Wilson is the tale of a neurotic, socially awkward man who must come to terms with the fact that his long estranged partner didn’t have the abortion she said she had and in fact gave up a daughter for adoption. Woody Harrelson plays the titular character, while Laura Dern plays the woman who helps confront their past and connect with the child who had been out of their lives for a decade and a half.
The same easy chemistry seen on screen between these two performers was evident in person – sat in front of a small group of journalists they cuddled while complimenting one another, clearly comfortable in each other’s presence. After a brief interruption by Common who came just to say hello, we began discussing the film, their connection to the story, and the difference between working on independent film versus television or big-budget adventures.
What drew you to the character and how you shaped it considering how different it is from the graphic novel?
Woody Harrelson: I thought that the character was pretty well laid out in the graphic novel and in the screenplay and I just tried to be true to what they had written.
It’s a fine line between being an asshole and being likeable.
WH: I mean there's a beautiful side to his nature. He really is a people person; he just has trouble communicating sometimes. So, you know, I relate to that.
Do you always directly relate to your characters?
WH: Well, I feel very gregarious. I think there's a curmudgeon-y side to him that I don't really relate to so much. I like to think that I've honed my censorship level. So some of the things that I'd normally say, I won't say anymore. Sometimes they do seep out, you know.
What's your relationship to graphic novels in general and to [Daniel] Clowes' book specifically before this movie?
WH: Very minimalistic.
Laura Dern: I like graphic novels but I did not know Wilson before getting to be part of the film, and then I fell in love with it. As Woody said in other interviews, we're given this perfect guide, this template. In the images alone you feel these characters and their spaces. [Look at Wilson’s] apartment, just the imagery along with the dog. That alone sets the tone of the movie, the feeling of it, and the idea of someone wanting to be able to be so hopeful in this space when things haven't gone his way. I am in love with all these characters.
Is it harder to maintain a tone on a film like this?
LD: I mean maybe it's harder, I don't know. I find it more comfortable. It's my favorite tone, I'm obsessed with it, and it's something that I've pursued heavily in my career so far because it is the sweet spot of where the truth is revealed. It's always been more palatable, as we've seen with some of our great classics. When they get it right, particularly for politics, there's no other way to do it without that subversive, hilarious tone, and get away with so much. Take Doctor Strangelove for example - I fell in love with that as a kid, and that's why I wanted to make Wilson. This is just a dream come true - to work with Woody who is so insanely brilliant and such a pure artist and the kindest eyes I've ever looked in on film with anyone, and the most hilarious physical comedian. I was telling him that when he gets wrapped up in those balloons, or just anything he does, it just amazes me. He's amazing. I can't wait to see it again.
In a film dominated by an outgoing man there’s still plenty of room for the female characters to shine .
LD: [You’ll see a] movie where you’re amazed that there's this singular powerful, flawed, angry, female character, but then somehow everything else goes awry and the rest of the women are not really thought out or written so beautifully and with such complication and detail. So not only speaking of my and Judy Greer's roles, but for Isabella [Amara] as well. To have a teenage girl so beautifully written and so beautifully acted, to really expose herself to her father, is wonderful. The scenes they have together are written with great heartbreak and dignity about a teenage girl, which we don't see much of. Even the angst part gets a little silly in a lot of movies, and I think Daniel Clowes takes people seriously. He wants to show their ugliest self and their most beautiful self simultaneously, if we all get it right.
WH: Laura is very strong in this but she's also very delicate. It's a wonderful balance. I love her performance. She raised what was on the page up quite a lot. It wasn't as good a part but she made it great, including that last scene between us where we're talking in the jail - that was her brainchild. She wanted to have some completion with our characters. It was a wonderful experience working with her and I have to say that I love her dearly and I can't wait to work with her again in hopefully a comedy.
LD: Please. A sexy comedy!
You obviously have an affection for one another - is it easier to do films when you actually get along?
WH: I don't want the alternative. [Laughs]
LD: Me neither. It only gets complicated because it's so good.
Do you see a fundamental difference anymore between working on episodic TV, like you've both done, and working in film? Or are you finding now that the divide is non-existent?
WH: Well I feel like in episodic television you have, let's say, six months of your life with no social life and endless hours. Whereas something like this, we shot it in a month and a half. It was a glorious experience and we got to have a social life. So it's a little bit different. You've got to have fun - not just do something good.
LD: And Woody makes it the greatest party ever. Every weekend. [Turns to Woody] What was the thing we did? Jet propulsion?
WH: Oh yeah!
LD: That image just came to mind.
WH: The water comes out of your boots and raises you.
LD: Yeah he did that.
WH: That was fun.
What do you find's the difference between independent film and studio film?
WH: In indie film you have to be really passionate about it and really care about [the project]. There's no side of it where you go, "I'm doing this for the money", because the odds of you making money are astronomical. So a lot of times you get a better product because there's not all this money thrown at something and you're using a formula. It's coming from the heart, people are passionate about it, and they end up making real art a lot of times.
LD: Every once in awhile you get very lucky on a huge movie that people have come together with that same spirit, and that's amazing too. Then you feel like there's no separation. I've been on movies that were huge movies, but we were doing something that had never been done before, it suddenly had the same energy. It's a film that everyone loves so much, there's a feeling with every artisan on it, every prop person, everybody who gets to play like they're children again, there's that spirit. But it does take that.
But independent film is the luckiest.