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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 3)

James Woods grabs cans out of the cupboards and pulls the eggs and butter out of the fridge. Like he does most days, he concocts a meal that would make even uber-homemaker Martha Stewart green with envy, all the while carrying on a rapid-fire monologue about the sorry state of affairs between men and women at the close of the millennium. Concentrating on slicing the onions for the home fries, he takes a moment to fire up a Montecristo No. 2. Nattily dressed in a pair of olive corduroy pants with a perfectly pressed Ralph Lauren shirt (yes, he even does his own ironing)--James Woods seems like the answer to every woman's dream. Why isn't this man married?

Then, as he discusses the contents of the morning's Los Angeles Times editorial page, he opens a can of whole potatoes for the home fries. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson One: Don't be afraid to use canned food. As he scrambles the eggs, he wonders whether onions and cheese would be a welcome addition. He sets the table with some wonderful old dishes, talks about playing golf through back pain during the previous week's Pebble Beach Open, and squeezes fresh orange juice, all while watching over six pots on the stove, each one at a critical point. And, of course, talking seven million miles a minute.

Everything about the brunch is perfection--right down to the crisply cooked bacon, gently wrapped in paper towels to soak up the excess grease. Culinary Secrets of James Woods, Lesson Two: Pay attention to details. Which brings us to the most important Culinary Secret of James Woods: Stay in control. Complete control. And yet make everything look easy. Effortless.

Perched on a bar stool amid the pots and the plates of food, Woods muses over the "bad boy" perception that just about everyone seems to have about him. "I don't get why people don't understand this about me. I'm like the nicest guy on earth. I wasn't that bad to begin with. I was just a little insecure. I was scary in movies, I wasn't scary in real life. I was kind of a minor, minor, minor league little troublemaker. I wasn't a big one like most of them.

"One of the reasons people think I'm tough is, when you're insecure, you kind of compensate by being a little hysterical. I'd kind of have little mini fits every once in a while. Little 'poo-poo head in the schoolyard' fits. Now I realize that nobody's interested. It doesn't work. It doesn't help me at all. So I decided to kind of shut up and be an adult. To be a little bit less of an asshole and a little bit more of a man. And given this moment right now, I'm glad I finally did something with it. I'm glad I stopped the bullshit that I wasted my time with for the past 20 years. And for the first time in my life, I think I'm really, really happy. I guess I'm finally sort of accepting things I can't control anymore."

A Zen philosopher once said that you can never step into the same river twice. Well, the same holds true with the Woods. Yet he is always engaging. Consistently enigmatic. Exasperating. Often brashly charismatic. He is a man who possesses the appealing combination of being seriously smart and dangerously funny. He is a gentleman of the highest order, tempered by just enough of the rogue to keep you constantly off balance. He is opinionated, strong willed and unafraid to stand behind what he says, or what he has done.

Sure, he has made mistakes, many of them publicly, and has paid a higher price than most--usually in the media. But he has learned from all of them. The product of a loving family, he yearns for the companionship of an as yet unnamed soul mate. And, at 50, his biological clock is ticking. Loudly.

What distinguishes James Woods in an overcrowded con-stellation of movie stars is a consummate talent: a rare set of gifts and skills combined with passion, a creative fearlessness and a determination to achieve his vision. This alchemizes into an unstoppable artistic force that must always be reckoned with, offscreen as well as on.

"Actors of Jimmy's intensity and brilliance produce in the public mind an image that spills over into real life," says Frank Pierson, director of Woods in HBO's Citizen Cohn. "People tend to watch them closely, hoping to see when they might slip over the edge and do something really bad. So if they see him coming first, they can cross over to the other side of the street. Truly, Woods walks upon life's stage with the same white heat with which he acts. And nobody who knows him can call him unopinionated."

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."

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."

Woods once did a play reading with Holly Hunter. "Holly is such a fast, smart, wonderful actor. When we worked together, it was like a hot knife through butter. It was like clockwork. I would love to do a film with her."

He has just finished work on the film Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the book by Carl Sagan. Due for a July release, Contact stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, with a stellar cast of co-stars that includes Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Rob Lowe and Angela Bassett. Says Zemeckis of working with Woods: "Jimmy's consummate talents are only exceeded by his boundless energy. I can't remember when I've laughed so hard in my professional career. Working with him is truly entertaining."

Woods excitedly shares the film's story: "Jodie Foster works in an area of science devoted to contact with extraterrestrials, which is sort of the 'lost stepchild' of the astronomy movement. And she receives a transmission of prime numbers being broadcast from somewhere in outer space, which, by definition, cannot be an accident--and we're off and running. The movie, oddly enough, is about faith. And God, in a strange way. Do we believe in what our senses tell us or what we hope can be true?

"There are some amazingly clever things in the movie, and the canvas is so complex and so large, and Robert does it all in his head," Woods says. "He has a cutting-edge sense of this new medium of computer-generated graphics. Robert loves to do things with computers that can actually give emotions to the scene.

"My character's job is to provide national security for the United States, which is, basically, to prepare for the worst. I'm basically the guy who is the anti-touchy feely element in the piece, or the voice of reason, depending on how you look at it. This role is sort of my farewell to this stuff, in a way. I don't think I want to play any more 'hard guys in suits,' only because I have done it enough. I want to do different things."

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.'


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