From ''Game Change'' to ''The Hunger Games,'' Hollywood's mellowest star is suddenly everywhere

By Keith Staskiewicz
March 16, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

One quick scan of the parking lot, and it’s immediately clear which vehicle belongs to Woody Harrelson. Squatting magnificently amid a grid of clean, white cigarette-carton-shaped trailers — each likely sucking up more electricity than a decent-size car wash — is a ’70s-era bus covered in swirling murals of moons, dolphins, unicorns, and other groovy staples of the airbrush medium, and looking like something Ken Kesey would have approved of. At one point, it was a smog-belching emissary of the Chicago Transit Authority, but the ever eco-minded Woody — it feels plain wrong to refer to him as anything else — has reinvented it as a solar-paneled, biodiesel-fueled, hemp-interior friend to Mother Earth. It has accompanied him on numerous film shoots over the past 11 years, and like his home in Maui, its main goal is to conserve energy.

Right now, that’s Woody’s goal, too.

”You don’t mind if I lie down, do ya?” he asks, his ingratiating drawl — the verbal equivalent of a conspiratorial wink — making it impossible to say no. ”Whoo, man, am I exhausted!”

He’d have to be. Last month saw the release of Rampart, a small gut-punch of a drama in which he gives a pressure-cooker performance as a terminally corrupt cop. Then came Game Change, HBO’s political docudrama about the 2008 presidential campaign, followed by The Hunger Games, the hopeful franchise starter, which has him playing Haymitch Abernathy, the whiskey-pickled mentor to Katniss Everdeen. Now Woody’s here in New Orleans making yet another film — Now You See Me, a heist flick about a troupe of bank-robbing illusionists, costarring Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher, and Mark Ruffalo — and he’s currently taking a break in the middle of what’s shaping up to be a long, tiring day of shooting. Once horizontal on the stack of blue cushions he’d been sitting on, the 50-year-old actor lets out a contented sigh. ”Thanks, man, I needed that,” he says. ”My natural tendency is towards laziness and indolence. I’m really a slacker at heart.”

If that’s the case, he’s been pretty bad at it lately.

”I’ve never really been the man with the plan”
To an outsider glancing over his filmography, Woody’s career appears to be governed by little rhyme or reason, and it’s true there hasn’t been much. ”I’ve never really been the man with the plan,” he says. ”I would just take it as it comes. I still do.” That’s why the lovably doltish bartender from Cheers hung up his apron to massacre his way cross-country a year later in Natural Born Killers. It’s also why the famously outspoken antiauthoritarian activist ended up portraying both an LAPD officer and a Republican Party operative in the span of a month. ”Being a happy hippie from Hawaii, you can understand why it might be hard for me to play those parts,” he laughs. ”I’m not sure which was harder. No, wait, probably the Republican.”

As McCain staffer Steve Schmidt in Game Change, one of Woody’s greatest challenges was to utter, in earnest, that Dick Cheney is ”very misunderstood” — a sequence of words that, given the actor’s political beliefs, caught in his throat like a chicken bone. ”You’ve pinpointed the hardest line I’ve ever had to say,” he says, grinning rakishly. ”It’s like, ‘Woody, this is the 122nd take. Even David Fincher doesn’t do that many. Can you please just get that line?’ ”

Getting into the character of Haymitch, the walking hangover from The Hunger Games, was less of a stretch. He based his appearance on that of his brother. ”We were riding up to his house together on our motorcycles. When he took off his helmet, he had this long hair and this scruffy face, and I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s Haymitch Abernathy!’ ”

”I’ve never been a marijuana activist, ever”
Here in New Orleans, on the set of Now You See Me, Woody is playing a mentalist, and I ask if he’s learned any good party tricks. ”Well,” he says, rolling the word in his mouth like a toothpick, ”what if I said I knew all of your questions before you even asked them?” He’s joking, but as with many of his jokes, there’s a particulate of truth. Later, when I ask him about his support of marijuana legalization, he rolls his eyes and hangs his head in a way that seems to say, ”Here we go again…” ”I’ve never been a marijuana activist, ever,” he says. ”I was painted that way. Do I think it should be legal? Of course. But I used to be more into it before anyone knew I was into it. Then the moment I was open about it, my God, it’s been relentless.”

He admits that even the activist pursuits he does care about, such as environmental protection, have suffered due to a combination of a heavy workload and a certain amount of disillusionment. ”Lately I’ve been having this feeling like maybe nothing really changes,” he says seriously, before adding, ”but hopefully maybe that’s gonna change. And at the very least, I can still make sure that I walk my talk. You know, pay attention to my waste stream.”

He starts to talk about how he’s enjoying himself in New Orleans, but he suddenly jumps up mid-sentence. ”What is that right there?” he exclaims, fully awake now, bounding up to the front of the bus and gazing up out the windshield. ”Right up in the sky, right there?” A multicolored speck is moving briskly over the city skyline. ”Is that a plane? It’s got all these colors. That’s so bizarre. No, wait, I think it’s actually a bunch of balloons. It’s a bunch of balloons together. It’s really moving, ain’t it? I’ll be damned. Looks like about 10, 12 balloons all strung together. Somebody must have accidentally let them go. I bet they’re sad about that.”

”Wake up, have a smoothie, take my kid to school”
As busy as he is, Woody knows he’s got it good. He describes his existence as the life of Riley and insists he doesn’t want to come across ”like I’m warming up for ‘Movie Star Blues in A-Flat Minor.’ ” Indeed, his day-to-day at home in Hawaii, where he lives with his wife, Laura Louie, and their three daughters (ages 19, 15, and 5), seems an idyll that really does make you wonder what is inspiring him to keep on working. ”Generally, there’s no plot to it,” he says of his life there. ”Wake up, have a smoothie, take my kid to school, maybe go kitesurfing, then play some soccer later, have dinner with friends, maybe hang out with Willie if he’s on-island.”

Willie is Willie Nelson, the eldest member of Woody’s coterie of Texas-born, supremely mellow buds that also includes actors Matthew McConaughey and Owen Wilson. ”The thing about Woody is he’s vegan and environmental and all that,” says Wilson, ”but not in that dogmatic way. You can still see the kid who grew up in Texas and Ohio there. Even though he’ll never eat a burger, he’s still the kind of guy you feel you could have one with.”

His Game Change costar Julianne Moore agrees. ”I don’t think I know of anyone who’s not friends with Woody,” Moore says. ”Once you’ve met him, he’s a friend of yours. He’ll make friends in the restaurant, he’ll make friends in the hotel, he makes friends everywhere.”

”I’m really thinking about taking a break”
Given how adored he is, on screen and off, it’s surprising that he had gone nearly a decade without a high-profile starring role until 2009’s double feature of Zombieland and The Messenger, which earned him his second Academy Award nomination (after The People vs. Larry Flynt) — and led to this jam-packed 2012.

Despite the career upswing, Woody says this might be his last film with the bus before he retires it to Willie Nelson’s ranch in Texas. The actor too is looking for a bit of a breather. ”I think it’s coming time for me to chill out,” he admits, yawning a little even as he says it. ”I don’t want to work anymore. I’m really thinking about taking a break.” It’s hard to tell whether this will actually come to pass, especially considering his own admitted difficulty saying no and the fact that the first Hunger Games sequel will likely commence shooting this year. A few minutes later, his assistant pokes his head into the bus’ interior to tell Woody he has five minutes before they need to leave for the set.

”Gotcha,” he says, but doesn’t stir. Instead, he closes his eyes for a few seconds, a square of sunlight from the bus window resting warmly on his face. Then, as if he’s recharged his solar cells, his eyelids spring open and he looks up and asks, ”What’s next?”