When Woody Harrelson first came to Hollywood's attention playing sweet but softheaded Woody Boyd in NBC's hit series Cheers from 1985 to 1993, few would have expected him to find roles beyond the sweet-natured "boy next door" stereotype. His turn as serial killer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers showed that behind the friendly smile was a man capable of playing deeper than he let on.
Harrelson's film career since his days on Cheers has been varied and filled with projects that show the actor's true range. In recent years, Harrelson has been stepping into roles where he has portrayed a mentor of sorts to people who would go on to become heroes.
Now that Harrelson is joining the Star Wars universe to mentor a young Han Solo, let's take a look at his recent characters to deduce what kind of character we can expect.
Haymitch Abernathy (The Hunger Games)
Haymitch is not exactly what audiences might expect of a mentor. He is apathetic, barely functional and treats Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) with disdain. He is the antithesis of anyone who might be expected to assume the teacher role, yet that is exactly what he's supposed to do for Katniss and Peeta.
Harrelson's Haymitch has a lot of dimension beneath the drunken stupor, and beyond the fog that the character has placed himself in. There's a calculation there that few might expect. Harrelson understands, as does anyone who's read The Hunger Games trilogy, that Haymitch has a painful backstory that causes him to put up a boundary between himself and the tributes that he mentors — though he has apparently failed miserably at that in the past.
Harrelson imbues Haymitch with a balance of wry humor and sometimes blunt irritation, if not anger. Given Harrelson's own unusual background — his father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, was a hitman serving time for murder — he is perhaps the ideal person to play this complex and ultimately layered character who is designed to both help Peeta and Katniss, yet be the very flawed and feeling mirror held up as a way to help Katniss understand her own character.
Haymitch is a different sort of mentor figure than what we're used to, but he is certainly not the most unusual in recent memory; Nicholas Cage in The Sorcerer's Apprentice might certainly run a close second. Either way, Harrelson breathed life into Haymitch Abernathy, and Hunger Games fans consider it a knockout performance.
Harrelson shines once again as the would-be mentor who keeps everyone at a distance. Dubbing himself "Tallahassee" in order to prevent attachment to any other humans he might encounter, he is somehow persuaded to take Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) under his wing, and in doing so, albeit reluctantly, finds himself in a position where he might begin to care about others again. He becomes something of an older brother or even a father figure to Columbus and, though he tries hard to avoid it, also becomes attached to Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who realizes that Tallahassee, for all his brusque toughness, is really grieving the loss of a young son to the zombies.
Harrelson is at his quirky best, demonstrating skill as he annihilates zombies one after another while trying to find his favorite snack, Twinkies, which also have become a rarity in the wake of the "mad person disease" that appears to have swept the earth, or at the very least North America.
Merritt/Chase McKinney, (Now You See Me)
While not so much a mentor as he is a "never was," McKinney in any form is the senior member of the Horsemen. Wry and armed with a self-deprecating brand of humor, McKinney often takes a lot of the edge off the tension that the Horsemen go through. He's not particularly likeable — he's seen using magic to hustle cash from couples — and he's not really someone the team looks up to, but they do have a lot they can learn from him.
Garris Shrike (Han Solo Anthology Film, 2018)
Who knew that the galaxy's greatest smuggler would need a mentor? That is the role that Harrelson's taking on in the still-untitled Han Solo project due out in 2018. While Alden Ehrenreich is taking on the lead role of Han Solo, and Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) sliding into Lando Calrissian's cape, there was initially some speculation about whether or not the galaxy's scoundrel would be needing a mentor, à la Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Now that Harrelson has been cast in that role, the question is what he'll do with it. According to the official novel The Paradise Snare, Shrike raised a young Han Solo after finding the boy alone and begging on the streets of Corellia. He demanded absolute obedience from all the street urchins that he picked up, and those who failed to obey him to the letter would be severely beaten. Solo was among the most talented children that Shrike had dealt with, and ultimately, Solo would eventually get the drop on Shrike and finally carve out his independence.
While Harrelson has said that he will be playing the part of Han Solo's mentor, which is thought to be Shrike, Pablo Hidalgo — who effectively helps determine what is canon and what is not in the Star Wars universe — has denied this. What can be certain, though, is that Harrelson's take on Shrike will likely be every bit as unconventional as one might expect as the mentor figure for a young Han Solo.
"I wouldn't choose me" to play Han Solo's mentor, Harrelson said while promoting his film Wilson. That line alone seems to allude to Harrelson's knowledge that he has become known for playing people who don't fit conventional modes of mentorship, whether because they're burnouts, loners or have a blurred sense of morality.
It will be interesting to see Harrelson's take on an already unconventional sort of character. As a man known for playing against type since his Cheers days, Harrelson will definitely be one to watch as he takes on the role fans of Star Wars may have thought they'd never see come to life on screen.
What's your favorite Woody Harrelson role? Tell us in the comments below!