FILM JANUARY 24, 2014
John Goodman can’t get comfortable. The sofa’s too deep: it dwarfs him like a giant beanbag. It’s strange to see Goodman looking dwarfed. When he was a young actor in Manhattan, his quarterback dimensions and baby face got him his first auditions. From his breakthrough role as the blue-collar dad Dan Conner in Roseanne, where he wielded his on-screen son like a tiny rag doll, to his mad, bad Vietnam vet in The Big Lebowski, Goodman’s size and strength have defined him. At 61, he is physically deteriorating: he’s currently awaiting a second knee replacement. “I’ve already replaced this right knee,” he says, gesturing, “with a kitchen utensil. So I’m looking for something matching to go with the other one. Possibly an item from the bedroom?”
In recent years, his physicality has taken on a new, threatening edge. The sense of a body starting to self-destruct is mirrored in his moods, which change like sudden drops in cabin pressure. His latest character for Joel and Ethan Coen—the jazz musician Roland Turner in the Greenwich Village saga Inside Llewyn Davis—might be his vilest yet: a wheezing misanthrope with a heroin works kit dangling from his arm. “He hates everything that isn’t him and can’t be fit inside a hypodermic needle,” he volunteers today, clearing his throat with three thumps to the chest. “The haircut was my idea. I had to throw something in there. It is modelled on [the saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan’s hair.” He adds with mystery: “It has been mentioned as a wig.”
Talking to Goodman about his work is a game of cat and mouse. Mention character creation or improvising—two things that he’s clearly quite good at—and he’ll claim to have no facility with either. He brought nothing to Inside Llewyn Davis, he says: “It was all on the page. The Coens don’t go for improvisation—they are too careful.” Then, five minutes later, he’s relating Turner’s imagined backstory like an enthusiastic drama student in the “hot seat”. “Joel thought I was a trumpet player and Ethan thought I played sax. But I knew I was a piano player.”
There’s something in him fighting hard against being unfriendly. It’s there in his explosive laugh and in sudden punctuations of surprise or sympathy that come at moments you don’t expect. He is a readerly man, turning words over on his tongue: that was always clear in Roseanne, when he’d throw cod-Shakespearian pronouncements from a doorway, an American football under his arm.
“What’s funny is that when I was in high school, I tended to get kicked out of classes a lot and sent to the library and for some reason I would read plays. I never could figure out why that was. I just liked dialogue. I suppose I should have it looked into some day but I’d have to care about it enough first,” he says.
What did he read?
“Thornton Wilder. Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams.”
Why was he kicked out of class?
“For trying to attract attention to myself.”
Why did his teachers put him in the library, rather than somewhere more punitive, such as a cupboard?
“Oh, they put me in a cupboard, too.”
He’s on the other side of the room now, in search of a glass of water. The sense that Goodman is just about to walk out at any time is a major part of his energy. Fortunately, he has become one of those actors who can steal a film in ten minutes’ screen time (see Flight, The Artist and Argo).
“Who do you work for?” he asks.
“A politics and culture magazine,” I tell him.
“We have politics in the US,” he says. “They’re killing us.” But he won’t go any further into the topic.
His main place of residence is New Orleans; he lives in the Garden District, once home to his friend Dr John. He met his wife of 25 years in the jazz club Tipitina’s, which was a regular nightspot of the blues pianist Professor Longhair. “There was a Hallowe’en party there,” he says, seating himself back on his giant sofa. “We met briefly but she didn’t care for me much, because I was a little stunned that someone that pretty would say hello to me. So I didn’t really respond and she thought I was a jerk.”
Goodman lost his summer house and fishing camp to Hurricane Katrina. The place was within the city limits but “felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. People would come along and tie up their boats,” he recalls, “and you’d catch red fish, speckled trout ... If you went out in the gulf, you’d get snapper and tuna. It’s all gone now, though.”
He starred in David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which explored the impact of the disaster on a network of New Orleans musicians—“A good part for me, because I got a lot of anger out. They were running tours to the Ninth Ward [the area worst hit by the hurricane] while people were still suffering, which was disgusting,” he says. Because of work commitments, he has spent just four straight weeks in New Orleans in the past year. “Being away all the time is wearing on me. It’s really wearing on me now. I’m really getting tired of it,” he says, his eyes darkening.
He lifts his glass of water and blows bubbles into it. “Yak, yak, yak!”
“I’m very grateful now. I went through a period where I was tired of the business and I really let that get in the way. I let the whole picture slip away from me and I became less grateful. This is an impossible business and there’s a lot of trade-offs. But I’m 61 years old now and I’m still working, with some success, and that’s something.”
Goodman struggled with alcohol for 30 years and has been sober since 2007. Things got colourful on the set of Roseanne. In one interview, Barr denied there was “any tension” between the two of them, then added: “John used to go berserk on the set all the time, every Friday, just out of nervousness and all the shit ... John would pound the walls and scream and we’d all be freaking out, scared shitless out of frustration.” In the final series, he was often absent and when he did appear he looked unwell. Barr wrote a heart attack into the script for him. How did that feel?
He grabs his left arm, eyes bulging, keels forward on the sofa and fakes a cardiac arrest. Then he collapses into a high-pitched giggle. “The show was ready to die after the sixth season and it lasted nine,” he says. “I tried to get out in the seventh. They suggested that if I did so, they wouldn’t mind taking my house from me. Thank you very much, I said, and I stuck around.”
For years, Roseanne represented a reality never seen before on American TV, capturing the ingenuity of a small-town family struggling with regular unemployment, unaffordable health plans and indecipherable income tax literature. Though it eventually descended into fantasy (the family won the lottery), its central premise—to show, in Barr’s words, that: “Just because we were poor didn’t mean we were stupid”—seems more relevant than ever. “Roseanne and I tried to do a show together about a year and a half ago but NBC were having none of it!” Goodman volunteers cheerily. Downwardly Mobile, which reunited the pair in a trailer park, never made it past the pilot. Surely it would have been network gold?
“I know! I don’t know why they didn’t want it,” he says, positively beaming. “It was certainly better than most of NBC’s fare! We had a grand old time!”
And you only made one episode?
“One was enough!” he says, bafflingly.
Goodman’s upbringing was blue-collar and middle American, too. The family home was in one of the first suburbs of St Louis, “where veterans returning from the war would have the GI Bill and get cheap housing, move away from the city so that they could have yards of their own with like-minded veterans. There were tonnes of kids, baby boomers running around,” he says. “And school was close by.”
His father, a post office employee, died of a heart attack when he was two: he never knew him. “All I know is that he was a hard worker,” he says steadily. “He fought in the war, everybody liked him—and that’s pretty much all I know.” Did his mother, Virginia, a waitress at Jack and Phil’s Bar-B-Que in town, talk about his father much? “She was still in love with him,” he says.
Goodman’s first ambition was to be a footballer: he went to Missouri State University hoping to “walk on”—“which is when you don’t have a scholarship but you try to get on a team, anyway. But with sport, you rely on your body,” he says, “and you have to keep your spirits up. And I didn’t care that much, to be honest. If I wasn’t doing this [acting], I always wanted to be a disc jockey ...”
The picture he paints is not entirely convincing: this lazy, uncommitted jock made a fist of the world’s most neurotic profession. He started out in musical theatre, landing a starring role in the Broadway show Big River. “There was a week,” he recalls, “where every night backstage I would have a panic attack. I couldn’t remember the first line. Every night, I was preparing to come out and say, ‘I’m so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know why I’m here.’ I’d open my mouth and the first line of the script would come out instead.”
He is keen to act in London’s West End but will not do so until he has a new knee. In Inside Llewyn Davis, his character can barely walk and spends most of his screen time stuck in the back of a beige Buick Electra in a snowstorm, with a silent valet and a ginger cat (long story). “When Roland Turner was much younger—and this is just me—he was in the vanguard of the California jazz scene,” he says, speculating again. “Now, he’s devolved into this person who rides around in the back of cars ... He’s established but he’s definitely on his way out.”
“Do you think he dies inside that car?” I ask him?
“Let’s just say he does,” he says. “It’d be better for him. I think he’s found the next day all cold and blue and clinging to the cat.”
Close to the end of the film, there is a memorable shot of an injured cat limping across the road in the dark.
“Oh, Jesus”, he says, suddenly disgusted. “That image, man. That image. I’d put it out of my mind. I have seen the film twice and it had a very strange effect on me. It raised a lot of questions about success and fear of success. Compromise. What does it cost ...” He’s winding down, bored or depressed.
Later that day, the cast and crew—Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, both Coen brothers—assemble at a West End cinema for a special screening. Standing alone in the foyer, Goodman spies an armchair—which, a member of staff informs me, should not have been left out: it was one of the chairs his team had rejected as too small. As he sinks into it, the head of events rushes up, flustered. “I’m jet-lagged,” Goodman says; then, brightening: “But you don’t need to hear that!”
In the Q&A session after the film, he gets all the laughs. An audience member observes: “You know when John Goodman appears in a Coen brothers film that something bad is going to happen.”
“In what way?” Goodman asks, innocently. He exits the screening laughing loudly and singing to himself.
This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.