James Woods reveals his softer side -- Known for playing intense characters, Woods is determined to keep audiences guessing

When the actor’s name is mentioned, the film producer’s eyes brighten as if jolted by a sudden power surge. ”James Woods is a psycho,” he says. ”He’s nuts.” But the producer, who insists that his name be kept out of the discussion, has never actually worked with Woods — his impassioned opinion is based only on watching the actor on-screen. ”Go see The Boost, that film he did with Sean Young a few years ago,” he continues. ”Every male insecurity, every emotion that makes a man self-destructive and paranoid is on that screen. Nobody could be that convincing up there without really being that way down here. Could they?”

It is the question audiences have been asking ever since Woods, 43, emerged nearly two decades ago as one of the screen’s most hyperkinetic, vein-poppingly intense presences — the guy you’d least want carrying a vial of nitroglycerin on a bumpy ride and the one who’d be the first to volunteer. His dark portrayal of cop killer Gregory Powell in The Onion Field (1979) was an act of audience hostage-taking. He vibrated like a high-tension wire as a Mephistophelean gangster in 1984’s Against All Odds. And playing a manic photojournalist in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) — a role that earned him his only Oscar nomination — he scrounged for beer and rolls of film while civil war raged around and within him.

Even those who’ve never seen a James Woods movie have had a front-row seat for his equally heated and well-publicized offscreen performances: the late-‘ 80s imbroglio with Sean Young, for example, which led to his suing her for harassment (they settled out of court and all Woods will say now is, ”I think Sean Young is one of the most beautiful women on earth, I think she’s very talented, I like very much working with her, and our differences have been resolved”). Or his recent statement in USA Today about being subpoenaed as a witness in the divorce trial of Entertainment Tonight‘s John Tesh (Woods has dated Tesh’s estranged wife): ”I’ll chew John Tesh and his bald lawyer up for breakfast.”

Small wonder, then, that there was rare unanimity when the principals on Universal’s recently released The Hard Way got together to mull over who could play the manic-depressive detective, a man who becomes a reluctant role model for Michael J. Fox’s Method-ical action-adventure movie star. As Fox recalls, ”I remember saying that we need the most intense man in the whole world — and all of our eyeballs rolled at the same time. We looked at each other and said, ‘Jimmy Woods!”’

Hustling into his office on the Universal lot, cradling boxes of stationery, Woods, in his ivory windbreaker, khaki trousers, and deck shoes, looks more like a 25-handicap golfer than a trigger-happy lunatic. The temples are gray now, but the face is still choirboy pale, with that existential crease in the cheek.

”How do you like it?” Woods asks, offering one of his new letterhead sheets with the name ”Breakheart Films” across the top and, in the lower-right corner, a silhouette of a boy and a man fishing together, sitting on a rock; through his company Breakheart, Woods has a deal with Universal to develop projects for television and film as both producer and actor.

”My father and I used to go fishing at a place called Breakheart Brook,” he explains. ”We’d fish for trout while my mom and grandmother would go blueberrying. It was a time when the whole family was together.” His father, a career military man, died when James was 12, and Woods’ childhood until then was spent as an Army brat — he lived in Guam, Virginia, Illinois, and Rhode Island — which might account for the surplus of anomie he brings to many of his roles. ”So it’s a nice memory to have,” he continues. ”It’ll bring tears to my mom and brother’s eyes when they see it. But, as usual, when I say the name of the company is Breakheart Films, the first three members of the press who hear it say, ‘Is that because you’re a heartbreak?’ And I think, ‘Oh for Chrissake, give it a rest.’ It never ends. I always read the stuff about ‘He’s so crazy and wild. He’s so intense,’ and I gotta laugh. They should know how goddamn boring my life really is. What’d you do this morning? I played golf, stayed home, played with my computer, watched PBS.”

The quieter side of Woods does occasionally get screen time — he played a hopeful adoptive father in 1989’s Immediate Family and won an Emmy for his portrayal the same year of one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name Is Bill W. Next week, he appears as a scriptwriter dying of lung cancer in the ABC movie The Boys. But Woods freely admits that the bulk of his roles have been wildly off-center. Perhaps, somewhere deep in the course of metabolizing his characters, he has done his job all too well, convincing us that he really is the hair-trigger hothead he often portrays. ”There’s an old rule in acting that you don’t play the character, you let the character play you,” he says. ”Well, I really sort of subscribe to it.

”I think I do show absolutely pure parts of myself, moment to moment on- screen, but what they are, really, are little pieces of naked response, private stuff put into this sort of necklace that has somebody else’s character, finally. The parts are me, but the sum of those parts is somebody else entirely. The danger is that people think your screen persona is you. And it isn’t. But the more honest you make it look, the more they’re convinced of it.”

The faces of some of Woods’ most tightly wound characters — from James Garner’s schizophrenic brother in the 1986 TV movie Promise (for which Woods won his first Emmy) to his obsessively curious cable-station operator in 1983’s Videodrome — leer down at us from the posters decorating his office, a full house of wild cards and bluffers. The odd man out here is the poster for The Hard Way, which is a rare foray into comedy. ”We sort of sent up and spoofed ourselves in The Hard Way, and it was a fun thing to do,” Woods says. ”Michael plays the star who doesn’t wanna do another movie with a Roman numeral, wants to play the serious, gutsy roles. And then me, with the intensity thing, the cop with the nicotine habit who kicks the shit out of cigarette machines.”

”What people forget about Jimmy,” Fox says, ”is he’s funny — he’s sick, but funny.”

Which is not to say that Woods checked his clenched jaw at the door for this film. There were moments when even director John Badham’s chronic blitheness (this is, after all, the man who made disco look good in Saturday Night Fever) was put to the test.

”Jimmy’s terrific because he has such tremendous energy,” says Badham. ”Now, as he himself will readily admit, he knows more about everybody’s job than an actor really ought to, and he spends more time doing other people’s jobs. At some point you want to say to him, ‘Jimmy, you know, don’t worry about what lens we have on or where the focus is or where the light is on your face.’ But he just can’t help it. The thing is, he’s right there with you. He’s not some guy who’s just showing up to do the scenes and collect his check.”

The pairing of Fox, whose cuddle quotient runs off the graph, with Woods, the actor with a patent on psychodrama, could have proved a recipe for disaster, but Fox shrugs off any suggestion that Woods was an intimidating presence. ”No, I was challenged,” Fox says. ”I worked with Sean Penn in the jungles of Thailand for five months so I wasn’t really intimidated, you know what I mean?” That doesn’t mean the mood was exactly tranquil, though. In one scene, which called for Woods to throw Fox at a popcorn machine, Woods ended up dislocating his finger.

”I could see it in his eyes,” Fox remembers, ”it was like, ‘I can throw you through that popcorn machine even harder this time,’ and for me, it was like, ‘Yeah, well, no you can’t because I can take it.’ In the end, I sorta got even because his finger got hooked in the buttonhole of my jacket. I think you could actually hear it snapping on one of the sound takes.”

The man who booted Tuesday Weld in the rear end, then ad-libbed “Have I got a way with women, or what?” in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, fiddles with the mouse to his Macintosh as the discussion turns to his desire for children and a family life. He gets passionate when told that the image of James Woods, father, is hard to picture.

“Are you crazy?” he grouses in disbelief. “That’s the thing I want more than anything on earth. See, that’s funny, because you don’t know me. But everybody that knows me says, ‘You would make the best father.’ I can’t wait to have kids.” Woods’ second marriage, to Sarah Owen, ended in 1989 after five months; Owen is reportedly suing him for the return of her engagement ring, wedding band, and a diamond pendant, or their equivalent worth — some $40,000.

Looking happily out of place behind his desk, Woods toys with his computer (“Yeah, we’re totally ultramodern here — designed the stationery on the Mac, even”). Then a call comes in for Alan Haft, vice president of creative affairs for Breakheart, and Woods pecks in bewilderment at the phone buttons to reroute it. No luck. He punches a few more buttons, until finally there’s nothing left to do but go to his strong suit:

“Hey, Al! It’s for you!”

When asked what the future holds on the work front, Woods points to the poster for Salvador and says, “That’s the kind of film I want to do.” The finger he dislocated months ago, still bent, makes a lazy arc toward the Hard Way poster. “But I love doing this, too. The irony is the more you try to stay varied in your career, the more it seems to aggravate people, because they can’t peg you. The trick is to never get settled in one area. If all I ever did was The Hard Way from now on, that would be a big mistake.”

It now looks as though Woods will have to wait a while longer for his breakthrough blockbuster: The Hard Way has received mixed reviews and stalled in the lower reaches of the top 10. In the meantime, he is sifting through scripts at Breakheart, looking for his next project.

The Macintosh screen switches to an image of tropical fish slowly swimming through an electronic sea, a program Woods says is designed to protect the monitor. “Beautiful, isn’t it? As long as there’s an image moving, it’s good. If an image stays on the screen long enough, it will burn into the screen. You need something always moving continuously.” The undulating underwater scene lends the office a peaceful air — you can almost feel the alpha waves. But one of the larger fish on the screen slowly overtakes a smaller one and then — in an almost instantaneous flash of teeth — devours it with a gulp. Woods, an actor who seems determined to keep his own image in motion, leans back in his chair and smiles.