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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Environmental activist, hemp promoter, peacenik, surfer dude. Woody Harrelson has been called a lot of things, but until recently it is unlikely he has been called a friend of the U.S. military.
The actor says he is a changed man, however, after working on his movie "The Messenger," in which he portrays an officer in the army's casualty notification service -- officers who tell families their loved ones have died serving their country.
Harrelson, 48, has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Tony Stone, though winning seems unlikely. Yet he believes he may already have won just by being nominated for his supporting role and by being able to tell the tale of soldiers and their families.
"It's a big thing to say, but I really think it changed me on some fundamental level in my heart," Harrelson told Reuters. "I felt a powerful connection to these servicemen and women, and those experiences of notifications."
To prepare for the movie, Harrelson visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to talk to wounded soldiers and notification officers, and since that time, he has returned on his own just to say "hi" to the "friends" he made there.
It seems a far cry from the man who has spoken out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose liberal political positions are well-known. Yet, like others, Harrelson is quick to separate the wars from the men and women fighting them.
"It (the movie) helped me see them for who they are, people who don't make a lot of money and do this out of profound love for their country, profound patriotism I admire," he said.
As Captain Stone, Harrelson plays a veteran officer paired with a young sergeant (Ben Foster) just back from combat and assigned to the notification service.
"The Messenger" focuses on Foster's character and how he deals with the families he informs, their grief and the often angry reactions when notified of their loved ones' death.
While he is conflicted, Harrelson's Stone maintains stiff military discipline when mentoring his younger colleague.
"When we met, (Harrelson) described himself as a hippie from Maui," screenwriter Alessandro Camon told Reuters. "To my knowledge, he had never before played a soldier...that kind of character is really a stretch from who he is."
Other actors who received Oscar nominations for their supporting roles include Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds," Christopher Plummer of "The Last Station," Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones" and Matt Damon in "Invictus."
Oscar watchers think Waltz is favored because he has won several other honors already. And Harrelson is quick to say his odds of taking home the top film award on March 7 are small.
"I don't have much of a prospect of winning," he said. "But sometimes people see nominations and think, 'I should watch that movie,' so I hope it gets people to see 'The Messenger.'"
The Oscar nod is Harrelson's second, having been nominated for the lead role of adult magazine publisher and free speech advocate Larry Flynt in 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt."
He said back then he was nervous to be at the ceremony, but not anymore, now that he's a Hollywood veteran.
"I really feel like I'll be capable of going there and just having a ball," he said. "It's not whether you win or lose, it's whether you have fun. I think I'll have maximum fun."