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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 worked hard for his role in Ghosts of Mississippi. "I love doing great material. And if you want to do great material, you must devote yourself to it 24 hours a day and go out there and make it happen. I sit here every night and I read scripts. I don't let anything escape my purview. And most of the greatest experiences in my life were things that I have found. There have been times when I have honed in on something that I have really liked. When Ghosts of Mississippi started, of course the agents were working on it, but they were working on another part in the picture. It was a smaller part, but they were working on it. And I saw the role of de la Beckwith and I said, 'Wow, that part is great, but that's completely out of the picture. Unless you're Jimmy Woods and you don't take no for an answer.'

"So I started lobbying for it, and fought for it, and fought for it. And I got it. Without a doubt that's the thing that nobody ever thinks to do. It's all in the audition." He convinced Rob Reiner to allow him to audition and do a makeup test for the role. The role was one of the biggest challenges of his career, demanding that he play white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith both as a young and an old man.

"This is where it really paid off. It was fun for me. Tremendously challenging. I have a theory that Northern actors should never play Southern characters. This is one of my cardinal rules. So I thought, well, here I am breaking one of my rules. I spent literally three months, every single day, working on the accent. And I had all of the tapes of the real de la Beckwith memorized to the point where I could do all of his speeches with him by rote. It was a matter of building the character. The accent. The look. The makeup. You know, people thought I wore a fat suit for the old stuff. I didn't. It was actually all physical posture. The young makeup took an hour and a half. The old makeup took almost four hours. And I think Ghosts of Mississippi speaks for itself. I played a character, an actor's dream in terms of the challenge and in terms of the degree of difficulty, and did it with people that I enjoyed working with. I inhabited the skin of this kind of horrible man for three months. It was tremendously challenging."

Often drawn to unsympathetic characters, Woods feels that memorable villains are integral to the storytelling process. "Film is a dialectic. This is the thesis. This is the antithesis. And there is the synthesis. You guys have your great protagonists and great antagonists. It is a battle of wills. All great movies have that kind of a mano a mano thing going. I never make judgments about the character that I play. Never. I just play them. I mean, that's who he his. This guy [de la Beckwith] is so evident in the interviews. He was so evident in the press. I saw all of his subterfuge and all these kinds of levels of bullshit. And how crafty he was. You know, I'd admire the guy more if he said, 'Look, I just don't like people who are different from me and I'd shoot them any chance that I get.' If you can convince me of that, fine. At least I'd say, 'Well the guy's a lunatic, but at least he has the balls to stand up for whatever lunacy he believes in.' But on top of everything else, he was a coward and a liar! I mean, he shot a guy in the back and then he lied about it!

"I liked doing the movie because I wanted people to see this guy, to see the unbelievably naked, sort of hard edge of racism. It is so ugly when it that naked and that raw. We all fall into the politics of the piece. I'm so sick of all of this political correctness. Nobody ever deals with things as they really are. They are always going to deal with it as they think it should be--he's the villain of the piece, she's the heroine, so he's the comic relief--so automatically now they are falling into a mold of something that we've seen a million times before, so it is never very refreshing or very intriguing. I say, 'That's who the guy is. Period.' I don't make any judgments. I don't editorialize. He's a very charming, kind of nutty guy, and if you are a reasonable human being I have to believe that the effect will be chilling. He is saying these horrible things and it will be even more chilling against his kind of oddball charm."

With a career full of intense roles, Woods never seems to have any trouble putting work aside. "I am one of those guys who could do the most emotional scene and crack a joke instantly. I'm lucky. I'm just like an idiot savant. I have one enormously enjoyable, pleasurable--for me--talent, which is being able to act. I do it without any confusion or restriction or ambivalence or hesitation, and it just flows, almost as naturally as anything in my life. So I don't have a big burden about it. I'm not one of those 'method' guys. I'm tired of the Actors' Studio bullshit that has ruined movies for 40 years. All these guys running around pretending they are turnips or whatever the hell they do. You just play the character as he really is. As a loudmouth, blowhard, coward, shithead. You know, it's OK to be just who the guy is.

"One of the reasons that I'm not very good about talking about the process of acting is that so much of it requires you to be unconscious [of it] when you do it. When you're aware of what you're doing, it's never very good. If you just let go and you're in the scene, all of a sudden, it's good. I can't act; I swear to you, I feel like I can't. I dread it every time I do it. I feel like the more I do it, the less I know. Which is a good thing."

Woods has often used cigars to help create and define a character, beginning in 1984 with his role as a gangster in Once upon a Time in America. But during filming of Ghosts of Mississippi, cigars posed a slightly different challenge. "I'm torn between being an actor and a cigar lover," Woods says. "In Ghosts, de la Beckwith smoked these long thin cigars, which I hate. I like a thicker cigar with more draw. I had to smoke these chicken-shit cigars during the entire shoot. And they got these cheaper cigars, and the prop guy didn't know anything about keeping them fresh. You'd crack them and they'd be dry and flaky. It was like getting a titanium rod wrapped in some horrible leaf. It wasn't even like a cigar; it was like smoking a cane or something. But this particular cigar was a great prop, because de la Beckwith is one of those nasty old guys who chews on some crappy old cigar; yet it just lent a certain kind of aesthetic weight to the character."

In June, Woods brings to life the role of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, in Hercules, Disney's animated retelling of the tale. The cigar smoking Hades character bears a striking physical resemblance to Woods--although Woods' hair is rarely on fire. And though he has yet to master Hades' trick of lighting his cigar with flaming fingertips, knowing Woods, he is probably working on it.

Woods created the character over the course of several years with famed Disney animator Nik Ranieri. It was a true creative collaboration. "Hades is the Lord of the Underworld and he sounds like a cross between a slick used car salesman and a Hollywood agent--a really slick shmuck," Woods says. "And what's funny about it is he's down there in Hell with five million dead stiffs, and there's not much to do. It's kind of boring. So we gave him great stuff to do, like eating worms and smoking a cigar." And what cigar does the Lord of the Underworld smoke? Without missing a beat, Woods says, "He'd probably smoke Montecristo No. 2s, because if I had my way, if I were the head of my own dominion, that's all I'd ever smoke. They are the perfect cigar."

Joining an elite cadre of Disney villains such as Cruella De Vil and Captain Hook, Woods eagerly anticipates the impact of this role. "I was in Roy Disney's office the other day and I thought, 'My God, you may be creating what will be for this generation of children, a character that will have the impact on them the way the Wicked Witch in Snow White had an impact on you!' It's fabulous to think that children are quite possibly going to relate to this character for the rest of their lives."

The work that he did to bring this character to the screen led to a new set of hurdles for him. "We gradually created this sort of strange, bizarre, slick, very funny, fast-talking villain. And it was an experience to create a character with my voice. It was difficult because I'm not a really 'voicey' person. I always think of my acting as more emotional and intellectual. I'm just not one of those actors that can do a million things with my voice. For some reason I kind of pulled it off, and it was an incredible challenge to do it."

Woods is a relative newcomer to the joys of a fine cigar and is not afraid to admit that his first smoking experience was somewhat lost on him. "I really started about four years ago. I had quit smoking cigarettes, which I found to be tedious. It was just like a job. And I found it was easy and pleasurable to smoke a cigar. I have a rule: if it is something a normal person wouldn't whine about, but just a feminist would, then, you know, it's all right. Cigar smoking is the kind of thing a feminist would whine about: [doing his best whiny feminist impression] 'Sure, you don't inhale them, but people can smell them four miles away.' And that's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Anything to piss off a feminist, he said with a smile. Or a chuckle at any rate." It takes a few minutes for Woods to stop laughing.

He straightens up in his chair, and takes a look at the cigar in his hand. "I think the reason it is happening is that all of us boomers are growing up. We don't eat fatty foods. We all try to be healthy. In this day and age of safe sex and non-fattening foods, you just have to have a little tiny something in you life where you feel just a little bit naughty, or wicked, or indulgent, or spoiled. I know how liberals whine about cigar smoking, and it's like, fine, I'm going to have to listen to feminists on television all the time, too. There are just some horrors in life that you cannot avoid. Getting hit by the onslaught of the price of feminism is certainly worse for you than smoking a cigar."

Woods truly enjoys the cigar experience, seeing cigars as a safe haven from the modern intrusions that are part of a busy life. "Like Freud said, if you don't smoke cigars, you miss out on one of the great experiences of life. I love to sit down in my library at night with the fire on and read. I light a cigar and I ruminate, which is something very few people do anymore. It is a lost form. It's like being a traveler or an adventurer rather than a tourist. Cigars are like little vacations where I take stock. They are a respite from the events of life and give you time to marinate the details and decisions of your life.

"I accomplish more smoking a cigar, because I sit and I think," he adds. "I like to take little journeys in my mind about everything. I think it's kind of a male thing, it is something that we traditionally used to do. Nowadays, you can sit in Antarctica with your PowerBook and move the Hubbell Telescope on the Internet. I'm not so sure that is such a great thing. I mean, life did get kind of tougher and noisier, and needlessly so. I defy any human being to tell me that his life has improved with the advent of fax machines, computers, e-mail and beepers.

"My nightmare in life, my absolute fundamental, overwhelming, egregious nightmare, is Bill Gates' vision of the future, where there will be a video camera on every corner and every conversation will be recorded. Man, I'd rather put a pitchfork in my eyes than live in a world like that."

Instead of the pitchfork, Woods usually puts three espresso beans in a little Sambuca, fires up a Punch Punch and curls up in front of the fireplace by himself. Or, when he goes to the Cayman Islands with his family, he and his brother, Michael, sit on the beach at twilight, smoking cigars, with their mother, Martha, watching the tips of their cigars glowing in the darkness from her hotel balcony. It is with those shared moments that the Woods family reunites.

Whenever the two brothers pair up, trouble usually follows. Good trouble. "Coming through customs," Woods recalls, "my golf bag had the strangest lines to it, and the customs guy looked at me and said, 'So, Mr. Woods, you're coming from a Caribbean island with a golf bag with these big square corners sticking through the fabric and I know you're a cigar smoker. Should I just tell you, sir, that I am your biggest fan. And do you know how much it means that I am not going to ask you any questions about what is in your golf bag?' Let me tell you--it was the best fan letter that I ever had."

Woods' best friend, businessman Scott Sandler, feels that the actor's decision to turn to cigars has been a positive step. "Smoking cigars, playing golf with the guys and doing things other than being involved in the sort of crazy relationships he used to be involved with, saved his life to some degree," Sandler says. "And sure, he has his ups and downs. But we spend numerous nights planning, strategizing and scheming how we're going to obtain our beloved Monte No. 2s or our Cohibas. But the greatest moments are having your best friend with you and smoking a cigar. Somehow smoking a cigar is soothing for him. He gets level. Calm."

Michael Woods, who introduced his brother to the high art of combining golf and cigars, uses his cigar to balance out his swing. Much to Michael's chagrin, Jimmy is forever putting his lit cigar on the green while he takes a whack at the ball. Michael recently gave his brother a Tee-Gar in hopes that he can break him of that habit.

Although Jimmy Woods just finished playing in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he is fairly modest about his golf game. "I'm a pretty good duffer. Between the gambling and the handicap system and a great cigar, it's the best five hours of your life. I'm not a great golfer, I'm an avid golfer--there's a big difference. But there's room for me in the game. I'll smoke a double corona or a Churchill when I golf. I don't bring my Montes out in the morning, because it's a great evening cigar. Golf is a good game for me because it requires a degree of allowing it to happen. You line up your shot and you take a good swing at it. And sometimes that kinda means letting go a little bit. It's the same with acting."

One of Woods' little-known passions is photography. Thestunning photograph on the cover of Bette Davis' autobiography, This and That, was taken by him. Woods is an intuitive photographer who enjoys going behind the lens almost as much as he enjoys being in front of it. According to his friends and subjects, his portraits are riveting. His sense of light, angle and visual choices creates a sense of intimacy.

"I've never formally studied with anybody," Woods says, "but I've always loved great photography. I like to shoot people. I always like to get into faces when there is something happening. It comes from the same motive as acting--which is wanting to understand how people think and what they do. It feels exactly the same. You are observing human nature. I'm doing one by recreating it on film and another by capturing it on film. I just love studying human behavior.

"I like Henri Cartier-Bresson, because his stuff is of the moment; he is the soul of photography. I love Eugene Smith's commitment to what he did; to me, he was the heart of photography. He sort of did photography the way I like to act, which is, you don't take any prisoners. You go for everything. Ansel Adams and Mina Wright were more of the brain of photography. "

As he approaches the end of his Montecristo No. 2, the conversation turns to women. Woods is uncharacteristically quiet, reflective, almost philosophical when he says, "I'd really love to get married again. This is a softer, kinder, gentler version of my 'old public persona.' But, in fact, I would just love to get married. The biggest challenge in life is to find someone in your contemporary world who can resonate both traditional values and that love for you," he says. "I think there are a lot of really good women out there. I really do. But I think that women have really been pounded by this feminist stuff. I think the mean-spiritedness of the feminist movement has been very destructive to women's naturally kind instincts and I think it has hurt all of us. I think we are finally starting to realize, 'Hey, we've got to get over it and find a way back to each other.'

"What nobody gets is that it's great that we're different. Women tend to whine a little and guys tend to not want to talk about anything. Women could reasonably argue that the reason they whine is because 'you guys won't talk to us about anything important.' Like relationships. My fervent hope is that if I ever get married again and have children, that the marriage will stay together no matter what. I have that as a standard, and I think that is one of the reasons that it has been so difficult for me to find a wife."

The struggle to balance love and work, creativity and commitment, Hollywood success and hearth and home, is apparent. "My goal right now is to have a family. The thing I want more than anything else is a wife and children. Work for me has been an ongoing dialectic. Work is important for me--a basic, inbred part of me that I, in the best sense, take for granted. To work and to love. I need work; it's just a given, and I'm as excited about it every day as I was in the beginning. And as for love," he wryly offers, "let me give some advice to women--if you want a teddy bear, go to FAO Schwartz. If you want a man, come over here, OK?"

In a new house that does indeed look like it has always been there, in a cozy library surrounded by his books, his awards and the American flag that was draped over his father's coffin, James Woods shares his view of mid-life. "When you're 30, you want to make a lot of money. When you're 40, you hope you're not going to die. When you're 50, you start to realize: How do I make peace with all of this? For the first time in my life, I'm starting to think about how many films I have left in me. And I think, I'm turning 50. How old do you think I will be when I'm teaching my kid to play golf? What will it be like when all of those inevitable things that we dread happen to our loved ones and to us?"

It isn't surprising that James Woods gets every last, savory puff out of his cigar. When he is finished with it, there is almost nothing left. He places the butt in the ashtray. "Sure, I tend to be a bit of a worrier and a little obsessive, and my biggest fear is that I will fuss and worry myself to death." Clearly, that's where cigars come into the picture. "When you smoke a cigar, time stops. And you can sort out your thoughts. Contemplate. You can just kind of hold it and puff it and just drift down the stream of your thoughts for an hour or so. Thank God for cigars. At least there is one place where I can be quiet for a moment and actually be alone with my thoughts." He gazes into the fire as if the answer to one of life's great questions is encoded in the flames. And the mischief dances in his eyes. That knowing grin that borders on a smirk reappears. And right now, finally, James Woods looks ready to have it all. Because he just won't settle for anything less.

Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer living in Malibu, California.


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