My third and final day of the New Yorker Festival started with an interview of John Goodman by Lawrence Wright at the Acura at SIR Stage 37. This time I got off at the closest subway station but still had some distance to walk since the room is past 10th Avenue on 37th Street. As soon as he sat down, Goodman said, “The chair didn’t break.” Goodman is currently starring in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page with Nathan Lane, John Slattery, Holland Taylor, and Robert Morse. Director Jack O’Brien described Goodman as private, complex, smart, and shy. Wright said they were going to work on the last thing that morning. We started by watching a series of film clips that Wright called, “John Goodman Loses His Shit.” It was every movie or TV scene where Goodman rages, points a gun, hits a wall, punches a person, and loses his shit. At first Goodman was hiding his face but by the time the clips finished, he was smiling and laughing. Seeing those scenes all together is really funny.
Wright decided to conduct the interview as if Goodman were writing his memoir, which would be called I’m So Goddamn Sorry I Did That. The interview was broken into chapters. First chapter – Goodman was born in St. Louis and he didn’t know his father because he died before Goodman’s second birthday. After his father died, his mother worked taking in children in the afternoons for what now would be called daycare. At some point he became introverted, which he said is a symptom of his alcoholism, but it fueled his creativity. In school, when he misbehaved, they’d send him to the library. He was the class clown and as class clown he craved the attention but would then want people to back off. At the library he always read plays. He doesn’t know why. He didn’t have much going for him. Later he went from junior college to university and he tried football but wasn’t very good at it. He found that he was comfortable in the drama department. He attended Southwest Missouri State University, which is the “Harvard of the Ozarks.” Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper were both classmates. At Missouri State he clicked with a teacher who had attended Yale Drama. He taught the Stanislavski method, which Goodman thinks is very misunderstood. He said that Marlon Brando cast too big a shadow and he started acting by imitating Brando. There’s always talk about the next Brando but as Jack Nicholson said, there is no imitating Brando. Brando is the beginning and the end.
Chapter two – in August 1975, Goodman came to NYC with money that his brother gave him. He had to come to NYC because if he didn’t he would beat himself up for not trying. When he got to NYC he was scared. His first job was as a bouncer at the Adam’s Apple, a singles bar on the Upper East Side. The bouncer kept telling Goodman ways to hurt people and peel off their flesh and Goodman made some excuse and never returned after the first night. He auditioned every day in order to develop that thick skin you need to handle rejection. Did dinner theater and tours and then he started booking a lot of commercials. Goodman was booking a couple of commercials a week. This is when he started drinking. He had just gotten out of a relationship – there was some slight stalking involved – and he started hanging out at a theater bar. This is where he met Bruce Willis, who was the bartender at Café Central.
In 1978 he did Midsummer’s Night Dream with Nathan Lane and Dann Florek at the Equity Library Theatre. He was cast as Pap Finn in Big River in 1985, which was probably when most people took notice of him. During the run he suffered from one week of stage fright. He said he was getting ready to make his entrance when suddenly a shock went through him and his body felt drained. He couldn’t remember his first line and thought he’d go out and explain to the audience that he didn’t know what was wrong but he could not perform that evening. When he made his entrance the line just came out of his mouth and everything was fine. This went on for a week and then it ended as suddenly as it started. He never had stage fright again. Wright said that Alec Baldwin called Goodman the best Mitch. Goodman said he wanted to get in on the 1995 TV version of the 1992 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire because of Jessica Lange, who was a friend. Goodman said he used an unfortunate and difficult to understand New Orleans accent called Yat. Goodman also thought he was too heavy for the part and is not pleased with that performance.
One of the roles that stays with him is Falstaff (1995, Old Globe Theater, San Diego). Each role that stays with him does so for a different reason. Goodman was at his heaviest when he played Pozzo to Lane’s Estragon in Waiting for Godot. They showed a slide of the two on stage and the audience gasped because Lane looked like a tiny person next to Goodman, who was so big. The image appears in the New York Times review.
An unforgettable character who Goodman has met is Peter O’Toole. Goodman was in awe of O’Toole. O’Toole had that wit and that great voice when he told a story. They showed the tea scene from King Ralph, which is very funny physical comedy. Goodman told us that the scene was all improvised. Goodman learned physical comedy from watching Steve Martin, Jacques Tati, and WC Fields. Goodman mentioned that Fields was a juggler and one of the best actors he’d seen. Fields could make all his emotions known without saying a word. Goodman said he didn’t model after these actors – he just stole. Other actors he admires are Ralph Richardson and, of course, Brando.
The next chapter of the book would be about “Roseanne, which gave you your fame.” “Yup.” Goodman said he was a residual from the tabloid magnet that was Roseanne. He became defensive and a jerk. At the time it felt like the worst thing that happened but Goodman loved the job. Wright thought the people in Roseanne’s world would be in Trump’s world now. At this Goodman became very uncomfortable and kept searching for words that he could not find. “I don’t understand…people going against their interests.” He didn’t see the series as marginalizing these people. But he also saw himself as Normal Joe, which he certainly was not.
Wright said, “You were drinking a lot at that time.” “Okay,” Goodman smiled. Goodman said he finally bottomed out because he got tired of lying and not feeling well and having the DTs. He was supposed to appear on an awards show but he was off in the Ozarks golfing and drinking with some old buddies. Finally, he realized he was not going to make the show. He called his wife, which would be “like Osama Bin Laden calling the Navy Seals.” When asked he said he’s not supposed to say this but he goes to AA regularly. He drank for 30 years but only the first five was fun. He still has drinking dreams, where he falls off the wagon and he wakes up angry at himself when he realizes that he’s still sober and he was convinced he’d been drinking. And he does like looking a photo of a cold amber liquid in a frosted glass.
Now comes the Hollywood chapter. Wright said you always know when Goodman walks into a scene. Goodman said that Ethan Coen is crazy but normal; he’s like everyone else but bigger. The Coens are Midwestern guys like Goodman and one called all three provincials. His audition for Raising Arizona was just hanging out with Joel and Ethan Coen, which amazed anyone he told the story to. Apparently they were difficult to see and audition for. Goodman hadn’t yet seen Blood Simple. He said they first shot a trailer so they could raise money to make the full film (an idea they borrowed from Sam Raimi). It took them a year to raise the $1.5 million they needed.
Goodman said there were a lot of baby movies in the 1980s. “Raising Arizona was the most twisted.” After that movie, the Coen brothers started writing parts for Goodman until they finally wrote a role that was too much Goodman (something that Goodman’s done too many times) and they gave the part to someone else. Goodman described his part in Barton Fink as a serial killer with a heart. “Traveling salesman, my necktie, gift of gab with the unfortunate habit of decapitating people.” Ethan still calls Goodman “Madman.” The Big Lebowski was all on the page. When he gets ready for a role, it’s the voice that comes to him first. Everything comes from that. Wright mentioned Goodman’s hitting George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and at the mention of Clooney’s name, Goodman said, “Oh, is he working now?” Goodman said that Clooney always made him laugh. He knew him from Roseanne when Clooney had all that hair. After the film was finished, when discussing what instrument Goodman’s jazz musician from Inside Llewyn Davis played, it was discovered that Joel thought it was trumpet, Ethan thought it was saxophone, and Goodman thought it was piano. No one had mentioned it while filming.
Wright asked Goodman when he had fallen in love with New Orleans. Goodman had gone on a trip to Louisiana when he was pledging a fraternity. They stopped in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Being in New Orleans the first time had a profound impact on him. The music, smells, architecture, and food. He couldn’t afford more than Boone’s Farm at that time. And, of course, years later he met a Louisiana girl. She walked up to him and said hello and he was so shocked that he did not respond. She thought he was a jerk and walked away. He kept tabs on her through mutual friends and after a year they started dating. During Katrina, Goodman was already out of town for a play he was scheduled to do in LA. His wife had to evacuate to her parents’ house and then they had to evacuate and ended up in Tampa. He couldn’t get in touch with her for three days. Goodman doesn’t like LA because all the news is about entertainment.
Goodman said he gravitates towards well-written roles. He was immature for many years and threw away chances for a good education but he always loved literature.
When Wright said that he was involved with Deepwater Horizon, Goodman said he did the minimum. In 2010, Goodman provided a voiceover for a commercial to raise awareness of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Now it was time for the epilogue. Goodman crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair with eyes closed.
“How did you get here?” “Stopped whining.” Goodman said he is less angry, which means he is also less funny. It’s all a byproduct of his being an alcoholic. He has to become a better person and accept others.
The first three audience questions were from people from St. Louis. The first guy used to work as a busboy in a restaurant in St. Louis. Goodman walked in, went straight to the jukebox, played “Gloria,” sang loudly, and filled the place. The guy thought that this was the best job he’ll ever have. And now he’s a lawyer and realizes that’s true. The question was, “How did music influence your life?” Goodman said he has an emotional response to music.
“Did drinking fuel your craft?” Goodman said it did not; it affected his work. He thought he had to drink because of other artists who did. But drinking killed them.
Goodman’s brother was a big influence on him. They would watch Ernie Kovacs and Bob & Ray. He’d get the Village Voice and the New York Times and, as a kid, Goodman would immediately go to the theater section. He doesn’t know why.
As to wondering if being from the Midwest hurt him at auditions, Goodman said that everyone auditioning in NYC is from somewhere else.
About the rumor that Goodman was going to star in a movie of A Confederacy of Dunces, which the questioner thought was brilliant casting and was disappointed to hear someone else was going to play the part and would Goodman reconsider, Goodman said he was never considered for that role and he wouldn’t do it if asked. He doesn’t think that book would make a good movie.
Talking about his weight, Goodman said that after he quit drinking he was still eating alcoholically.
For The Front Page, Goodman is pushing himself because he is uncomfortable in the role. He mentioned that a lot of the names that Hecht and MacArthur used are close to the bone and they were sued by the person who his character is based on. Wright said that The Front Page is very good and you should see it if you can get a ticket. Goodman was surprised when he was told that ticket sales were second only to Hamilton. That’s the business end and he does not pay attention to that.
One woman said she can’t wait for the memoir to come out and everyone laughed. Was she joking? Or did she not realize that Wright was using a memoir outline as a way to conduct the interview?
When asked to speculate if The West Wing would be different now because of today’s politics, Goodman refused to speculate. It’s too hard just to keep one foot in front of the other.
Treme was very important because it was a spotlight on the people and the city when they most needed it. Wright said that New Orleans has been called the least American city. “Northern Costa Rica,” said Goodman.
“What are you looking for these days?” “Less work.” Goodman used to take any gig – sometimes just so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. But he’s been lucky to have had many great scripts and sometimes great directors.
Goodman’s favorite collaborators are Lorne Michaels (he did 13 episodes of SNL and it was the most fun of those years because of the great writers and talent), Nathan Lane, Joel & Ethan Coen, and Mike Nichols and Jack O’Brien, who are the most literate directors.
The interview ended as quietly as it began, with Goodman being thanked and walking off stage to applause.
Later as the line for the ladies’ room snaked through the lobby and the men’s room was pretty full, Goodman opened the men’s room door and said, “This is nuts,” and then apologized that he wasn’t singling anyone out. As I was leaving, I saw Goodman finishing a cigarette before he got into his car. I had little time to get to my next event, which was 20 blocks uptown and 5 blocks east.
I realized that all three interviewees I’d seen so far this weekend are alcoholics. David Letterman has been open about his alcoholism, although he was never asked about it on Friday. Jason Isbell is very open and writes about it. And I didn’t know John Goodman was an alcoholic but it seems he’s very open about it when asked.
This is not what we saw at the New Yorker Festival but it seems someone has put together a video of “John Goodman Loses His Shit.” A lot of scenes of course overlap what I saw.
By Carene Lydia Lopez