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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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.