shocked to find out in the audience that when he’s home visiting he says some people prefer to do their own killing, others get others to do their killing for them. It’s like eating a piece of steak. You’re one of those people who buys steak in the supermarket – you don’t mind the killing, as long as someone else does it for you.

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It sounds like you and your mom were very close.

My mom was a very sensible person. She hated hypocrisy. H-a-t-e-d hypocrisy.

I give you my mother in a nutshell. She grew up as a child of the depression. She just dreaded poverty. And yet ironically what she did do – which I didn’t find out for years – she saw an opportunity. Picking up kids for school. She said ‘I remember being poor as a kid. I remember how it made me felt. How humiliating it was to be poor, but we couldn’t do anything. Your father had a medical malpractice thing – he was a hard-working man and then he wasn’t able to work’.

And she saw that bus and said ‘those kids, they get on there every day on a bus that says “I’m poor and I’m worthless”‘. So what she did, she followed that bus into the inner city and to other places. And she knocked on the door – she had the most prestigious school in the state, the governor, everybody wanted to send their kids there. It was an amazing school and she was a great, great teacher. A fundamentally, spiritually great teacher. So she knocked on the door and said how would you like me to take your kids to go to a private school for free? And she took 20% of the kids at that school for 28 years for free. So that’s my mother.

Here’s the other story about her that I love. We went on one of those charity golf tournaments. You’re in Maui, and you’re playing golf, the go-go days of the 80s when things were great. So I said hey, I’d like to take my mom, my step-dad, my brother… they went to those things.

So I brought them, and that was back when they used to smoke in hotels. They had those standing ashtrays by the elevator. And I was standing by my mom and she said ‘Jesus Christ’. I said ‘what mom?’. And there was a guy standing there taking cigarette butts out of the ashtray, smoothing them over, and he takes this mould and stamps the Ritz Carlton logo into the stand. My mom walks over and says “sometimes, rich people are just too appalling”. Leaving an imprint in the ash in their ashtray!

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She sounds one of a kind.

She was amazing. Amazing.

Part two of the interview can be found here.

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