Wild card: Goodman’s roles, from a war veteran in The Big Lebowski to a jazz musician in Inside Llewyn Davis, are defined by an unpredictable energy. Image: Zed Nelson/Institute.
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Sunny with a chance of rain: the many moods of John Goodman

John Goodman, who plays a jazz musician and junkie in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis talks to Kate Mossman about wigs, panic attacks and reuniting with Roseanne.

John Goodman can’t get comfortable. The sofa’s too deep: it dwarfs him like a giant beanbag. It’s strange to see Goodman looking dwarfed. When he was a young actor in Manhattan, his quarterback dimensions and baby face got him his first auditions. From his breakthrough role as the blue-collar dad Dan Conner in Rose­anne, where he wielded his on-screen son like a tiny rag doll, to his mad, bad Vietnam vet in The Big Lebowski, Goodman’s size and strength have defined him. At 61, he is physically deteriorating: he’s currently awaiting a second knee replace­ment. “I’ve already replaced this right knee,” he says, gesturing, “with a kitchen utensil. So I’m looking for something matching to go with the other one. Possibly an item from the bedroom?”

In recent years, his physicality has taken on a new, threatening edge. The sense of a body starting to self-destruct is mirrored in his moods, which change like sudden drops in cabin pressure. His latest character for Joel and Ethan Coen – the jazz musician Roland Turner in the Greenwich Village saga Inside Llewyn Davis – might be his vilest yet: a wheezing misanthrope with a heroin works kit dangling from his arm. “He hates everything that isn’t him and can’t be fit inside a hypodermic needle,” he volunteers today, clearing his throat with three thumps to the chest. “The haircut was my idea. I had to throw something in there. It is modelled on [the saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan’s hair.” He adds with mystery: “It has been mentioned as a wig.”

Talking to Goodman about his work is a game of cat and mouse. Mention character creation or improvising – two things that he’s clearly quite good at – and he’ll claim to have no facility with either. He brought nothing to Inside Llewyn Davis, he says: “It was all on the page. The Coens don’t go for improvisation – they are too careful.” Then, five minutes later, he’s relating Turner’s imagined backstory like an enthusiastic drama student in the “hot seat”. “Joel thought I was a trumpet player and Ethan thought I played sax. But I knew I was a piano player.”

There’s something in him fighting hard against being unfriendly. It’s there in his explosive laugh and in sudden punctu­ations of surprise or sympathy that come at moments you don’t expect. He is a readerly man, turning words over on his tongue: that was always clear in Roseanne, when he’d throw cod-Shakespearian pronouncements from a doorway, an American football under his arm.

“What’s funny is that when I was in high school, I tended to get kicked out of classes a lot and sent to the library and for some reason I would read plays. I never could figure out why that was. I just liked dialogue. I suppose I should have it looked into some day but I’d have to care about it enough first,” he says.

What did he read?

“Thornton Wilder. Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams.”

Why was he kicked out of class?

“For trying to attract attention to myself.”

Why did his teachers put him in the library, rather than somewhere more punitive, such as a cupboard?

“Oh, they put me in a cupboard, too.”

He’s on the other side of the room now, in search of a glass of water. The sense that Goodman is just about to walk out at any time is a major part of his energy. Fortunately, he has become one of those actors who can steal a film in ten minutes’ screen time (see Flight, The Artist and Argo).

“Who do you work for?” he asks.

“A politics and culture magazine,” I tell him.

“We have politics in the US,” he says. “They’re killing us.” But he won’t go any further into the topic.

His main place of residence is New Orleans; he lives in the Garden District, once home to his friend Dr John. He met his wife of 25 years in the jazz club Tipitina’s, which was a regular nightspot of the blues pianist Professor Longhair. “There was a Hallowe’en party there,” he says, seating himself back on his giant sofa. “We met briefly but she didn’t care for me much, because I was a little stunned that someone that pretty would say hello to me. So I didn’t really respond and she thought I was a jerk.”

Goodman lost his summer house and fishing camp to Hurricane Katrina. The place was within the city limits but “felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. People would come along and tie up their boats,” he recalls, “and you’d catch red fish, speckled trout . . . If you went out in the gulf, you’d get snapper and tuna. It’s all gone now, though.”

He starred in David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which explored the impact of the disaster on a network of New Orleans musicians – “A good part for me, because I got a lot of anger out. They were running tours to the Ninth Ward [the area worst hit by the hurricane] while people were still suffering, which was disgusting,” he says. Because of work commitments, he has spent just four straight weeks in New Orleans in the past year. “Being away all the time is wearing on me. It’s really wearing on me now. I’m really getting tired of it,” he says, his eyes darkening.

He lifts his glass of water and blows bubbles into it. “Yak, yak, yak!”

“I’m very grateful now. I went through a period where I was tired of the business and I really let that get in the way. I let the whole picture slip away from me and I became less grateful. This is an impossible business and there’s a lot of trade-offs. But I’m 61 years old now and I’m still working, with some success, and that’s something.”

Goodman struggled with alcohol for 30 years and has been sober since 2007. Things got colourful on the set of Roseanne. In one interview, Barr denied there was “any tension” between the two of them, then added: “John used to go berserk on the set all the time, every Friday, just out of nervousness and all the shit . . . John would pound the walls and scream and we’d all be freaking out, scared shitless out of frustration.” In the final series, he was often absent and when he did appear he looked unwell. Barr wrote a heart attack into the script for him. How did that feel?

He grabs his left arm, eyes bulging, keels forward on the sofa and fakes a cardiac arrest. Then he collapses into a high-pitched giggle. “The show was ready to die after the sixth season and it lasted nine,” he says. “I tried to get out in the seventh. They suggested that if I did so, they wouldn’t mind taking my house from me. Thank you very much, I said, and I stuck around.”

For years, Roseanne represented a reality never seen before on American TV, capturing the ingenuity of a small-town family struggling with regular unemployment, unaffordable health plans and indecipherable income tax literature. Though it eventually descended into fantasy (the family won the lottery), its central premise – to show, in Barr’s words, that: “Just because we were poor didn’t mean we were stupid” – seems more relevant than ever. “Roseanne and I tried to do a show together about a year and a half ago but NBC were having none of it!” Goodman volunteers cheerily. Downwardly Mobile, which reunited the pair in a trailer park, never made it past the pilot. Surely it would have been network gold?

“I know! I don’t know why they didn’t want it,” he says, positively beaming. “It was certainly better than most of NBC’s fare! We had a grand old time!”

And you only made one episode?

“One was enough!” he says, bafflingly.

Goodman’s upbringing was blue-collar and middle American, too. The family home was in one of the first suburbs of St Louis, “where veterans returning from the war would have the GI Bill and get cheap housing, move away from the city so that they could have yards of their own with like-minded veterans. There were tonnes of kids, baby boomers running around,” he says. “And school was close by.”

His father, a post office employee, died of a heart attack when he was two: he never knew him. “All I know is that he was a hard worker,” he says steadily. “He fought in the war, everybody liked him – and that’s pretty much all I know.” Did his mother, Virginia, a waitress at Jack and Phil’s Bar-B-Que in town, talk about his father much? “She was still in love with him,” he says.

Goodman’s first ambition was to be a footballer: he went to Missouri State University hoping to “walk on” – “which is when you don’t have a scholarship but you try to get on a team, anyway. But with sport, you rely on your body,” he says, “and you have to keep your spirits up. And I didn’t care that much, to be honest. If I wasn’t doing this [acting], I always wanted to be a disc jockey . . .”

The picture he paints is not entirely convincing: this lazy, uncommitted jock made a fist of the world’s most neurotic profession. He started out in musical theatre, landing a starring role in the Broadway show Big River. “There was a week,” he recalls, “where every night backstage I would have a panic attack. I couldn’t remember the first line. Every night, I was preparing to come out and say, ‘I’m so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know why I’m here.’ I’d open my mouth and the first line of the script would come out instead.”

He is keen to act in London’s West End but will not do so until he has a new knee. In Inside Llewyn Davis, his character can barely walk and spends most of his screen time stuck in the back of a beige Buick Electra in a snowstorm, with a silent valet and a ginger cat (long story). “When Roland Turner was much younger – and this is just me – he was in the vanguard of the California jazz scene,” he says, speculating again. “Now, he’s devolved into this person who rides around in the back of cars . . . He’s established but he’s definitely on his way out.”

“Do you think he dies inside that car?” I ask him?

“Let’s just say he does,” he says. “It’d be better for him. I think he’s found the next day all cold and blue and clinging to the cat.”

Close to the end of the film, there is a memorable shot of an injured cat limping across the road in the dark.

“Oh, Jesus”, he says, suddenly disgusted. “That image, man. That image. I’d put it out of my mind. I have seen the film twice and it had a very strange effect on me. It raised a lot of questions about success and fear of success. Compromise. What does it cost . . .” He’s winding down, bored or depressed.

Later that day, the cast and crew – Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, both Coen brothers – assemble at a West End cinema for a special screening. Standing alone in the foyer, Goodman spies an armchair – which, a member of staff informs me, should not have been left out: it was one of the chairs his team had rejected as too small. As he sinks into it, the head of events rushes up, flustered. “I’m jet-lagged,” Goodman says; then, brightening: “But you don’t need to hear that!”

In the Q&A session after the film, he gets all the laughs. An audience member observes: “You know when John Goodman appears in a Coen brothers film that something bad is going to happen.”

“In what way?” Goodman asks, innocently. He exits the screening laughing loudly and singing to himself.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” out now

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times