John Goodman sits on the couch, immobile as Mount Rushmore, his forearms parked aboard meaty knees. Fishing responses from him is like chipping at granite. He says, “No, sir” and, “I don't know”; “I suppose” and, “I wouldn't know about that.”
From time to time, he emits a long, breathy groan, as though invisible doctors are subjecting him to some invasive medical procedure. I don’t know whether he’s exhausted or sick; whether he hates interviews or this particular interviewer. With the benefit of hindsight, I decide it’s all four of these things.
It is perhaps unfair to expect an actor to put on a show when the cameras aren’t rolling. But after barely five minutes, I’m floundering, rattling through the questions, desperately attempting to snag his interest. Clearly, there is no sign of the joie de vivre Goodman brought to his role as earthy, expansive Dan Conner through nine seasons of Roseanne. Nor, for that matter, is there much evidence of the playful gusto he smuggles into even his most baleful screen incarnations (volcanic Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, the one-eyed Bible salesman out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?). I walked in to meet a warm, funny, abundantly gifted actor whose work I’ve loved for years. Instead, this feels like dinner with Grendel.
Goodman is here to promote his role in Ben Affleck’s new movie, Argo, though he’s not in town for long. “No, sir.”
The film itself is punchy and involving; a stranger-than-fiction account of Hollywood’s deep-cover role in the Iranian hostage crisis that helped unseat the Carter administration. Affleck stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez, who concocts a fake movie as a means of springing six Americans who have gone to ground at the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Goodman plays the late John Chambers, a make-up artist best known for designing the masks on the original Planet Of The Apes pictures. Chambers’ task is to cook up a sci-fi production that looks legit, passing off the imperilled Americans as workaday film-makers who have come to Iran to scout for locations. Don’t worry, Chambers assures Mendez at one stage, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.”
I ask Goodman what research he did into the real-life Chambers and he heaves a heavy sigh. “I didn't have much to go on or much time to do it. I just read a couple of things. Spoke to a couple of people who knew him. There wasn’t really much to do. The script was self-explanatory.”
Did he perhaps base the character on any Hollywood crew members he’s known in the past? Chambers, after all, is one of Hollywood’s working Joes; the unsung heroes of film production. “I'm a working Joe myself,” Goodman says. “A cog in the machine.” So he feels a certain affinity with men such as Chambers? Goodman grimaces into the middle distance. He can’t think what I mean. Well, I elaborate, he describes himself as a working Joe
“Do I?” Goodman barks. “Do I? Ah, well, if you say so.”
By this point I sense we might have danced ourselves giddy with our chat about Argo, although I’m not quite sure where we go from here. Goodman seems so jaded, so hostile, so barely engaged that speaking to him has become a little unnerving. Is he feeling all right? “Yes, sir.” Can I get him some water? “No, sir,” he says and then waves me to continue.
He was born in St Louis in 1952, to a waitress mum and a postman dad who died when he was two. He liked football as a boy, and played a little in college. Now he says that he was never that good; it would not have worked out. Acting, he claims, was the only thing he could do, and he had no plan B. He liked the idea of being Marlon Brando; he loved that whole method school of acting. “Brando was different. He changed the world. He was the beginning and end of his own revolution.”
Is that what inspired Goodman, what fired him up? “Yeah, I suppose.” He laughs mirthlessly. “Gee, I wish I could still get fired up.”
I had the impression that Goodman struggled during his early years as an actor, but he insists that this was not really the case he was always able to pick up work. In his 20s, he acted on stage and cropped up on TV, bagging his first screen appearance as a hungry diner in a Burger King commercial. In the meantime, he was chasing the dream in 1980s New York, jockeying for position among a bunch of other young actors.
“Bruce Willis was a bartender at a place I used to go,” he says, briefly illuminated by the memory. ‘He was a great bartender, it was a performance every night. He just had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Ah, Bruce, he was great. He got me the drinks and I drank em down.”
In 1988, Goodman secured what would prove to be his breakthrough role. Roseanne Barr’s portrait of a loving, scratchy, blue-collar family, struggling to get by in Lanford, Illinois, amounted to a roustabout salute to the real America, depicting a landscape of chintzy furnishings and ranch-style kitchens that was worlds away from Wall Street or Beverly Hills, though Goodman won’t be drawn on the show’s political impact.
“I was just showing up and doing my job,” he says.
Roseanne's on-screen fireworks sometimes spilled over on to the set as well. Life on the show could be fraught and demanding, driven with an iron hand by Barr herself, who oversaw the scripts and brought her then-husband, Tom Arnold, to serve as executive producer. Still, the show topped the ratings and made Goodman a star. “It was strange,” he admits. “I saw the world differently. I guess there was a sense of entitlement. People treated me differently and I got used to it. It’s not pleasant to look back on right now.”
How does he look back on the show itself? “Happily, now. It was great fun at first and then it was trouble. At times, it was hard to go to work.”
What was the trouble? “A lot of individual things. She had fallen in love with this guy and brought him along and this kind of upset the balance. But, you know.” He gives an epic shrug. “Everybody got along. It was like this big dysfunctional family.”
In the years since Roseanne, Goodman has gone on to establish a rich, rewarding film career: sometimes as a leading man, more often as a galvanising support player, a safe pair of hands, a rock to anchor the ship.
He played the US president on The West Wing and the monarch of England in King Ralph. He reared up brilliantly through five collaborations with the Coen brothers, and rustled up a beautiful, heartbreaking turn as shaggy James P ‘Sulley’ Sullivan in the animated Monsters Inc. All of which was a just reward for hard graft and talent. And yet what should have been his vintage years were also blighted by increasingly heavy drinking. In 2007, Goodman checked into a rehabilitation centre to get himself sober.
“It was getting to be too much,” he tells me. “It was 30 years of a disease that was taking its toll on everyone around me and it had got to the point where, every time I did it, it was becoming more and more debilitating. It was life or death. It was time to stop.”
Was the alcohol affecting his work? “Yes, it certainly was.”
In what respect? “Erm,” he says. “Temperament. Memory. Depression.”
All at once he swivels on the couch and stares off at the wall. He is silent for the longest time. His jaw is set, his colour is rising. Finally, he speaks: “This is not something I want to chat about to sell a f****** movie. You understand? I don’t know what you do. I’m sorry, I'm very tired. It seems a little cheap to me.”
OK, I say. I'm sorry if I’ve offended you.
“It’s not your fault, it’s the process,” he says. “I can't just waltz in here and talk about the movie, I have to dredge up some very unpleasant things and it's just not worth it.”
Goodman admits that he has sometimes used work as a distraction from all the other, swirling aspects of his life, and possibly as a means of controlling them, too. He explains that he likes acting because it involves working with good people. He likes shooting with the Coen brothers best of all, he says, because their scripts are so good they’re practically foolproof, which effectively removes him from the equation: “Which works for me.”
When a film isn’t going well, it makes him very ‘antsy’. When there's no film to work on, he gets antsier still although he says he's working on that, it’s part of a process. Last summer, he had some time on his hands, so he just ended up hanging out at home with Anna, his wife of 23 years. He fixed the house, read some books, watched a little baseball. “I wound up rather enjoying myself,” he says with surprise.
At some stage he'd like to do more theatre. But right now he has an arthritic left knee that is in need of repair and a heap of new films poised to roll off the rank. Argo, for instance, is already being tipped as a potential Oscar contender, just as Michel Hazanavicius’s silent-screen comedy The Artist was last year. The actor shakes his head. He still can’t get over what happened with The Artist, in which he took a small role as a Hollywood mogul. He agreed to appear in the thing only because it sounded like a neat idea, plus he didn’t need to learn the lines. “I thought it would be a nice little film that nobody would see.”
But that’s the thing about this business, he shrugs. You can never predict which film will take off and which one will bomb. “If I could do that, I wouldn’t be sitting in this room. I’d be at a desk the size of a football pitch. Barking orders, or having someone else bark 'em for me. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, my friend.”
Afterwards, a little bruised from the encounter, I email Roseanne Barr for her thoughts on Goodman. I ask her about their working relationship on the set of Roseanne, about what aspects he brought to the role of Dan Conner. What I most want to know, I think, is what he’s like as a person when he's off screen and relaxed, when he feels loved and fulfilled.
Barr emails back straight away: “John is the funniest and deepest actor in the world,” she says. “He has only gotten more open, more sweet, more expansive and giving, on-screen and off, if that were possible, since the Roseanne show.”