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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 2)

Yet Woods always returns to film, because of the scope of the medium. "I think Ghosts of Mississippi was a meaningful film and I think Contact [due out this summer] will be another. In film, the canvas is bigger, and you are in a big room with a lot of people watching it."

Capturing the viewer's imagination is something Woods has always been able to do. He first received notice as Barbra Streisand's guy pal in The Way We Were. Over the years, his career has taken him from the role as the amoral journalist Richard Boyle in Salvador, to the icy H.R. Haldeman in 1995's Nixon, both for director Oliver Stone. He has won an Emmy Award for portraying the schizophrenic "D.J." opposite James Garner in the ABC movie Promise, and also was honored for his role as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name Is Bill W., also with Garner. (Woods gave up his profit participation on the video sales so the movie could be donated to Alcoholics Anonymous chapters.) He has gone from leading man as Sen. Joseph McCarthy co-counsel Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn to the scene-stealing cameo role of Lester Diamond in Martin Scorcese's Casino. In the 1996 CBS made-for-television movie The Summer of Ben Tyler, he played a man who adopted a retarded black child in the 1940s. Woods said he took the role to cleanse himself of the oppressive psychic weight of turning in a haunting performance as the unrepentant racist Byron de la Beckwith in Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, a role that earlier this year earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, his first Oscar nomination since the 1986 film Salvador. Then there's his tour de force in The Onion Fields, and his standout performances in HBO's Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and the 1995 film The Specialist. His résumé is as varied as the man himself.

Woods is clearly on a mission. "I'm now making up for an incredible amount of lost time. You lose time when you haven't defined what you want in your life. It is easy to achieve your goals--the tough part is defining them. Now I make a point of defining them. I said to my new agents at [International Creative Management], 'No more shit. No more [Creative Artists Agency] pay-the-rent shit. I want to work on the best scripts, with the best directors. I don't care about the money. I don't care about the size of the part or the billing and all that other stuff. But I want to do material that is great. With directors and actors that are great.'

"You see, I have always wanted on my tombstone: 'He Played the Part Better than Anybody Could Have'--whatever that part may have been. I don't ever want to say that I'm the best actor in the world. But I'd like to think that when I do a part, that people can't imagine anybody else doing it after I have done it."

Pierson sums up working with Woods this way: "What is it like to direct Jimmy Woods? I wouldn't know. You don't direct him. You surf him. It's like surf-riding the biggest wave you ever saw. A moving mountain of energy and inventiveness and intelligence. And if you stay standing up, it's the biggest damn thrill of any director's lifetime."

Woods often makes surprising career choices, but there is a method to his madness. "If you star in movies, which I predominantly do, most agents would assume that you don't want to do a two-day part in a movie," he says. "But when you read a script like Casino and you know it is being directed by a genius like Martin Scorcese, you say, hey, I'll be an extra in this movie. I'll do anything. I called up Marty and said, 'Any part, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.' Because I want to work in good scripts with good directors, and this was a great script with a phenomenal director, it makes the choice really easy. We ended up making a two-scene part into a 10-scene part. Which proves my point. When you're working with great people and great material, you're going to milk it. I have learned that you can't be a champion unless you are in the championship zone. You can't win unless you're in the zone, whatever winning might mean. Right now, maybe they are not going to star me in a $100 million movie all by myself the way they would some other actor, but if I'm in that championship zone, I have got a shot."

Twice recently he has been in the zone, auditioning for and winning the roles of H.R. Haldeman in Nixon and Byron de la Beckwith in Ghosts of Mississippi. Unlike other actors of his level, Woods says he is proud to have auditioned. "One of the things that was a challenge for me [about Nixon] is that Oliver Stone did not want me to play the part of Haldeman. He said, 'You're not right for this part, Jimmy. This guy is very restrained, very cold, a very straight-edged, square guy. You're a mercurial artist. Impulsive. Passionate. Emotional.' And I said, 'Oliver, it's the old joke--it's called acting. I think I can do it.' "

The proof is on the screen. And with it, a valuable lesson in his own creative evolution. "I'm hoping that my inner life that is usually expressed in an outer way, if I keep it inside, will make the dry dimension of the character--the repressed dimension--more vital, because you can smell the chaos and the drive and ambition underneath the guy," he says, warming to his topic. "You can yell and scream all the way through the movie and usually everybody thinks that's great acting. The toughest part is to do all that--now lock it up and put it inside and be as cool as you can be on the screen. You have to have done all your work in the chaos department ahead of time and just have it under there and parcel it out in tiny little flashes. That's the hardest thing to do. Haldeman was one of the most difficult jobs of my entire career, and one of the ones of which I'm the most proud. And probably one of the ones that most people won't notice."

Oliver Stone, who has seen Woods on both sides of his personal transformation, says, "In the old days, I used to want to strangle Jimmy with my bare hands. But since that time Jimmy has mellowed out. And perhaps I have, too. And now I love him deeply. He has grown, actually, into a human being. And a fine one, too."

Characteristically, Woods steers away from the standard choices when he speaks about actors whose work he admires. "Robert Redford understands film acting better than anybody on the face on the earth," he declares. "You know how some carnivores get every bit of meat off of a carcass they can? Well, there's nobody who gets as much blood out of a moment as Redford. Within the range of his talent he knows how to get every single note available, and he is a genius not only at getting those notes but in making them fully accessible to his audience. He is one of the few actors that can play three or four emotions at the same time, and he is amazing; he truly understands the subtlety of film acting."

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