Woods on fire

Actor James Woods says he hates to talk about politics -- yet can't seem to help himself. In a let-it-rip interview, he defends Bush, calls Clinton a "liar," and sounds off on everything from his sex life to the war with Iraq.

Published July 31, 2003 11:23PM (EDT)

James Woods has frequently played manic characters, men with so much information clicking around their synapses it sometimes seems to blast from their mouths in fast, staccato streaks.

Woods the man doesn't seem altogether different. During an interview with Salon, to talk about his new movie "Northfork," Woods discussed his admiration for George Bush and his intense dislike for the president's critics, as well as Bill Clinton and the particularly dumb breed of Hollywood liberal he seems to run into a lot.

Woods insists he'd prefer not to talk about politics -- "Do you think I want to be the one lone voice against the Hollywood liberal establishment? It's not going to do me any good" -- and that he's much happier discussing his work. But for nearly an hour and a half he gamely talked politics with us over the phone on a recent afternoon, in hopes, he said, of getting "Northfork" a little more attention -- even though he was certain it would lead him to "be humiliated and degraded" in what could only turn out to be another "slash piece." Did it?

What attracted you to "Northfork"?

I thought it was a very bold subject, this whole idea of the transition from life to death or how to make life more meaningful while you're living it in the face of death. Secondly, I thought it would be exquisitely presented. I spent a lot of time with the boys [the Polish brothers, makers of the film]. We talked about using the gray scale in color. I thought that was really going to be powerful, to make essentially a black-and-white movie but on color stock. Everything was painted gray, the ketchup bottle, the flag, everything. I love the humor in it. And I just thought that they are real artists.

You know, my business is now basically run by the marketing department. And most of these kids running the marketing department have their MBAs from somewhere and the extent of their film knowledge goes back to "The Matrix." I mean, you mention Billy Wilder and they think you're talking about a place where you're going into a rave or something.

You were also credited as an executive producer on the film. Was that just a matter of putting up money or was there more to your involvement than that?

Actually, it wasn't a matter of money. A lot of it had to do with the creation of the film. I was able to lean on people for favors and things to help out because their budget was so low. It was half of what John Travolta's perk package is on a film. Our whole budget was half of what his staff makes on a film.

Was that frustrating? I imagine you're used to working with more resources.

No, everybody was so utterly dedicated to the film. Because you have to remember, we work in an environment where your options are to do, you know, "Batman 10," so when you get to do a movie that's a really great film like this, people really step up to the plate and enjoy it.

You've had a long career in indie movies.

Starting with "Onion Fields" and "Salvador" [which earned him an Oscar nomination] and movies like that, I've been doing this for 20 years. And the lifeblood of my career has been independent film. I mean, I got one Oscar nomination for a studio film, "The Ghosts of Mississippi," but, you know, its heart was in the right place. It was dealing with a socially important issue.

I've never really done many blockbusters, actually. I wouldn't know how to do them. I couldn't hop around in "Spider-Man" in, like, a little Spandex outfit. I mean, I enjoy going to those movies. I'm really glad they're making them, because it makes it possible to make other movies and it makes this business healthy. But I don't know how good I'd be in them.

... If you're the more mature, accomplished, middle-aged, white, heterosexual male in that equation, you're usually going to be the villain because that's how those things are set up. And to hop around in a little mask and tights, I can just find better things to do with my time.

Liz Smith recently reported that you'd been with the same woman for five years, Dawn Denoon, co-executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." You used to have a reputation as sort of a lady killer.

I don't know where I got that reputation. I probably date less than anybody in history, but for some reason people think that. It's so impossible to check people's perceptions of you. I'm a pretty quiet guy, but if people want to think of me as a lady killer, I guess that's good.

And yet that rumor persisted. What was your favorite rogue rumor about you in the press?

Back in the old Sean Young days, there was a whole thing that she glued my dick to my leg with Krazy Glue, and I said, as a joke, "Well, actually, it was to my ankle," and for some reason it got out. So I thought, well, maybe I won't dispel that rumor.

Of course that didn't happen, but it was kind of a good one to let loose. Actually, I guess I did contribute to the fact that people think I had a wild and woolly love life.

Is it fun to start those rumors?

Yeah, it's fun, because the press is like a big bass, you just stick a hook in their mouth and they'll take it. You know, I have to say that, with all due respect, the press is pretty gullible, especially the gossip press. They love to write about anything. You just go along and feed them crap and they eat it.

You seem exceptionally smart for an actor. Do you think --

For an actor, what do you mean for an actor?

Do you think intelligence is a prerequisite for being a good actor?

You gotta start with the premise. The premise might be wrong.

OK, let's put it this way: Do you think it's a help or a hindrance in Hollywood to be intellectually curious?

I think a lot of people here have wildly varying opinions about things. No matter what it is, if you get 10 people in the business talking about something, you get 10 different opinions, but you know, they're amazingly well informed.

Let's talk about the wildly diverging opinions. I know you're interested in politics and you have a reputation for being an outspoken conservative. How would you categorize yourself politically?

That's a good question because the thing that most aggravates me about people's political stance in this country these days is that they're being polarized, and I just don't think it's necessary. People always have the wrong impression of me. I just have very specific and, I hope, common-sense responses to each individual scenario.

So you don't think the right-wing conservative label that people have put on you is accurate?

No, of course not. I'm not right-wing and I'm not left-wing. But you know, in Hollywood, if you don't agree with some kind of ridiculous assertions, people are quick to label, because there are those who maybe aren't so intelligent or who maybe aren't as rigorous in their thought process. They just have knee-jerk responses to things.

Like, I sat with somebody who was once the president of a studio and we were having dinner and he said, "George Bush is an utter moron."

And I said, "Oh, on what do you base that assertion?" And he said, "Well, he's just a moron." And I said, "Can you give an example?" And he said, "Well, there's a lot of examples." And I said, "Well, I'm not asking you for 300, I'm asking you for one." And he sputtered for about 10 minutes and he couldn't think of one, because that's actually a pretty stunning statement to make, that anybody's a moron.

I mean, whatever it took to get elected president of the United States, I don't think being a complete and utter moron is one of those predicates. It's just a facetious statement.

So you think Bush is smart?

Yeah, I do.


Because he's president of the United States and we aren't. It's facetious and fallacious reasoning to assume that you could be in a position of power like that and on some level not have the ability to do pretty shrewd and careful and, yes, intelligent, things, to be involved in intelligent enterprises.

You don't think a "Being There" scenario is possible?

No, I don't. "Being There" is a lovely fantasy and that's what makes it so charming. But in the real world, it just wouldn't happen.

So if Bush hadn't gotten elected, it would have been possible to think of him as stupid, but because he got elected we must assume he's smart?

No, no, no. And by the way, OK, that's what I was saying. I was obviously just dismissing the question, but let me be accurate. I think it's a nonsensical conversation, honestly, if someone's intelligent.

I don't know, give him an IQ test and I'll look at the results and tell you my response. Do I know that Bill Clinton was a liar? Yes, he admitted he was a liar, so yes, I have to believe, if the man admits that he lied under oath then, yes, we know for a fact because the person who committed the lie admitted to the lie. I'm not gonna say if somebody is smart or stupid or not. I don't know, I'll tell you when I read the results of the test.

So are you a Bush fan?

Yeah, I am. I'm very circumspect about people. If someone does something just loathsome, like Nixon or Clinton, then I don't have respect for them. But I'm one of those people who thinks that being president, you've got to give people leeway, it's got to be not a very easy job. So I tend to be a little more circumspect in harsh judgments of people because I think it's easy to take potshots when you don't have the job.

And you're pretty happy with the kind of decisions Bush's been making so far? You're unfazed by recent controversies, like the ...

Uranium in Africa?


It's like playing golf. Even Tiger Woods gets a triple bogey but still goes on to win the U.S. Open. Clearly, everyone's going to have their moments, but by and large do I think -- to me the more relevant question -- and you probably won't print this -- but the more relevant question is when millions of people are suffering and millions are being murdered, do we as a nation have a moral obligation?

A lot of my friends in Hollywood have actually said things like "Let's melt their hearts with hugs and love." It honestly doesn't work. So I respect people's sweetness for believing that you can melt the heart of Osama bin Laden with a hug, but you can't. The only solution to Osama bin Laden is a fucking 88-millimeter shell through his forehead.

Right, well, we've just made a switch from Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden.

No, you assume that because the press says that. What makes you think we've made a switch from that? What makes you think ...?

No. You just did.

No, I'm giving you an example. You can line 'em up and put an 88-millimeter shell through both their foreheads as far as I'm concerned. And I'd be happy to pull the trigger. Who wouldn't?

Would you if you had an opportunity to kill Hitler do it? Of course you would; that's the morally sound response. If you could turn back time in 1938 and put a bullet through Hitler's head, would you do it? What morally responsible person would not?

Look, you live in New York and I live in Los Angeles, but I drive cross-country. I did it four times last year. I do it to meet people, to see how they think. You in your wildest imagination would not believe how different the country is between the George Washington Bridge and San Bernardino, Calif. If you don't live in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, the way people think, voters, they just look at us and they marvel like we're animals in a zoo or something. They always say to me, "What's wrong with all the press and the media and the film people? Why don't they have any common sense?" ... I'm telling you they don't care whether we have weapons of mass destruction.

Should they?

That's a different issue. But let me just tell you, when I did the movie "Nixon," Oliver [Stone] wrote a great line in the script. The Nixon character was talking to John Mitchell's character and Nixon said, "You know, I'm gonna end up being sacrificed."

And John said, "No, you can fight." And Nixon said, "No, we lost Vietnam, and when we lost Vietnam, somebody had to pay. People need retribution. Moral retribution, a balancing of moral scales in their lives. We lost, we've got to win somewhere or we have to punish the guilty."

When those heinous savages flew those planes into those buildings killing children, women and men, who did nothing but just live their lives in America, in our fundamental human hearts, most people fundamentally needed that, in a very simple way, balanced. And I believe that the war in Iraq as it's appealed to the general voter, appeals on a level of we did something to get rid of some bad guy somewhere that kind of atones for that.

Even if it wasn't the same bad guy.

Well, it's not a very sophisticated response, because your argument will of course be that Saddam Hussein didn't have any connection to that, so far as we know. But you have to understand that sometimes people emotionally think in very simplistic ways.

But is that a good argument for going to war?

I'm not judging it. I'm just answering your question. You ask me whether it's going to be relevant, it's not.


Now, should it be or not? I don't know. I have to know more about it, and the jury's still out as to whether [the weapons of mass destruction] are there or not, and even if they're not, OK, I'm not so happy about the fact of maybe being misinformed, whether willfully or accidentally or through sloppy intelligence through the CIA or whatever.

And see, I can actually admit it. I've never met a liberal who can ever admit being wrong to anything.

For someone who's just said he's a liberal in some ways and a conservative in others, you sound pretty down on liberals.

Well, you know, I'm still a registered Democrat.

That's surprising.

I've fallen away from the party because there is a certain degree of accountability and the behavior of people during the last years of the Clinton administration where they would forgive anything. I mean, those pardons were just embarrassing. You just never hear people say, "You know what? That was just plain wrong on every level." They never do.

And when somebody lies in a sexual-harassment case about a relevant issue in that case, that is a felony, and it's not something becoming of the president of the United States. It is a high crime and/or misdemeanor and I've never heard a liberal say, "You know what? You're right. Lying is not a good thing. I don't care what it's about, it's against the law. The guy's a criminal." They never say it. They won't say it. And you won't say it. I guarantee it.

I won't say that lying under oath is wrong? Lying under oath is wrong.

In every case, every time?

In every case, every time.

And he was wrong to do it, wasn't he?

Yes. OK, so now that we've established that --

You're a card-carrying conservative.

No, I am not.

But if I said that, you would say, "You seem very conservative in your positions."

No, I wouldn't.

But people do. They say, "You are picking on Clinton." I say, "Well, he's a liar. He lied under oath. It's a bad thing to do. I don't approve of it." That doesn't make me some raving, right-wing lunatic.

I'm really proud and glad that you said that, so I know I'm talking to a kindred spirit, somebody who can actually take each case on a per-case basis and examine it.

But I do think you're letting Bush off a bit easy on the WMD issue.

But there are way bigger issues than that.

I tell you why these conversations sadden me. I don't ever like to do press anymore and that's only because there's never any advantage for me to do it. The only thing the press is ever interested in is controversy and creating it even if it's not there. They can't pick on my personal life because I live an exemplary, decent person's life, so they pick on my politics. Do you think I want to be the one lone voice against the Hollywood liberal establishment? It's not going to do me any good. So I prefer never to have these conversations because, quite frankly, nobody on either side is going to be convinced by anybody on the other side. It's just too polemical and it's too polarized, so I'm not interested in having them.


But wait, wait, but secondly. What happens to me is, I'm talking to you and you seem from what I can tell not only intelligent but a decent person, but you know, this is Salon.com, so of course it's going to be "right-wing lunatic James Woods blah-blah-blah." And in fact, I don't want to A) volunteer this, B) don't want to be labeled for it, C) I'm totally at your mercy.

If a rational person heard this conversation they'd think, Oh, he's making a good point or she's making a good point, they'd hear it that way. But the way you could potentially report it, I could sound horrible: "James Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger," or whatever the fuck. I don't even want to be in that category.

So I, to try to help my friends who made a beautiful film, try to get their film promoted, am making a deal with the devil. You're going to talk about the film for five minutes and never mention it in the article, I'm sure, or mention it in one line just to get it out of the way. And I actually tried to help you get through it quickly because I knew it was just a pretext to talk about the other stuff.

No, that's not true.

I don't know if these are facts. I'm just saying they're impressions. So I'm just sitting here getting my ass again to the gangplank, getting my ass chopped off by the pirates, and talking to Salon.com so I can be humiliated and degraded, and it's fine because I'm doing it for the movie, but honestly, it just saddens me because it would be wonderful to have a conversation with somebody who says, "Well, yeah, that's a good point," and then wrote a kind of balanced article about it. That would be great. Then I'd be actually interested in talking about politics.

You feel like you've been burned in the past.

No, I've dealt with so many journalists. I've had to put up with it because I wanted to promote my friend's movie. I made $5,000 doing this movie. I didn't make any money. I did it for love and respect and I'm happy to do whatever I can to promote it. So you can say whatever you want and quote me however you want about politics and make the next payday, and that's fine because I'm making that deal with you, but just mention the movie along the way, OK?

This seems a little disingenuous to me. You're clearly interested in politics, and this is an opportunity to get your opinion out there.

I'm neither inclined nor really in any way interested in disabusing people of their political positions, however ridiculous they may be or however sound they may be. They can think whatever they want. I've never talked to an extreme liberal or conservative who could be disabused of his or her notions about their positions. They are intractable in their thinking, they are unreasoning and unreasonable and it's just a waste of breath to talk to them. I always say to them, "Look, just go sit at the card table with the rest of the kids and let the adults run the country." No matter what position you may take about the Bush presidency, if George Bush parted the Red Sea, found every single terrorist, found every weapon of mass destruction, fed the poor, opened the shores of America, gave every starving kid a college education, do you think Salon.com would write about it? No, you wouldn't.

Let me ask you a question, OK?


In Afghanistan in 1992 through the year 2000, under the Clinton administration, how many women went to school in Afghanistan? You know the answer.


Zero. How many women are in the equivalent of high school, junior high school and in college in Afghanistan today under George Bush?

Um ... a lot.

How many?

I don't know.

You don't? You're a journalist. And you're interested in politics. And you're a woman.

I write about entertainment.

I'm asking you because I like you and I think I'm going to like you for a while and I'm going to talk to you a lot in the future because I like you, but you seem like an intelligent woman and probably a feminist and good for you. Many aspects of feminism have equaled a lot of wrongs and many of them have been just a disaster, but they've done a fundamentally good thing.

So I would think that you as a political writer for a very important Web site that is read by many, if you really want to be -- and I'm going to make a joke here -- fair and balanced, then you might want to actually report that under George Bush's tutelage of our country and to a certain extent of our entire world there are women in Afghanistan who are now enjoying the fruits of education and there were zero under Bill Clinton. You might want to write an article about that. "This fucking moron" is actually educating women in Afghanistan with your tax dollars. Don't you feel good about that? I do. He can raise my taxes on that one anytime he wants.

Have you ever considered running for office yourself?

Absolutely not.

Why not?

Because I'd have to talk to people like Barbara Boxer. Honestly, I don't think I could be in the same room with her. Or Gray Davis.

What do you think about the whole Dixie Chicks brouhaha and backlash?

I would have paid you, gladly, cash not to talk about politics today, but I'm a polite person, so I'll answer your question, so please put that in. I personally would ...

Couldn't you just refuse to answer questions about politics?

If you wanted to call up and ask me to talk about politics, only about politics, and I weren't promoting a movie, I'd say, "You know, Amy, you're such a nice person, I'd rather put a goddamn shotgun in my mouth and pull the trigger." OK? So, that said. I think it's fine if every citizen has an opinion. I find it unfortunate that celebrities have a bully pulpit by virtue of their celebrity and I would caution people to check the credentials of those who speak and make sure that they have the education, the knowledge, the experience and the intelligence to say what they say, given that it's said in the context of a bully pulpit of celebrity. If you want to quote that exactly, I'd appreciate it.

So you think the Dixie Chicks should not have said what they said?

I think anybody can say whatever they want. I think it's great when people say what they think because people are going to form an opinion. I mean, the Dixie Chicks are the greatest thing to happen to the Republican Party, OK? The RNC couldn't have been happier, OK?


Because when you say rude things about people, the rudeness creates a greater backlash than the things you wanna get across.

What about the way the conservatives have dealt with Hillary Clinton?

If I say Bill Clinton's a liar, that's a fact. If I say something rude about him -- and I have --

Right, didn't you just say --

Well, he shoved a cigar in some girl's vagina. Your hero literally did that. But if someone said, for instance, George Bush is a child molester, that's not a fact, and that's rude. It's irresponsible and unconscionable. So obviously, when people say those things, the only time I take exception is when people say irresponsible, unconscionable and rude things, OK? So if you say George Bush is a "moron," then back it up with facts, because otherwise you're a rude and probably pretty moronic person yourself.

I never said that.

Back before 9/11, the New Yorker reported about how you had alerted the FBI you were on a plane from Boston to L.A. that August and noticed a group of men you thought might have been gathering information for an attack. Would you be willing to talk about that?

I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind.

OK. Do you take your road trips because you're a little uncomfortable flying after 9/11?

No, I just like to see real people, who don't quack along to the party beat. You'd be surprised how smart Americans are when they're not quacking the party line like little ducks. It's really amazing ...

No matter what your political bent, you listen to somebody say the same old shit all the time, they sound like a blowhard.

Do you worry about sounding that way yourself?

No, never. Because you couldn't pay me to do this if I weren't doing a favor for a friend.

Every time you say that, it sounds disingenuous to me. You get a chance to get your opinion out there.

I don't want my opinion out there.

Why not? Doesn't everyone want their opinion out there?

I tell you what. This would be great for me. If you don't want to publish this article and you just want to mention "Northfork," you would be my friend for life.

I don't believe you. You're clearly excited to talk about this stuff.

No, you're just an intelligent woman and I'm disabusing you of a few notions you have and you're disabusing me of a few notions I have and we're succeeding and we're not.

But you're being generous. I'm not disabusing you of anything.

So I'll make you a deal, OK? If you want to be friends for life, don't mention politics and just write about "Northfork."

Do you feel like you've been discriminated against in Hollywood in any way because of your political views?

By whom?

By anybody.

I can't imagine. Why?

I guess the answer is no.

That would be heinously un-American.

I agree.

Why would I want to work with someone who was that egregious in their behavior. You know what? It's a moot point because if anyone ever chose not to work with me or anyone else because of their politics, I wouldn't want to have anything to do with them anyway.

Rudeness is another issue.

What do you mean?

Like the head of a studio saying "George Bush is a moron." Well, that's just a rude thing to say because it's just categorically not true.

So you would not work with that studio head again.

Well, he's retired. And who knows, maybe he has Alzheimer's or something, God forbid, because to say something that is just that insensitive and then not have anything to back it up.

You're not going to tell me who it was?


What's the next thing coming up for you?

Oh, do you really care?

Geez, you're cynical. You don't trust the press at all.

It's one of these things where there's mass insanity. Like you have to assume that everybody in Germany wasn't a complete and utter sadist, but somehow there became a mass psychosis. There's almost a mass psychosis on both sides of the press these days. It's so rapaciously polarized that it's just unbearable.

I can also see people salivating. I had dinner once with that communist guy Robert Scheer, and he was actually salivating. Christ, this guy. If I were casting a potential presidential assassin, I would just have taken a photograph of him salivating with hatred for George Bush and said to the casting director, "Get me an actor who can play this horrible, hateful, vicious emotion" -- and he's a journalist! A journalist who wishes he had a gun with a telescopic sight, that's what he is. [Robert Scheer denies ever talking to Woods about Bush.]

I'm gonna let you go, but it's been a pleasure.

I'm sure you're just saying that.

You're starting to sound a little paranoid.

You probably don't gamble much, do you.

No, not much.

Well, sheltered life. But I would give you 7 to 1 odds that this is going to be a slash piece, but that's OK. I'm willing to take the heat.

Editor's note: This story has been modified since it was first published.

By Amy Reiter

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