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WOODS, JAMES : Vampires

OPINIONATED, OSCAR NOMINATED,
Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominee James Woods tells it like it is. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, hates the Hollywood system and is not afraid to speak out against directors who haven't a clue what they're doing, including ones he recently worked with. He plays a unique vampire killer in John Carpenter's Vampires, and as PAUL FISCHER discovered when he met the tough-talking actor, Woods is uncompromising.

James Woods is as dynamic a personality in the flesh as he is on the screen. Dressed in black, cigarette entrenched in hand, Wood has an intensity and intelligence that is striking from the outset. An actor who effortlessly shifts from low-budget independent films to big Hollywood fare, he still tries to figure out why he makes the choices he does. "I wish there'd be more of a science to it, and I wish I had some great, calculating, grand scheme for life; it's just really what comes to you. People often ask me if there's a role I'd like to do, to which I say: It's hard to concoct one; if I knew what it was, I'd write it. I was offered a vampire movie which I didn't want to do if it meant jumping about in tuxedos, and the next minute I realise it's really a Western, and hey, it's John Carpenter."

"I try my hardest to maximise the significant and minimise the trivial"

Woods barely pauses in his breathless state before continuing. "One of the things I really decided early on in my life, was that as much as it would be fun to be rich or really famous, I really want to spend my time having variety in my life. I try my hardest to maximise the significant and minimise the trivial, and I really go out of my way to avoid every single thing that would bore, aggravate, hurt or disrespect me. I always find a way to do something new at a certain point, and so, for example, it was really fun to do this movie at this time in my life. I'd just done all these serious movies like Ghosts of Mississippi and Nixon with a lot of social responsibility heaped on them, so I felt it was time to have a little fun."

In John Carpenter's Vampires, Woods steps into the hero's role as Jack Crow, a modern-day Abraham Van Helsing. Like Dracula's nemesis in Bram Stoker's novel, Crow uses wooden stakes, but he has supplemented his arsenal with all sorts of modern weapons, including automatic rifles (which only slow the undead down) and hi-tech bows. Crow doesn't use crosses, holy water, or garlic - they don't work against Carpenter's children of the night. Crow's second-in-command is Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), a reliable man who doesn't flinch at the sight of blood and gore. Together, the two of them lead a Vatican-financed team of vampire slayers. They're well-organised and successful, until they stumble upon the "nest" of Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the First Vampire. Valek exacts a terrible revenge on the team after they destroy nine of his underlings - everyone except Crow and Montoya is slaughtered.

The two survivors, along with a bitten prostitute, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), and a priest (Tim Guinee), set out in pursuit of Valek with the intention of bringing him down before he discovers the whereabouts of an ancient artefact that will allow him to walk abroad in the sunlight.

"we live in a morally ambiguous universe"

Vampires, Woods concedes, have long held a fascination for him. "At first I always thought they represented our Victorian repression and sexuality - the dark, seductive slob as opposed to the repressed, uptight, irrational, English character and all of the triangulation of the original Bram Stoker story. Now, I think, when we live in a morally ambiguous universe, especially in this country, I think people are looking, on some level, just for a basic good vs evil. So it's really refreshing even in simple entertainments like this, to have really good guys and really bad guys, because it's not like that in real life."

As well as being a vampire flick, this Vampires is in part a Western, with all those traditional elements, which added to the actor's appeal for this film. "At first, The Wild Bunch was always my favourite movie and when I read this, I kept on saying to Carpenter: This is kinda like The Wild Bunch, isn't it? He said, Yeah, in a way. We'd both always wanted to do a Western, and I figured that I was a bit too urban to be cast in the Western motif. Can you imagine guys like me, Keitel, Pacino or Bob De Niro prancing about in a cowboy hat? Audiences would just go 'yeah, right.' This way, the concept's still there, but it's more believable, and it's nice not to be chasing Indians and Mexicans, but vampires, which everyone can hate - except feminists who have clearly embraced them," he quips.

The Army-brat son of an intelligence officer (who died during a routine blood-clot surgery when young James was twelve) and a preschool director, Woods made his intimidating intelligence apparent from early childhood. He learned to play classical guitar at a young age, and took part in an honours-student grant program that allowed him to study linear algebra at U.C.L.A. while still in high school. With an I.Q. of 180, the self-avowed nerd was easily on track to fulfil his dream of becoming an eye surgeon, when he accidentally put his arm through a glass door. The incident resulted in a severed artery, and almost in the amputation of the limb; two-hundred stitches and several operations later, Woods still had use of his arm, but his future in medicine and his ability to play guitar were both forfeited. He earned a full-ride scholarship to the famed M.I.T., but dropped out just a few months shy of completing a degree in political science - he couldn't see himself willfully stepping into a life as a "policy wonk" in Washington, D.C.-in favour of an acting career.

"to find something exceptional is really hard"

Woods earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as self-serving, opportunistic photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), concurrently earning notoriety in Hollywood for the on-set screaming matches he had with director Stone. Stone later commented of his incendiary star, "He's a lunatic. He always knows better, which is very irritating. In the end, it was like a fifteen-round fight. We were both beaten. But we both respected each other . . . [If] he's right for the role and you want to make the best film possible, you've got to go with him."

Woods scored another Oscar nomination for his performance as the unrepentantly bigoted assassin Byron De la Beckwith in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi. Par for the course of his villainesque track record, Woods gave voice to Hades in Disney's 1997 animated release Hercules; and he also scored points as the smarmy politico in the extraterrestrial-encounter flick, Contact.

Woods remains one of film's most sought after actors, and despite not knowing what draws him to a part, the actor rails against the "crap" permeated by the American industry. "I can open up a newspaper where there's 50 movies out - do you want to see any of them? The only two movies I can think of this year that I really, really liked was a really, really, really silly comedy, Something About Mary, and a really, really, really serious picture about World War 2, Saving Private Ryan. Of course I'm not saying that by definition everything else stinks. My point is, to find something exceptional is really hard, and I just look for things that are inventive. My first rule is, if, after I read the first few pages of a script, I can tell the ending of the picture, I don't want to do the movie." Vampires, however, was the exception."

"If I see one more feminist picture, with all due respect, I'll throw up."

The film may well be criticised for its excessive violence and nudity, but Woods isn't concerned. "Given recent political events in America, it seems like we'll tolerate anything, as long as the economy's good. But I'll take violence over being bored to death by three chicks talking about breast cancer; If I see one more feminist picture, with all due respect, I'll throw up."

In Vampires, there's one key sequence during which Woods' Jack Crow is required to walk out in front of a heavily blown up motel. "For that scene, I walked out of the motel that had a hundred drums of gasoline in it, that were being blown up with chargers. So I said: 'What's going to happen?' To which Carpenter replied: 'Well, we're going to light up the chargers, you're going to walk out and 30 seconds later it's going to blow up.' 'Oh, so what happens if I get killed?' 'Then I guess there won't be a sequel', " Woods adds laughingly.

On a serious note, Woods remains concerned at the state of the American film industry. "Today, certain people in Hollywood are getting rich through the slimy deals being made. Where are the great movies? In 1939, more great films were made than in the entire history of cinema, so someone was doing something right."

Woods can be equally angry with directors, referring to a recent experience working on his new film, Another Day in Paradise. The film, directed by Larry Clarke of Kids fame, premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and despite Woods credit as producer, his attitude towards Clarke and that experience are now legendary.

"What he is, is an idiot..."

"This guy's done one movie and suddenly he's a genius. But he's not a genius; he doesn't know where to put the camera, he doesn't know anything. What he is, is an idiot, but because he did this movie where everyone did disgusting, horrible things, elements of the press calls him a genius. Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford were geniuses, but these Wunderkinds do one MTV video, shoot heroin all their lives and have an army of technical assistants who show them where to put the camera. If you let these guys direct a movie they'd never finish the third day. I worked with them, I know."

Yet, on Another Day in Paradise, in which Woods is compelling as a drug-addicted, narcissistic criminal, the actor still took on the producer's role. "I figured the script was good enough, and that if I had enough control, we'd at least get something out of it." Woods does, however, still find time to work with inexperienced directors who are not quite the demon painted here.

"I just finished working with Sofia Coppola, who's a fucking genius in the making," he adds with emphatic enthusiasm. "She's smart, talented, decisive and she knows what she wants. She has a great vision of what she wants to do, and was a pleasure to work with." And sometimes, Woods will clash with a new director and the results are positive, such as back in 1986, with up-and-coming ex-screenwriter-turned-director Oliver Stone. The film was Salvador. "Our clashes may have been heated, but they ended up being for the better good of the film. We always argued about the value of what we were doing. It wasn't like: Would you stop shooting heroin in your trailer and come out on the fuckin' set because we're all waiting for you, you fuckin', worthless piece of shit!!"

No such problems between Woods and Stone these days, and Salvador remains one of his favourite films even now. "While people were making films about relatively stupid things, here we were making a movie about the American involvement in El Salvador; at least we were making a movie that was about something." He and Stone have worked consistently ever since, and he is currently working on Stone's latest movie. The pair has noticeably changed.

"Oliver's really calmed down a lot, and so have I"

"Oliver's really calmed down a lot, and so have I, in the sense that we find a way to make the same adjustments without having to go through it all. And today it's not as tough as what we went through on Salvador."

But Woods' general philosophy on movie making remains the same. "You either care about making a great movie and care about the right things, or you don't. Oliver makes great movies which mean something; Carpenter makes great horror pictures. However, we all fail from time to time, but those guys at least are up to something." And for the record, James Woods finally insists that he's the only actor in Hollywood "who reads everything there is, or my agents get fired."

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