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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 4)

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.

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