From tending bar to toppling governments, it seems like Woody Harrelson’s characters can do anything — up to and including going from the Hunger Games franchise to a supporting role in the Han Solo origin film Solo: A Star Wars Story and a cameo in the closing moments of Venom. And while Harrelson might have helped make Han Solo the pilot who made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, it seems like his own career has gone even faster, and his life faster still. Whether you remember him as Woody the affably dimwitted bartender on Cheers or picked up your first fix later in his distinguished career, it’s easy to blink and miss some of Woody Harrelson’s most daring and most hilarious moments, both on and off the screen. Fortunately, we’re here to fill in some of the lesser-known details of Harrelson’s life and screen legacy. It’s time for his entire story to be told.
Woody Harrelson’s father was a contract killer
While the world was introduced to Woody Harrelson during his long run on Cheers, he knew he’d have a long way to go to break out of that public image when he made the transition to movie star. That, perhaps, is why he took on shocking roles in movies such as Natural Born Killers as a modern-day serial killer who rides a wave of inexplicable media glorification into becoming a pop culture icon. What was most shocking to longtime Harrelson fans, though, is just how well he portrayed the role of a killer. How, they wondered, could such a nice guy do such a good job playing a cold-blooded murderer? It turns out that Woody Harrelson was raised by one.
Harrelson’s parents split when the young man was about seven years old, although the older Harrelson had already spent time in and out of prison at that point. He was accused of murdering multiple people. One conviction ended in a 15-year sentence, but he got out early for good behavior. This was a mistake, as he went on to kill a federal judge named John H. Wood. A court found him guilty of murder for hire and sentenced him to two life sentences. He eventually died of a heart attack in prison. By then, though, he and his famous son had reconciled.
Woody Harrelson is a major environmentalist
Many celebrities are involved in different activist organizations, but it’s usually a donation here and a charitable write-off there. Woody Harrelson, however, is a devoted environmental activist who has put his money where his mouth is. He’s especially concerned about deforestation and has spent years doing whatever he can to stop it from happening. Sometimes he’s lobbied for governmental change. However, even for a famous person with a wad of cash, it can be headache-inducing trying to effect change via politics.
That’s one reason Harrelson helped found Prairie Pulp and Paper. The name of the game is sustainable paper made of 80 percent wheat straw waste. This special paper is named Step Forward Paper, and the business claims that every two boxes of it used in place of standard office paper save an entire tree. For some actors, being a paper salesman on the side might seem a bit demeaning, but Harrelson has described the thought of losing entire forests to clear-cutting as being "too painful" and reiterated he feels a personal responsibility to help turn things around: "We need to do something about this. "
Woody Harrelson was hoping for a Hunger Games hook-up
The Hunger Games very quickly became a full-blown cultural phenomenon, with the world caught up in the star-crossed romance of Katniss and Peeta. Even as their worlds were turned upside down, they kept the flames burning. In these movies, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks each play a kind of mentor figure to the young characters. However, unbeknownst to most people, the two older actors were having their own star-crossed bit of romance.
In a 2012 interview with Moviefone, Elizabeth Banks was described some of the finer points of acting, including separating out her own feelings for Woody Harrelson from her character’s feelings for Harrelson’s character Haymitch. Banks told her interviewer that, speaking for herself, she had a crush on Harrelson, one she implied was more intense than the milder crush that her character has on Haymitch. Interestingly enough, Harrelson revealed in 2016 that he completely improvised a moment when he kissed Banks. Harrelson was characteristically blunt about his motivation for doing so, saying, "I have a crush on Elizabeth Banks, I’m not going to lie," and went on to say "I think she’s a beautiful woman, I think she’s a marvelous actress, and I just love her as a person." How into it was Harrelson? He told Entertainment Tonight that even though The Hunger Games films had ended, he hoped for an eventual sequel that would showcase their characters’ romance, as "it wasn’t like just a light thing where we thought it was nothing."
Woody Harrelson once punched a real-life zombie
Despite presenting himself as an affable and laid-back guy, Woody Harrelson has an undeniable dark side that sometimes manifests in some weird ways. Perhaps the weirdest was an incident in 2009 where he punched a photographer from TMZ who was rushing up to him. Now, wanting to punch a TMZ reporter just proves Harrelson is human. What makes it strange is that he claims he thought the photographer was actually a zombie.
If this was a joke, or perhaps some viral marketing for Harrelson’s then-recent film Zombieland, he gets full marks for sticking to it. Harrelson did not try to deny the assault and issued a statement in which he said that in his recent movie, he "was constantly under assault by zombies, then flew to New York, still very much in character." He said he was with his daughter when he "was startled by a paparazzo, who I quite understandably mistook for a zombie." Maybe we’ll give him a pass on this one.
Giving up milk helped Woody Harrelson become a star
When talking about what led to their big break, most actors will talk about the mentors they’ve had, the acting techniques they’ve learned, and the roles that propelled them to prominence. Woody Harrelson, though, credits an entirely different kind of source. To hear him tell it, he became a star because of a random woman on the bus.
Harrelson says when he was a struggling actor in New York many years ago, he was quite ugly. Specifically, he was always blowing his nose and had been covered in acne for years. And then a random woman on his bus took one look at him and diagnosed him as lactose-intolerant. She swore that if he quit dairy entirely, his nose and face would clear up in about three days. Harrelson was skeptical, but once he tried it, his face cleared up entirely. At the age of 24, Harrelson looked like a new man, just in time to be cast in his breakout role in Cheers. This incident not only kicked off his acting career but led to his skepticism about things everyone thinks are good that are actually just "advertising" and a "total hoax."
Woody Harrelson is an anarchist
Because he presents himself as a laid-back, pot-smoking dude living in Hawaii who just happens to be a huge movie star, it’s easy to forget how intensely political Woody Harrelson can get. Not just about his activist concerns (ranging from deforestation to marijuana legalization), but about the very nature of government itself. On that note, the veteran actor has a very surprising sentiment: he doesn’t think we need it all and describes himself as an anarchist.
In an interview with Politico, Harrelson let it all hang out. He described politicians as being engaged in "a subtle form of prostitution" and expressed cynicism about both Republicans and Democrats, saying "they all kneel and kiss the ring." When the interviewer asked if Harrelson himself would like to become more politically active (presumably as an antidote to what he saw as this major problem at the root of politics), Harrelson said he didn’t believe in politics: "I’m an anarchist, I guess you could say. I think people could be just fine looking after themselves." From someone accustomed to punching zombies, reporters, and reporters who might be zombies, self-reliance probably comes pretty naturally. (Is it easier to be an anarchist when you’ve already been made rich by our current society?)
Woody Harrelson bailed on Hunger Games to attend a Lorde concert
Apparently, Woody Harrelson’s ability to hit it off with anybody extends to the musician Lorde. When he and the rest of the cast and crew were filming Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 in Berlin, Harrelson befriended the young singer and invited her to visit the cast before one of her shows. She did, and then left to go put on her show. Watching this show was very important to Woody Harrelson, so he decided to bail on the cast and crew and go attend it! To his credit, he didn’t stay for the entire show, but he still missed some of his scheduled shoots and held up the production of a multimillion-dollar movie franchise because he just really wanted to jam out with Lorde.
Woody Harrelson is a hardcore vegan
In addition to avoiding dairy (he’s still listening to the advice of the kindly young lady from the bus, all these decades later), Woody Harrelson is a hardcore vegan. While this is easy enough to manage in his day-to-day life, it actually presents some interesting challenges for bringing his onscreen characters to life. One example of this came in the hit film Zombieland, in which Harrelson plays a character that is absolutely obsessed with Twinkies. How did they get the vegan actor to chow down on one of the most non-vegan snacks on the planet? Simple: they made him custom vegan Twinkies for the movie. (This is actually more common in Hollywood than you might think. For example, the hamburger-obsessed character portrayed by Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar actually munches veggie burgers instead of the usual White Castle fare.)
Woody Harrelson actually beat England at soccer
While Woody Harrelson has a great many strengths as both an actor and a human being, most people don’t immediately think "athlete." However, Harrelson periodically participates in the celebrity charity soccer event that is appropriately named Soccer Aid. In 2010, Harrelson’s team (named The Rest of the World) was up against a group of English celebrities when he was chosen to be the 11th penalty taker. Harrelson scored the goal, winning the game. It was a pretty big deal for Harrelson and, by extension, the rest of the world, as this was the one and only time England’s team ever lost Soccer Aid. This also makes Harrelson our go-to celebrity to represent Earth against alien athletes if they ever make a Space Jam sequel featuring soccer instead of basketball.
Woody Harrelson is an intense marijuana activist
Woody Harrelson’s love of marijuana is hardly surprising. What does surprise many people, though, is just how much of an outright marijuana activist Harrelson has been over the years. He’s been arrested for planting hemp seeds on public property in order to draw public attention to marijuana-related legislation, and he created and starred in a 1999 documentary named Grass for the same purpose. Harrelson eventually joined the advisory board of the national marijuana activist group NORML. Now that the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana is sweeping the country, Harrelson is even trying to open marijuana dispensaries under the name Simple Organic Living. Apparently, from blockbuster movies to forests to marijuana, Woody Harrelson just can’t stop seeing green.
It takes a lot to get Woody Harrelson on a movie set
Woody Harrelson’s career profile has obviously been helped by his appearances in a number of big-budget franchise films over the last several years, but he didn’t necessarily set out to star in any of them — in fact, he only ended up in The Hunger Games and Solo: A Star Wars Story because the filmmakers refused to take no for an answer. Why was Harrelson so hard to get? As it turns out, he’s basically a homebody by nature, and prefers not to fill his schedule with professional pursuits.
"I actually turned it down at first. And then, I ended up doing it," Harrelson said regarding Solo: A Star Wars Story while he was on his press tour for the film. "I mean, I turned down Hunger Games twice, so this is no genius making these decisions. … I’d done so many things back to back and I just wanted to go home. I was like, obviously this is something most actors would want to be a part of, but I just wanted to go home, so I decided not to do it."
Sometimes, Woody Harrelson takes a role just for the heck of it
While some filmmakers have a hard time pinning Woody Harrelson down for a role, others seem to catch him at the right moment. For example, consider the story of Harrelson’s post-credits appearance in Venom, which saw him popping up as the murderous Cletus Kasady, a.k.a. Carnage. While it’s a pivotal role in the Venom saga, Harrelson’s contribution to the film was essentially shock value — and speaking of shocking, he apparently signed on for subsequent franchise installments without having any clear idea of where the studio planned to take the character.
"I’m in a little fraction of this movie, but I’ll be in the next one, you know?" Harrelson said prior to Venom‘s release. "So I haven’t read that script, but anyway, just rolled the dice."
Given how well Venom performed at the box office — leading directly to Harrelson being confirmed for Venom 2 — it seems safe to say that his gamble paid off.