You almost can’t think of the Coen Brothers without thinking of John Goodman. The actor has been in some of the filmmaking duo’s best films, playing some of the weirdest and most eccentric characters. He played the Devil in Barton Fink, for crying out loud, not to mention the immortal Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. He’s returning for a sixth round with the Coens for Inside Llewyn Davis, a look at a struggling folk singer in early-’60s New York. Goodman plays Roland Turner, a pompous, narcoleptic jazz musician who shares a car ride to Chicago with Llewyn — exactly what you’d expect from the Coens and Goodman. We spoke to Goodman about the film, about the music scene of the time, about starring in Alpha House, Amazon’s flagship dramatic program, and his voiceover work.
NERDIST: This is the sixth movie you’ve made with the Coen Brothers. What kind of working relationship do you have with them? It must be great because you keep coming back.
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah, that’s a hard question and it should be an easy question. Okay, it’s a great working relationship, but why is that? It just was from the first audition to the point where I went in there and spent about an hour with them reading and goofing around, and I knew they were great guys to goof around with. Their dialogue was so damn good. I guess that’s the kind of relationship I have. I feel like another Midwestern wise guy about the same age.
N: Is it the kind of thing where they’ll just call you up and be like, “Hey we have a part for you”?
JG: It’s been a long time between calls. It’s been about 15 years. I got an email from Ethan that said “Hey, Mad Man, we’ve got something you might be interested in.” I said “Send me the script,” but I would’ve done it without looking at the script. Yeah, it was nice to be asked back. I’m very grateful that they did.
N: The roles that you’ve played for them are unique in that they’re out of left field, and certainly with this one, your character just comes in and he is a force of nature and then he’s out again. How do you like playing characters like that? Do you see Roland Turner as that kind of character?
JG: I like anything if they write it for me. I guess I do like it. I saw this guy as a maybe an alternate future for Llewyn. This is easily what he could turn into. Somebody that’s calcified in his music — he just likes what he likes and everything else is crap. Very bitter and unhappy, but very good at what he does.
N: The character is a jazz musician but he doesn’t actually do any playing. Did you do a lot of research on jazz of the era?
JG: I’m a fan. I know a little bit about some of these guys. This guy I play is based on nobody. He dresses like somebody. They pick the look from other things. Reading the script over and over, which I had to do because I got these long passages of dialogue to memorize, the character’s voice came to me. I trusted that process. I trusted the voice to come to me because it was I trusted their dialogue so much. It’s just that good.
N: Do you have anything that you look for in roles that you do? Is it based on good dialogue or are there other factors?
JG: Nothing specific. Not just dialogue, but the overall writing. That’s what I look for first, and then the director and then the rest of the cast in that order.
N: Your character has a disdain for Llewyn and the world of folk music. Was there a real fissure between the two musical styles in the ’60s?
JG: I don’t think so. The same people would listen to both. I don’t know who set that up, but they would play at the same places. They had the same kind of people. The Beats really went for bop and those guys, from what I know about them. They really liked jazz. It was the same kind of people that listened to the old ballads, that read Sing Out magazine, that were interested in that. I don’t think there’s that much difference in it.
N: So it’s just a thing, your character’s personal dislike for folk music?
JG: I think that’s just my guy in particular. He’s calcified to the extent that that’s his world and it’s the best possible world and he’s hipper than everybody else. That just shuts you down as a human being. He’s stuck there.
N: You’ve done, obviously, movies and you’ve done television, and Alpha House here on the internet now. Do you see the internet, and Amazon or Netflix specifically, as a just another place to make and receive good material?
JG: Yeah, that’s all it is. It reminds me of when basic cable opened up. I guess that’s in the ’80s, yeah. Then they started creating their own content. To me, it’s just more work for actors and writers and, yeah, it’s another platform. I don’t know how it’s going to pan out, but it’s going to fractionalize the audiences, make them smaller and more specific, it seems to me. I may be wrong.
N: How has the experience been for you filming that program?
JG: It’s like filming a television show. You have to do a show a week. You have a lot of pages to cover. You have to do it very quickly and everything’s got to be coordinated, yeah, it’s very, very busy. It’s a busy week.
N: Do you think being on the internet frees the writers up at all? Do you see any difference there, content-wise?
JG: No. No, I think you could be creative anywhere. I think what it does, it takes somebody, it takes people away from looking over your shoulder and telling you what you can and can’t do, in the name of what they think is censorship, that’s what’s limiting. You can be creative. All it is, you can say fuck. That’s really not very creative. When you come down to it, yeah, it gets people off your back and it’s one less voice that you have to listen to or answer to; I think in that sense, it’s more free.
N:You also do quite a lot of voiceover work. What do you like about the process of doing voiceovers?
JG: It’s hard. It’s hard for me. It’s not actual manual labor, but you have to put your whole body into it in order to bring your characters to life.
N: Monsters University came out this year. How did you like returning to Sulley and the world of the monsters?
JG: I love Pixar because they’re great storytellers and great filmmakers and it’s always a lot of fun working with Billy Crystal. I just like the team of Pixar. They get good will all around the place and a great feeling.
See John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis in select cities today, and opening wide on December 20th.