Perhaps best known for his breakthrough role in the sitcom Roseanne as Dan Conner – a prototype of goofy man-child fathers, which has extended to the likes of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin – it’s remarkable that John Goodman has escaped the travails of typecasting.
You might know him as the Judaist Vietnam vet Walter in The Big Lebowski, as CIA/Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers in Argo, or even as the definitive live action version of Fred Flintstone.
One thread that has remained consistent throughout the years, though, is Goodman’s working connection with visionary directors the Coen brothers. Since first working with the duo on 1987’s Raising Arizona, the Coens/Goodman link now extends to a sixth movie – and the first since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? – with the release of Inside Llewyn Davis.
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Raising Arizona, official trailer
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The film charts the misfortunes of singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he strives to become a name on the early-’60s New York folk scene. Goodman’s performance as veteran jazz musician Roland Turner provides the film’s comic middle-eight as he joins Davis and the silent but effortlessly cool Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) on a tense car journey to Chicago.
“He’s such an angry bastard. I didn’t want him to be representative of a generation of jazz musicians who I have a great deal of respect for,” says Goodman of his character, referencing Charlie Parker as one of his personal favourites from the genre, adding: “Roland is a great gasbag, he’s full of all sorts of arcana and self-hatred and it rubs off on everyone else.”
From his terrible haircut to his drug abuse and keen interest in the black arts, Turner is the sort of eccentric character for whom every line crackles with vicious wit, most of which is directed at the increasingly insecure Davis.
“This guy was just so well written that I didn’t have to do a lot of homework. The crusty old bastard,” he continues. In fact, his back story was so loosely defined that this musician’s instrument hadn’t even been defined: Goodman assumed he was a pianist; Joel Coen thought he was a trumpet player; and Ethan Coen guessed that he was a saxophonist.
While Goodman’s character delivers scintillating dialogue that heightens the film’s dark, comic edge, the movie as a whole is reliant on Oscar Isaac’s performance. Happily, he delivers with some aplomb – his musical performances (including collaborations with Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake) are a joy to behold, while his acting elicits his pendulous balance between sympathy and shambolic failure.
“He’s a tremendous guitarist,” agrees Goodman. “Apparently he picked up this style of finger-picking for the film just like that. [Producer] T-Bone Burnett said he was studio quality. He had to be a first-class musician and a first-class actor.”
At the age of 61, Goodman doesn’t appear to be in perfect health – as he admits, he’s eager for some time off so he can restart his exercise regime – he boxes three times a week when at home – and to have his second knee replacement operation. He wheezes a little, and sometimes pauses in search of the right wording. But mostly he’s on top form with bursts of incisive, downbeat humour and a bellowing chuckle.
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Inside Llewyn Davis, official trailer
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Speaking of Hedlund, he says: “Garrett I’ve worked with before… what the f*ck was the name of that movie? I don’t remember, man. It had a lot of guns in it. He played my son, and I think he killed me.” For the record, it was James Wan’s Death Wish spin-off, Death Sentence.
Recent times have seen a resurgence of Goodman’s talents. As well as Argo and Inside Llewyn Davis, there have been other critical successes, such as The Artist and Flight. Additionally, he’s provided voice work for hit family animations such as Monsters University, and appeared in cult curiosities such as Kevin Smith’s Red State. In fact, Goodman believes that Red State landed him the role in Argo.
Yet just a few short years ago, Goodman’s career was flagging. In 2008 and 2009, meaty roles in successful films were increasingly rare, and the following year you’d have been hard pushed to spot him on the big screen at all. He sighs at the memory: “I was sitting around for a couple of months and the phone wasn’t ringing and it was very difficult because I thought I’d pretty much had it. I was trying to start to think of what I could do to create work for myself.”
After achieving a fresh breakthrough with Red State, which he followed with The Artist and Argo, George Clooney subsequently offered Goodman a role in his upcoming movie, The Monuments Men. Goodman plays a sculptor who joins a team of men who aim to track down looted artwork, as well as to preserve monuments in the battlefield. Joining Clooney and Goodman in the film’s main cast are Matt Damon, Bill Murray and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin. As Goodman laughs, “It’s a group of guys who are too old for combat, who are thrust into combat situations.”
Another new project comes with Amazon Studios’ first original show, Alpha House, in which Goodman plays one of four senators who share a house in Washington in order to save money. Not that Goodman is too bothered about its release plans. “It’s going to be on Amazon. I don’t really know how they’re going to do it. I don’t really care – the cheque’s cleared, so…”
Looking back on his career to date suggests that Goodman is more eloquent when considering his failures rather than his successes. He’s proud of much of his work – especially because the average person in the streets asks about The Big Lebowski – but he’s not overly reflective. He’s much more open when asked for a film which didn’t work out as well as he hoped.
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The Big Lebowski, official trailer
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“That Babe Ruth movie,” he says without hesitation, referring to 1992’s The Babe, which was directed by Arthur Hiller of Love Story fame. “I trained to throw left-handed, to bat left-handed and I was pretty proficient at it until we started filming. We filmed all of the acting stuff first and none of the baseball stuff, so those skills fell off and I lost a great deal of confidence. I was goofing off too much on that film and I didn’t take it seriously enough. I thought things would take care of themselves and I learned a great lesson: they don’t. They require a great deal of work and concentration. I’d like to do that one over, but that’s not going to happen. You don’t get these chances.”
Goodman states that he’d like to return to the stage at some point in the future, but he doesn’t seem to have much else in terms of long-term targets. “I wish I was more ambitious. I see guys directing but I just don’t have a calling for it. I don’t have a burning need to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. That would be the logical next step but unless something falls out of the sky, I don’t see myself generating that much energy.”
But does he really need to achieve more? He has delivered a seemingly endless list of brilliant performances across a range of genres, and has presumably made a comfortable living while doing so. But that’s the nature of the human condition. Music icons from the past push on with new projects fully aware that nothing will be as epoch changing as what they’ve previously done. Goodman, however, seems to be in the midst of a deserved second peak.
And he’s evidently more content than talk of his limited ambitions and regrets suggests, as his final word regarding Inside Llewyn Davis proves: “The last time I saw it, it socked me in the stomach. I saw it twice and the second time really affected me: a lot of questions about the fear of success and the sacrifices that you have to make of your soul in order to have a roof over your head.” He pauses, before a broad smile sweeps from cheek to cheek. “Go see it for the music and come away laughing.”
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Portraits: Liam MF Warwick
Inside Llewyn Davis is out now in the UK. The Monuments Men is released on February 21st.
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