In recent years, December has been a great month for John Goodman. In 2012, he starred in two Oscar-nominated films, Flight and Argo. This year, he appears in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest chapter in one of Hollywood’s most fruitful collaborations. Can this guy’s career possibly get any bigger?
Author David Carr Illustration C.F. Payne
John Goodman tends to make a big impression when he ambles onto the screen. And that’s not just because he’s a big guy. Over the last 25 years or so, the St. Louis native’s characters—Dan Conner on “Roseanne,” Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, Harling Mays in last year’s Flight—have had considerable physical presence, but they’ve also been marked by big voices that swing from tender to explosive, or from common-man philosophy to surrealist rant.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that in person, Goodman tends not to fill a room the way he does on screen. In an interview to promote Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film set in 1960s Greenwich Village, he’s friendly and engaged, and completely without bluster. Then again, the former bouncer doesn’t feel the need to throw his weight around. He’s done enough hell-raising, he says—much of it not far from the Midtown Manhattan hotel we’re talking in. In fact, Goodman himself will tell you that since 2007 he’s no longer a drinker, and the happier for it.
These days, Goodman is content to indulge in the cuisine and music of New Orleans, a place he’s called home for almost two decades. But any time the phone rings and Joel or Ethan Coen is on the line, he goes where he’s told. His work with the Coens has been the defining relationship of his career. In Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman plays a heroin-addicted jazz musician and affable antagonist to the folk-singing title character, played by Oscar Isaac. It’s a performance that, as is so often the case with Goodman, keeps you riveted to the screen.
The night before our conversation, the Coen brothers introduced their new film by having its music producer, T Bone Burnett, put together a concert at New York City’s Town Hall, an evening that included performances by Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Jack White and Elvis Costello. Goodman emceed the event, jokingly advising the audience to “stay away from the brown acid” and trying his best, he says, not to obstruct the talent.
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Hemispheres: That was a pretty great evening. It’s not every night you see Patti Smith dueting with Joan Baez.
John Goodman: The dicey part for me was getting to a place where I wasn’t in everybody’s way. It was so jam-packed backstage, and there wasn’t any room.
Hemispheres: And you’re not a little person.
Goodman: Nope. I’m oafish.
Hemispheres: That seems a little harsh.
Goodman: Around all those young, slender musicians, I felt a little oafish. It was fun, though, even if I was a little nervous. So many of those songs are heartbreaking. It’s what you go to hear good folk music for, to have your heart break. I love to see live music, and I’d like to go out and see more, especially in New Orleans, but the couch grabs me.
Hemispheres: You don’t seem to have much trouble getting off the couch when Joel and Ethan Coen want to work with you.
Goodman: Nobody writes like them. I just have a deep personal connection with the movies they do. There is a visceral feel for what they lay down, and I love the way they tell stories. We’ve always connected, since we worked together on Raising Arizona back in 1986. Just being around them is a pleasure, and I’m very proud to be a part of what they do. Joel and Ethan know what they want, and what they want registers very highly with me.
Hemispheres: Do you feel bad when they make a movie like True Grit and don’t cast you?
Goodman: Oh, sure. I had Grit envy.
Hemispheres: Can you ride a horse?
Goodman: Um, no. The last time I rode a horse was in 1980 in Baltimore; the horse tried to kill me. It was a rent-a-horsie, and he took off and was rubbing against trees and stuff like that. I couldn’t stop him! He finally ran out of gas. I’d still love to do a ’50s-style western where everybody has a Little Joe haircut and tight vests.
Hemispheres: I’m not convinced that would be a great look on you.
Goodman: Um, no.
Hemispheres: Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece of a different sort. You really feel like you are in the Village when it was all going off. Your role is like a lot of your other characters, a kind of truth-teller.
Goodman: Yeah, he was telling what he thought was the truth, I reckon, but he did it in a way that was very abrasive and hard on the people around him. He’s one of those people who feel that their job is to be a scourge.
Hemispheres: I wasn’t really ready for how dark the movie got. I thought it would just be this period piece and we’d hear some good music along the way, but the film goes right at the whole “meaning of life” thing pretty hard.
Goodman: I just saw it again the other night and it landed harder on me than it did the first time. I think I saw more things—I certainly felt more things. You see the lead character going back and forth, trying to figure out who he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do. He literally has a fear of success, and it shows up in the choices he makes.
Hemispheres: These are not academic issues to you.
Goodman: No, they’re not academic at all. They hit me in the gut level, which is why I walked away the other night with a very powerful reaction to the film. You can be the kind of guy who keeps on wondering what would have happened if he’d done X instead of Y, but I try to stay away from that. That kind of wondering isn’t going to do anybody any good. It sounds a little silly or trite, but what I’m really trying to do now is to enjoy the journey.
Hemispheres: When did that start?
Goodman: Probably a couple of years ago.
Hemispheres: Does living in New Orleans help? The conversation there is less about who you know or where you work than what band you saw and what you ate.
Goodman: I can be comfortable in Los Angeles as well, and I’ve always loved New York. But I’m so used to the pace of New Orleans now. It’s a lot less hurried down there. It’s hard to walk in the Quarter anymore, but I still dig the Quarter. There’s a lot of magic there. I was worried about moving to New Orleans, because I got sober in California, but I found good people to hang with. In New Orleans, when I have downtime, I try to take care of myself physically. I’ve got a guy I box with, a gym I can go to, and I figured once I’ve done all that, I can call it a day and just hang.
Hemispheres: Or eat.
Goodman: Well, yes to that. Commander’s Palace is right down the street from me, but usually my wife comes up with new places to eat at. She’s the expert. I’ll just go for a po’ boy and let it go at that, because they’re all good. And I go to Central Grocery, on Decatur Street, for a muffuletta.
Hemispheres: You’re back working in television, if you can call it that, on the Amazon series “Alpha House” with Garry Trudeau, a satire about Washington, D.C. How important was the fact that you worked on a series as good as “Roseanne” early in your career?
Goodman: Apparently it was pretty important, in that it had a wide audience and people got to know and like the characters. Rosanne had issues she wanted to deal with, and she dealt with them through that medium.
Hemispheres: Do you ever watch sitcoms now?
Goodman: No, I don’t watch that many anymore. I guess I’m not that interested in the sexual adventures of young people and how they’re perceived by writers in California.
Hemispheres: It’s probably not that intrinsically interesting a topic to
Goodman: Not for me.
Hemispheres: Are you excited about [the George Clooney film] The Monuments Men?
Goodman: Yes, very. I hope it turns out as good as it felt when we were doing it. It was a very happy experience. George knows exactly what he wants, and he knows how to do it without spraying all over the place. Everybody is there to tell their part of the story and to have a good time, and that’s what we did. I never laughed so much as I did on this one, sitting around with Bill Murray and Matt Damon. And George is like a big five-year-old kid, somebody you want to hang around with. He brings out the kid in me.
Hemispheres: He’s managed to make being famous look fun.
Goodman: Yeah, he wears it like a loose garment. Just watching him work and seeing how much he just enjoys himself. I tried to learn a little bit from that.
Hemispheres: Like what?
Goodman: I don’t have to work as hard as I thought I did, and I don’t think I ever really had to work as hard as I did. I overthought things, and now I know that if you sit still, the answers will come to you.
DAVID CARR, a columnist for The New York Times, can recite Big Lebowski lines with the best of them. Got it, dude?
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Goodman and the Coen Bros. are script perfect
From Raising Arizona
“What Evelle here is trying to say is that we felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us.”
From Barton Fink
“Ladies do ask for attention. In my experience, they pretend to give it, but it’s generally a smokescreen for demanding it back with interest.”
From The Big Lebowski
“No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”