James Woods interview: Videodrome, The Hard Way, Hercules and more

James Woods chat to us about The Hard Way, Videodrome, Hercules, Back To The Future, JFK and more...

In part one of our interview with James Woods – which you can read here – we covered the likes of Once Upon A Time In America, Casino, Best Seller and more. In this concluding part, we move on to talk about films such as Videodrome, The Hard Way and Hercules. And we pick up pretty much where we left off…

We were talking about your mom before, and how she supported your career. But what did she make of some of your films then? What about Cop or Videodrome?

Cop? I could kind of do no wrong to her. She loved my work. But she’d say ‘oh I think that movie’s kind of stupid’. She didn’t like Videodrome.

Did she not?

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She said ‘I’m sure there’s some kind of message here, but honestly, it’s silly. It’s bullshit.’ If it’s not a narrative story, she wasn’t keen…! And to be quite honest with you, I loved working with David [Cronenberg] and so on, and it was a prescient movie as it turned out, but at the time he offered me that movie, we only had 70 pages of the script! I literally called David up and said ‘what do you think of the ending?’ and he said ‘I’m not crazy about it’. I said ‘I’ve got some ideas’, and he said ‘come on up, we’ll shoot some more’.

So I flew up to Toronto to shoot another ending. We shot three endings. I didn’t even tell my agent! And I think the final ending of Videodrome was my idea, that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that he’d just explode, or implode essentially. And he said ‘yeah, I think that’s what we’re trying to say’. He wasn’t really sure what the story was, and I think my mom sensed that in a way. She said ‘look, I get all this video stuff, Marshall McLuhan and all that. But the story just doesn’t captivate you, you don’t care about that character’.

And I have to say she was right. Why do you care about him?

Is that not one of your favourite roles then? Are you not much of a fan of the film?

Oh I am actually. You know, the only one of all these films that I ever did that I didn’t like, that I was really, really disappointed in, was The Choirboys. Because Robert Aldrich, you know, brought a sensibility that was all wrong to it. It was ridiculous, he just completely missed it. Completely missed it.

It wasn’t a fun experience, and it was a great book, a great character, but it was just turned into a silly TV sitcom. I just thought it was horrible. And Joe [Joseph Wambaugh] hated it, understandably. But then I got to work with Joe on The Onion Fields, which was a completely different experience.

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But each of these things… it’s why I like doing true stories, why I like doing stories that challenge. That challenge myths. I loved doing a thing I did for television, the McMartin Trial, Indictment, because it was such a hot fucking issue. And it could have been a great feature film, but in that day and age it was hard to get financing for stuff like that, so it ended up being HBO, which has now done some television movies that are as good as feature films as far as I’m concerned.

I think what’s interesting is that the material you were working with in the 80s would now be snapped up by someone like HBO. And the nature of modern television would push it a lot harder.

We did push it that hard in the 80s, but it was really hard to get films promoted. Hemdale would release a film into theatres and that’d be the end of it. They didn’t have a budget.

When I was up for Salvador, we didn’t even have a publicist. It was an article written in Oscar season about my performance that was in the L.A. Times. And I got nominated. People hadn’t even seen the fucking movie! But ironically, it was the first year that a local cable television channel called the Z Channel, and they put it on a month before the Oscar nominations, and that’s how I got nominated. Otherwise people would have never have known about that movie.

You rarely seem to get much credit for comedy, and the one film that comes up a lot on our site is The Hard Way…

I loved that movie.

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It’s one of the best double acts I’ve seen in a film of that ilk.

First of all, I was very pleased. John Badham [director] is a guy I love, and he in his own right is a little bit of an auteur. He has a certain stamp to his movies, a certain tone. A little bit more of a light comedy feel, but he has a really good sense of that. He’s another guy who can work on the fly and change things in the middle of a big sequence.

I loved John, and we got along great. And Michael Fox! He said ‘what do you think of Jimmy Woods?’ So I had these two guys sort of liking me as a comedy actor. We just had a ball doing it. It was so fucking much fun.

I was working with people I really liked. And Michael Fox is just the greatest guy. It’s funny.

John Travolta said a great thing to me once. We were doing The General’s Daughter, and I’ve known John since New York theatre. We’d done a reading of a play in New York. And then the first episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. I’d known John throughout. And John’s such a fucking sweetheart. He’s an incredibly funny guy. Very funny and very right wing.

In fact when we were doing Be Cool, I did a little cameo in the beginning. I was supposed to do Harvey Keitel’s part, but I had to have emergency surgery for an aneurism. So I came back and just did the little bit, and Harvey was kind enough to fill in for me on that, after a week of rehearsal.

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There’s a scene outside where it was ‘who do we get to play me in the movie?’ And one time he did a take where he said ‘how about Jimmy Woods?’, and they cut back to me and I said ‘Too gay!’. And I said ‘God, you should fucking use that’ because it’s so self-referential and about Hollywood and the movie business in the same way that Get Shorty was.

Anyway I said to John one day, ‘why are we having such a great fucking time working together?’. And he said ‘because actors have a tacit contract between them that’s unspoken. It’s always either to compete, which is miserable or to cooperate, which is a blast’. And I said ‘you know what? You’re fucking right’.

And Michael, John and I [on The Hard Way], and Brian Dennehy and I, we just get along great. We have a great time, we compete, but in a fun way. I liken it to a poker. I sit at poker table with my best friends, and you try and kill each other for the money. But you love each other!

There’s a lovely scene in the middle of The Hard Way where Michael J Fox is teaching you dating…

Oh, that was hilarious.

The outtakes of that particular scene must be lying somewhere! Can you talk us through how easily that came together?

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I’m going to tell you something: and this is a surprising answer. The other day I was talking about that scene to somebody. We were doing the scene, and you would think it was hilarious, but we couldn’t get it right.

We just didn’t feel it was funny. And I was embarrassed, he’s playing the woman… and John sort of was focused on Michael imitating Annabella [Sciorra]. And Michael came up with the idea. He said ‘you know the problem here? I’m just trying to be a girl’. And he was right: you’re not specific to what her problem would be, which is that she was really, really pissed. It’s not that she’s a girl, it’s that she’s really pissed. So Michael came up with this adlib where he said ‘don’t you take that tone with me?’, and that’s when it opened up.

There’s always one moment that opens everything up. In Once Upon A Time In America, we rehearsed all day on the scene where I kicked Tuesday Weld. And it was supposed to be that the guys all laughed. And Robert said it’s all phoney, it doesn’t mean everything. I said ‘look, why don’t you shoot’. I’m supposed to give her a kick in the ass, you know. She was willing to take the abuse and all that stuff, because that scene about these fucking horrible, misogynistic guys. So I’m screaming at her, pushing her around, kicking her in the ass, and that was supposed to be funny, and it’s not. So I turned and adlibbed ‘do I have a way with women or not?’ And nobody expected me to say it, everybody burst out laughing, and we got the scene.

It’s like sometimes it just takes a fucking moment where a great actor like Michael, who has comedy timing like I can’t believe, and he just came up with that ‘don’t you take that tone with me’. Then it becomes funny, but we struggled to get that scene.

It came across so effective and natural, too.

Yep. People don’t realise that that was like shooting a Batman movie. People go, ‘oh, it’s a comedy!’ But up on that fucking hat, hanging over Times Square? My stunt double was hanging from that thing by one hand. Ten stories up. When we were working, we were three stories up, and I’m afraid of heights! It was not fun, hanging around on that fucking thing.

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It doesn’t sound it!

Let me tell you, I got injured more on The Hard Way than any movie I’ve ever done!

I’ll never forget the stunt driver saying something to me. I was holding onto the fucking truck going 40-fucking-miles per hour, stunt car behind us, and I said ‘suppose I fall?’. He said ‘if you fall, fall through the wind shield, because it won’t hurt as much as bouncing over the car and landing on the pavement. You’ve got to hit the wind shield so you go through it. That’ll stop you’. I said ‘you want me to fall through a fucking windshield?’, and he said ‘it’s better than nothing’. He was totally serious.

One time I did fall off the truck going about 20, and I rolled on my shoulder and tore my rotator. It happens, it happens in movies!

Was there ever any talk, at any point, of revisiting those characters? Of doing a sequel to The Hard Way?

No, because you know what, The Hard Way was released on the weekend of the ground invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. And you can’t release a fucking comedy the weekend a war starts, believe me. So The Hard Way didn’t do that well, and only because it was horrible timing, that’s all.

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Can I jump forward to Disney’s Hercules, another film I’ve got lots and lots of time for. I was reading that the character of Hades in Hercules was based on Jeffrey Katzenberg [one-time overseer of animation at Disney, now the boss of DreamWorks Animation]. Were you aware of that at the time when you were doing your work on the film?

Oh yeah. Jeffrey had done Straight Talk with me and Dolly Parton, he’d been a big proponent of mine. Jeff is still a good friend of mine, he’s a wonderful guy. Very hands on. Very, very hands on. And so’s Michael Eisner [ex-Disney chief], and so it was kind of tough when they had their falling out.

It’s very interesting about voice work. Everybody has to audition. Mel Gibson had to audition for fucking Pocahontas. Even Robin Williams. They don’t offer you anything. You have to audition, because they have to know those voices work. And at the time, one of my very close friends was doing the part of Hades.

That was John Lithgow wasn’t it?

Oh, yeah.

It was revealed a year or so back.

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Okay, okay. It wasn’t John’s fault at all. The directors said this, they said ‘we don’t have a concept for this character. We gave John just the wrong direction to go in, it’s our fault’. The character was conceived in an incorrect way. They do all the voices before they do all the animation.

So I came in and the first line that he had was ‘I am Hades, lord of the underworld’, and I say ‘okay, so you need funny?’. They said ‘yeah’, I said ‘it’s not very funny’.

I said ‘look, I’ve got nothing to lose here. I’m not right for this. I’m certainly not right for that version of it’. So they said ‘how would you do it?’, and I did it [at this point, James does a snippet of his performance from Hercules], and they went ‘hold on a second’. And I started talking, and they came back said look: ‘would you be willing to do something? Would you be willing to wait a month. To do this scene that way, and let us do what we call a pencil run’, or whatever they call it, where they actually pencil the scene in, and show the concept. I said ‘okay’, and I adlibbed the whole scene, and they got it, they came back and said ‘we’re taking a risk, but we’re going to go with it’.

And I have to tell you: almost every line I did in that over the next year and a half was adlibbed. I came up with the idea of the hair being on fire. I said ‘hey, he’s got this fire-y hair. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool… you remember John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, where he goes not the hair, woah, woah?’ ‘Is my hair out?’ – they loved that. I’m telling you, that and Surf’s Up have some of the funniest adlibs I’ve ever done! I have more fun doing comedy, and nobody ever thinks of me doing comedy, but I have a lot of fun with it, I’ll tell you that!

I think my greatest comic performance is in Casino anyway!

Were there roles that you did turn down that you look back at now and think you probably should have done them?

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I have a rule that I try not to talk about a role that another actor took.

There are some that are rumoured or known: can we talk about those? Reservoir Dogs, Back To The Future, An Officer And A Gentleman? Was their truth to them?

The famous Reservoir Dogs debacle. My agent turned it down without telling me, and of course it was written for me. That was Steve Buscemi’s part.

And that Reservoir Dogs story is 100% true?

Oh yeah, yeah. Believe me. Fuck. I fired my agent after that.

But then Lou Gosset’s part in An Officer And A Gentleman. Lou’s one of my best friends. I said ‘I don’t want to play a drill instructor!’. I thought it was a brilliant idea to use an African-American actor, a great actor like Lou.

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Now remember, apart from Reservoir Dogs, which was a real, real offer, a lot of the time they say ‘would you be interested in playing this part, think if over, blah blah blah’.

There was Christopher Lloyd’s part in Back To The Future. He was fucking brilliant. My agent says I was offered, but again it was one of those things. You’re offered it, but you can’t do it because you’re busy doing something else. You never really know what that means: were they interested, or was there an offer?

Salvador, of course, I was offered Jim Belushi’s part, but I didn’t want to take it. I said ‘I’m not a B personality, I’m an A personality, the character is inside me. You should have me play the lead’. He [Oliver Stone] said ‘I’ve already got a lead’ and I said ‘well you’re making a mistake. Martin [Sheen]’s a great actor, but he’s a Zen Buddhist and he doesn’t like violence or swearing’. He said ‘yeah, he doesn’t want that in the movie’. I said ‘how do you make the movie without violence of swearing?’.

So I said ‘why don’t you ask him if he’d be willing to step down?’ and Marty – to my everlasting gratitude – said ‘do you know what, Jimmy’s a great idea, and really I’m uncomfortable with the material, and that would be fine with me’. So he graciously stepped aside for the good of the film, for the good of him, for the good of me, and the good of Oliver.

What a wonderful guy, Marty Sheen. For me, that was as good as it gets for an actor. I’ve always greatly admired him.

Also, Tom Berenger’s part in Platoon! My words to Oliver were ‘I’m not going into another fucking jungle with you!’ Joe Pesci’s part in JFK, I said no to that.

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Do remember though: oftentimes there’s a shortlist of actors for a part. And you can imagine a part in many different ways. Tom Selleck was the original Indiana Jones. I can see Harrison Ford, I can see Tom Selleck, you could see Brendan Fraser now had he been that age. But that sometimes someone makes a role their own, which I did in Casino or Hercules. I love quirky projects where you can bring a character to life.

Let’s put it this way: because I never thought I’d be a movie actor, and I always thought I’d be a theatre actor, I was always more interested in the literature than performance. I was never one of these people who said my role, my role, bullshit, bullshit when they read the script.

I’ve always been more interested in the story. I always want the character to be the centre of conscience of the piece, but I have a voice of my own. I can adlib! I think that I always was more interested in the story itself. So when I put myself in the story, I let the story play me. I’m a very definitive personality. Some people are, some people aren’t.

Bob De Niro is almost a non-existent personality, because he’s able to morph himself into roles so much. My personality is very present in my work. Some actors are like that. Jack Nicholson and I do that. Bob De Niro and Bill Hurt, for example, morph themselves different ways. Meryl Streep too. So I would try and find characters that people didn’t expect of me.

Such as?

Scary Movie 2! I loved doing that movie, because it was essentially ridiculous, funny, and I had the funniest adlib of my entire life in that.

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Keenan [Ivory Wayans, director], I said to him ‘there’s a moment where I come walking in, and there’s the devil tied to a bed’. He said ‘yeah, we’re going to do some funny stuff’. I said ‘I should have a moment where I go gee, wow. Let me just try something’. Keenan was literally on the floor. I walked in, saw the devil, said ‘fuck this’ and walked out.

So how do you want your work to be remembered? What would your epitaph be?

He loved his family, for one. The other thing would be ‘whether you liked it or not, nobody could have played the role like this’.

I think I’d buy that.

They may have been better, but nobody would have played the role the way I did. I think I give, like it or not – and that’s a very important caveat – I think I give a very definitive stamp to every performance I do. And that’s the best I can do. Give it my best, give it my all, take it or leave it. And hopefully people will, you know, take it more than not!

I’m proud if they have, but if not, I understand that, because maybe they see it in a different way. Lou Gosset played that role in An Officer And A Gentleman better than I would have done!

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I really should pull all my career together, and get it down. Maybe we can do a book together!

Now that might just be a plan. Finally, your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Oh, every Jason Statham movie  is my favourite Jason Statham movie. I love the guy. None better. The real deal.

James Woods, thank you very much.

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