We all have a Woody Harrelson story, don’t we?
There are very few megastars with such well-earned cred and balance in both their artistry and activism. As B-I-G a movie star as Woody Harrelson unquestionably is, he’s also irrefutably a cannabis superhero and he’s been pulling off this deft trick for more than four decades now. But this very moment, right now, could arguably be when all the pieces in his life that matter most to him—love, craft, action—have aligned as never before. Woody Harrelson is, once again, riding high.
Moments after walking into theWOODS, the kind of amazing, buzzy dispensary/cannabis club/Zen sanctuary on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of West Hollywood, CA that Harrelson co-founded with partners Devon Wheeler and Jay Handal and expertly designed by Thomas Schoos, I’m struck by how very much the same the longtime weed advocate seems. I’ve been running into this guy for the better part of two decades and he looks, acts and comports himself similarly each time. That, too, scores major points on the authenticity scale. When it comes to Woody Harrelson, what you see is precisely what you get—hardly a given in this City of Angels.
For most of us, Harrelson will always be the impossibly naïve and lovable “Woody” from the iconic 1980s television series, Cheers, and to others he more closely resembles Marty Hart, Matthew McConaughey’s Louisiana crime-solving partner in HBO’s award-winning series, True Detective. Here’s the thing: If searching for the real Woody Harrelson isn’t exactly an exercise in frustration, it’s certainly a most welcome challenge. Is he funny? Is he smart? Is he passionate? Is he stoned? All valid questions to be sure, and ones I was pretty determined to find out for myself. So I did.
In fairness, I’ve run into the Midland, TX native several times over the years, and at each encounter, Harrelson was either laughing or otherwise happily regaling famous friends with anecdotes. The first time I saw Harrelson was back in 2004 at Nike House in Venice, CA at a casual party honoring Nuyorican actor Rosario Dawson. Harrelson, relaxed in a gray hoodie, was on the step-and-repeat posing for photographers alongside Jason Lewis, the model and actor featured in Sex and The City (Samantha’s younger boyfriend, “Smith”). As I watched Harrelson and Lewis goof around, it struck me how alike they seemed in both appearance and demeanor, as if Harrelson was the younger man’s favorite uncle. I must say, the moment left me with a deeply positive impression of Harrelson.
A couple of years later during the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, I saw Harrelson at Lotus’ exclusive afterparty following the screening of The Grand. There, huddled in a corner just out of earshot from the rest of us mere mortals, Harrelson and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines were literally howling with laughter. Again, that left me with a strong “good vibes only” imprint on my growing visual résumé of Harrelson.
Then, a little more than a decade ago, I again catch Harrelson, this time in WeHo at the legendary Chateau Marmont, at a Golden Globes party where the irresistibly charismatic actor was in mid-story, smiling as he spoke to a small group that included Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Ben Stiller. Again, all eyes were on Woody.
Back to theWOODS.
As the movie star warmly greets the assembled team—photographer, stylist, assistants—he listens to the ideas he’s given in advance of the photo shoot and with a quick nod, signals his approval. As the first set-up in the lush outdoor patio is being prepared, I can’t help but compare this easy-breezy celebrity encounter with the countless, much more difficult interactions I’ve had with other famous subjects over the years. Given his long, celebrated acting career that includes nominations for three Oscars and nine Emmys (one win) as well as being a recipient of four Golden Globes, a BAFTA (British Oscar) and a whopping seven Screen Actors Guild awards, Harrelson doesn’t seem to let any of it get to his head—or his soul.
I mean, his Best Actor Oscar-nominated turn in The People vs. Larry Flynt remains an undisputed acting tour de force; but lest we forget his indelible roles in White Men Can’t Jump, Natural Born Killers, Indecent Proposal, Hunger Games, The Thin Red Line, EDtv, Money Train, The Messenger and on and on and on.
So, it’s not a huge surprise, then, as we wrap up the shoot and move to a quieter spot to converse, that the first question I pose is about acting: “Do you think you’ve ever had a role where you said, ‘You know what, I cannot do better than that’?”
“Well, I never have felt that way. I always feel like I could do better,” Harrelson says, smiling. “Even Cheers?” I counter. “Well…no, not Cheers,” he says, suddenly bursting into laughter in that familiar way I’ve witnessed him doing all of these years now.
At this very moment, being the reason why Harrelson is laughing so genuinely now, satisfies me in ways I’m not quite fully understanding. Could it be that I want Woody Harrelson to like me, as he seems to like so many in his presence? That was unexpected.
“To answer your question about the perfect role, the other day I was biking when I started thinking about [the 2017 film] War for the Planet of the Apes and how I would’ve done my character so much better,” he says. “I had a whole different take on the character, some kind of behavioral modifications that I was integrating that would’ve made the character so much more interesting and better than what I did. How do you have some kind of character remorse like that six years later? I never feel my performances are perfect. I never feel it. But I liked the movies and I liked my performances in both LBJ (2016) and Glass Castle (2017), but both of these films also attain the same level of greatness in the US since nobody saw these movies!” Woody Harrelson is laughing hard once again.
If Harrelson’s status as a legit movie star is beyond reproach, then, certainly his role as cannabis royalty is similarly established. A National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board member for the past two decades, Harrelson is one of the Hollywood OGs when it comes to advocacy and activism for the plant, particularly for small farms and outdoor (sungrown) cannabis.
No less an authority than Tim Blake, the founder of the prestigious annual cannabis awards show and mega event Emerald Cup, weighs in. “When Woody was on the stage to receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, he said, ‘You know, these are my people. This is my community.’ And he felt it. He’s protested before, he’s humble, he knows the scene. It was really touching. I’ll love Woody forever for that. Everything we are fits with him. Woody’s evangelizing for sungrown small farmers—he’s putting his name on the line. He’s the real deal. I can’t thank him enough for doing what he did.”
With the results of the recent 2022 midterm elections, Maryland and Missouri have joined the 21 states (and the District of Columbia) where adult-use cannabis is legal. I wonder what Harrelson’s take is given the relative speed and scope of the legalization movement occurring in the US. His answer surprised me.
“I’m 100 percent against the legalization movement,” Harrelson says without hesitation. “I believe in the decriminalization movement. If you only say legalization, now you leave the government’s hand in the pie. It’s going to be in the pie regardless. Decriminalization is a much better way to go. So, yeah, I don’t believe in this whole ‘who are they to tell us it’s OK for us to smoke?’ or ‘why does the government have that right?’ If you think about it, the only thing that should be illegal is if you hurt someone else or their property, right? That’s what should be illegal. Here’s the bottom line: Weed shouldn’t be more regulated than alcohol. It hasn’t caused anywhere nearly as many deaths as alcohol or ruined as many lives. I’m not sure if my life’s been ruined… I don’t quite remember! [Laughs]
But I do want him to remember as I’m ever curious about how his love for the herb began. Surely there’s a story there.
“My mother used to say to me, ‘Son, if I ever find you smoking marijuana, it’ll just kill me,’ so that kept me away from herb until my senior year in college. And there was a guy named John St. Angelo and I knew that he smoked. And, ironically, all through high school, I always looked down on pot and those who smoked it. I looked at myself more in the athletic mode and I looked on them as just stoners, you know, when they’d be hanging out smoking. And I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I did judge them. I really did.”
The star takes a pause, presumably recollecting what his college life looked like.
“So, I remember John St. Angelo always offered herb up to me, and we went out and smoked and it was out of those things, I think you call them a steamroller. We smoked a hit and then he opened this box—he’s got like five or six different types of herb. And then he opened a specific one, and we both did one hit each. After that, John put everything back together and placed everything back in the box. That’s it—one hit. And I felt phenomenal. I mean, it was like I was tripping on a joyous euphoria, you know? I kept thinking that I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to try this. One thing was certain, I was going to make up for lost time. And so I did.”
Harrelson’s cannabis CV is extensive, so much so that I told him about my picks for the Mount Rushmore of celebrity advocates which include Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Jerry Garcia, Tommy Chong and him. “Wow, I’m flattered by it,” he says, smiling that smile of his. “Anyone I left off the list you think may be a candidate?” I ask. “Well, there are a lot of people, of course,” Harrelson says. “But did you know Paul McCartney went to prison for days?” Our talk then veered into the time Harrelson himself was arrested by the state of Kentucky in 1996 for planting organic hemp seeds (Kentucky didn’t differentiate between non-psychoactive organic hemp and THC). To see Harrelson speak about herb, there’s no question how much he loves it. His passion for hemp, though perhaps not as globally known, burns just as bright.
“I think that day is coming,” Harrelson says about the need for hemp to become a leader in fashion, architecture and more if we’re to survive on this planet. “I feel like we’re going to make hemp available in any number of ways. Well, the point is we have to become more sustainable and hemp is a route towards sustainability because it’s really easy to grow and you can use it for so many different things and it takes so little water when compared to other crops.”
For all his knowledge and loyalty for all things cannabis, Harrelson says he took a break from it for nearly two years and, unsurprisingly, how he found himself back to it entails a pretty epic story. Enjoy.
“I took off about 20 months, but Willie [Nelson] is so crafty because he’d offered me already 5000 times to smoke with him and I’m being strong telling him, ‘Willie, remember, I’m not smoking.’ ‘Oh, yeah. OK, then.’ And then he’d host a poker game at his house with me, him and six other friends, and I’m feeling that anxiety that, you know, temptation. So, Willie offers me some herb, and I’m like, again, ‘Willie, remember? I’m not smoking.’
‘Oh, OK, buddy. OK.’ And then I lose a hand. Now, Willie’s real smart. He’s cagey. So he offers me herb right then when I lose the hand, and you’d think from the pain of losing that hand I’m gonna take a hit? ‘No,’ I said, ‘Willie, remember, I’m not smoking’. And he says, ‘Oh, yeah, man. Oh, yeah.’ Well, finally, he used reverse psychology on me when I win a hand. So, I’m jubilant and right then he offers up the herb and it’s Willie’s Reserve in a pen. And I’m thinking to myself, you know, it’s a pen, it’s not, it’s not actually smoking. You know, I don’t know what I thought, exactly, but the point is, I grabbed it, took a hit and Willie turns to me and says, ‘Welcome home, son.’ He’s something else.”
Turning to more current endeavors, we then talk about his latest acting gigs: the Cannes Film Festival sensation, Palme d’Or-winning and Golden Globes-nominated film Triangle of Sadness, directed by the celebrated Swede Ruben Östlund, where Harrelson plays a Marxist alcoholic boat captain of a super luxury yacht in the comedy with a message movie. Next up is Champions, a film where Harrelson is reunited with fellow cinematic cannabis icon Cheech Marin and portrays a former minor-league basketball coach ordered by a court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. Big-hearted and inspirational doesn’t begin to cover it. Lastly, with what just may be another nominated turn, Harrelson stars as E. Howard Hunt—opposite Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy—in HBO Max’s highly anticipated Watergate miniseries, White House Plumbers, premiering March 2023.
“Well, I had so much fun portraying my character in Triangle of Sadness,” Harrelson says. “Ruben is one of my favorite directors and I think he’s a true master of his craft. I have to say, it was a privilege to be a part of that movie. The film sends up the super-wealthy, but you never feel like you’re being preached to at all. It’s funny.”
As our talk gets deeper, easier, friendlier, cheekier—for the entirety of our encounter, Harrelson has been merrily puffing on a Spanish Lime Haze joint from Pure Beauty—I sense the actor in front of me is in complete synch with his current environment. Harrelson not only lends his considerable star power to theWOODS, but he palpably wants to hang out as much as possible right where he is. The effect is the equivalent of taking a deep breath and exhaling: heady and relaxing.
“The designer of theWOODS, Thomas Schoos, did all the heavy lifting,” Harrelson says. “You know, it’s not my design at all. If it was up to me, it would’ve been pure hippie, completely psychedelic. But a picture does paint a thousand words. I mean, look around. You don’t get this in Amsterdam anywhere. No you don’t. So, to me, I wanted a beautiful space for people to be able to come and enjoy. I wanted a very comfortable space, a very homey space.”
“Why West Hollywood?” I wonder out loud.
“It’s interesting, I’m glad you asked me that, Richard,” Harrelson says. “West Hollywood has really done great by us. It’s amazing that this is here. And we’re also set to open a bar in March . theWOODS is definitely at the forefront because of West Hollywood’s broad-mindedness. I was going to say magnanimity, but if you think about it, we shouldn’t be regulated at all so it’s hard for me to use that word. I’ll just say the City of West Hollywood is definitely broad-minded. And good for them and for us.”
Harrelson isn’t so generous with his sentiments when it comes to California generally, and what he perceives to be unfair treatment of the cannabis industry by the state.
“I do feel like the state government treats us badly,” Harrelson says. “They don’t treat any other industry like they treat us. They tax the shit out of us. I feel like for all the money the state of California makes on cannabis taxes, shouldn’t they be treating us a little better? It’s a matter of fairness, my friend. Straight up.”
To know Harrelson at all is to know that a large part of his herb advocacy stems from his deep-held beliefs that sungrown cannabis is the best in the world. “For me, the best herb is definitely sungrown, soil nourished and water purified,” he says. “You know, water is something that I never used to think much about. And then on a relatively recent trip to Trinity County [CA], I started thinking about the Trinity River, and how key the water source is for herb. So, you have these indoor grows that use fertilizers that aren’t necessarily healthy, and this plant takes in more sun than any other plant. Herb is the highest receptivity to sun of any plant; did you know that? So this plant is meant to thrive in the sun. I’d rather take a joint and pass it around that’s been grown outdoors naturally every single time.”
“This plant is meant to thrive in the sun. I’d rather take a joint and pass it around that’s been grown outdoors naturally every single time.”
I then sneak in a fun question: “In a lifetime of smoking weed and clearly having amazing experiences with the coolest people on the planet while smoking herb, is there one moment that stands out where you said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here smoking herb with X person?’”
“Wow, yeah—I did smoke with some really amazing people,” he says.
Anyone you’d like to smoke with? I ask. “Maybe Jesus,” Harrelson says. Somehow, I’m not remotely surprised. Of course Woody Harrelson, America’s chillest actor, would like to smoke with Jesus because even being in theWOODS, anyone can get its singularly spiritual environmental vibes (there are several Buddhas throughout the establishment).
I then logically ask about the future of the dispensary and cannabis club: “Any other locations to look forward to?” Harrelson shuts that down in a minute.
“I can’t really think of anything but this one spot right now,” he says. “Even the amount of labor it’s taken for this location precludes doing another one. I simply can’t even wrap my head around it. It just seems too colossal. I’m telling you, Richard, if this thing doesn’t succeed, you’ll be able to contact me in my mother’s guestroom, in Ohio.” Oh, yeah, there’s that laugh again.
Wanting to wrap up our bonding sesh on a high note, I ask this quintessential American celebrity and lover of herb, to finish this sentence: Cannabis matters because…
“If used medicinally, it’s powerful and good,” he says. “It’s also the most important plant on the planet. It’s time to end the political stigmatization of this amazing plant.”
At this point, I tell him what a mega-famous celebrity relayed to me when I had asked him to complete the “why cannabis matters” sentence. “Pot excites and heals—what else does that?” “Ohh, I like that!” Harrelson says. “Why didn’t I say something like that?” Harrelson is having another full-throated laughing moment and it’s something else to watch.
Then it hits me: Harrelson is completely having a moment, his best moment of his life. He’s happy in a way that seems, well, scripted, but it’s so clearly not. I share my epiphany with the affable and eternally youthful legend: “Woody, are you living your best moment right now?”
“Thank you, Richard,” Harrelson starts, clearly moved by my question. “I like to look at it that way. So, yes, I think that’s true, this is the best moment of my life. You know, it’s funny, there’s not much that I do that I don’t want to do. And I don’t really like doing press at all, but you made it kind of fun and easy.”
Could this be? Does Woody Harrelson like me? I look up to see his face, and of course he’s laughing that laugh of his. Yeah, it’s definitely Woody’s moment once again.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.