Ties to director drew Woody Harrelson to 'Out of the Furnace'



Woody Harrelson caught a few Pirates games when he was in Pittsburgh in spring 2012 filming "Out of the Furnace" although you wouldn't have spotted him nibbling a gourmet panini on the Jumbotron.

"I can't remember which hotel it was, but I could literally see the games, the baseball games, and I had some binoculars so sometimes I'd just be in there watching the games going on. I had the best seat in the house," he said of his stay, apparently at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown.

"I used to bike around next to the water there. But I don't know, I probably didn't see that much. I'd do some exercise and then go hang in my room and watch 'Breaking Bad,' " he said, when asked in a recent call about exploring Pittsburgh.

In "Out of the Furnace," opening in theaters Friday, Mr. Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat, a meth addict and leader of a ruthless backwoods crime ring in the New Jersey Ramapo Mountains. He stages bare-knuckle brawls in which the fix is in, as Casey Affleck's character discovers.

"I got to talk to some real interesting characters, some drug addicts, some DEA agents. It's a fascinating world, and it's everywhere. It's just everywhere. I live in the most incredible paradise, Maui, but boy they got a lot of meth there," the 52-year-old actor said.

"It's sad, it really does cripple lives. Of course you know even watching documentaries about it, it's incredible to see how people know it's going to kill them. They know their health is being destroyed, they're losing their teeth, they can see physically -- it's not hard to see a dramatic difference. And yet they just can't stop it, and they have no desire to stop it. "

It was during a publicity stop in Pittsburgh for "Crazy Heart" one frigid day in late January 2010 that delivered director Scott Cooper to a place that sparked his imagination.

"Scott was out driving one time, I guess when he was kind of campaigning for 'Crazy Heart,' and he drove through Pittsburgh and went out to Braddock and the next thing you know, he said he's got to write something. He started thinking of this story then. So, it was the powerful influence of being in Braddock that made this whole story come about."

Although there was, understandably, some confusion early on, "Out of the Furnace" has nothing to do with the 1941 Thomas Bell book "Out of This Furnace." The production seriously flirted with changing the movie's title to "Dust to Dust," but reverted to the original with its robust, apt imagery.

"Braddock is a very powerful environment. You can really feel it in the heaviness, the metallic feel in the air. Steel was always the big thing in Braddock -- well, I guess they still have one mill left working there -- but it's heavy," suggests the actor.

"It's heavy, it's poor, people have been through a lot. All that's in the air there. I felt working in Braddock was really important, it's like a major character in the film, generally, and I do think all the actors were deeply affected by being there."

Mr. Cooper is the sometime actor turned director and writer who finally landed Jeff Bridges an Oscar for his work as washed-up country singer Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart." The movie also scored an Academy Award for original song and earned Maggie Gyllenhaal a supporting actress nod.

"A great director is really almost like a great father, he's the ultimate kind of patriarch of the set," Mr. Harrelson said of Mr. Cooper. "He makes you feel comfortable, he makes you feel like you could do anything and nothing's wrong. If he thinks the take should go a different way, the next take he'll give you some good notes.

"His level of enthusiasm and positivity, it just makes you so inspired to be a part of it, and also wanting to please him."

However, an early detractor of the script was Mr. Harrelson's wife, Laura Louie, who read it and declared, "I have to go take a shower after reading this, I don't see why anyone would want to make this into a movie." That's what he told David Letterman during a November appearance.

"She didn't want me to do it. She didn't want me playing this character. It just was too heavy for her, and I almost didn't do it," he confirmed. At the time of the Post-Gazette call, she had not seen the movie.

"I remember after she told me that, I told Scott that, and then Scott called me. After she said that, I thought, well, that's it. I guess I'm not doing it. I hate to say that the wifey has that much influence but she kind of does. I talked to Scott and then I was like, yeah, I gotta do this part, I gotta work with Scott and also get to work with these great actors."

Mr. Letterman called Harlan "rock-solid, God-awful evil," and added, "I'm telling you. Go see this and then go see it again and then call your clergyman."

It was during filming that Mr. Cooper decided a harrowing scene, shot at the Twin Hi-Way Drive-In in Robinson, should open the movie. It shows Harlan's vile nature and sets the tone for later exchanges, including one in which Mr. Bale's character asks, "You got a problem with me?" and Harlan levels a withering glance and snarls, "I got a problem with everybody."

Mr. Harrelson, who long ago proved he could be more than the sweet bartender on "Cheers" or hustler from "Kingpin" also shot in Pittsburgh, is king of the multiplex these days. In addition to "Out of the Furnace," he talks turkey in the animated "Free Birds" and returns as Haymitch Abernathy in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," which has grossed nearly $300 million in North America alone.

"In one month, something for little tykes, something for tweens and something for adults. With an edge. I don't know if it's ideal for all of them to come out at the same time. ... If I were like just a person out there in the world who's now seeing their third or fourth interview with me, I'd be getting sick of me. But in the end, it's cool, I'm really psyched to be a part of these projects."

When the interview closes with a thank you for talking so much about Braddock and other homegrown locations, he volunteers, "It was a good experience and I met a lot of cool people out there, so I wish everybody well."


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