I know I’m going to love John Goodman. How could you not adore the man who played Roseanne’s blue-collar husband, Dan, in the US sitcom Roseanne for so many years with such humour and heart? Even when he plays crazies, as he often has done in Coen Brothers films such as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, he does it in a way that makes them weirdly attractive. He has voiced any number of lovable characters in animated movies, from sleepy brown bear Baloo in The Jungle Book 2 to friendly furry monster James P Sulley in Monsters Inc.
Last year he starred in the surprise Oscar smash The Artist as silent movie studio boss Al Zimmer, and now he’s appearing in Stephen Poliakoff’s BBC mini-series Dancing on the Edge. Goodman plays an American entrepreneur called Masterton in a drama about a 1930s black jazz band that becomes entangled with white British aristocrats.
We meet on location at a stately home just outside London where Dancing on the Edge is shooting. Goodman is dressed to the nines, and involved in a scene that demands take after take. He is walking around in ever decreasing circles, muttering to himself. There’s something so watchable about Goodman, whether he’s playing an Ordinary Joe or larger than life.
I meet him a couple of hours later. He’s sitting in his trailer in tracksuit bottoms and socks and looks shockingly different. He’s often had a problem with his weight but, now it’s all hanging out, he looks dangerously obese. His legs are huge and leaden; his belly wobbles like a giant jelly over his thighs. He breathes heavily and sighs plentifully, as if he’s in pain, and the last thing he wants is to be here. He gets up to shake hands, then collapses back onto his sofa.
Goodman, 60, was born in St Louis. After living in New York and Los Angeles, he moved to New Orleans 15 years ago. I ask if he moved for the jazz – music has played a big part in his work, from Blues Brothers 2000 to the TV series Treme to the new Poliakoff. He doesn’t answer. His silences fill up the room. Has music been important to his life? “It’s something I’ve had a passion for, and no talent for.” I tell him I once saw him on the David Letterman show playing the mouth organ. Silence. You were great, I say. “Well, it doesn’t take much… I even gave that up.”
I’m staring at him. He looks so pained and angry and disappointed. I read that he recently lost a load of weight. He says it’s true, but he has put it all back on. “I have some physical problems. I don’t get to exercise as much as I do normally. Being on location is not easy.”
Is he worried about his health? He looks out of the caravan window, breathes in and out deeply. “No.” Silence. “It wasn’t a worry. No. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me that it’s wrong.” More deep, disapproving breaths. This is becoming very uncomfortable. It’s like those roles he plays in Coen Brothers films, but without the humour. I think he might explode any second, and wonder whether I should call it quits and leave while I’m still in one piece. But I persist.
Now there’s an unnerving whistle coming from him, like a kettle coming to the boil. – I’m not sure whether it’s his mouth or nose or a mixture of the two.
Hey, I say, desperate to lighten the mood, I hear you’re working on a new Coen Brothers film. “In a month. That’s another musical film”. Will you play a psycho? “Yeah.” Why do they always make you play psychos? “I guess they write it with me in mind.” No smile, just more kettle-whistling.
What do you draw on for it? Is it something in you? “He he! No.” Silence. “Yeah. OK, yes, write it down – ‘I am a psycho.’” I do start to think that maybe I am in the presence of one.
“You are very good at playing them, I say. “So far,” he mutters. Pardon? “So far!” he shouts.
So I try to change the subject – again. I tell him how much I loved Roseanne, and ask him if he thinks it changed television. “I don’t think so.” Really? “No.” I tell him I think it did – a show about unglamorous working-class people, which also showed them to be funny, smart and desirable. “There had been stuff on like that since 1952. At the time it resonated more because there were lots of programmes about glitzy rich people.”
Has class always been important to you as an actor? “No.” He grunts, raises his eyes and kettlewhistles again. Are you in pain? I ask. “It doesn’t matter.” You’re wincing. “Yes sir. No, class is not a consideration.”
People like you, I say, because you do normal people. “That’s not a choice I can make. It just is or it isn’t. That’s not something I control.”
After studying drama in Missouri, he left for New York to make a go of acting. Is he surprised by his success? “I had no expectations. I didn’t expect to last too long.” If you hadn’t gone, what do you think you would have done? “We have a rather large brewery in Missouri. I was trying to get in there.”
It’s a good job you didn’t, I say. He almost smiles. “Yeah.” Alcohol has played a big part in Goodman’s life. Four years ago, he admitted he had a drink problem. He has now been clean for five years. Has it changed you? “Absolutely.” I read that drink was ruining your life? “It did.” Well, I say, it’s brilliant that you’re not drinking now. “Brilliant or not, it is just what it is.” What did you drink. “A lot of stuff.” And drugs? “Some.” And you’re clear of them as well? “Yes, I am.” How has it changed you? “It’s just given me a clearer eye to see what I was missing before in normal life, and it’s a lot better than what I’d chosen to do.”
Would you say you were an alcoholic? “Oh, I know I’m an alcoholic. I’m still an alcoholic. If there was difficulty, I’d drink; if there was fun, I’d drink. I’d sit and wonder when my next drink would be. That’s a pretty narrow life.”
Can you remember the date you stopped? “15 September 2007.” But, he says, all this is boring. “Nobody gives a s**t what a boring old fart I am now, or what a raging alcoholic I was. It’s nobody’s business. It just is. It’s a disease, it affects millions.”
Did it make you behave badly? “Oh, yeah.” What did you do? “All kinds of things.” Give me a clue without hitting me. “No. It’s my business. You may find that hostile, I don’t.” Blimey, if this is the newly contented Goodman, I’d hate to have met the old misery guts.
But of course it makes sense that he prefers himself now. He might be uptight and shortfused, but he’s not killing himself at the rate he was. Underneath all this passive aggression, or plain old aggression, there seems to be a terrible lack of self-belief. He seems calmer now.
Your friends have often said you couldn’t take a compliment. “It’s something I still struggle with. Confidence.” Well, you might not believe it, I say, but you’re a great actor. “Yeah, well, thanks. Well thank you.” He pauses. “I just set the bar too high originally.” He says there are so many brilliant people in his profession, and cites Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is in Dancing on the Edge, and asks how he could possibly compete with them.
I tell him of a time I met Ejiofor. Ejiofor hated being interviewed, and I hated interviewing him because he was so reluctant, so we just sat in a pub and got steamingly drunk together. “Ha! He he! Ha ha ha!” Suddenly, morose John Goodman is transformed. He laughs and laughs and laughs. “So you got p****d! That’s great! Ha ha ha ha!”
And now he’s talking about all those actors he admires – Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Ralph Richardson, Jim Broadbent – with such enthusiasm and awe. “I’d see things they do and say, ‘Jesus Christ, I’ll never be able to do that.’”
In fact, he starts talking about everything: how nobody gave Obama a chance in his first term; hurricane Katrina, and how New Orleans was betrayed for years by corrupt politicians and construction magnates; his hatred of the right-wing media (“Rupert Murdoch, his whole organisation. They rig everything, they spoil everything and they buy up everything”); how proud he is of his family. Goodman has been married for 22 years to Anna Beth, who runs a clothing store in New Orleans, and they have a daughter who is studying film at university.
Does Anna Beth prefer the sober version of Goodman? “Yeah, very much so. I think for a while she didn’t care if I lived or died.” It’s such a shocking thing to say that I’m silenced. “I was just… obnoxious.” Goodman grins. He says there are plenty of people who’d prefer to have the old, drunk version around – he was more fun back then.
It’s such a strange world he belongs to, he says – so many people have delusions of grandeur, and the struggle is to find out what really matters. “You see so many people with this false sense of who they are or the illusion that they are something, especially today in the celebrity culture, and you go, ‘Christ, I hope I’m not like that.’”
He talks about when he started out acting, and was playing American football, running three to four miles a day and weighing only 180lb. “I was in pretty good shape. I was 26 or 27, very sporty. Then I learnt how to sit on a bar stool, and that pretty much did it” Do you think much of your career has been defined by size? “Probably. That’s why they cast me. They’re not going to go, ‘George Clooney or John Goodman?’”
He pauses. He appears to want to say something, but can’t quite find the words. “Look,” he says eventually, “sorry I was such an arsehole for a while.” Why were you? “I don’t know.” Are you often like that? “Unfortunately, yeah. And this morning I just couldn’t put my lines together properly. And then I start taking it out on myself, which looks like I’m taking it out on everybody else, which is bad. But I just couldn’t remember the f ****** line. And I finally blew up. I was walking in a little circle, cussin’… I looked like a psychopath.”
As soon as he gets back to America he’s going to work on getting himself back in condition. He points to one knee, then the other, and talks about the arthritis that is causing such pain. “This knee got replaced last year, and this knee’s going to get replaced as soon as I get off the work track. But first I need to lose weight.” That’s tough, I say.
“Mwaaaah!” he mewls like a self-pitying Donald Duck. He’s doing all sorts of voices now, and is proper funny – just like you’d expect John Goodman to be. “I’m sitting in a trailer on a movie set, how tough can it be? Ha ha ha ha!”
Dancing on the Edge continues tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2