The veteran actor continues his hot streak with a supporting role in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

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There’s a scene in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” that sums up the tone of the movie, its mixture of light and dark, comic and tragic.

Woody Harrelson’s character has written a series of letters, their subject matter quite serious, and Harrelson is reading them aloud in voiceover. But rather than stern or foreboding, his tone is friendly and warm, in that familiar Texas Woody drawl, the same one you remember from his days as a goofy bartender on “Cheers.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the movie.

To hear Woody tell it, it happened almost by accident.

“That was a thing that happened very fast,” Harrelson says by phone during a recent call from Los Angeles. “I had just wrapped, I was literally, physically on my way out the door, and they said, ‘Hey Woody, one more thing! There’s these three letters you’ve got to read!’ And I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ So I just read ’em real quick, boom boom boom, and that was it, they were done. And it’s amazing, because those are probably my favorite part of the character in the movie.”

The lesson, he says, is not to overthink things. It’s a lesson he tries to abide by, and one that has treated him well in his 30-plus year career as one of the world’s most recognizable actors.

Since his days on “Cheers” where he played, yep, Woody, Harrelson has enjoyed a fruitful and widely varied career, appearing in broad co medies (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Kingpin,” “Zombieland”), romantic dramas (“Indecent Proposal”), action hits (“Money Train”), political thrillers (“Welcome to Sarajevo”), massive teen lit franchises (“The Hunger Games”), you name it.

He was serial killer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” part of the ensemble cast of Terrence Malick’s wartime drama “The Thin Red Line,” and played a bounty hunter in the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.” Twice he’s been nominated for Oscars, for playing Larry Flynt in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (he’s still good friends with the Hustler publisher, whom he calls “delightful company”) and for his role as an Army captain who delivers death notifications to families of fallen soldiers in “The Messenger.”

In recent years, he’s been on a roll, after appearing in the widely acclaimed first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Last year he was a high school teacher in “The Edge of Seventeen,” this summer he was a crazy colonel in “War for the Planet of the Apes” and currently, he plays Lyndon Johnson in “LBJ.” Now he has “Three Billboards,” which opens in area theaters today. (It’s his second film with director Martin McDonagh, following 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths.”)

“Ah, jeez, things couldn’t be better,” says the 56-year-old Harrelson, who was born in Texas and spent his teen years in the Cincinnati area. “It’s shocking how good things are going. But I haven’t been home since January, so there’s a price to pay, and I think I’d like to find a little better balance.”

Harrelson has been working steadily for the last 15 or so years, following a break he took in the late ’90s and early ’00s. During that period he spent a lot of time in Costa Rica, hanging out with his family and kicking back.

“It was one of the best periods of my life,” he says. But when he returned to work, he paid the cost.

“I didn’t find the marching band and the trumpets and what I hoped for. I felt completely forgotten,” he says. “It was hard getting work for awhile.”

He rolled with it, appearing in films such as Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me” and the tropical-set Brett Ratner heist flick “After the Sunset,” building back his resume. After landing in “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, he’s been go-go-go ever since.

“I don’t know how these things happen,” says Harrelson. “You get a movie that works, and suddenly people want you. But I wouldn’t want to step away again, it’s not so easy to get your feet back under you.”

That’s not an immediate concern. Looking to next year, he’ll be in a little movie called “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which is all but guaranteed to be the biggest movie of his career. He’s currently on break until January, enjoying the holiday season with his family, which includes his wife and three daughters.

“I’m pretty jazzed about that,” says Harrelson, who namechecks “Zombieland,” “The Messenger” and “Kingpin” as a few of his signature roles. “I definitely like to live life a little bit as opposed to just tellin’ stories. Which I’m lucky to be able to do, but I’m psyched to just live my life and be home for awhile.”

And with “Three Billboards,” he’s doing what he wants to do: make quality movies with quality people.

“I thought it would be good,” Harrelson says, and then the movie received a seven-minute standing ovation after its premiere in Venice. “It makes you really understand how long a minute is,” he says, sounding just like Woody from “Cheers.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

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