The Westbury Hotel on Madison Avenue is an English-style hotel, all dark colors and wood-and-mirror panels-pretty swanky for a sleazebag like James Woods. But hey, how are you gonna keep him out? The man has money. In the mid-1980s, it sometimes seemed as if Woods was in every other movie that came out, exploiting his acne scars and sick-dog lankiness to play a succession of virtuoso slimy characters in The Onion Field, Videodrome, Against All Odds, Once Upon a Time in America, etc. As is so often the case, he showed a broader range onstage. On a bill of one-acts at Lincoln Center one year, he created two performances (playing half of a quarreling gay couple in John Guare's In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes and a young stage director on a day trip with his senile father in Percy Granger's Vivien) that were so vivid and distinct that many in the audience didn't realize they were by the same person.

We met downstairs in the bar of the Westbury while the maid was making up the room. In town for the Christmas holidays, Woods had been on the David Letterman show the night before and had a bunch of people over to watch. He had just finished shooting his heroically sleazy performance in Oliver Stone's film
Salvador, and over coffee he told me about his messy divorce (he'd been living for seven years with a costume designer) and his new girlfriend Sarah, who's a horse trainer. James Woods talks very fast.

photo by Susan Shacter

How did Letterman go?
It was good. I was surprised. He's really a terrific guy. I was sort of there to talk about Salvador, but I always find it tedious to go on and promote films. You know, the actor comes out and says, "Oh, my new film is great." If somebody came out and said, "This thing is such a piece of shit, I can't possibly imagine why anybody'd want to see it," you'd wake up. So I like to go on and tell funny stories about when you were a young actor, that kind of shit, which I think is more fun. People don't wanna hear about your fuckin' movie.

Do they pre-interview for that?
Yeah, they do. Robert Morton, who's the producer of the show, is very good at it. The worst thing anybody can ask you is, "Can you think of any funny stories you can tell?" Of course, immediately nothing in the world seems funny. This guy had done his research. He said, "I read this strange thing I think Letterman might like, that you worked in a factory packing watchbands when you were a kid?" And in fact there was some very funny stuff that happened in that situation. Looking back now, you don't imagine Robert Redford ever screwing nuts and bolts on car wheels.

The great fact of the cinema is that nobody was born a star. There had to have been some grueling aspect to everybody's rise to stardom. I think it helps for people to appreciate that there's a certain humanity behind the actors they fantasize about. Maybe in the old studio system they had the right idea -- don't make people seem human, make them seem larger than life. But we're more sophisticated than that now, we know better, and it's fun to share that we're all in the same boat. We've all had to deal with shitty bosses and pompous schmucks and gettin' stiffed on our paychecks and fightin' City Hall.

You make it sound as if there are these two worlds -- the world where you're a working stiff, then this other, world, Star World, and never the twain shall meet. You pass from one into the other.
I'll tell you, it is astounding to me that there are two worlds. My mother always says, "Why is it that they always give you free tickets and the first seat in the restaurant and free bottles of champagne, you people who can afford it most easily, and those of us who can't afford it always have to pay more?"

Good question, Mom. Why is that?
Listen, you're supposed to jump for joy because they've given you some perk here or there, and the bottom line is -- why do you think Spago, which is a Pizza Hut, basically, can charge you $100 for a couple of slices of pizza and a glass of Moet Chandon? The reason is because Bill Hurt is sitting at table number three and Clint Eastwood is sitting at table number five.

Did you always want to be an actor?
I never even remotely thought of being an actor. Ever. I wasn't one of those kids who sat around singing "There's No Business Like Show Business" with a raccoon boa wrapped around his neck. There was a guy like that in my high school. On talent night, this kid actually did one of Lucille Ball's big numbers from Wildcat, but he was a guy, which was really strange. He had a scarf on, he was always throwing it around. . . of course, he wished it were a feather boa. Those kind of guys and girls -- you know, little girls tap-dancing with their tutus on, eight years old, in front of the mirror -- grow up to be Baby June, I guess. I never wanted to do any of it.

There was a regional drama competition in New England, and a friend of mine said, "You've gotta be in the play, we need guys." I said, "Play? What are you talking about? I can't act, I'm skinny, I have this weird voice." He said, 'That's okay, we'll put whiskers on ya, a mustache. They'll never notice." I ended up doing Oscar in The Little Foxes, which is a great play.

You know those people who can influence your life when you're young? The girls' gym teacher, a lady named Joyce Donahue, who's since passed away, happened to be the director of the drama club and was in fact fantastic. To this day, she was one of the most perceptive directors I've ever worked with.

What did she say that turned you on?
I was playing a villain in this thing, and she said to me, "This man wants something out of life, and he just happens not to have that little computer chip that tells him there's such a thing as right and wrong. So if he wants it, he's going to go get it; that in and of itself is right." So I learned at a very early age that the secret to playing villains is not to go around screaming and snarling and doing Rod Steiger, but to be a little more subtle and to think of yourself as being morally right. Anybody who thinks of himself as morally right is twice as chilling when he does something that is palpably and obviously morally wrong, 'cause he does it with a kind of ease and grace. I've never been that thrilled about playing villains, 'cause they're really not connected to my real life. I'm a regular person. What goes on between men and women is much more important to me as an issue. I'd like to do that kind of stuff more. It's always easier to play someone who's very, very different from you because it's just making believe, because you're not having to open up things in yourself. But to do romantic comedy and/or serious drama about relationships is a lot tougher, because that's the stuff that really affects most of us.

Did you decide after doing one play that you definitely wanted to be an actor?
No. I went to MIT and was majoring in political science, being a little homespun genius. But I had the bug. To get away from all those hairy assholes with slide rules and white socks and shirt collars buttoned up to their nose I decided, gee, maybe I'll go over to the theater, because there's women there. All those women looked like Wallace Beery, but it was a start at least. I started doing some plays, and instantly became the top actor at MIT, which is hardly what you'd call a major dramatic feat. But the program there was fantastic. We had a lot of money, because MIT was guilty about the humanities, and we'd do these terrific offbeat plays: Gertrude Stein's Brewsie and Willie or a Harold Pinter radio play that we'd put onstage. I did thirty-six plays when I was in college. I'd go to the Agassiz Summer Theater at Harvard, I'd go to the Provincetown Playhouse, go to the University of Rhode Island when the Theater Company of Boston was in residence, and be an apprentice in a play with people who became great stars and great actors. They did a production of Waiting for Godot that had Paul Benedict, Paul Price, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall. How's that for a cast?

Was it clear that you would go into acting when you got out of college?
No, I kept thinking I'd end up working for the State Department or something. But it was the Vietnam war, kind of creepy around there, and you can imagine Boston in the '60s. So I figured, fuck it. I did a summer at Provincetown. We worked seven days a week, but again we did wonderful plays. I'd done so much theater by the time I came to New York that I skipped all this acting class bullshit -- you know, everybody else was trying to be a radish or something, or play a tree. I knew how to do accents, how to do age, how to do comedy, how to do drama. I'd done it, I'd been out on the front lines.
I got my first job by lying and saying I was from Liverpool when they wanted real British actors in Borstal Boy. I did the accent perfectly and convinced them, and they were from the Abbey Theater! After they hired me, they asked, "When were you in Liverpool?" I said, "I've never been to England." They said, "But we wanted only resident-alien English actors." I said, "Luckily, I outfoxed you and did you a favor, so do I have the job or not?" The play went on to win the Tony award and the Drama Critics' Circle award.

Were you immediately good as an actor?
To be honest with you, yeah, I was. I think there's such a thing as talent. You either have it or you don't. I so don't believe in the Actors Studio. It's such a bunch of boring bullshit. I think timing and observation and sense of comedy and sense of re-creating people through yourself is an innate talent. Jack Nicholson was always good. You look at those stupid AlP movies he made years ago, and he's fuckin' great in them. He was always good. I saw De Niro rehearsing a play at the Theater Company of Boston when I was in college, and there was just something about this guy. He was working for $70 a week, nobody knew who the fuck he was, and you couldn't take your eyes off him. They say that about the young Brando. I'm not saying I have that, but there's some magic. The old movie moguls knew that.

Then we spent twenty years listening to Lee Strasberg, and do you know what the result of Lee Strasberg was? Marilyn Monroe died trying to do self-psychoanalysis through her work, and the studios spent the next twenty years hiring football players and models. "Hey, anybody can act!" Well, if anybody can fuckin' act, tell me why Shelley Hack isn't a star.

She is a star. She has her own show.
Well, TV's different. TV is meat for the house dogs.

How did you get into the movies?
When I was in New York for a six- or seven-year period, I spent more nights than not doing a show on or off Broadway. All of a sudden, I started to realize that I didn't really go to theater much. I'd go, and it'd be bad English imports, revivals, museum Broadway, bullshit Off-Broadway, Actors Studio doing a production of Three Sisters that was embarrassing. But I realized I was going to movies every afternoon. I thought, well, if I like movies so much, why don't I do them?

I was a snob about movies, the way a lot of people are about TV. Real actors do The Lower Depths by Gorky Off-Broadway with Julian Beck directing. I finally realized that movies were wonderful to watch because there's great work in them. The reason Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart were stars is because they were great actors, too. Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is about as different from Gary Cooper in High Noon as two actors could possibly be, let alone one actor playing two characters.

My first break, my first time in front of a camera, was a thing called The Visitors for Elia Kazan. It was about a guy testifying in an atrocity case in Vietnam, and they released it in 1970 or '71 when nobody wanted to hear about that. I worked my way up the ranks. I met a lot of resistance along the way; they always found a reason why they didn't want to use me. I wasn't conventionally good-looking or I was offbeat. The easiest thing in the world is for people out there to say no. To this day! They didn't want me for The Onion Field -- I wasn't right for the part. I had to pay for my own screen test. They didn't want me for Once Upon a Time in America -- I wasn't right for the part. Every movie I've ever gone up for, I wasn't right for the fuckin' part. Finally, I did Joshua Then and Now because the director, Ted Kotcheff, said, "You are perfect for this," and Mordecai Richler, who wrote it, said, "You are the perfect one." He's described as a thin, hawk-faced man who's rough and at the same time very bright. Right? So I did it, and fuckin' Janet Maslin in The New York Times writes, "Although Mr. Woods is extraordinarily miscast..."

People are so used to you now playing against type.
My theory is, if they were having an actors' convention in Los Angeles and I was the only actor in the world who missed it, and there was an earthquake, and everybody in L.A. fell into the sea -- God forbid! -- except for the five studio heads, they'd get together and say, "Who can we get to work next year?" Somebody'd say, "Well, Woods is in New York." "Yeah, but there's gotta be somebody else -- he's not right for these parts."

What do you do when they say that?
If it's something I really want, and I can tell it might be a little bit of a struggle, I say, "Hey, why don't I screen-test or read for you?" They say, "Oh, you're too big a star for that." I say, "Look, if it's gonna make a difference in getting the part, I have nothing to hide. Why don't you screen-test everybody? Let the best man win." That's how I get it.
You would not believe the people who auditioned for Once Upon a Time in America. The biggest stars in the world fuckin' read for Sergio Leone. I said, "Just let me do a screen test with De Niro." De Niro had thought I wasn't really right for the part, because the character was described as a blond Hercules. So I read this dialogue, and I said, "I can do this better than anybody in the world." Bobby, because he's a great actor and knows what serves a movie well, said, "Listen, I don't think he's right for the part, but let's give him a shot." We did this all-day screen test, and by the end of it they said, "You're the guy." I can't tell ya what a coup it was to get that part. Every actor in the world wanted to be in that movie. It was a very important step in my life. You can well imagine my disappointment when three weeks before the movie came out the studio decided to chop it to fuckin' pieces. If they'd left it alone, I'm sure it would have won every Academy Award that year and would have been a landmark film.

What's your schedule like when you're making a movie?
Horrific. You're up at five and home at ten and grouchy and tired. All your friends call and say, "Come on, let's go out to dinner." You just want to go to bed. You don't have time for anything. That's the worst part -- you're either out of work and your hands are the devil's workshop, or you're working and you don't have time to take a shit in peace. It's hard to convince somebody that one of the great tragedies of your life when you're working is that you don't have time to read People magazine. People don't realize you need to have a day when you're sittin' around in a robe, your dick hangin' over the side of your leg, readin' People and saying, "God, Joan Collins looks terrible these days!"

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (1986)