TORONTO (Reuters) – It may be hard to imagine actor Woody Harrelson, known for his work to legalize marijuana among other causes, as Hollywood's next superhero, so don't.
Harrelson outfits himself in a skintight crime-fighting suit for his new movie "Defendor," which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, but for the low-budget film he is far less Superman and far more Don Quixote.
Quixote, the literary character who battled windmills and learned of the world in romance books, is not too different from "Defendor" Arthur Poppington, who dons a homemade costume adorned in duct tape and sets out nightly to battle crime and search for his long-time nemesis, Captain Industry.
"The world is his windmill," Harrelson told Reuters.
"Defendor" is part drama, part comedy, and it borrows from superhero films. But writer/director Peter Stebbings insists he is not spoofing big-budget Hollywood flicks like the Batman or Spider-Man movies. He said he is using elements of fantasy to explore real issues of social justice and mental health.
Stebbings said major studio executives could not fit "Defendor" in a specific genre, which made the script a hard sell in Hollywood, but the story's power eventually won out and he found financing in the low-budget, independent film arena.
"They (the studios) didn't want to touch it, but all the actors and their agents wanted to," he said.
"Defendor" attracted "Grey's Anatomy" star Sandra Oh and Kat Dennings ("Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"), and Harrelson said the character Arthur was too compelling to pass up.
"It was one of those longshot things where they sent the script to my agent and I was like, 'Oh man, that is a good script.' It was so well written, so original," he said.
Arthur is a grown man who has the mental development of a child but still knows the difference between right and wrong despite the fact there is a lot of ambiguity in between the two, and Harrelson said he could identify with the character.
"When I was a child, they put me in special education after I got out of this private school and went into public school, for which, I was a bit resentful and not really taking it well," said Harrelson, "I thought they should put me into just a normal routine with the other kids."
Harrelson overcame that bit of adversity and went on to receive degrees in theater arts and English from Hanover College in Indiana and, of course, a major career as an actor.
In his day job, Arthur holds traffic signs for a street crew, and does not feel part of the routine of others. But by night, he confronts life on his own terms, "'cause superheroes aren't stupid and they're not afraid," as he says in the film.
Defendor incorporates a lot of the dark, gritty realism that is a key part of many big superhero blockbusters, but beyond that, it turns the genre on its head.
Instead of the outside world not knowing the identity of the mysterious protagonist behind his crime-fighting mask, it is the hero himself, Arthur, who is unaware of the strength and depth of the ordinary man beneath the costume.
It takes an unlikely friendship with a young, drug-addicted prostitute (played by Dennings) for Arthur to see that real people can do extraordinary things on their own.
And in real-life when Harrelson is not dressing up and playing a character, the longtime vegan has tried to change the world himself, championing environmental and other causes.