Out of the Furnace: Woody Harrelson and Forrest Whitaker

Woody Harrelson

In his role as Harlan DeGroat, the depraved and cunning local crime boss, Woody Harrelson once again makes it clear why he has become one of the most highly regarded dramatic actors working today.

“Woody’s really scary in this role,” says producer Ireland. “He’s such a versatile actor, but you’ve never seen him like this. It’s an iconic, all-time villainous performance. He’s a treacherous, vicious, snarling bad guy. Harlan DeGroat doesn’t have a grand plan for taking over the world. He’s a meth addict who runs numbers and gambling and whatever else. His main purpose is to make just a little more money. Woody is the nicest guy, but when you see him in character, you want to give him a wide berth.”

When Harrelson first read the screenplay, he found nothing to like about the character—and that’s part of what he found so intriguing. “It is pretty dark material and DeGroat is the most extreme character I’ve ever played,” says the actor. “Getting into character took a lot of imagination for me. I wrote journal entries from the character’s perspective to try to get into the mindset.”

Harrelson says he has to consider a project in its entirety before he decides to participate. “The director is always the most important factor in taking on a role, and Scott Cooper is phenomenal,” he says. “I thought Crazy Heart was a real work of art. He’s a truly great director with amazing instincts. He loves to mix it up and let the actors try things. This is not the most fun character to play, but I’ve definitely enjoyed the whole experience working with Scott. He has really strong, great ideas, and it’s really important for an actor to be able to trust the director, and in Scott’s case, I trust completely.”

Harrelson found working with Christian and Casey inspiring. “Casey is like a wild animal,” he says. “You don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t think even he does until he’s doing it. And I was fascinated by how close Christian stayed to the material throughout the whole process. He is focused and about as committed as it gets. We had one scene outside of this bar where my character is looking around to see if there’s anyone watching who might pose danger. Christian’s character is in a truck, way down the street, and off-camera. I couldn’t see him, my character couldn’t see him, but he sat in that freaking car for over an hour. Just sitting there like the off-camera presence. It was one of the most impressive things that another actor has done for me.”

 Willem Dafoe

 In another finely drawn performance, Willem Dafoe plays small-town bookie John Petty. “Willem is so expressive,” says Cooper. “He says so much with just a look and he’s the consummate listener. As an actor, he’s always trying to give you more and more with each take.”

When Dafoe first read the script, he remembers thinking, “Wow, they don’t make movies like this anymore. They don’t tell these kinds of stories very often. I thought the scenes were real, tight, well written and so strong.”

Petty is local lowlife with connections that reach well beyond Braddock. “He is defined mostly by what he does in his profession as a bookmaker,” says the actor. “By the very nature of what he does, he’s something of a parasite. But he’s also a friend of the Baze family and that’s key here. I enjoy playing characters that are conflicted and full of contradictions. Petty knows the brothers have had some very bad luck. But Rodney is into him for quite a sum of money and business comes first. To see where he cuts them slack, and where he doesn’t, is very interesting.”

Dafoe first met Cooper about a year before casting for the film began. As he had with Bale, the director promised Dafoe that they would work together in the future. “I’ve heard that before,” the actor says. “But a year later he called with this. That created a sense of trust for me, which combined with the strong script and the great cast was a big draw.”

Dafoe’s character has a complex and nuanced relationship with Rodney. “He’s almost a paternal figure. He tries to take care of the kid. Rodney doesn’t take the advice, and it pisses John off. So there’s my struggle. I feel protective of him. I worry about him. He’s fierce, but also very fragile. And I think I’m always fighting his fierceness with my own ferocity, which puts us kind of at cross-purposes.”

 Zoe Saldana

Russell Baze has found emotional sanctuary in a disordered world with his girlfriend Lena, played by Zoë Saldana. “Zoë is stunningly beautiful, but so real and soulful,” says Cooper. “She helps ground the picture, by giving it a very strong female center.”

 Saldana says that once she began reading the script, she couldn’t put it down. “When I finished reading it, I just wanted to be a part of it. I learned that Scott finds beauty in pain and sad places, because he believes there is beauty everywhere. I am blown away by that. He had a very clear vision of all of this, which created so much trust. It was a wonderful environment to play in.”

 Lena is a delicate balance of strength and fragility, loyalty and loneliness, according to Saldana. “Only God knows what she went through when she made the decisions that she felt she had to,” the actress says. “Lena is faced with making hard choices. I feel like she tried her very hardest, but eventually she had to surrender to the realities of life.”

The actress says the cast could not have been better suited to their roles or more committed to playing them. “Everyone was involved in telling their character’s story,” says Saldana. “Their inspiration made it so easy for me to get down and dirty, just dive into my work. That was great.”

Forrest Whitaker

The role of Braddock’s sheriff, Wesley Barnes is played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. “Forest is one of our great actors,” says Cooper. “He really understands character and story, which makes him a wonderful director himself.”

The Baze brothers’ various scrapes with the law complicate an already difficult situation for Barnes. “He knows that things have been falling apart for the Baze family,” says Whitaker. “And he has to try to help them despite his feelings about Lena and her previous relationship with Russell.”

Whitaker was moved by the movie’s exploration of family and brotherhood. “I was drawn to the powerful relationship between the Bazes. There’s a quiet understanding about things that have happened in their respective pasts that have damaged everyone. I think the script deals with those issues very well.”

The actor is extremely selective about the roles he accepts and he was eager to work with Scott Cooper on this film. “First, it’s a great script,” he says. “And Scott is a really talented writer and director, which he had already demonstrated with Crazy Heart. The project had an amazing cast and it’s very attractive to work in a realistic piece with strong actors.

“Scott is such a positive filmmaker,” Whitaker adds. “He is extremely collaborative and works with actors to flesh out the characters. He sent me a tape of a Braddock police officer that they made during pre-production. I was able to use some of what I learned from that as a baseline for my character. He encouraged us take chances and I think the performances are going to be excellent because of that. At its core, the movie is about people who are striving to have a decent, full life, as they learn that pain is a part of that.”