The film The Glass Castle is based on Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir of the same name. It's the story of her family's tortured upbringing moving around the country and living in poverty with parents who were obsessed with being free of convention. The film stars Brie Larson as Jeannette, Naomi Watts as her mother and Woody Harrelson as her dad, Rex, an alcoholic whose rages and redemptions loomed large over his family.
Harrelson tells NPR, "Rex Walls was kind of a complicated fella. He was actually a great dad in many ways. He loved his kids and he did a lot to show them kind of unconventional things and ideas, and definitely not rear them ... to be indoctrinated by the society that he resented. But in other ways he was not so great. You know, he did drink a lot and he'd have some bad moods and take it out on the kids."
Harrelson spoke to NPR from London, where he's working on a new Star Wars movie, one of several films he's appeared in recently, including War for the Planet of the Apes and Wilson.
On trying to get Rex right
I couldn't do an impersonation of him — he had a very distinctive way of talking. But I tried to approximate it and I definitely had the vibe of who he was, so I thought that's what I was working with, you know.
I used to go over to see Brie on a daily basis before we started, and she was staying at an apartment and I'd come over for lunch and she'd fix me lunch — she's actually a pretty good chef — and she would also, you know, talk me down off the ledge because I was just concerned that I was just not getting it right. ... She'd tell me, "Don't worry that much about the accent." She said, you know, "You got him. You got him. You don't need to worry about all these extraneous things." Which is true, you know? Obviously Jeanette and others who knew him would know that this is how he talked, but other people wouldn't. So I tried to just get the vibe right.
On how the film tackles the different stages of Jeannette Walls' life
The way this movie works, it jumps back and forth over different time frames. ... So we got, you know, all these kids from three different age groups that cover this whole span. ... It was incredible the way [director Destin Daniel Cretton] could make it all work and where it was just completely seamless.
And also, I do feel like when you do these movies where you have kids and then the kids grow up, you are either attached to the older or the younger version — well, typically the younger, just cus kids are so fascinating. .... But in this, they're all great and you never doubt that they're the same person. You know, it always feels like the same person even when it's a different actor. So there's a lot [Cretton] did about that that's kind of seamless, that was really magical. But I just think he told a story. According to Jeannette, he really nailed it.
On the personal toll of appearing in so many films when you have a family at home
I feel like I've probably just spent too much time running around doing these movies. I'm proud of all of them — I'm very psyched about these movies — but I just need, I think, to chill out and spend some time at home. 'Cause by the time I leave here, I will have been home one week in a year, in the past year. ... So, yeah, it's just not fair to my family. ... I'm not feeling very pleased with myself over all this. ...
Nobody wants to listen to movie star blues in D minor, you know what I mean? I don't know, I guess I'm just a little knackered from the whole process, to borrow one of the great English words here, and just ready to go home.
Sarah Handel and Cindy Johnston produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The film "The Glass Castle" is based on Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir of the same name. It's the story of her family's tortured upbringing - moving around the country, living in poverty with parents who are obsessed with being free of convention. It stars Brie Larson is Jeannette; Naomi Watts as her mom, Rose Mary; and Woody Harrelson as her dad, Rex, a complicated alcoholic whose rages and redemptions loomed large over his family.
Woody Harrelson joins me now from the BBC in London. Good morning.
WOODY HARRELSON: Good morning. How are you?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. Thank you. How are you?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Glad to hear it.
If you can, tell us about Rex.
HARRELSON: Yeah, Rex Walls was, you know, kind of a complicated fella. He was actually a great dad in many ways. He loved his kids, and he did a lot to show them kind of unconventional things and ideas and definitely not rear them with - to allow them to be indoctrinated by the society that he resented. But in other ways, he was not so great, you know. He did drink a lot, and he'd have some bad moods and take it out on the kids, so - that kind of thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'd like to talk a little bit about the dysfunctional family. There's so much love here as well as a lot of pain. I'd like to play a clip of Rex when he's in a good place because he is so mercurial as a character. Can you set up the scene when Rex shows the family their new house in West Virginia?
HARRELSON: You see them move quite a lot. And this is another example of them moving so that some of the kids are a little, you know, not-so-fired-up about moving yet again. And this is him kind of - and they're moving to a dump, no other way to slice it. So they're - he's trying to give them the vision of what everything will be, which of course never really comes to pass.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GLASS CASTLE")
HARRELSON: (As Rex) We're going to tear all this down and replace it with your game room - pingpong, pool, foosball.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Trampoline?
HARRELSON: (As Rex) Oh, yeah - trampoline goes right over there. And then all these walls are gone, replaced with 3-inch glass, glass, glass, glass. This can stay.
BRIE LARSON: (As Rose Mary) Doesn't that look lovely? Yellow stands for happiness and creativity.
SADIE SINK: (As Young Lori) This place doesn't have any running water or electricity.
HARRELSON: (As Rex) Ignore her. She was born without a vision.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This character, Rex - I mean, who was a real person - he did have his rages and difficult sort of figure as a father. But he also gave them a gift. What do you think that gift was?
HARRELSON: You know, I don't think Jeannette would necessarily have become this great writer without the support her father gave and the degree to which he and - you know, Naomi played Rose Mary, Naomi Watts - and as much as they believed in their children and made them think they could do anything. And yeah, I think that really helped them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What often scares children is sort of unpredictability in their parents. You know, kids like predictability. This story, though, has this deep resonance because, you know, the kids all came out stronger in a way. You know, Jeannette has this wonderful career. And they moved on. But it could have ended the other way.
HARRELSON: Yeah. I mean, it's ironic, though, that the kids did end up very strong and actually very grateful for their upbringing, although I think for some of them, there was definitely resentment that took a while to move through. In the end, I think they're kind of grateful for how it all went down.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've been pretty busy these past few years. You're actually in "War Of Planet Of The Apes" (ph) right now. You've got so many films in the bag and in the works. I'm curious what roles you're still anxious to play.
HARRELSON: Right now, I just am looking forward to not doing anything for a while. I feel like I've probably just spent too much time running around doing these movies. I'm proud of all of them. I'm very psyched about these movies. But I just need to chill out and spend some time at home 'cause by the time I leave here, I will have been home one week in a year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you have three daughters, the youngest who is still in middle school, I think. Right?
HARRELSON: Yeah, she's 11.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you stay connected and centered as a dad when you are moving around like that?
HARRELSON: That's a good question. And if you find out the answer, let me know...
HARRELSON: ...'Cause, you know, I'm not feeling very pleased with myself over all this. It's just kind of a long time to be away from home.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are some projects worth it? Or is it - at a certain point, just feel...
HARRELSON: I mean, I - this one's worth it. They're all - you know, all of the ones I think I've done lately, I'm really proud of. (Laughter) I feel like, you know, I'm like, nobody wants to listen to movie star blues in D minor, you know what I mean? But...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Oh, I don't know.
HARRELSON: I don't know. I guess I'm just a little knackered from the whole process - to borrow one of the great English words here - and just ready to go home.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Woody Harrelson stars in "The Glass Castle," in theaters now. And he is ready to go home.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much for joining us today.
HARRELSON: All right. Thank you, Lulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL P WEST'S "REAL SCHOOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.