Of the many cinematic collaborations that have proven fruitful over the decades, one that hasn’t failed to deliver is that of Joel and Ethan Coen with actor John Goodman, who has appeared in six of their movies dating back to 1987’s Raising Arizona. Since then, Goodman has played equally memorable roles in Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and of course, The Big Lebowski, a movie which became its own cult phenomenon separate from the movie thanks to infinitely quotable Goodman lines like “Shut up, Donny!”
Goodman is back in the Coens’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, set in the world of the 60s New York folk scene. He shows up in the second act as an ornery jazz musician named Roland Turner, who gives the title’s anti-hero a ride to Chicago, berating him all the way. Like the amazing characters Goodman created for last year’s Ben Affleck’s Argo and Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Roland leaves a pretty huge impact on viewers, which made us wonder when Goodman was going to get more credit and industry recognition for his film work. (Goodman won a Golden Globe for appearing on the “Roseanne” show after four previous nominations.)
Granted, Goodman is a busy actor who doesn’t always do a ton of interviews, something that changed this year as he returned as the hairy scarer James “Sully” Sullivan in Disney’s Monsters University, though he also appeared in summer duds like The Internship and The Hangover Part III. Then on top of that, he also found the time to shoot an entire dramatic web series for Amazon called “Alpha House,” of which seven episodes are already online.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Goodman a few weeks back to talk about reuniting with the Coens, and we learned, he can be a man of few words, but they’re apt ones.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve had a lot of great roles in Coen Brothers over the years, so what’s your relationship with them like as far as when they have something for you? Do they call you directly and send you a script?
John Goodman: It’s been a long time. It’s been almost 15 years since the last time and I was happy to get an Email from Ethan saying that they had something I might be interested in. They sent me the script and I sure was interested in it, but I would have done it, even if they hadn’t sent me a script. I just like working with them.
CS: I can imagine. I know that for “Big Lebowski” they already had you in mind for that role, so was that the case with this character as well?
Goodman: Yeah, yeah. Every time I’ve worked with them since “Raising Arizona” they’ve written a role for me.
CS: Was there ever a time when they wrote a role for you and you couldn’t do it for one reason or another?
Goodman: No, that’s never happened and I can’t see it happening.
CS: The character of Roland has some interesting parallels to the character you played in “O Brother,” and there are interesting parallels between the two movies since they are based very much on the music. As far as a character like Roland, do you have to understand their motivations to be able to play them or is the writing just there that you can run with it?
Goodman: I think the writing was strong enough that I really didn’t have to do much. I throw a little background information on the guy just for myself, and Joel and Ethan didn’t need to hear about itit really didn’t make any difference. There was just a matter of, on this one I had a lot of long speeches, so I read them over and over and over again, and then in the middle of that, the character’s voice kind of came to me, and I trusted that. So it was kind of an organic process. It just kind of took care of itself.
CS: Roland is a very interesting character and very unique. Some might feel they want to know more about him but maybe not
Goodman: Yeah, I think the more you scratch the surface there, the less you’d want to know. I think he’s less interesting than meets the eyes, one of those types of guys. You really would not want to spend a lot of time with him.
CS: It’s interesting to have him go head-to-head with Llewyn, because Llewyn spends much of his time being unpleasant to others and then he meets a guy who ups the ante.
Goodman: Yeah, this is my own theory that this could be a possible alternative future for Llewyn in this guy. He loves what he does, but at this point in his life, he’s grown to be calcified, he’s locked into what he does and he won’t accept any other forms of music. He won’t accept anything that doesn’t interest him or his lifestyle.
CS: What was the shoot like? Obviously a lot of your scenes take place in a car and in restaurants. How many days were you there shooting those scenes?
Goodman: Not long, not long. It didn’t take long at all. Maybe ten days.
CS: And they knew that you’d have all those long speeches and stories ready to go so you could shoot that quickly?
Goodman: (laughs) The stuff was so well-written and the better written something is, the easier it is to learn.
CS: Was there anything that surprised you about the character as you were first discovering him and exploring him.
Goodman: Nah, not that I can remember. Not really.
CS: I guess there’s some things about him we wouldn’t want to spoil.
Goodman: It wouldn’t be of interest to anybody except for me. I just leave it with what’s up on the screen.
CS: How have the Coen Brothers changed, if at all, since you last worked with them and since working with them in the early days of “Raising Arizona”? Have you found they’ve changed a lot in the way they work?
Goodman: I think they’ve gotten better, but they were always pretty good to begin with. To me, they haven’t changed much because they still have a very rich vision, it’s very literary as well. They know to translate that vision into images, and they’re great storytellers like that. They know exactly what they want and that makes for a more tidy shooting day. You don’t waste any time floundering around looking for the right thing. They know what they want, they know how to get it, so that’s great.
CS: You’ve been very busy this year obviously, doing different things, so do you have a criteria for roles that you take?
Goodman: Script, director and then who else I’m going to be working with. That seems to be what I’ve been doing.
CS: Having been acting for such a long time, do you try to find parts that challenge you?
Goodman: They all challenge me. (chuckles)
CS: How so?
Goodman: (laughs) Getting the energy to learn the lines. No, you bring your own level of interest and your own curiosity to every role.
CS: I would imagine it’s gotten easier to learn lines the longer you’ve done this.
Goodman: It’s gotten a lot easier, yeah.
CS: Last year, you had two great roles, in “Argo” and “Flight.” People generally loved the characters you created for those movies and your scenes and there was quite a bit of awards talk. Do you think the time is coming soon between this and George Clooney’s upcoming “Monuments Men” that the Academy might start recognizing you?
Goodman: Nah, nah, I can’t worry about stuff like that. It would be nice, but if I spend my whole time worrying about it, you’re just going to wind up constantly disappointed, and it’s the wrong reason to work. If you’re looking for a reward all the time, the reward is the work itself and if it’s not, well, Jesus, I think I’m in the wrong business.
CS: Well said. This year, you returned as “Sully” in “Monsters University” after a number of years, and I’m glad Pixar was able to figure that out, so is it fun playing that character?
Goodman: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Pixar is great. They’re great storytellers.
CS: Over the years, had you seen other scripts or premises was this the first time they actually had something.
Goodman: They weren’t going to do a sequel. They said there’s no reason to do one unless we come up with a damn good reason, and then they came up with this pre-story, which I thought made all the sense in the world and it’s a better idea, yeah.
CS: Would you and Billy want to do another one or is that really up to Pixar and if they can come up with another good idea?
Goodman: That’s up to them. If it was up to Billy and I, we’d be doing it all the time.
CS: What else have you been working on that you’re excited about? I haven’t had a chance to watch “Alpha House” yet, but have you shot the entire season already?
Goodman: Yeah, we wrapped last week. Finished it last week and it goes on today. We’re finished selling “Llewyn Davis” and we’ve got “Monuments Men” coming out in February.
CS: Yeah, a lot of people are excited to see that one.
Goodman: Me, too. I can’t wait to see it.
CS: Going back to “Alpha House” for a second. You were on television many years ago on the “Roseanne” show, but television has changed where you can have an entire season of a show live all at once. Is that a strange feeling to not have a show that’s a weekly thing?
Goodman: I don’t concern myself with it. It’s none of my business. Yeah, it’s just like shooting a film except that we have some more pages to do than you would in a film. You’re a lot busier and you have to move a lot faster, and it’s different from “Roseanne” because there’s no live audience. We’re shooting all the time while on “Roseanne” we just shot on Fridays.
CS: Do you generally ever go back to watch stuff you’re in, or are you one of those actors who does the work and then lets the director do their thing and you move on?
Goodman: It depends. A lot of times when I watch it, it takes me out of the film, it takes me out of the story from watching myself. I start wondering, “Oh, I should have done this different, I should have done that different.”
Inside Llewyn Davis is now playing in select cities and will expand into more places on Friday, December 20.
(Photo source: C.Smith/ WENN.com)