CP: Was The Onion Field your first shot at notoriety?
JW: Not really. My first shot at notoriety was The Way We Were with the two most powerful stars in the world at the time. I had a five-line part and a scene dancing with Barbra Streisand. She didn’t want to do the part with me and I said to her, “You are going to do the scene. Start the music!” This was a turning point in my career. I told her, “Barbra, I know you can sing, but I don’t know if you can act.” She thought I was hilarious. She said, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” I replied, “Afraid of you? Are you kidding? When they yell ‘action,’ you better be afraid of me.” She turned to Sydney and yelled, “Sydney, the kid’s in.” I always figured I’d write a book and title it Sydney, the Kid’s In.
CP: After The Onion Field, did you mind henceforth playing sleazy characters, for instance in Black Marble and Once Upon a Time in America?
JW: People always say, “You always play the villain.” Well, The Onion Field was a turning point, and it was a tremendous part. Another actor had been hired, but I talked Joe Wambaugh and Harold Becker about letting me audition. I got the part and played legendary villain Greg Powell. After that, I was type-cast as a villain for a number of years. I had a conversation with Tom Hanks, who is on the executive committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with me, and he said, “You worry about playing a villain all the time and I worry about playing the good guy.” The villain parts are complex and exciting. If you have a great role, beautifully written, with wonderful actors and a great director, it doesn’t make any difference. In Once Upon a Time in America, they were all villains. Bob De Niro was the hero and I was his counterpart; they were lifelong buddies and I betray him. Am I the villain? I guess so, but it’s a coin flip as to who killed the most people.
CP: What was you first impression of Oliver Stone? I’ve always liked him in spite of his leftist leanings. I was in five of his movies, not really as an actor but more as an anthropomorphic symbol. I loved those shots of Anthony [Hopkins], you, and me in Nixon. I tell people I was scowling because you told me there was a Democrat in the crowd.
JW: Oliver is very chaotic, wild, and brilliant. When he did Salvador, he had only directed a movie called The Hand with Michael Caine. It wasn’t a very auspicious debut and he admits that. But the Oliver we know has made some great political movies. I talked him into casting me instead of Martin Sheen in Salvador and Martin took it very well. Oliver and I fought like cats and dogs and even got into a fist fight, rolling around in the mud. I tried to leave and they put up roadblocks and wouldn’t let me out. Oliver is eccentric and wild, but this is what makes America great—people with whom you disagree, but who have intelligence and enthusiasm to do the research they need. For instance, I don’t agree with some of History of America, but it was remarkably researched and brilliantly written. Oliver has a perspective that makes one think. He’s a great artist and a great man. We knocked the crap out of each other and still became great friends. People make fun of old money and some New York clubs, but these men have great dignity, grace, respect, intelligence, and manners.
CP: Also great writers.
JW: Right. You have to remember Oliver also is of the combat world. He got a bronze star. As I understand it, while wounded, he retrieved a wounded warrior under fire. People tend to forget single acts like that. Like yourself, a recipient of the silver star, and deservedly so. I also think of Jack Valenti, a remarkable war hero. I think of my father with two purple hearts and other military family members. In many ways, they were like you and me and Oliver. My great dream in my life is to be a person, who, at the end of it all, is to be remembered as, “He gave more than he took.” I’ve always tried to form my life as a giver who took the incredible gifts with which I was born—a remarkable family, intelligence, and a tremendous degree of respect for family, country, honor, integrity, community, and fellow man. These are undeniable gifts. They are inherent and you don’t have to be a millionaire to be well-bred.
CP: Your dad was an army officer?
JW: Yes, and how about this? He was a Seabee in World War II all through the war. He got a Presidential Citation, then went back to his job, and then on to Korea. He was in the Navy and the Army. After he died, my mother formed a school for children and she supported some of those kids for 28 years. She wanted to give back.
CP: Do you prefer movies or TV?
JW: Movies are considered the holy grail in my business, but in the last few years, incredible work has been done on cable. There’s Band of Brothers and Pacific. Ray Donovan is fantastic. There are three people if they offered me a part I’d do without question: Martin Scorsese, Ann Biderman, and Oliver Stone. I think the better work is being done on TV.
CP: I tend to agree with you. I notice you have done a bunch of voice-overs. I know that’s for the money.
JW: Not true. I played Hades’ voice in Disney’s Hercules and, to this day, people quote me lines from it. A little girl approached me and asked for my autograph. She didn’t know me as an actor, but as a voice in a cartoon.
CP: People are more interested in you now than ever before. Your talent is always consistent, but I hesitantly say it may have something to do with your politics.
JW: I have worked consistently and people recognize me. I dream of being the Cal Ripken of my business. I always show up and do my best, but I’m only as good as the last piece of work. Right now, I’m producing and hosting something on the Science channel. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a matter of love. I am offered a lot of stuff, but I am very judicious in my choices. I don’t really have to work since I bought Apple stock at $13.
CP: Why did you leave Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) to become an actor? I heard it was for the girls.
JW: Not girls. A girl. I was 28 years old, after all. She came to New York to become an actress and asked me to come audition with her. She didn’t get the part, so I lost a girl but gained a career. I flew back and forth for a while and did a wide array of theater. I did 36 plays while at M.I.T. and in Boston. I also worked at Harvard’s Agassiz Theatre. There were a lot of New York actors there, none of whom were well known then. Jon Voight and Al Pacino did plays and Robert De Niro did The Basement by Pinter. Terrence Malick and I did a play together one summer. He was one of the greatest directors ever. Jon Voight took me over to the stage manager’s home and a guy named Tim Affleck came over. We drank coffee all night and they talked me into becoming an actor. Years later, I met Ben Affleck and he said he was embarrassed because his dad always told him he had made James Woods an actor. I told him to pick up the phone and call his dad because he was the reason I became an actor.
CP: Did your family support your decision to go into acting?
JW: When I called my mother to tell her I was going to be an actor, there was a long pause. Then she said, “I married your dad when I was 19 and it was the best decision I ever made. We had a great marriage. I made a choice to have a family. If this is your choice, then follow your heart, but make me one promise. Promise me you will always, always, do you best.” And I have never broken that promise.
CP: Who mentored you?
JW: Who mentored you when you were jumping into the fray a long time ago?
CP: A bunch of guys who had jumped in before.
JW: Right. If you ask me who mentored me, it was all me and it was never me. I had the heart, but along the way I had great writers and directors. They were all mentors, but ultimately you have to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and do it yourself.
CP: What director did you most like to work with?
JW: Hard question. I love Stone, love Harold Becker, and I had a ball with Scorsese and Coppola. I’d say Oliver and Becker are my two real guys.
CP: Why those guys?
JW: With Harold, I did The Boost, which I loved. With Oliver I did Salvador, Nixon, and Any Given Sunday. Oliver, I felt, asked more of me than I could give. In Nixon, he wanted me to play Hague as he was kind of the villain, but I wanted to play Halderman. Oliver said, “Halderman is more like Chuck Pfeifer: he’s square, flat top, tough, grounded, and quiet. You’re too volatile.” Afterward, he wrote me and said, “You were right. You were able to pull it off.”
CF: Tell me about Oliver Stone’s creativity.
JW: Oliver uses structure, but he still thinks outside the box. Just like Steve Jobs did. He threw it all away and thought outside the box. Something interesting about Steve Jobs: there’s not one artifact of the entire Apple experience when he was in Cupertino. It’s like, “Hey, here’s an original Mac. Get that crap out of there. That’s the past. We’re thinking of now, today, and tomorrow.” Everything was about the future. The only way you ever reach for the stars is to think about tomorrow. Learn the lessons of the past—egregious lessons—we have to know them. If you look to the future, the answer is clear. Right now, we have a $17 trillion debt. Our future is not in good shape.
CP: Do you think our country is headed in the right direction?
JW: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. We are an exceptional nation and we have a remarkable constitution. If people don’t like our exceptionalism, too bad. Then go someplace else. Our Constitution has held us in good stead for over 200 years and we have a diverse population that seems dedicated to the values that our Constitution espouses. That’s a great formula. For some wonderful reason, when people come to this country, legally or illegally, they seem to want to embrace those values and subscribe to them. Do I have a lot of faith in the current administration? Personally, I don’t. I gave a lot of leeway at first, but I have been very disappointed by small thinking. The great Nelson Mandela did the impossible. He brought together a nation where racism was institutionalized, he embraced his oppressors, and made them feel welcome. We have a president who is more divisive than collective. He doesn’t seem to want to bring us together, but instead has pushed us apart, and that is a tragedy. He talks a good game, but doesn’t play a good game. I hope our country comes back together because I am big believer in diversity and a big believer in embracing and helping each other. I am a big believer in people working for what they achieve and I believe most people want to do that.
CP: That’s what this room is all about. It’s Chuck’s achievement room.
JW: Right. You know achievement can be showing up for work every day no matter where you work. I worked just as hard as a kid for $1.25 an hour as I do as an actor. Instead of shelling out trillions of dollars, which encourages people to sit on their butts, I would like to see our government create jobs, education and training, fix the infrastructure, and pay people to work. The U.S. military is one of the greatest inventions ever. It teaches a trade. A man can go on a nuclear submarine and become an electronic whiz. Now he can get a job. One thing Roosevelt did which was great: he created the Civil Conservation Corps. I am fanatic about driving across the country and when people in my business talk about flying over the country, I want to knock their teeth out. You live in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, and you’re in the business but you never drive across Texas, Iowa, Arkansas, or Minnesota. That’s how you can see how people live and work. You stop and talk to them. They want to work and achieve. We are a great nation.
CP: Do you have a current love interest?
JW: Our business is very tough on love. It’s hard for men and women to be on the road 20 weeks at a time and maintain a marriage, home, and kids. We fly all over the place. Always exhausted. I tried marriage twice. I’m still great friends with my first wife, costume designer Kathryn Morrison, and her new husband and four kids. She moved on, but we still work together. It’s a funny business. It’s kind of like one big family. People move in and out and you always have to be respectful of others and give them your support.
CP: You talk about manners and how you were raised. Do you feel values have changed or been lost in America?
JW: I’m not sure good manners have been lost. The reality shows are appalling when you see how people live. I think a lot of us work extra hard to be sure they are still there. I still hold doors for every lady I meet and, when I go out to dinner, I wear a suit and tie. I think a lot of the younger generation’s actions are the result of the feminist movement. They didn’t have both parents to teach them etiquette, manners or the proper aspirations—parents too busy looking after themselves. They also get a lot from social media and the Internet and it’s very sad. Manners are forever. Sometimes, they’re covered up by more philistine behavior and that comes from greed. It starts at the time. We had a president playing hanky panky in the Oval Office where Abraham Lincoln sat and when I see the current president put his feet upon the desk where another great president, John Kennedy, sat, I cannot tell you how that makes me feel.
CP: In your opinion have your political views hindered your career?
JW: I asked Jon Voight if being a conservative hindered his career and he said, “of course it did.” I love my career. Most of my friends in the business are lunatic liberals. I say that tongue-in-cheek because they have been very good to me. Oliver, Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin—I love these guys and here’s what I love about America: They are entitled to their opinion and I am entitled to mine. It’s my right under the First Amendment. It’s why we have two parties. I had someone Twitter me about the President saying, “He’s the Commander and Chief.” I wrote back and said, “I think you mean Commander-in-Chief. He said, “Who are you?” I told him I am the man that the President of the United States works for. I’m a U.S. citizen. He works for me. I’m his boss. He’s not my boss. That’s why he’s called ‘Mr. President’ and not ‘your majesty.’ Did you ever read a history book?” This guy forgot the president works for me and that’s his job.
CP: What is your definition of happiness?
JW: Being with family. I lost my parents and my brother and it’s been a little hard for me, but family is everything. Everything! Family, of course, means friends as well. Work and health are pieces of happiness too. I don’t go out and have 12 cocktails and think I’m happy. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a party guy and not a womanizer. I always hope my relationships last a long time, but for some reason that hasn’t worked out.
CP: Why is that?
JW: Because women are complex creatures and I’m a very simple guy. It’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes with a beautiful and bright woman of any age. With women, you have to be there every minute, every second. They’ll test you and you can’t take them for granted. If you love a woman, she’s a remarkable creature in your life. She’s an Oscar, she’s a Nobel Prize, she’s everything; and you can’t treat her any less than this. There was this wonderful movie where a man is sloppily eating cereal and his wife tells him she’s leaving and he says, “Why?” Because, dude, you are a slob.
CP: What would you like to hear God say when you enter heaven?
JW: I was a good son. I was a good brother.