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Combustible Woods

An incendiary afternoon with reformed bad boy James Woods.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

Woods' opinions carry over to such everyday considerations as cigar storage. He is unashamed to admit that, in spite of the elegant Dunhill humidor that graces a shelf in his library, he stores most of his prize cigars in a Tupperware container with a natural sponge and some distilled water. With his trademark grin and a devilish gleam in his eye, he says, "Aficionado, my ass. I just love to smoke cigars." As he takes the lid off the box and proffers a Hoyo de Monterrey, he adds, "The humidor is such a pain in the ass. I take them out and roll them every once in a while, and if they sound right and they smell right and they're not flaking, they are fine."

After he washes the dishes and finishes cleaning the kitchen, Woods continues the conversation in the library. The design and construction of his home, a seven-year undertaking, is nearing its final phase. With a distinct Frank Lloyd Wright feel, the home was built on the former site of violinist Jasha Heifitz's house. Woods even went so far as to have Heifitz's Wright-designed practice studio disassembled and reconstructed as a donation to the Colburn School of Music in San Diego. An iron gazebo, following the same architectural lines as the original studio, now stands in its former location.

"We spent four months sitting on this property on ladders, imagining what the sun would do at different times of day so that we could design the house," says Woods. "It's sort of like the Grand Canyon in the sense that there is never a moment when it ever looks the same as any other moment. The light is always different. It was a matter of envisioning the house and then building it piece by piece. I just wanted to see if I could create something that was beautiful and something that reflected my needs. I love to read, I always wanted a library--now I have one. I think it's a beautiful little library. I wanted a bright kitchen where people could enjoy themselves. I love gardens where I could sit and think. I said that I wanted it wide open and yetI wanted to have little cloisters, hidden areas, pockets of comfort that you find sort of out of nowhere where you can just disappear for a while and be by yourself. It was kind of an odd challenge. And finally I said, I want it to look like it was the newest house on the block--if it were 1936. I was going for a degree of difficulty here."

As he builds a fire in the fire-place and lights his cigar, Woods thinks for a moment about what caused him to take stock of his life and make the much-needed changes. In his case, the motivation for change was a lot of pain. "You always think that you're going to avoid a midlife crisis. But it just sneaks up and gets you no matter what. I had mine with a lot of help from my second ex-wife. She was really kind of a ship passing in the night; she just turned out to be the Exxon Valdez. It was kind of a lesson about how horribly another human being can treat you. You never really expect it. In my heart, I'm really kind of an optimist about human nature. But there is always a wonderful lesson out there with three sixes tattooed on its forehead that will teach you otherwise. "And I'm kind of glad that it did. It was kind of a purging experience because I've trusted the kindness inside of me rather than running from it like I used to in the old days."

Born on April 18, 1947, the eldest son of a military hero and a preschool teacher, Woods and his brother, Michael, grew up in Illinois, Virginia, Guam and Rhode Island. His father died when Woods was 12 and his mother, Martha, raised her sons as a single parent, while running a private school. "My parents loved each other," Woods recalls. "I was raised in a house of total love and respect. My dad worked very hard and my mother was incredibly devoted to him. I can unequivocally, without any peradventure of doubt, tell you that I was raised with the kind of love that we only dream of," Woods says. "My mother and my father loved me and my brother like we love the air we breathe--out of necessity. It was a necessity for them to love us in some deep inner genetic calling in their hearts and minds and souls. I have that as a standard."

His mother reports that as a young boy, Woods and his best friend would open a dictionary, close their eyes and choose a word at random. The pair would then use the word all week long--in school, at home, even on the playground, most of the time to the bewilderment of friends, playmates and teachers. "I was really bright as a kid and tested well, and it was clear that I was going to get scholarships to any schools I wanted. My dad always said I could be an engineer; at that time it was the elite of society: steady job, working in science, which was then the answer to every problem we had. It was kind of a mandate. Kind of a dream he had for me."

Woods was first drawn to acting as a senior in high school in Providence, Rhode Island. "I did 'Little Foxes' at Pilgrim High. I won an acting award and I thought, 'This is a really cool thing to do.' " But the desire to please his late father propelled his collegiate career into a different direction. Woods was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship, majoring not in the physical sciences, but in political science. He also pursued acting, appearing in 36 plays at MIT, Harvard and the Theater Company of Boston, and performed in summer stock at the Provincetown Playhouse. He dropped out of MIT during his last year to move to New York and pursue acting full-time. "It was a very wrenching and painful decision for me--in my senior year at MIT, on high dean's list and full scholarships--to decide that maybe I wanted to be an artist. I think it is actually something that my father would understand. Whether I'm making 30 grand a day or union scale, I have found something that I truly love, and that is something he would have admired."

Woods loves to act--whatever the medium. Trained as a theater actor, he has made the successful transition from stage to film to television and back again. He is comfortable in all three, and understands the unique requirements of each discipline.

"I always have a rule that acting is acting and truth is truth and you just go out there and you do it," he says. "But what happens in each medium is that you have other responsibilities. The acting remains the same, but each medium dictates assuming other halves to make the acting work. When I'm working on a film, I just play the absolute purity of the moments. I don't worry about the pacing, because the pacing is going to be dictated by the director and the editor. On the stage I have to give pacing to the play. As an actor, you, in fact, become the editor of the piece, in terms of the timing. You are required to engineer the pace yourself. In television, everything is in so close, that you realize that most of what you do has to register in your thought process."

While many actors snub the notion of working on television, throughout his career Woods has found some of his biggest creative challenges on the small screen. "A cardinal rule of being a movie star, according to the agents and all the people who have wisdom, is that you should be aloof, do very little press and you shouldn't ever get on television. I don't think there is a piece of political film making in the United States that is a good as, let alone better than, Citizen Cohn. Let's assume that I am not even in the picture. I mean, just the writer of the piece, David Franzoni. I look at Promise, written by Richard Friendenberg and directed by Glenn Jordan, a wonderful director. Forgetting that I am in it, just looking at the material itself, My Name Is Bill W. would not have had the same impact if it were a feature film; it would have come and gone. But on television, 25 million people get to watch it all at the same time. So television has a power all its own and it has an allure all its own, and I think that television often deals with more meaningful subjects than many feature films do."

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