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.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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