BULLET FOR ADOLF: ALMOST A COMEDY by Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman, directed by Harrelson, with Hyman, Brandon Coffey, David Coomber, Tashieka McTaggart. Presented by Harrelson and Children at Play Productions in association with Marcello Cabezas, Derrick Chua, Corey Ross/Starvox Entertainment and Hart House Theatre, at Hart House (7 Hart House Circle). Opens tonight (Thursday, April 21) and runs to May 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday 2 pm. $32, stu/srs $18. 416-978-8849, bulletforadolf.com. See listing.
Woody Harrelson is trying to talk me into taking a piss in public, and I'm not buying it.
It's a beautiful autumn day last September, and we're just outside the U of T student union building on the grassy lawn in Hart House Circle at lunchtime, where dozens, if not hundreds, of earnest and eager students are moving across the greenery.
"I'm not a heathen," I shout to an impatient Harrelson as he points hopefully at the imagined cover of a nearby tree. I dash instead into the cozy confines of Hart House, looking to lighten my load and maintain some dignity in this Twitter and YouTube age.
Harrelson gets lost in the sunshine and the serenity, dwelling on the ivy and the ideas that drape this quintessentially Victorian campus.
As I re-emerge, he points to a sign for Hart House Theatre that peeks out of the leaves climbing the red brick building that has been my redemption.
"Is that really a theatre?" asks Harrelson.
"It sure is," I say, convinced that we may have addressed one of Harrelson's reasons for being in Toronto last fall.
In town, as he often is, to promote a film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Harrelson's hidden agenda is to find a theatre to stage a play he's had "three-quarters finished" for years. If he doesn't find a venue, he might try L.A. for the production, though Harrelson has a bit of a theatre history in this town, having worked with actor/producer Marcello Cabezas, directing Kenneth Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth here a few years ago.
Harrelson has been touring Toronto live venues during his TIFF visit and isn't satisfied that the theatres he's seeing are appropriate for the scale of production he's envisioning for the first play he'll direct and co-write in years.
It's Bullet For Adolf, and it opens tonight (Thursday, April 21) at this very Hart House Theatre. On this September day, though, it's still just a gleam in Harrelson's ever-gleaming, bright blue eyes as we try to find our way into the promising space.
Eventually, we find a campus official who says yes instead of no and lets us into the faded but fabulous room, and as we stomp down corridors into the hall's guts, Harrelson's heart races faster than our feet.
"Holy shit, bro," he mutters, and then we stumble into the auditorium to find a campus crew busy with final tech details before a dress rehearsal of their production of Richard III tonight.
"Hi, I'm Woody," says the infectiously smiling Harrelson, enthusiastically extending his hand to stunned members of the cast and crew. They've been consumed by preparations for their big night, and now can't quite take in a surprise visit by an actor they've loved in TV's Cheers and film's Natural Born Killers, Zombieland and his Academy Award-nominated performances, most recently for The Messenger.
"I love your theatre. What are you working on?" he asks with the familiarity of a colleague.
Once filled in on the last-minute steps for the latest campus Shakespeare production, Harrelson commits to attending tonight's rehearsal. And after seeing a performance on the hallowed Hart House stage, Harrelson is hooked, sealing the deal with a handshake. When he returns to Toronto for an unprecedented six weeks of rehearsal this spring, it's to mount a semi-autobiographical play that has been gnawing at the artist for years.
The play is set in the summer of 1983, a time that retrospect infuses with all kinds of meaning for Harrelson. It's the moment, both real and fictional, just before a scraggy kid from the Midwest embarks on his New York City adventure, and every detail of his life is about to change.
That pivotal period makes for a compelling play and has made for a pretty compelling life for an actor best known for TV and film work but who really only dreamed of Broadway.
Harrelson had just finished his theatre degree at Hanover College in Indiana when he and his best friend headed to Houston for construction jobs, economic placeholders until the two could try to take Manhattan.
"He made me promise that if he got into Juilliard I'd move to New York with him and we'd be roommates and pursue our dreams, mine of theatre, his of making music," says Harrelson this spring in Toronto as he sets about mounting his once barely imagined play.
"I said sure. I mean, what are the odds? It's really hard to get into Juilliard. And then he got accepted.
"Up until then, I'd planned the long road to Broadway: some summer stock, then regional theatre, and then after that move to New York - a years-long prospect.
"Instead, we were there right away, and less than 18 months from that summer I was turning down a lead in a Tony Award-winning Broadway play written by Neil Simon to take a role in the biggest show on television."
Harrelson had been shooting the film Wildcats with Goldie Hawn in L.A, and was set to return to New York and take over a role he'd been understudying when the main actor was fired.
"They were calling me every day to get me to hurry back, and I'm psyched because I'm going to do Broadway - that was my dream.
"And then this Cheers audition came up."
He'd walked out on a previous opportunity after - reluctantly - agreeing to audition for another TV role, a recurring character on Family Ties. After showing up for the tryout, Harrelson bolted, declaring, "I can't do TV - sorry" and escaped, he hoped with no hard feelings.
"The reason this was different was that everybody was telling me that Cheers was a great show. Everybody," explains Harrelson. "I didn't even have a TV, but when I did see it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is quality.'
"They filmed the show in front of a live audience. The whole texture of it was theatrical, with mostly one set.
"And then you get little indicators in life, little arrows. One of them was that the character had the same name as me and was from Indiana, where I went to college. I begged them to name the college after the town where I went to school. At first they thought it was too regal, but eventually they gave in."
He got out of his Broadway contract, and the rest is TV history.
"I can't imagine my life now if I hadn't taken that route," he says.
But even a good turn can lead to fears of a dead end.
"I could have been Gilligan. No, not even Gilligan - he was the lead. I could have been the Professor or something,' says Harrelson, contemplating being trapped in the character that had become his career.
"It's just that when you feel like you have more to offer, it's a little frustrating."
Six years into Cheers, Harrelson tried to make a dash back to his roots, writing and performing in a one-act play about basketball called Two On Two. It was quietly received, doing little to shake the hold of his Cheers character on Harrelson's world.
"If director Ron Shelton hadn't taken a chance on me and cast me in White Men Can't Jump, who knows where I may have ended up?"
But consistently playing against type and with a talent that cannot be denied, Harrelson has no fear of being stuck in an acting corner and is taking another run at theatre, not as an escape but as a challenge in the midst of a flourishing career.
"Every once in a while you want to see what you're made of, and now's that time for me.
"I love a lot of the movies I've worked on. I'm really psyched about them and I got to use a lot of creativity and creative involvement beyond just standing on my mark and saying a line, so it's been great.
"But even with all that, I'm really a pawn in someone else's game. I want to get across to people my image of things and my sense of what's funny. I particularly want to make people laugh."
Bullet For Adolf is funny as hell. Harrelson gets huge laughs from the script and a cast of local amateur actors he's moulded into an impressive ensemble.
The play, though, is not without tension and disturbing plot twists.
"Comedy comes from drama. It comes from conflict. There's stuff where, if it were happening in real life, the characters wouldn't be laughing. It's intense. It's dramatic, even heavy sometimes, but we can see it from the outside and laugh at it.
"I feel like escapism is a valid thing. I've done a lot of it in my life, and I think that for 90 minutes or two hours it's a pretty decent, noble desire just to want to make people laugh, to want people to escape, have a good time and forget their troubles."
Harrelson speaks fondly of watching writer Neil Simon and his regular director, Gene Saks, trying to wring every extra laugh they could from the Biloxi Blues script he'd eventually walk away from.
And he lights up describing the Cheers cast, writers and directors constantly challenging each other to make the show the funniest it could be.
"I honestly would prefer to do just comedies if I could pull it off, but I get offers of great scripts from great directors and what am I going to do? I can't say no."
But he acknowledges that going to the dark side has its costs.
"The first time I took that plunge was in Natural Born Killers, and being in that mindset caused me some difficulties. I did some things I wish I hadn't done in terms of just being more violent, more on edge."
Writer/director Oren Moverman got him to take on the challenging role in The Messenger that brought him his second Oscar nomination. And Moverman came calling again in the period between Harrelson's discovery of the Hart House theatre and the play's opening this spring.
It's called Rampart, and in it Harrelson plays an evil renegade L.A. cop in a fact-based film set in the 1990s that opens later this year.
"There's no question that those challenges were there with this character, too. To film it, I had to go visit my shadow. I'd been dragging him behind me for a while. For Rampart, he gets to sit up front.
"But I don't really perceive him as a bad guy. I mean, he is, but I can't look at him that way. You've got to think the guy you're playing is awesome. Even if you're playing a serial killer, you can't relate to the guy as a serial killer - you have to relate to him as a human being who's a serial killer.
"For every part, you have to relate to the heart of the character. In Rampart, he's a fucked-up guy, but you can tell his heart has been twisted. I think there is a lot of goodness brewing down there."
Harrelson co-wrote Bullet for Adolf with good friend Frankie Hyman, an eyewitness to the 1983 world at the centre of the play. Hyman was in the Houston construction crew that momentous summer, a worldly African American from New York full of advice for the naive Harrelson should he ever make it to the Big Apple.
After promising to be friends for life, the two lost touch after Harrelson's big break.
"I hired private investigators to find him, but they had no luck. Finally, I was on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno and I said, ‘If anybody knows where Frankie Hyman is, please call the show.' His brother was watching, and within 48 hours we were connected again.
"He has a gift for the gab and he's a good storyteller. That's how he's always been, so I knew he'd be able to write."
And after many stops and starts, the reunited friends have managed to bring their play and their stories to life in an unlikely location in a city Harrelson has grown to love.
"I just love Toronto. I love the vibe here, and I think it's a fantastic theatre community. I've seen some of the best things I've ever seen onstage here. Toronto is a wonderful proving ground for a play, and assuming all goes well, every new play I do I'm going to work it right here."