Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes branch out in their new movie
Branching out in new directions, Cheers‘ Woody Harrelson and Jungle Fever‘s Wesley Snipes bring a real-life friendship to their roles as basketball- hustling pals in the crowd-pleasing comedy smash White Men Can’t Jump. We caught up with them at Daytona Beach, where they discussed everything from hoops and hang- overs to lovers and other strangeness.
Spring fever has officially descended on Daytona Beach, Fla., and in its grip, sex- and sun-crazed college students cruise in car caravans, bungee-jump from cranes, strut in wet T-shirt contests, and guzzle more beer in a week than has been poured in 11 seasons of Cheers. Looking entirely out of place amid this hung over, lobster-hued horde milling about at 11 on a Sunday morning in the seedy lobby of the Texan Motel, Wesley Snipes is all sleek angles and sharp contrasts. He’s dressed in a black leather biker jacket, a turtleneck tightly tucked into belted jeans, patent leather shoes, and a maroon baseball cap. He’s ready to roll to the day’s photo shoot, but Woody Harrelson, his good friend and costar in White Men Can’t Jump, as well as his partner in partying till four this morning, is nowhere to be found.
Tired of the beer-soaked lobby, Snipes goes upstairs to roust Harrelson out of bed. Minutes later, America’s favorite assistant bartender appears, hoarse, exhausted, and visibly under the weather. Barefoot and wearing the rumpled, tie-dyed T-shirt he sported while performing with his rock band in the motel’s club the night before, plus matching rainbow boxer shorts, he’s the wavy line to Snipes’ straightedge: fuzzy in every way, unshaven, and with a fierce case of bed head. But he says he’s camera ready if Snipes will just do one thing for him. ”Hey, lemme wear your hat, man,” says Harrelson.
”No way, man, we always go through this,” Snipes says.
”I know, and you never let me,” says Harrelson. ”Just this one time, I’m asking for a favor.”
”It’s best if I can wear a hat,” says Snipes, ”I wear a hat in the movie, man.”
”Look how disheveled I am, man!” says Harrelson.
”What the f — – is different about that?” demands Snipes.
”I would like, for once, to take a picture where I don’t have a disheveled head,” says Harrelson.
”You should have thought about that the night before, before your 15th margarita!” says Snipes.
”You were the one handing me the margaritas,” Harrelson protests. ”Wes, let me borrow your hat. One time.”
”No! I come prepared, man,” Snipes says.
”Can you be prepared to help me out once?” asks Harrelson. ”As many times as you’ve been in this situation, you should have known to bring an extra hat.”
”You’re right, I should have known this ahead of time, I’ll take the blame for your disheveledness,” concedes Snipes. ”But you still ain’t wearing my hat.”
When writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) set out to find a fast-talking pair who could play off each other verbally as well as physically for his black-white buddy comedy White Men Can’t Jump, he met his match with the team of Snipes and Harrelson. The story of two seasoned scammers, street-smart Sidney Deane (Snipes) and laid-back Billy Hoyle (Harrelson), who hustle the tough basketball courts of L.A. by pretending Hoyle can’t shoot hoop (hence the title), the movie is fueled by its costars’ playfully competitive relationship — both on and off camera. Close friends ever since they were cast as hapless teammates in Goldie Hawn’s 1986 high school football movie, Wildcats, Snipes and Harrelson practically play themselves. Yet the movie is also an opportunity for each to break new ground.
For Harrelson, 30, best known for his Emmy-winning performance as the charmingly dim-witted Woody Boyd on Cheers, White Men is his shot at proving he can hold a big-screen audience, after small but memorable roles in last year’s L.A. Story and Doc Hollywood. For the 29-year-old Snipes, who has proven his box office appeal and dramatic range with films as diverse as New Jack City and Jungle Fever, it’s his first starring role in a commercial comedy and a crack at even greater popularity. White Men may be just the latest variation on the salt-and-pepper buddy-movie formula, but it offers some twists that intrigued the stars.
”It’s not about the brother being the shadow for once,” says Snipes, whose Deane is the wiser, more together, of the two.
”When we are talking to each other, a lot of it was improvisation, real conversation,” says Harrelson. ”We all have our prejudices, and in a way I think this helps disarm the viewer.”
Powered by good word of mouth and the appeal of Snipes and Harrelson, White Men opened March 27 to a spectacular $14.7 million weekend, unseating Basic Instinct as the country’s No. 1 box office draw.
The film’s opening grosses indicate that Harrelson, like Snipes, can now safely put ”movie star” on his résumé. But two weeks before White Men jumped, backstage at the Texan Motel, he is more concerned about his status as rock star. ”Woo-Dee! Woo-Dee! Woo-Dee!” scream the spring-breakers who paid $18 a head to see Harrelson jam with Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats, the band ; he formed a year and a half ago. The chant is drowned out by applause when Harrelson, looking like a college kid himself, finally dances out.
Doing Elvis-like pelvic thrusts at the sea of big-haired, spandex-clad coeds and young musclemen, Harrelson is clearly irked that there’s a swimming pool where the dance floor ought to be, with the crowd shunted off to the side. There’s also the added distraction of Snipes, who is surrounded by a posse of six, pulling attention away from the stage. Working against the cool weather and the mellowness of his songs about the environment and his personal development, Harrelson tries hard to draw his listeners in, frequently leaning into the audience to shake hands or drag hesitant girls on stage for a twist. In the end, he gets the crowd moving largely on the strength of his boy-next-door charm.
It took more than charm, though, for Harrelson to nail down the coveted White Men part. He can also thank the hours he spent as a teen on the basketball courts in the predominantly black Pleasant Square section of Lebanon, Ohio. Director Shelton, a regular player at the Hollywood YMCA (where he found many of the ballplayers in the film), is a stickler for realism, even making the entire cast train under former NBA scout Dick Baker for four weeks prior to shooting. And, like the rest, 5’11” Harrelson had to audition on the court.
Snipes, though naturally athletic, opted for the stage over the basketball court at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, and he wasn’t in the same league as Harrelson when the film was cast. In fact, Snipes’ underwhelming dunking and dribbling almost cost him the role. ”People think Wesley is obvious casting, but this was before Jungle Fever or New Jack City came out,” says Shelton, who was considering Cylk Cozart, a better ballplayer, for the part of Deane (Cozart was cast as Deane’s security-guard friend instead). Harrelson, who was sweating it out on the short list for the other lead role, gave Shelton his own take on his buddy. ”I told Ron that Wes was the man, because when we were doing Wildcats, he would stand there in his football gear and do Shakespeare,” he says. ”It would just blow me away.”
Ironically, Snipes, who also stands 5’11”, ended up being cast first — and he was able to return Harrelson’s favor. When he read with Keanu Reeves, one of Shelton’s top choices for Billy Hoyle, Snipes says, ”[Reeves] would improvise and say something where there would be a natural response from me, and I just left him out there like dirty laundry.”
Shelton was finally won over by Harrelson’s agility on the court and his ability to counterpunch Snipes verbally. ”It’s the same reason I cast Tim Robbins against Costner in Bull Durham,” explains the director. ”You don’t want two of the same thing. If you try to out-Wesley Wesley, you’ll get killed. But you can match him by rolling with the punches. That’s where the chemistry is.”
A supremely intense actor who really arrived with his chilling performance as a drug lord in New Jack City, then followed it up with a complex portrayal of an architect with a passion for his white secretary in Jungle Fever, Wesley Snipes is now preparing for the stardom often predicted for him. Pausing for a lunch break on the set of Passenger 57, a hijack adventure just finishing filming in Orlando, Fla., he talks about his new status as the youngest black actor with genuine clout. ”Rarely have you seen a young black male in this type of powerful position, who can basically make or break a project,” says Snipes, who received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from the State University of New York at Purchase. ”Denzel (Washington) had it to a degree, but he was still a little bit older when he peaked, and Eddie Murphy was really considered more of a comedian than an actor.” Like Murphy, Snipes travels with an entourage (including an assistant, a martial-arts trainer, a driver, and some pals). But he also keeps a clothespin attached to his Kawasaki Ninja 600R motorcyle to remind him of the days when he used to hang his clothes out to dry from the window of his family’s apartment in the projects of the Bronx.
True to his character in White Men, Harrelson, who majored in theater arts and English at Indiana’s Hanover College and then headed to New York to break into acting, is a lot more laid-back about fame than Snipes. ”I went after fame and wealth intentionally, you know — everybody does,” he says. ”And then you find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I was extremely religious as a kid, I was in youth groups and gave sermons and stuff in high school. In college I changed my mind, and it took me 10 years to come back to spirituality.”
Harrelson, one of three brothers, calls his family ”very matriarchal in nature. I was a mama’s boy. My father wasn’t around very much.” In fact, Harrelson senior was in jail for a hired killing, and he is now serving time in a federal penitentiary for another murder. ”But I wish I had sisters, because I tend to put women on a pedestal, or the opposite — saints and whores.” His relationships have included a two-day marriage to Neil Simon’s daughter Nancy, dates with Brooke Shields, and an alliance with Glenn Close, and he is renowned for his romantic restlessness. ”It freaks me out when they get possessive — it makes me back off,” says Harrelson, who’s now involved with a longtime friend he won’t identify. ”The relationship I’ve been in recently has been teaching me. But it’s that old thing, if you love someone, set them free.”
”I’ve had a lot of women around me in my life,” says Snipes, who grew up with his divorced mother and three sisters. Himself the divorced father of a 3-year-old son, he says he has difficulty dating. ”To be in my position, where women are constantly making their interest known, is incredibly intimidating and frustrating for [the woman I’m with],” he says. ”She doesn’t want to deal with that, she wants everyone else to back off and admire from afar. The first few dates are okay, and then things change.”
There are times when Snipes and Harrelson are so similar they seem like an eerie pair of Doublemint twins, down to their taste for motorcycles, margaritas, and pasta with extra chopped garlic on the side. But the similarities mask a major competitive streak. Both devoted a lot of energy to improvising the colorful, rapid-fire insults that punctuate White Men, with each trying to outdo the other. ”Wes and me talked about it early on, we really wanted to push the line,” says Harrelson, who was disappointed that the strongest insults were cut from the film. Says Shelton, ”It got a little racial and led to some very good discussions about where the lines had to be drawn.”
The two actors also couldn’t resist betting against each other in the basketball sequences. While shooting the scene in which Hoyle makes a wager with Deane about his slam-dunking ability, Snipes bet Harrelson $100 he wouldn’t make it in three tries. To the amazement of both, he needed only one. ”One of the happiest points of my life was when I slammed that basketball,” Harrelson says. ”To jack that bet up and just slam it home was truly sweet!”
”Yeah, but you put enough stickum [gluey stuff that helps players grip the ball] on your palm that you could walk up the Empire State building like Spiderman,” protests Snipes.
”I slammed it in your face!” says Harrelson.
”You Krazy Glued it — ” starts Snipes. ”You should have seen your face. You looked like someone had just macheteed your children. You were mortified!”
”Please, a little closer together,” says photographer Ruven Afanador, who, after much cajoling, has managed to get his subjects cheek-to-cheek for the most important shot. At Tomoka State Park north of Daytona, Snipes and Harrelson have been giving him hell all day, adamantly trying to design their own photos. Between pictures, they passed the time pulling each other into yoga stretches, debating in Godfather-speak on subjects such as whether human saliva really can take paint off a car, and wandering into the woods for private boy talk. They get uncharacteristically sober when discussing their friendship, a bond they’ve maintained even though they live on opposite coasts. ”I don’t trust people easily,” says Harrelson. ”That’s why Wes means so much to me.” Snipes feels the same way: ”When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, I know Woody would have my back.”
Now, with their foreheads touching, they are taking turns cracking each other up with possible titles for their first joint magazine cover. Suddenly, Snipes’ large pink tongue darts out like a snake at Harrelson’s cheek. ”Yeah,” cracks Harrelson, jumping out of the way, ”Let’s call it ‘Wesley’s Woody’ !” They fall down laughing and roll around on the sand.
”I feel like I’m 16 when I’m with this guy,” says Harrelson, wiping tears of laughter from his tired blue eyes.
”Yeah, my friends can’t stand me when I’m with him,” says Snipes.
After Passenger 57, Snipes is committed to several films, including James B. Harris’ action drama Money Men, with Dennis Hopper, and Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun, with Sean Connery (based on the new Michael Crichton best-seller). Before Cheers’ next season, Harrelson will make a monthlong tour with his band and then start filming Benny and June, with Susan Sarandon as his schizophrenic sister.
But Snipes and Harrelson are already making plans to work together again. One project Harrelson has in mind is Pure Heart, scripted by Cape Fear screenwriter Wesley Strick. ”It’s written for two brothers, but I think we could just keep it, ya know?” says Harrelson. ”They’ll be, like, ‘How do you two know each other?’ and we’ll be, like, ‘Brothers.’ You don’t even have to explain it.”