NEW YORK -- Back in the summer of 1983, an aspiring young actor named Woody Harrelson landed a construction job in Houston, where he and his best friend from college hoped to earn a little cash before heading to the Big Apple.
One of their fellow construction workers was a displaced New Yorker named Frankie Hyman, who became Harrelson's buddy and roommate. Hyman made such an impression, in fact, that a decade later, Harrelson - by then an Emmy Award winner for TV's Cheers and a rising film star - tracked him down. The two decided to write a play together, based on their experiences that summer.
"But we were lacking a key element," says Harrelson, 51, grinning sheepishly. "We didn't have a plot. We had a bunch of people and some fun dialogue but had to figure out how to tie it all together."
Harrelson finally found the thread for the freewheeling comedy Bullet for Adolf, which opens off-Broadway today at New World Stages, in an unrelated true story relayed to him "by a guy I knew tangentially." Suffice to say it involvesa Luger pistol once owned by a certain German dictator, which is stolen from its current occupier.
In the play, which Harrelson also directs, the theft exacerbates tension between a group of guys and gals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, who aren't shy about goading each other to begin with.
"It's challenging humor," Harrelson acknowledges over a vegan lunch. "We're not saying, 'Here's an easy joke to make you laugh.' It's more like, 'Can you shake loose long enough to laugh at this?' "
Harrelson, who got his start in theater and starred in a 1999 Broadway revival of The Rainmaker, cites the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson as a key source of inspiration. Another, perhaps more obvious, one is Martin McDonagh, whose provocative black comedies have earned acclaim on and off-Broadway and across the Atlantic.
The actor says one of his biggest regrets is having turned down a lead role in McDonagh's The Pillowman, which earned Billy Crudup a Tony nomination in 2005.
Luckily, he got a second chance to work with McDonagh, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Harrelson's next film, Seven Psychopaths, set to premiere at this year's Toronto Film Festival.
In the movie, which also stars Colin Farrell, Harrelson plays a gangster, "a real tough guy, not afraid to kill anyone at the drop of the hat."
The character has a soft spot, though: his adored Shih Tzu. "Without giving away too much, I'll say that the dog goes missing, and that sets off a whole spiral of events."
Harrelson has several other films in the works, among them the next installment in the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, which begins shooting in September. The project has been "a dream" so far, he says.
Still, Harrelson worries about his plate being too full. He enjoys spending time with his three daughters, among them a "very theatrical" 6-year-old and a 16-year-old, "the middle one, who's very intent" on breaking into acting. (The older girls have seen more of Dad's work, though "I don't think they've ever seen Natural Born Killers.")
Harrelson anticipates taking on more projects that allow him creative control. "Working on this play has been great, and I'm writing a couple of screenplays as well. When a movie you're in does well, you feel like you're a pawn, or maybe a bishop, in another person's vision.
"But this play is my vision of what's funny."