The first thing you notice when you meet John Goodman is his “no bullshit” aura. It’s hard to quantify just how Goodman relates this so well, but it’s shockingly evident and clear: There will be no bullshit around John Goodman. And, yes, this has an intimidating effect – especially from a man like Goodman who towers over most people of normal height. (Speaking of Goodman’s appearance, he appears to be in excellent shape right now.) Anyway, all of this can make a humble reporter feel, let’s say, maybe a bit more anxious than one might feel in similar situations that don’t involve John Goodman.
You’ve heard this before: A movie has an ensemble cast, then John Goodman shows up in the movie and blows the thing out of the water. Goodman will say this is luck, but it happens too often to simply discount all of this as superstitious fortitude. Goodman does just this again in Trumbo, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In the 1950s, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) was blacklisted as a communist — Trumbo was a communist and quite proud of that fact, even going to jail for being in contempt of court in his fight against the Red Scare U.S. government — so the person who penned Roman Holiday, Spartacus and The Brave One had to write under pseudonyms. Goodman plays Frank King, the head of a low-rent movie studio who is more than thrilled to have the great Dalton Trumbo writing scripts for him at discount. When King is threatened by anti-communist protesters, a baseball bat is introduced and it’s the best moment of the movie.
I met Goodman at his hotel here in Toronto to discuss his new film and career, one that now spans 40 years (when Goodman says that out loud, it’s as if he can’t quite believe it himself). Once we started talking about our mutual hometown of St. Louis, a lot of that aforementioned early anxiety went away – but not before Goodman made it clear it probably was a good choice that I didn’t try to say hello to him at a party the night before.
I almost introduced myself to you at a party last night, but I chickened out.
The party was weird because I didn’t know anybody there and there were too many people. And it was so loud, I couldn’t hear anybody anyway. [Laughs] They brought a plate of food and I turned around and it was gone.
I imagine it would have gone something like, “I’m interviewing you tomorrow,” and you saying, “That’s great, dude.” And that’s about it.
[Laughs] I would have probably been in a bad mood. Sorry.
I find the subject of this movie interesting. I’ve always known about it, but you learn more here.
And it’s not handled with a lead foot. It’s got a really light, deft touch to it, and it will make it more accessible to people and maybe they will want to learn more.
Jay Roach is a director who does bring levity to a pretty serious subject.
Yeah. This is the only time I’ve worked with him, but it’s great. And he got such a great cast together. This is really some ensemble.
You are always in great ensembles.
I get lucky, yeah.
It’s not luck. People love you.
Hell yeah. Well, they are suckers.
I feel like you pick your directors pretty carefully.
Well, it’s not just that. But the way they cast this movie – the second time I saw it was last night — and Diane Lane does her job so well that she just kind of blends in. And just paying attention to what she was doing was heartbreaking, and she makes it seem so effortless. And Louis C.K. — I just couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He’s really got a presence on screen and he’s effortless. And he’s got what people will kill for, which is that you can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s fascinating.
He’s having great success with his television show, but he really could have a future as a movie star.
I think “star” is the word because whatever he does is interesting.
Hearing Trumbo openly and readily admit to being a communist is still kind of jarring. When I was a little kid in the ‘80s, “communist” was still a really bad word.
I mean, I was born in 1952 and that word was the devil. And they scared the shit out of us with it: With the bomb and the enslavement of Eastern Europe and everything they came up with. That was Satan until the ‘60s, when people started to question that. “What are we being sold here?” There’s no question Stalin was God-awful. He was a mass murderer. But to pump that fear into a bunch of hardworking Joes who were just back from the war, it was a little weird.
You’ve been part of my cultural life since Revenge of the Nerds. You’ve been acting now for…
Did you know anyone who was blacklisted? I listened to Ed Asner on Mark Maron’s podcast and he mentioned he got blacklisted in the ‘80s.
Ed is a really staunch union guy and, he’ll admit it, he’s a leftist. I’ve always admired him for standing up for what he believes in. And I didn’t know he had a rough time like that. I worked with a guy on the Roseanne show who was blacklisted: Johnny Randolph, he played Roseanne’s father. And there was another woman on the show who helped me run lines. Those were horrible times. I had been interested in it since the time I became an actor because I was interested in the group theater – and most of them, at one time or another, joined the Communist party because it was a viable party. Whether some of them were duped or not? I can’t say; I don’t know. Like I said, Stalin was running a terrible game and maybe there was some reason for the paranoia, but some of the paranoia got a little bit over the top.
Are your roles a good measure of your taste in movies? If you weren’t in Coen Brothers movies, would you be watching them?
Yeah. I mean, I was lucky enough to get in on the second movie and we hit it off pretty good, so they wrote their third movie with me in mind.
When I spoke to Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis, he mentioned he’d like to have the John Goodman deal where he’d get to be in all their movies.
Yeah, well, I wouldn’t mind having the Oscar Isaac deal right now.
If you called Lucasfilm, I bet they’d find a part for you in Star Wars.
He’s having a pretty good run. But Joel and Ethan, if I hadn’t been in one of their movies, I’d camp outside their door if I could find it.
You notice people get excited when you come on the screen. I saw it happen again at the premiere.
It’s well-timed because it needs a little comic relief right then.
And you have a crowd-pleasing scene.
I’m sitting in a pretty good spot in the infield to get a ball right there.
But that happens to you in a lot of movies.
[Goodman knocks on wood.]
You’ve had to notice that. There’s always a reaction.
Thanks for saying that, [laughs] but I try not to see my own movies too much.
I’m not real big on watching myself. I’m not comfortable with it. [The Trumbo premiere] was okay. I was working with some cool people. But there are times when I wish I would have done things differently.
Because you’re critiquing yourself?
Yeah, it’s there forever.
Are there any of your movies, if they come on, you’ll watch it?
If any of Joel and Ethan’s stuff comes on, I like to watch. I’d like to see Barton Fink again; I haven’t seen it for a long time. Totally mad and in its own world. They didn’t have much of a budget, so Barry Sonnenfeld and Joel and Ethan were inventing ways to move the camera and inventing shots, because they wanted something and they didn’t have the money or equipment to get it. So they’d put a camera on board and run with it, shit like that. They were so creative and to watch these guys do that, and to know what they wanted from the page to the storyboard – and they make it seem as easy as pie.
Had you not seen that before?
I had just started doing movies a couple years before, so I was really fascinated by these guys. For one thing, they were funnier than anybody I knew. And their stuff was really effective. They sent me a copy of Blood Simple to watch, then they told me the story of how they made a trailer for it before they made a film so they could get some dough. I thought, oh man, these guys are great. And they didn’t even have a pot to piss in, but they made every shot look like a million bucks.
You have a persona that makes people think they know you and I could imagine that becomes tricky in real life.
It’s funny, because there are people who I want to meet. I remember walking up to Kristen Wiig at a Saturday Night Live thing. And I actually interrupted a conversation she was having and I thought, What the fuck is wrong with you? You don’t know this woman. But it’s that kind of a thing.
I can’t imagine she was upset when she turned around and it was you.
Well, I didn’t want to stick around and find out because she was in the middle of a conversation and it was rude what I did.
I’m sure people do that to you all the time.
Yeah, but if I think about it in those terms, they don’t mean anything by it. [Laughs] As long as they don’t grab me.
I think people just see a friendly face that they know very well.
Most of the time, I’m wallowing around in my own shit and I’m easily nervous in crowds.
You mentioned Roseanne earlier. More people should talk about that show today. I interviewed Joss Whedon here at TIFF a few years ago, and he’s very proud of his work there.
Roseanne and I used to call Joss “Simply Red” because he had really long red hair. So, he was Simply Red.
There’s another guy doing well. You should just be taking credit for all these people’s successes.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, shit — In my book, I’m So Goddamned Sorry I Did That, by John Goodman. “If I haven’t apologized to you in person, I’ll get to you later.”
I’d buy that book.
Let me hire a ghostwriter and we’ll whip up some bullshit.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.