An Officer and a Gentleman?
In "The General's Daughter," James isn't out of the Woods yet
More unsettling than the newly grey hair is the tiny, Toto-like dog who precedes James Woods into the hotel room. "Her name is Angel," Woods apologizes, leaping to the floor to restrain the Cairn terrier from chewing up a dropped tape cassette. "She likes plastic."
Not quite what you expect from the intimidating actor whose diabolical smile and mordant wit added an extra edge of malice to roles ranging from the cop killer in the 1979 thriller The Onion Field to his Oscar-nominated performance as the assassin of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).
Not that Woods has totally abandoned the bad guy persona, as witness his charming sociopath in Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise. But lately he seems to have mellowed, gravitating to grizzled authority figures, such as the crusty editor in Clint Eastwood's True Crime, the team doctor in Oliver Stone's upcoming football drama Any Given Sunday, or the Army officer in The General's Daughter, the Simon West mystery thriller he's promoting today.
"My mom called up last night and she said 'Oh my God. I saw the preview for General's Daughter, and you look exactly like your dad in uniform.' I said yeah, but I didn't have all the shrapnel that he had. He had two purple hearts in World War II and a presidential citation for bravery and so on. He was a war hero, but he never talked about it."
Woods' character is not exactly a war hero. An officer in "Psi-ops," the military department involved in the very Woodsian practice of playing games with the enemy's head, he becomes a suspect when an officer under his command —the general's daughter of the title— is found brutally murdered. On the case is a hardboiled military investigator played by John Travolta, and the two actors' verbal fencing is one of the film's main pleasures.
"I've known John for years, before either of us came to L.A.," says Woods. "We did a reading together of a Terrence MacNally play. John was like a kid then and had a strange voice and those weird eyes. We bumped into each other a couple of weeks later and he was in LA. and he said 'I got this series called Welcome Back Kotter,' and I ended up doing the first episode as a guest star and we became friends. Then John exploded into stardom with Saturday Night Fever and we've known each other ever since.
"When we were working, after the first scene I asked him, why are we having such a great time doing this? He said I think it's because we made a tacit assumption to cooperate. A lot of times actors tend to be very competitive with each other. Great actors want to make the scene better, and we're pretty secure with our status so it's not like we're out there trying to win every scene."
Such a spirit of cooperation seems in contrast to Woods' maverick, iconoclastic reputation, as does his respect for traditional values and institutions, such as the family and the military. Both figure in his upcoming directorial debut, a drama set in World War I.
"The only two things remembered in history, in a really fundamental way, are art and war," Woods states. "We remember generals and artists. Alexander and Van Gogh, you know what I'm saying. It's amazing how little else we remember. A hundred years from now no one will care that Clinton presided over a great economy, they'll just remember the fiasco in Kosovo..."
Woods might be mellowing in his film roles, but he remains outspoken and sometimes outrageous in his opinions. As he extricates a water bottle from Angel's mouth, the topic turns to the younger generation of actors and the consequences of feminism.
"Some kid goes out, some teen makes a movie and makes ten million dollars a picture and they think they know about acting. Somebody yells action and they sort of... talk. It's just astounding the lack of discipline, but it's a generation raised by a bunch of feminists. I just think that when kids come home it would be nice to have mom not being the CEO. I'm talking about those women who are CAA agents who are like, I had my kid on Saturday, and I was back at work on Tuesday. You know, another serial killer in the making..."
A young woman, perhaps a CAA agent, indicates it's time to go. Woods plops the gnawed bottle on the table. "If anyone wants to finish this," he says with that diabolical smile, "they're welcome to it."