Three Billboards Outside: Woody Harrelson for Best Supporting Actor

Woody Harrelson, multiple Oscar nominee, should get another Oscar nomination for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“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 take direct aim at 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 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.”

“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.  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, 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.”