Oscar 2018: Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor Award

WILLOUGHBY

“I’m doing everything I can to track him down, Mrs. Hayes.  I don’t think those billboards is very fair.”

Police Chief Willoughby

When the billboards go up outside Ebbing, Missouri, they appear to take direct aim at one man:  Police Chief Bill Willoughby, who has failed to solve the murder of Mildred’s daughter and left her with no solace.  But the more one gets to know Chief Willoughby, the more it becomes clear that the man Mildred is going to war with is already fighting a private battle.

“Bill is a decent man who tends to see the best in people,” comments McDonagh.  “In many ways, he’s the archetypal good, small-town cop – but we discover early on he’s not in the best of health, and now he’s facing up to some dark choices and dark realities.  Mildred goes against him for all the right reasons, but he has his own good reasons to act the way he does.”

Taking the role of the man who is both Mildred’s sworn enemy and her only hope is two-time Oscar® nominee Woody Harrelson, seen also this year in the contrasting roles of a colonel fighting for humanity in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and an eccentric, alcoholic father in THE GLASS CASTLE.  McDonagh has been friends with Harrelson for many years and previously cast him as live-wire gangster Charlie Costello in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.

“We see a different side of Woody in this film, definitely different to what he did in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS,” McDonagh observes.  “This is a more honest, sadder and realistic character. Woody brought to it not only his great humor but a strong sense of integrity and decency.  The decency of Woody as a man shines through into Willoughby and I think that’s why it works so well.”

Adds Broadbent:  “Woody so often plays the outlaw or outcast – from NATURAL BORN KILLERS to RAMPART, he’s usually on the wrong side of the law or in dark spaces.  So what’s intriguing with Willoughby is to see Woody playing a police chief with a really good heart, a guy revered and adored by his community.”

Harrelson wasn’t about to turn down the chance to work with McDonagh again.  “I think Martin’s one of the great talents,” he says.  “His writing is so fresh, alive and funny but with such pathos and you just don’t find many screenwriters like this.  He’s able to capture things about human relationships and the human condition yet he’s then able to get maximum humor, tension and emotion out of it, too.”

One of the things Harrelson first latched onto for Willoughby was his ability to take all kinds of pressure without relenting to any of it.  “He’s under a lot of heat from Mildred and he’s also not well, so he’s got a lot to bear,” Harrelson elaborates.  “But what I find interesting about him is that he’s really not an uptight guy.  He’s in the middle of all these cross-hairs but he just keeps going anyway.”

Once the billboards go up, Mildred and Willoughby are in an instant standoff but they are not without understanding for one another. “Woody and I didn’t talk much about the characters – we didn’t have to,” says McDormand.  “There’s something really similar about me and Woody.  In fact, I think he could have played Mildred and I could have played Willoughby.  And I think if there’s anything approaching traditional sexual tension in the film it’s between the two of them – but it’s so much more interesting than that. They could have been friends, they could have been partners and in better circumstances maybe they could have found the answer together.”

Harrelson also related to in Willoughby is his unwavering devotion to his family, come what may.  “I related strongly to his need to take care of his kids and wife.  And I like that Willoughby really doesn’t dwell on his health problems,” he says.  “He’s one of those guys who determines, ‘I’m not going to stop living my life.’ He just refuses to be hamstrung by it.”

As the trouble in Willoughby’s world mounts to a crisis, McDonagh gave Harrelson a lot of freedom to explore the emotional turns.  “Martin’s not a heavy handed director,” Harrelson describes.  “He’ll come in with light notes — but he sees very clearly and can do a incredible amount with just a small adjustment.  He also has a real sense of humor about things.  He’s able to poke fun at me if I’m doing something that’s too much in a way that makes me laugh, as opposed to putting me on my heels.”

The biggest draw of all, says Harrelson, is McDonagh’s way with characters who are more than they seem on the surface. “A great thing about Martin’s writing is that he takes you inside characters who seem to be one thing until you realize there is so much more to them, and then you really start to care about them and see something other than what you first thought. In the end, that’s how he creates something that truly stays with you,” Harrelson sums up.

Chief Willoughby’s wife, Anne, plays a key role in keeping Willoughby centered.  Taking the part is Abbie Cornish, who previously worked with both McDonagh and Harrelson in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.  That made their husband-and-wife rapport genuine from day one.  “Woody and I are friends, so that made it easier to step straight into a close marriage,” notes Cornish.  “For me, a lot of inhabiting Anne was about being free in the role.  Anne and Willoughby have a marriage that is very evolved, full of love and admiration but they also enjoy taking the piss out of each other, making each other laugh and seducing the other. It’s like the youth of their love is still there along with the timeless nature of how far they’ve come together.”

Harrelson moved Cornish by where he took Willoughby, which only made it more natural for her as Anne to face her husband’s decline.  “As an actor Woody’s very pure,” she observes.  “It was lovely to see him give Willoughby so much life at a stage of this character’s life where things are pretty dismal.  Fate is staring Willoughby in the face, yet Woody gives him vibrancy.   It was also a joy because I never knew what Woody was going to do — and to play husband and wife with someone like that is exciting.”

 

DIXON

“You do not call an officer of the law a f***ing prick in his own station-house, Mrs. Hayes.

 Or anywhere, actually.” 

~ Officer Dixon

 

Willoughby’s right hand man, Dixon, is an officer whose potential is self-sabotaged by intolerance and a wildly erratic temper, usurping the chief’s authority and order.

In the role is Sam Rockwell, who has brought a long roster of unforgettable characters to life, including playing Chuck Barris in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, Nicolas Cage’s con artist protégé in MATCHSTICK MEN, astronaut Sam Bell in MOON, wrongfully convicted Kenny Waters in Tony Goldwyn’s CONVICTION, Jesse James gang member Charley Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and Billy Bickle in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS for McDonagh.

“Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man,” McDonagh acknowledges, “but there’s something in him, and it’s partly in the way that Sam plays him, which is childlike and moving despite all his obnoxiousness and horrible faults.”

“Dixon may be my favorite character,” Harrelson confesses.  “Sam has a unique ability to play a guy where you sense there’s something not quite right about him – and in fact a lot of what Dixon does is very wrong — yet then he’s got this redemptive quality.  Sam as Dixon has an incredible innocence about him, so you care about the guy even when he’s doing bad things.  I think he’s a terrific actor and it was great to work with him again.”

McDonagh and Rockwell had worked together not only on SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS but also the play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, yet this was new territory.  “I always think of Sam as my go-to actor for that generation,” McDonagh says of Rockwell.  “When he goes dark, he really goes dark.”

Rockwell’s versatility was especially welcome in a character who experiences profound shifts in the course of the film. “Sam was able to offer so much in his ability to riff with Martin,” observes Graham Broadbent.  “They would try many different options again and again and again.  And like Martin’s writing, Sam can somehow be funny, tragic and sad all at once.”

McDormand loved what Rockwell did with the character. “I think this is the best work Sam has ever done,” she says. “There’s a real synthesis between Sam and Martin as an actor and director who have worked together repeatedly and are just getting better and better at it.”

McDormand continues:  “Sam and I come from a place of deep respect for each other and getting to be in scenes together was so delicious.   The choices he makes are so completely random and glorious and unpredictable– it’s kind of like getting on a great roller coaster but not knowing when the hills and valleys are coming.  I think he knew he had a kindred spirit along for the ride in me.  We never went past the point of no return, but we were always kind of dangling out there over the edge of everything.  And what I also love about Dixon is that he’s allowed redemption, Martin allows him redemption, and he never, ever becomes a caricature.  He’s always something more than that and what saves him is his love for Willoughby – it’s the tenderness between two men.”

Like his cast mates, Rockwell was drawn to McDonagh’s writing.  Says Rockwell:  “Martin is especially great in this script in dealing with taboos, racial taboos and other taboos, which he brings to the surface in so many compelling ways.”

Rockwell observes that though McDonagh hails from Ireland, he has keen insight into small-town America, perhaps because hard-working towns anywhere have more in common than not.  “Martin understands small towns because in Ireland there are all the same kinds of tensions. Working class is working class wherever you go, and he writes so well about that.  I feel you could do this story with an Irish accent or a Brooklyn accent and it would work just as well as it does in Missouri.”

Perhaps the local accent is inconsequential, but Dixon is certainly a character unto himself.  “Dixon’s kind of a classic,” muses Rockwell.  “He’s like the bastard Edmund in King Lear in that he’s a real angry, angry guy — angry at the world and filled with this idea that he’s always been mistreated. He seems at first that he’s a kind of villain in Ebbing, and yet he’s more complicated than that.”

Ultimately, as Dixon’s curiously co-dependent home life is revealed, the source of his psychic angst comes clear.   “He still lives with his mom and he’s a bit stunted, unable to just break free and finally become an adult,” Rockwell explains.  “He has an extremely dysfunctional relationship with his mom, which makes for quite a bit of trauma and then he takes that out on other people.”

“I think we all can relate a bit to his anger and his sadness,” Rockwell goes on, “and also I think to his hero worship of Chief Willoughby.  I think a lot of us have felt that kind of reverence for someone and yearned for their approval.”

Rockwell and Harrelson seemed to find an instant frisson that deepened the tricky bond between Dixon and Willoughby.  “Woody’s got a real moral compass and he’s also very laid back, which makes you feel at ease.  With great actors like that, there’s often a sense of anarchy and mischief, and Woody brings all that to Willoughby,” says Rockwell.   “His approach is never predictable.”

McDonagh and Rockwell agreed that the glaring peril with Dixon would be letting him slip even for a second into caricature.  His humanity was the crux. “We both knew Dixon had to be played real, and not for the jokes,” says Rockwell.  “Really, playing it too much for the jokes or too much for the pathos were equal dangers.  I think in the end people will feel conflicting things about Dixon.  I want them to be annoyed, angered and amused by him yet feel for him all at the same time.”

 

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