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Why Woody Harrelson Was Never The Same After Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers is supposed to be a commentary on the way the American media portrays violence and crime, and perhaps that's why it caused so much outrage in the media. Starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory Knox, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde on a killing spree, the film follows the pair as they tear through the American Southwest, leaving a trail of victims (and the occasional spared witness) in their wake. 

Before playing Mickey, Harrelson was known as a comedic actor. This role represented a drastic shift for him, and he never expected the response the film got. But it ended up taking him in a whole new direction and led to opportunities he might never have been offered otherwise. The experience changed the course of his career, and here's how Harrelson went from making audiences laugh to working on a divisive film like Natural Born Killers, and how he was never the same afterwards. 

Natural Born Killers took his career in a new direction

Woody Harrelson made a name for himself on the popular sitcom Cheers, a role he landed after years of struggling as a starving artist in New York City. He then cemented himself as a comedy star by landing a major role in the hilarious White Men Can't Jump. So how did he end up playing a mass murderer in Natural Born Killers? It seems surprising that director Oliver Stone would specifically choose Harrelson for the role, especially since he had no experience playing a character like Mickey. But Stone saw something else in him. 

"I thought he was sort of psycho. That's why I liked him," Stone explained in an interview with the New York Post. "His eyes were kind of blue and blank, and he had a lot of qualities of the American Middle West."

In later interviews, Harrelson has recalled Stone telling him that he saw "violence" in him. Some people might take that as an insult, but as an actor, Harrelson eventually realized that Stone was correct, and he was capable of doing more than comedy. 

Woody Harrelson was upset with the media

The media response to Natural Born Killers was harsh, and critics often came down hard on Oliver Stone for the "over-the-top violence" in the film. For example, one review labeled the movie as an "empty, manic meditation on society's glorification of violence," and another called it "excessive and self-indulgent" and "an example of narcissistic filmmaking." 

Harrelson felt that some of the people getting upset about the film were being unfair, mainly because some of the haters were refusing to see it, rather than watching it and then responding. And despite the fact that some criminals would later claim they were "copying" Natural Born Killers when they carried out violent acts, Harrelson also doubted that anyone would "decide to become a serial killer" after simply watching a movie. Instead, there had to be another motive behind their actions. 

Overall, Harrelson was rather disillusioned with the media after appearing in the film. While the cast and crew had perhaps hoped that members of the press would have a moment of reflection on their role in spreading harmful messages about violence, things didn't quite play out that way.

He considers Natural Born Killers a career setback

The release of Natural Born Killers was plagued by controversy. While some might've adopted the motto "no press is bad press," Harrelson was disappointed that the film drew so much ire. Yes, the film was heavy on graphic violence, but the point wasn't to glorify brutality. Instead, Stone wanted to drive home the message that the media had the power to glorify criminals and profited from violence and tragedy. 

Harrelson told Fade In that the controversy over the film was "terrible" for his career. He reflects on it every time he sees clips from Natural Born Killers on the news after a shooting or other violent event, as he thinks it's unfair for the media to blame these tragedies on a film. He wished that people could simply appreciate the film for what it was. It didn't help that he followed up Natural Born Killers with Money Train and The People vs. Larry Flynt, as the former earned scathing reviews and the latter stirred up even more controversy.

He wanted to play the antihero

Once Harrelson got out of his comfort zone and worked on Natural Born Killers, he had bigger goals. He didn't just want to play characters to make people laugh like he had in the past. Instead, he wanted to take on more complex roles. Rather than working on films that took a black-and-white stance on an issue, he preferred to explore shades of gray and nuanced narratives. 

"I'm interested in characters who are not entirely good or not entirely heroic. More antihero characters," he told Fade In, before adding, "Nobody is all good. If you can watch that and find compassion for that character. ... To me, that's a lot more interesting."

Ever since Natural Born Killers, Harrelson has worked on a wide variety of films. From The Hunger Games to War for the Planet of the Apes to True Detective, he's explored many different genres. He doesn't always play the "anithero," but Natural Born Killers was his first step away from being typecast as a comedy actor. 

Fact vs. fiction

While filming Natural Born Killers, Woody Harrelson felt that the line between truth and fiction became blurry. For example, a particularly jarring scene involved a prison riot, and it was shot at a real prison, with the actual inmates working as extras. Harrelson recalled that it was one of the most intense scenes to shoot. There were countless people yelling, lights flashing, and the sound of gunshots ringing out. It was like no other project he had worked on before.

"Maybe it's make-believe in a way, but it certainly had a very real aspect to it," Harrelson said, continuing, "I don't know where the make-believe leaves off and reality begins sometimes." Harrelson says that there were other instances when that line became a bit muddled. For example, people have come up to him to tell him that they relate to Mickey. He jokes that those are people he would rather avoid. 

Opening doors to darker parts

Natural Born Killers represented the first time that Harrelson played a character like Mickey, but it wouldn't be the last. Although the actor began his career on a sitcom, Oliver Stone's instincts were correct — Harrelson could definitely pull off playing a pretty convincing psychopath. He may be a pacifist in real life, but on the silver screen, it's a different story. Even when he worked on comedies again, like his role as Tallahassee in Zombieland, his characters had a little edge to them. 

In the years following his performance in Natural Born Killers, Harrelson would go on to play several other characters with similar traits. In 2007, he played the laid-back bounty hunter/hitman Carson Wells in No Country for Old Men. In 2011, Harrelson starred as David Brown in Rampart, a police officer with a reputation for violence and an unorthodox family life. Shortly after, he played Charlie in Seven Psychopaths, a gangster who has to pursue a group of thieves after his beloved Shih Tzu is stolen. His role as Mickey definitely helped prepare him to appear in films with darker tones and harder characters.

Woody Harrelson's bad blood with a legendary director

Although Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers, the original script was actually written by none other than Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, Tarantino wasn't happy with Stone's take on his ideas, and he wasn't shy about his disappointment with the film. 

For years, Harrelson had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to Tarantino, and this meant there was no way that Tarantino would want him in any of his films. Thankfully, both men decided to let those grudges go after meeting in person at a party for the first time, hitting it off and deciding that bygones would be bygones. These days, Harrelson says that Tarantino is definitely on his list of directors that he wants to work with. "Now we always say 'hi' and chat. We have a very good relationship," Harrelson told Fade In. "But I would love to work with him because he is a tremendous filmmaker."

He was exhausted after Natural Born Killers

Once Natural Born Killers wrapped up, Harrelson realized that he was suffering from a serious case of burnout. "In Hollywood, whatever you have, it is never enough. ... It's all about this self-destructive desire," Harrelson told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "I was ready to be done with it." Harrelson did shoot another film after Natural Born Killers — he couldn't afford to turn down roles just yet, and he had plenty of great opportunities coming his way — but once there was a lull in his career, he decided it was time for a break. 

A self-proclaimed hippie at heart, Harrelson headed off to Costa Rica to surf and hang out in the rainforest for a while, getting away from the hustle and bustle of life in Los Angeles. Even today, he prefers to stay far away from Hollywood when he isn't there for work. He spends most of his time on his family's farm in Hawaii, where he can get a little peace and quiet.

Harrelson explored his dark side

In order to play Mickey, Harrelson had to get into the mindset of someone who could kill without remorse. Mickey had been abused as a child, and having never healed from those traumatizing childhood experiences, he eventually became a violent murderer. So Harrelson decided to dive into true crime stories to learn more about what might push a person like Mickey to lash out. 

"I had all these books on different serial killers, tapes, interviews. My mind was saturated with it," Harrelson told the Los Angeles Times. "The movie has humor in it, but there's some pretty intense stuff. That movie brought up a lot of my shadow elements, my anger, my rage."

Digging into this kind of research was also intensely personal for Harrelson. As it turns out, his dad, Charles Harrelson, was a contract killer who went to prison for murdering a federal judge. It was a dark place to tap into, but Woody turned his own demons into inspiration for the role.

Giving in to anger

After shooting wrapped on Natural Born Killers, Harrelson couldn't quite let go of the all the anger he'd built up inside. While playing Mickey, he was spending days on a set that he described as "crazy," as Stone wanted to create a chaotic atmosphere to match the mood of the film. 

Harrelson didn't hold back for his role, but even when filming wrapped on Natural Born Killers, his time playing Mickey still affected his mindset. When he began working on his next film, Cowboy Way, he found himself getting frustrated with the slightest setbacks and taking it out on the crew. He recognized that he needed to take some time to let off steam in a healthy way. 

"I had so much anger. ... Little petty things were sending me off," Harrelson told the Los Angeles Times. "It came from this re-emergence of my shadow. I found that my temper was just a lot more volatile."

Woody Harrelson's path to the Oscars

After Natural Born Killers, Stone had another opportunity for Harrelson. The director was producing The People vs. Larry Flynt (directed by Miloš Forman), and while this movie would also prove to be controversial, Harrelson's willingness to take risks with his work would pay off. He earned his first Academy Award nomination for his performance as Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine who becomes involved in several important court cases defending free speech.  

When Stone took a chance by hiring Harrelson to play Mickey, it was the actor's first step on the path towards an Oscar nomination. Not long before, Harrelson had been playing a bartender on Cheers and was just starting to make a name for himself. He never anticipated just how far he could go, especially with the support of a director and producer who saw how much potential he really had. Neither of them had any idea how Natural Born Killers would change Harrelson's career. Yes, it was his first brush with real controversy, but in the end, it looks like dealing with the backlash for this particular role was well worth the trouble. 

No more courting controversy

After dealing with a string of controversies for years on end, Woody Harrelson realized that he wasn't the kind of actor who could handle being at the center of a media firestorm. Some may have gotten the impression that Harrelson enjoyed courting controversy. After all, he could've gone back to playing comedic roles and avoided films that were guaranteed to stir up debate. But Harrelson admits that he was a bit naive about the impact that films like Natural Born Killers would have. He said that while they were working on the film, he didn't anticipate the response it would get. He was blindsided by the negativity from the press. 

"People are like, 'Do you like doing controversial movies?'" Harrelson told Yahoo. "I'm like, 'H***, no. I like doing movies people would go see, not movies people are boycotting.'" Harrelson was never trying to manufacture drama to establish a certain reputation for himself or to draw more attention to the film. Instead, he wants to make movies that people actually watch, not movies that people want to avoid.