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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The gospel according to Woody

Globe and Mail
Saturday, Sep. 6, 2003

Two days before Woody Harrelson lands in Toronto, a huge blackout hits and millions of people are literally (though temporarily) living ''off'' the grid.A week later, the sight of enzyme-packed sprouts at Fresh by Juice For Life restaurant causes Harrelson to break his planned 40-day fast (albeit after 33 days) and order a salad. And tomorrow morning on the grounds of the University of Toronto, traditional frosh week debauchery is turned on its head (literally) when Harrelson leads what may be the largest urban outdoor yoga class ever.

So, what do a blackout, raw vegetables and the lotus position have in common (aside from the tangential Harrelson connection)? Look no further than the action, ideas and recipes served up in Go Further, a new and timely wakeup call of a documentary directed by veteran Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann and starring actor, vegan and committed eco-activist Harrelson.

There is no doubt Harrelson would have flown from the ends of the earth to attend the Canadian premiere of Go Further this evening at the Toronto International Film Festival. As it turns out, however, he has been in town since, well, two days after the blackout began.

As part of a promise he made to himself in 1999 to "do a play" every year, Harrelson, a theatre-arts graduate who got his start on the stage, is directing the first Canadian professional production of Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed play This Is Our Youth, which opens at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre later this month. Six days a week, Harrelson and the cast rehearse in the city's newest hotspot, the Distillery District, a no-traffic zone of cobblestones streets, artisan workshops and other hip businesses.

We are scheduled to meet in the district during his lunch break. I wait at the appointed place, taking refuge from the late-August sun under an umbrella.

Twenty minutes pass, his assistant's cellphone is turned off, but I'm not worried. I have already experienced something Mann calls "Woody time."

I first interviewed Harrelson for The Globe and Mail in March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in Austin, Tex., where Go Further received its world premiere to raucous local acclaim. The comic road movie follows Harrelson's Simple Organic Living (SOL) speaking tour of 2001; a tribe of like-minded friends cycle down the U.S. West Coast followed by a hemp-fuelled bus, stopping for Harrelson to talk to students about "how to live with a light footprint on the planet," holding ad hoc yoga classes, serving raw vegan cuisine to unsuspecting meat-eaters and dropping in on the since deceased Ken Kesey, among other adventures.

The film has a romantic subplot, musical numbers and animation, but its lasting impression is the power of the one-on-one conversation when it comes to advocating alternatives to the way we live. Go Further opens with Harrelson convincing Will & Grace production assistant Steve Clark to join the SOL tour.

Clark, whom Harrelson calls "one of the more electrifying characters you'll ever meet," transforms from junk-food loving party boy to SOL-activist party boy and has continued to stay the latter course.

SXSW turned out to be a four-day Go Further cast and crew reunion. I interviewed Mann, with whom I have a previous professional connection, and hovered around various gatherings but couldn't get an interview with Harrelson, despite attempts through official channels.

I have since learned that Mann, 45, and Harrelson, 42 -- both gifted artists who have a genuine common touch and who are passionately devoted to their families -- are both addicted to fresh juice, yoga and text-messaging.

Standing in the district last week, I am missing Mann and his interview-securing text-messaging skills when, suddenly, I spot Harrelson shuffling through the courtyard, eyes half-closed listening to music through large headphones, stopping only to shovel juicy seaweed-wrapped morsels into his mouth with chopsticks. I make myself known through mime.

"Hey, how are you?" he says, removing his headphones without dropping the chopsticks or reusable metal food container. We sit at a picnic table and it's as though we are picking up the conversation where it left off in Austin. Of course, a few things have happened since then, including the blackout. Harrelson digs into his lunch and the issue.

"[The blackout] continues to illustrate how unsustainable this fossil-fuel economy is," he says.

"It's the dinosaur economy, based on all the wrong things that are completely destructive to Mother Nature, not forgetting the giant subsidies and tax breaks given to petroleum, nuclear, timber and mining -- all of the huge industries that I call 'the beast.' I'd like to see things shift.

"It was my dream for a long time to convey these messages publicly, whether it's hemp or biofuel, it's all about sustainability. I needed to educate myself to know why it's important for me to leave as light a footprint as possible. There are many areas where I can do better, but so it is with everybody.

"People say to me, 'Well I can't do solar, I can't put up a windmill.' So I say, 'Well, there are all these little things you can do.'

"It's individual action with a co-operative vision that's going to change things," says Harrelson, who is like the Tom Sawyer of eco-activism. While he can spell out the dark statistics and consequences, he wins over hearts and minds by sharing his enthusiasm for things that, to newbies, may seem difficult (yoga), disgusting (raw avocado pie) or hard to come by (biofuel, hemp paper). "When I was in college I wanted to become a minister," he recalls. "I guess I'm a preacher with a different message, but no less important. My god is nature and naturalness.

"You go to the water cooler, grab a paper cup, take a drink and throw the cup out. It's a one-use thing.

"It's the little things that speak to the unnatural place we've come as human beings," he says, pointing to Balzac's Café, "Over there, people bring their own coffee cups. It's a simple thing, but it saves a lot.

"I started to get into the concept of sustainable alternatives and was learning about this kind of bamboo that grows quickly that you can make paper from. Then I started focusing on industrial hemp, which is good for the Earth and doesn't requires pesticides.

"Around the time I was spouting my philosophy about hemp in the early nineties, I started getting flack from the marijuana activists who thought I was not doing the whole issue justice," he continues. "At first I thought it wasn't the wisest move, but then I realized it's about freedom. In a so-called free country farmers should be able to grow what they want, and people should be able to take whatever drug they want so long as they're not hurting anybody."

In the late nineties, Harrelson's brother, also an actor, told him about "this really cool documentary being made about the history of the drug war that the director wanted me to narrate." Initially skeptical, Harrelson saw an early cut of Ron Mann's Genie-winning documentary Grass (2000), loved it and signed on. "I remember meeting this wild-haired guy who was so full of energy, constantly in the creative act," Harrelson recalls. "I mean, he's still working on Go Further. He never stops trying to make it great."

Although Harrelson is concentrating on This Is Our Youth while in Toronto, he is making time to talk about Go Further and its message. "I don't say this lightly, because you care about everything you work hard on, but Go Further is without question my favourite of all the movies I've been involved with," Harrelson says.

"And I'm not even the central character!" he says with a laugh.

"[Steve Clark] is hysterical to watch and just great, but the reason I love it so much is that it's a wonderful story about people and, at the same time, spells out a potential direction we could be going that's delivered in a really fun way. And I feel the message is ripe now."

With only a few drops of marinade left in his lunch container, Harrelson begins to stroll back to the rehearsal room where the actors are preparing for the first complete run-through of the play. In the past five years, Harrelson has appeared in productions on Broadway and London's West End but hasn't appeared on the big screen that much. One of the few TV stars (Cheers) to make a successful transition to film (White Men Can't Jump, Welcome to Sarajevo, an Oscar-nominated performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt), Harrelson will jump into two movie projects next month.

"I'm doing a small part in a Spike Lee movie, then I'm going to do a Brett Ratner movie somewhere in the Caribbean with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek," he says. Will Harrelson play the good guy?

"Well, I think he's a very good guy," he laughs, his blue eyes twinkling. "It's a heist movie and I love a good heist movie." ROBTv Workopolis