BY ANDREW FISHInterview conducted for Venice Magazine
John Goodman is a fixture in contemporary American cinema and television. Beloved for his rough-edged tenderness on “Roseanne” and idolized for his tyrannical loyalty in The Big Lebowski, he has a knack for cultivating hilarity in the darkest places and jubilance in righteous anger. He’s a master of the jovial veneer that thinly veils a percolating menace, and simply unrivaled at flying off the handle. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor’s body of work is prolific to the point of common knowledge, as one would be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with him, and equally challenged to find a moviegoer who isn’t a fan.
Goodman’s role as Dan Conner on “Roseanne” served as the rock upon which he built his towering reputation and his alliance with the Coen brothers made him larger than life. A rare example of a character actor who rose to the heights of Hollywood luminary, Goodman bounded his way up with such turns as the jail-breaking Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona (1987); an unlikely monarch in King Ralph (1991); Charlie Meadows (aka Karl “Madman” Mundt) in Barton Fink (1991); the savior of 1920s baseball in The Babe (1992); the epic Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998); the cyclopean, turncoat Bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000); the deftly exploited Detective Dehling in One Night at McCool’s (2001); and even as stone-aged family man, Fred Flintstone, in The Flintstones (1994). Always game for a laugh, Goodman became a “Saturday Night Live” favorite as he dolled himself up as Linda Tripp multiple times during the Clinton scandal. He also lent his talent to “The West Wing” as Acting President Glenallen Walken; the German historical drama, Pope Joan (Die Päpstin, 2009), as Pope Sergius; and “Waiting for Godot” as Pozzo on Broadway.
Goodman’s ability to illuminate the bright side of hardship, while playfully reminding us how deep in the gutter we’re capable of going, has earned him his place in the pantheon of screen legends. The venerated performer gave us a call from his adopted home of New Orleans on a Monday afternoon. The following interview took place in March 2010.
Your character in “Treme” seems to parallel your own life, in that he’s someone who wants to get the truth out about the events in New Orleans after Katrina.
John Goodman: Yes, the impotent rage that resides in me. [laughs] Snap a rubber on that and put it right!
Potential energy becoming kinetic. You’re getting it all out there.
Yeah, some of those speeches were fun to say.
How did you first become involved with the project?
I was doing a TV movie in New York last fall with Al Pacino, a famous Italian actor.
I think I’ve heard of him.
David Simon and Eric [Overmyer] came down one day, and they had an idea; they had shot a pilot for this, and I’d heard of it already. I was all for it because they’ve done such good work, and I thought, “Maybe somebody will do a good piece about New Orleans.” So they had this character and they wanted to go and re-shoot some stuff, and they offered it to me. And I said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was one of those deals where I was trying to act like I was holding three aces and not grinning from ear to ear. [laughs] They offered it to me and it worked out.
Do you find that you relate to the character?
In the sense that I’ve always loved the city a great deal, and people who are converts go overboard sometimes. They get extraordinarily passionate about things that the ordinary citizen would take for granted. There’s a kinship with the guy there, and a rage that what happened was not coming out, and was being sloughed off — like the fact that it was a man-made catastrophe. The Corps of Engineers and the local contractor, whoever was responsible for this mess was getting away with it. There’s a lot of anger there, and I share that with this guy.
Were you over there when everything hit?
I left two days before. We were selling a house and getting ready to move into the new one, and I had a play booked in Los Angeles. So I was going to leave town anyway, and I evacuated two days before the storm. None of my property was harmed, and coming back here would have been getting in the way, so I went ahead and did the play in Los Angeles. My wife evacuated to Tampa, Florida. We lost touch for about three days; it was kind of spooky. The night before I left town, I was in what they call down here a “fishing camp.” People build these places. It’s 45 minutes from my house, but it’s still in the city limits, and it is in the middle of nowhere. You go out there and fish, and it was a nice place, but the hurricane totally wiped it out.
It’s not there anymore.
Yeah. Ain’t there no mo‘.
There’s a line that Steve Zahn’s character has, that the place is “a shadow of its former self.” Do you think that’s accurate?
Not anymore. I think the city is coming back pretty well. It’s been five years, and it’s been through the initiative of the people of this city.
Let’s talk about the character you play in the HBO film, “You Don’t Know Jack.”
Neal trained as a paramedic and he hooked up with Jack Kevorkian because he was the only decent doctor in this hospital where he was training. And Jack did all kinds of experiments during the Vietnam era, where he was using cadaver blood to try to save lives with transfusions. He hooked Neal up with that and he wound up with hep-C. [laughs] So he was a pretty loyal guy, but they had been through a lot together and he believes in Jack. Jack goes off the deep end sometimes, but he’s a really brilliant guy.
Did you meet with the real Jack and Neal before you took on the role?
I didn’t. It didn’t happen, but I hope to someday. Neal sent me some ties that I wore in the piece. Great ties! [laughs]
How did you see your character’s motivation in terms of moving forward with Dr. Kevorkian.
He was actually just trying to help people, and help Jack. He trusts Kevorkian. That’s where he places his trust, and Jack places his trust in medical science, and tries to use his knowledge and skills to ease people’s pain. Jack trusts that, and Neal trusts Jack.
Do you have your own feelings about the work that Jack Kevorkian was doing?
That’s really between Jack and his patients. I don’t think there’s much of a moral issue when you see how badly these people were suffering. They made conscious choices to ease their own pain, and their families were certainly for it. That’s as far as I go. In terms of good or bad? It was neither. It just is.
You worked with Al Pacino before.
I worked with him in 1987 in a movie called Sea of Love, and then we did a play in 2002 in Downtown New York at Pace University called “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui,” written by Bertolt Brecht — and now. [laughs] It was a lot of fun, the first day [on the set of “You Don’t Know Jack” with Pacino]. It was great.
He really sank into that character. I didn’t even recognize him at first.
When I first saw him, he was in full makeup and I was flabbergasted.
And complementing his appearance is his channeling of this character.
Yeah, he’s an amazing guy. When I was a young actor in college, worshipping that guy, and then getting to work with him.
It must have been great to reunite for this project.
It was like a couple of kids who hadn’t seen each other for a while, picking up a ball and glove and playing catch again.
In many of the scenes you have with him, you two are tempering the serious-ness of the situation with the kind of humor that old friends have.
That’s the kind of humor that those two shared. Kind of a black humor that broke a lot of tension.
Do you have that with him off camera?
Yeah, we kid around. Mostly we talk about old movies and actors and stuff, and baseball. He’s a Yankees freak.
I remember the first time I saw you on screen in Revenge of the Nerds.
I’m still miffed at the Academy for that. [laughs] It was a lot of fun to make. Everybody on it, we all had a lot of fun.
Did moving to New Orleans have anything to do with your role in The Big Easy?
No. I came down here with a bunch of fraternity guys in 1972, and flipped. It was amazing; I just fell in love with the place for the brief time that I was here. And then over the years, as I was making more money, I would make it a habit to take the week of Mardi Gras off and come down here. I’d always loved the city and I’d always come down, and I married a Louisiana girl. I’d wanted to get out of Los Angeles for a while, and I figured that if we moved here, she’d be near her parents when I had to go work. So that was pretty easy. Somebody said that there are certain people with a gene missing, and when they come to Louisiana they find it, and they settle down.
Did you find that to be the case when you visited in the ’70s?
Yes. I don’t know if it’s past-life experience, or whatever; I just love it down here. It’s something in the air.
Watching “Treme,” we’re getting a view of things that most people don’t get to see. There are people out there playing music for no other reason than it’s a part of their lives.
And it’s everywhere, too. You walk around and you can always hear something goin’ on. You can always smell something going on, too. A lot of great cooking down here.
You played the Cajun Chef on “Saturday Night Live” with Phil Hartman.
That was the first sketch I did on “Saturday Night Live.”
It was the Cajun Chef meets the Anal Retentive Chef.
That was a great sketch. I was so scared because I had to juggle these big knives and Phil Hartman kept reaching in to grab stuff, and I said, “I’m gonna cut his hand off on live television!” But it worked out pretty good.
How did you first get involved with the Coen brothers and Raising Arizona, the first film you did with them?
I was doing [True Stories] for David Byrne in 1985. I’d just done a Broadway show and went straight to this movie that David Byrne wrote and directed. [The Coen brothers] were looking for a big, oafy guy, and I was baby-faced, and I went into the office and I just hit it off with those guys. We laughed our asses off, and they cast me in [Raising Arizona].
Was it a lot of fun working with them?
Oh my God, it was incredible. It was so cool because on my days off I’d go over and work, just to hang around the set. Because they didn’t have any money and if they needed something, they were very creative in how they shot things — and it looked like a million bucks. Well, I guess more than a million bucks, if we’re talking movies — multi-millions. But just the creativity and the writing. The writing really thrilled me. And just being around the set; they set a good table over there, them Coen brothers.
They had a knack, especially in the beginning, for coming up with lines that you couldn’t get out of your head.
I guess it’s like a hook or a song lyric.
And there was that great line you had, “I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness.”
[long bout of laughter] Yeah, well the thing about that guy was I pictured him as a criminal genius with a two-digit I.Q. “I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness.”
A line like that, if said in an austere, solemn circumstance — like in a different movie — would have an entirely different feel, but it’s hilarious in that scene.
He’s a real hayseed philosopher. [laughs]
And then you did Barton Fink with them.
Yes, 1990. I did a movie called King Ralph, and as soon as I got back from England we went right into Barton Fink. I would do “Roseanne” and then I’d do two movies in the summer and then go back to “Roseanne.”
Your role in Barton Fink was intense, as is every moment in that movie. And in the end, your character turned out to be…
Oh, he’s a pretty relaxed guy! [laughs] It’s just how others reacted to him. He knew what he was doing. He had his own worldview; he took it easy. He’d just get bugged by things. Things would get “balled up at the head office,” that’s what he said.
A friend of mine pointed out that your character is the hotel. When the walls started sweating, your character’s ear would start dripping goo.
[laughs] Yeah, that goopus that came out of my ear. Oh, God. Maybe I oughtta open a chain of hotels. The Karl Mundt Hotel.
Where the walls sweat.
Yeah. And just pipe in sound like people are having sex right next door to you.
Let’s talk about The Big Lebowski. It’s the film many people associate with you the most.
Well, that’s a great thing, then.
What are your feelings about that film? Did you enjoy making it?
Yes. I mean, they wrote it for me! For a few years down the line, they’d be telling me how the progress was going on this thing they were working on. We had a couple weeks’ rehearsal time to get the dialogue down with me and Jeff [Bridges] and Steve [Buscemi]. And everything else was a breeze. Like I said before, they set a good table. When they shoot, everything’s relaxed and they know exactly what they want. If there are problems, they don’t let the little kids know about it. [laughs] It was just wonderful, and hysterical, too, because the script was so goddamn funny. And [John] Turturro, trying to watch him work; it’s impossible. [laughs]
You have that classic line, “I can get you a toe!”
“You want a toe? I can get you a toe!” [laughs]
When I first saw your “Shomer Shabbos” tirade in that film, I was dying. It was one of the funniest scenes ever. And I covered Michael Stuhlbarg, I mentioned how that scene can now be looked at as a prelude to A Serious Man, where the Coens really explore their Judaism.
[laughs] That was some movie; I really enjoyed watching that.
Walter in The Big Lebowski, in part, represents the Coen brothers’ inherent Jewishness, which then comes out full-force in A Serious Man.
[laughs] And in Raising Arizona, when I was in prison with my brother, they had us lectured by a sociologist whose name was Doc Schwartz, who I think was Joel and Ethan’s dentist or something. He wore a “chai” symbol on a chain. And I would say, “Well, it’s like Doc Schwartz says!”
A lot of people wonder if you’re Jewish.
It’s funny, somebody wished me a very happy Pesach this morning, and I don’t have the honor of being a lantzman, but I do have the name. People often think that I am, and I’m very honored to take that. Maybe someday. Maybe next year! [laughs]
The Big Lebowski is generally agreed among fans to get better and better every time you see it, for some reason that I don’t fully understand.
[laughs] You know, it’s like the “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings. Every time you go back and look at it, you see something different. It’s the “Dogs Playing Poker” School of Art.
I’ll put that in print.
You must be recognized for Walter from Lebowski when people come up to you on the street.
That’s your younger kids who like that.
We like it a lot. You were making a lot of films at that point, like King Ralph and Arachnophobia, while you were also on “Roseanne.” How did you manage all of that?
Well, I guess I had the energy to do stuff like that back then. The sitcom was great, because it was an anchor. It was, to overuse the term, like a family unit. A crazy fucking family unit, but it was a place to live! We lived there; we showed up in the morning and were very intimate with each other and just laughed. Laughed our asses off. It was wonderful. It was good for maybe seven years, and then it started reaching. I think it had run its course, and then I really got tired of it and I tried to get off of it, and finally did, but I’ll always be grateful to that series. And people to this day, that’s what they come up and tell me.
There was a lot of beauty to that show, in the way the family interacted. Whatever was going on, there was so much love there.
Yeah, somewhere below the surface there was some love. [laughs] That was all Rose. She wanted things real. Boy, she could tear the shit out of a script faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. She was a great on-the-spot editor — and bullshit detector. And she was wonderful. If it weren’t for her, it wouldn’t have been half that good.
The show could have gone in a different comedic direction, like the way the self-obsessed characters behaved on “Married with Children,” but instead it was about the good way to go about things in life.
I think so. Roseanne always said, “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we’re stupid.” I think that had a lot to do with it.
Tell us a little about how you got started as an actor.
I got into this in college, at Southwest Missouri State University. I was just rippin’ along. I was a kid; what do you expect? But I hit this, and I found a great teacher down there and just found something to be passionate about with my life. That carried me a long way, because once I was done with college, I was like, “Now what the fuck are you gonna do?” My brother gave me a thousand bucks to start graduate school or lose in a poker game or something, and I said, “If I don’t go to New York, I’ll live the rest of my life kicking myself in the ass. I’ll be back in St. Louis working a car wash, or whatever I do with a drama degree.” So I went to New York and I got hired within a month at a dinner theater, and a couple of years later I was doing commercials to support myself. I was a lucky slug. And over the years that passion had died, or had become extinguished through inaction or indifference, but it’s nice that it’s coming back now. The fuckin’ show business will kill anything.
Your passion is being reignited now?
Yeah, it hasn’t been killed. I haven’t managed to stomp it out yet. [laughs]
What was your big break?
I never really had one. I had a bunch of little breaks. Like when I was going broke and I got a bunch of pictures together and mailed them out, and a guy just happened to pick them out, who worked at an advertising agency and he set me up with a couple of commercial agents. He just happened to like my picture. It’s just little stuff like that, and little-bitty things along the way. There was never really any one thing. Because before the television show, I had about four years of doing films and I was moving along in that direction, too. So things were nice, and they still are.
It sounds like there was a rough period, when Hollywood really got to you.
It wasn’t that; it was everything. I got sober about two and a half years ago, and that helped.
Was it a dark time when you were drinking?
Well, it was a 30-year period. All I ever wanted to do was make a living as an actor, and when I got that, what’s next? Hey, alky-hol! [laughs] And that fucked up a lot of things. I’m glad I’m not doing that anymore. It’s a life-drain.
You’ve said that some of the problems you were having resulted from setting the bar too high for yourself.
Oh, yeah. That’s kind of a good psychological trick. “Well, jeeze, I’ll never be that good, so why try? Why bother?”
What was it that brought you back?
I just finally got sick of it. I’d just had it. It’s a terrible waste of life.
How is your life different now?
I don’t shake quite as often as I used to. [laughs] I don’t have the headache in the morning! It’s a lot of hope and, basically, just cornball stuff like that. I look forward to getting up in the morning. I look forward to doing new things. I’m not Pollyanna; it’s not an overnight thing. I’m just looking forward to the rest of my life.
Original publication date: April 2010
*Photo by Tom Sorensen, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.