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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)

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.'

"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."

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