James Woods loves to tell stories.
When I met him on the set of this weekend's "White House Down," (read our review here) he was eager to entertain my group with stories both on and off topic. An actor with one of the most eclectic resumes in the business, Woods couldn't help but regale us with tales from his past. He was pumped to be joining forces with director Roland Emmerich on his White House invasion picture, where Woods plays a Secret Service agent he describes as having a "tremendous amount of personal complexity," but he was just as happy jumping down tangents involving Sergio Leone, David Cronenberg, and Kristen Stewart. That man is a wealth of Hollywood knowledge, open to sharing whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Luckily, while hidden behind the wooden flats that comprised the White House kitchen (primed and ready to be shot up by Emmerich's ensemble), Woods was in the mood to take a stroll down memory lane. In his words....
On Working with Roland Emmerich:
"I was doing an HBO movie just before this ['Too Big to Fail'] and met Roland through Harald [Kloser, composer], an old friend of mine from when I did 'Rudy [: The Rudy Giuliani Story].' Roland had incidentally asked me to do two other movies that I was unavailable for, which is too bad because I love Roland movies. One was 'Independence Day,' and a friend of mine got that role. And another friend of mine got the role in '2012.' I had family illness that I had to attend to. I love that guy. Roland's great — he invites everyone to dinner, big lavish dinners. You become friends. We'll be friends for life. He's the nicest guy. So attentive. Roland's a very powerful director, he's on top of his stuff. So we finally got to work together and I said, in a way, I'm glad. Because when you do a role with somebody, sometimes you don't get to do another one. And this role... it's the Charlotte Russe, boys. The creme de la creme.
"The other day, one of the explosives went off and hit me in the eye. I was a little irritated. But I got the drops right away and I was irritated, but I didn't want to go to the hospital. I go home and I told them, 'If it gets bad, I'll go.' The next day, I get a knock at the door and I get this little package. It's this unbelievable gift from Roland — I couldn't believe it.
"I have to say, most people at the top level of the business, and I've been fortunate to be in that zone most of my life, are pretty gracious. I have to say. Even the tough ones or the wild ones. I had dinner with Oliver Stone a month ago and he's become soft. 'You're like a new person!' I was kidding, but he said, 'It's important that people know the flamboyance I do is to keep the work exciting and give it an edge.' He's always been a well-played person. Always writes beautiful notes. I've been blessed. It's a great business."
On Shooting on a White House set:
"I've been to the [fake] White House so many times in the movies, I swear to God. We shot once on 'Nixon.' Before that they used it as the set for that Rob Reiner movie, 'The American President.' This is all brand new, so it's exciting."
On His Excitement to Work with the "White House Down" Cast:
"I worked with Jamie on 'Any Given Sunday' and we became friends there. When I finished 'Straw Dogs,' he came over one day, we're having a party, and he called me up and said, 'I heard you were you in the hotel.' Just a regular guy. Channing, I love. I've always wanted to work with Maggie. So we went out to dinner because her husband [Peter Sarsgaard] and I had done 'Any Given Sunday' together [ed. note: They actually costarred Larry Clark's 'Another Day in Paradise'], and Richard Jenkins is from Rhode Island, so we always wanted to meet each other. [Sony Pictures Co-chairman] Amy Pascal was working for Don Steele when I was best man at her wedding, before she became President of the studio, so I've known her forever. And Jason Clarke, who plays Stence, one of the leaders of the bad guys, he's friends with Dom Purcell who I became really close friends with when we did "Straw Dogs." They're friends because they're both Australian."
On Meeting Actual Secret Servicemen:
"I was doing a play once when Richard Nixon was President [1972's 'Moonchildren'] and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, she and David [Eisenhower] came to the play while her father was President. They asked us, 'Does anything happen in the dark, like gun shots?' And I said, 'Oh I'm glad you asked, there's a big champagne pop.' And he said, 'Good, we may have unloaded on stage.' Fred Grandy was my partner in the play, he later became a Congressman himself. He and David had been roommates in college. So David confided in us. Julie was so nice. Gracious to everybody. One of the waitresses at the party afterward dropped her tray and Julie was the first on her knees picking up the dishes off the floor. A regular person.
They said, 'It's a little weird because the Secret Service live above the garage. We have one button that summons them, but then we have another button that if you lift up the glass and press it, it means kill everyone in the room but us.' I said, 'Seriously?' She says, 'Seriously. If we're under imminent threat, and it's a matter of our lives or theirs, it means without discussion, kill everyone but us.'"
"You see, the character in 'Contact' through an ad lib became a totally different character. The very last thing I did, where I went, 'And...and...' and all that, that was ad libbed. And Robert said, 'Oh my God, this solves the problem because I couldn't figure out what your character's point of view would be.' It's really that he knows what happened and we're not telling anybody. I did it once in one take."
On Revisiting and Reconsidering "Once Upon a Time in America" at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival:
"I was with Alec in Cannes. He did a movie about Cannes ['Seduced and Abandoned'] and we bumped into each other. Anyway, I'll put it into context with you. When I was speaking to Oliver, last year, Oliver and I did a 25th anniversary of 'Salvador' at the New York Film Festival. Afterward, I said to Oliver, 'There were four scenes missing from the movie. I remember.' Now, as you know, Marty Scorsese has fought very hard with the Film Foundation to bring attention to the fact, in modern copyright law, whoever owns the negative of the film is the 'author' of the film. So you and I could buy the negative to 'Gone with the Wind' and intercut it with scenes from a Jerry Lewis movie if you wanted to and nobody could say anything about it. That's a fact we can't change right now. Should, but can't.
""What Marty did that was great, and what Gucci did that was fantastic — Frida Giannini — they spent six million dollars and six years to do the restoration of 'Once Upon a Time in America' and a lot of it was from bits of interpositive that were at Sergio [Leone's] house. So it was the first time, as he envisioned it, from the script notes, stuff we all remembered, was put together. Ennio Morricone, who was 90 years old, was at the premiere. So was Bob De Niro. So were Jennifer [Connelly] and Elizabeth McGovern. So we're on the red carpet and I saw that Bob at tears in his eyes. We always talked about the film and he always felt the film never coalesced. I said, 'Yeah, but the real film would.' I always loved the film and Bob loved the film. But there was always a wound to it that we couldn't solve.
So they put this version together and... sometimes you go to these screenings and you don't want to sit through it. But I said, 'Let's watch it.' We all decided to sit down and watch it. I thought, '256 minutes, this is going to take a long time.' And I tell you, it went by in 30 seconds. It was so perfect the way he intended it. It was so poetic. It began with Bob as an old man. It took such unbelievably delicious time to set up the mood of his loss. The music, for the first time, I understood how astonishing it was. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. We were all in tears. I think it's one of the greatest films of all time, now that I look at it. If anyone can get that movie out there... I'm praying.
"I have to give unbelievable kudos to Frida, who was instrumental in saying, 'This is what I want Gucci to do beyond beautiful clothes. Restoring and saving film.' Which they've been doing. 'Salvador' is a perfect candidate for that. A lot of those independent films of the '80s — I was in all of them — they were filmed by little companies where people died or they're defunct. 'Onion Field,' 'Salvador,' movies like that. Snips are taken to fit them on TV or a movie theater to get them in in 90 minutes. Some of those negatives don't even exist."
"The waiter in the hotel yesterday said, 'It was such an honor to meet you. 'Videodrome' has been one of my favorite films forever.' When 'Videodrome' opened, I went to the movie theater — because nobody invited me to the f**king screenings back in those days — I went to a theater in New York and walked in and there were two people in the theater. Me and one guy sleeping. It was the biggest dud that you can imagine and now it's a film classic. So of course they're redoing it. Remaking a $120 million film.
"In some ways, I don't know how you could ever top it. It was so imaginative and weird. When David [Cronenberg] came to me he had a 70-page script and said, 'There's no third act, do you have a problem with that?' I said, 'No, no, we'll figure it out.' I used to fly up and film different endings. David would say, 'You want to come up and shoot?' I'd say, 'OK.' We'd sit down and he'd say, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Maybe if I'm in Videodrome and the TV comes to life...' 'Yeah let's try that.' We talked through the ending as artists."
On Kristen Stewart and Eventually Directing:
"I was set to do 'An American Girl' with Kristen Stewart and then this happened. Now we're just working out an agreement on the rights. It's still something she very much wants to do. I'm hoping she'll do that. It's torturous getting things made. For example, that movie, because it's a post-Middle East war film, and it's about it happening, it works better when the 'war is over' than it does during it. No one has ever done a movie about a woman marine. Which is why I want to do it.
She's perfect for it. She was 18 when we first talked about it. She has a natural — and I mean this as a compliment — American, hometown, tough blue collar girl thing she can deliver. I was thinking of 'Into the Wild.' She's been in these big blockbuster movies, but I love her in small movies where she gets to explore character. I would believe her as a young woman marine. I've spent a lot of time around military people. One of the things I was worried about is that she became so beautiful. 'Stop being so beautiful!' She grew into this raging beauty. But she can still play a real person."
On Directors He Wants to Work With:
"I loved 'Hurt Locker,' so I'd love to work with Kathryn Bigelow. The Coen Bros, obviously. And Tarantino. Which, nobody told me when I was offered 'Reservoir Dogs.' I was offered a part — I can't say which one — and it was written for me. Later he said, 'I offered you that part' and I never knew about it. It was really upsetting. I left that agent."
On "Against All Odds":
"I'm going to give you a tip on 'Against All Odds.' Taylor [Hackford] said to me, 'Want to come down to the studio tonight?' — We had finished the movie at this point — 'Phil Collins is going to do the theme song and do you want to hear it?' So I heard it and he asked me, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'Nobody is going to want to listen to this song, it stinks. It's kind of a chick song. It's got to be better than that.' And it went on to become one of the hit songs of the '80s. So every time I see Phil Collins I have to apologize for my horrible taste in music. I didn't get it until it became a greatest hit songs of all time. Never ask me to recommend music. That movie was a blast. Jeff is great. Rachel Ward was so beautiful... and she was just cool about it.
"I'll tell you another story. When we were doing 'Ghosts of Mississippi,' there was a video of my character, the real guy, doing this heinous, racist tirade. And we actually used the same one in the movie. So I practiced it so that if you played them side by side it would look like the same person doing it. I said to Rob [Reiner], 'Wouldn't it be great if, for the trailer, it didn't say Columbia Pictures, you're sitting at the multiplex and this guy comes on screaming and you can't recognize him because you wouldn't know it was me.' Rob said, 'But what if someone was there with their child, eight-year-old African-American kid...' You couldn't do that. But it was the movie theater equivalent of 'Blair Witch Project,' viral marketing for the first time. This could have been a situation like that."
On the Premiere of 'Sophie's Choice':
"I was at the premiere of Sophie's Choice, because Meryl and I were friends for years and still are, but I was literally sitting two seats down from Meryl and Don, and there was a lady behind us who was chatting, and all of a sudden, the Sophie's Chioce moment happens. And she said, 'OH MY GOD!' She had not read the book, did not know what the 'choice' referred to. She was a mother and it was incomprehensible to her. She changed. Not everyone reads William Styron. There will be surprises like that in 'White House.'"