Last year, I spent several days trailing around with the delightful John Goodman, who was pacing himself through the press juggernaut for Flight and Argo with dry wit and many a cigarette. He walked with a limp then, having already had one titanium knee replacement and needing the other, but that barely slowed him down. He’s currently in New York filming Alpha House, one of five original series in Amazon.com’s first foray into TV production, about four Republican Senators sharing a crash pad in D.C. (Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau created the series and it features a hilarious classic Bill Murray freak-out as an exiting roommate who has to report to the Department of Justice.) Meanwhile, busy Goodman has to do promotion for Inside Llewyn Davis, which reunites him with the Coen brothers for the first time since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Plus, we called on him to tell us about Dancing on the Edge, a Starz miniseries he filmed two years ago, about a black jazz band led by Chiwetel Ejiofor that’s shaking up ‘30s London society. (Goodman plays a mysterious American mogul.) Be prepared for many a dry quip as Goodman struggles to remember Dancing on the Edge, gives tricks on how to track down Bill Murray, talks about reuniting with the Coens, and describes the feeling of being “Vulturized.”
John Goodman: Hi, Jada!
Can you hear me?
Yes, I’m trying to remember things about Dancing on the Edge. [Laughs.]
How’s your day been?
My day’s been brilliant. I had to go in for an hour to read the script for next week’s show [Alpha House] and come home.
I’ve seen the Alpha House pilot, which opens with Bill Murray having a classic freak-out about having to report to prison.
Yeah, we’re trying to get Billy back for the last show but nobody can find him.
Have you tried, personally?
No, I don’t have his number. I know the general area that he lives in. It’s south. [Laughs.] But who knows? He’s a magnificent wild unicorn.
You just go where he lives and lie in wait?
Bait him, with free tickets for sporting events, golf balls.
I love that first scene, with him flailing around you.
Yeah, it’s very funny, and then we both packed up and went to Europe together — not together, on the same job.
For Monuments Men [co-starring and directed by George Clooney]. Have you and Bill been a dynamic duo for a while?
No, I’d met him a couple of times briefly. This is the first time I’ve ever spent any time with him.
Both Alpha House and Monuments Men seem like so much fun, all these iconic actors having high jinks.
Yeah, uh, I guess. I don’t have high jinks anymore. So it’s just jinks.
You’re in so many projects, so forgive me for jumping around so much. In Monuments Men, what does your character do?
He’s a sculptor. He’s a little old for the war [WWII] and George Clooney’s character kind of persuades him to go over, which he does happily because I think he wanted to serve in some capacity. The guy it’s based on was actually a sculptor in St. Louis, where I grew up, and he sculpted this soldiers’ memorial thing that I used to ride by on the bus when I’d go downtown when I was a little kid.
Did you know that when you signed on for the role?
No, I found out shortly after I signed on for the role. I thought it was pretty cool.
It seems like kismet.
Well, it’s cool to me. Maybe not to you. You know, you write for New York Magazine, you’re hanging out at Balthazar and you go to clubs till 6 a.m., get up at three o’clock to write your column.
What? Is that really what you thought when you met me?
Yup. [Laughs.] You’re clever.
I was just saying it sounded like fate that you got that role.
[Groans.] Okay, Jada, yeah, it was kismet.
What was the shoot like? From the trailer, it looks like you’re just walking, traipsing through the entirety of Germany.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but as A-list actors, we’re chauffeured to the places we’re supposed to walk so it appears that we’re walking. And we’re tramping. Soldiers tramp.
You weren’t walking, you were tramping.
Marching, really, and I had the coolest shoes. I wish I woulda swiped a pair and brought ‘em back. I was stupid and lazy and I was looking forward to going home so much that I forgot to steal ‘em.
What was so cool about them?
They were just these great combat boots. They had wrap-around buckles around the ankles and stuff. They were just really neat. I never get to wear stuff like that. I’m always in my New Balance, for the older gentleman.
I think it’s interesting that you did two recent projects, Dancing on the Edge and Inside Llewyn Davis, that depict iconic eras of music: thirties jazz and sixties folk.
Oh yeah! That is interesting, because I went pretty much directly — there’s a couple of weeks — from London to Yonkers, where I shot Llewyn Davis.
What drew you to Dancing on the Edge?
Working in London and Chiwetel’s name was mentioned as somebody being cast in it, and I really … I saw him in a movie called Red Belt that David Mamet wrote and directed, and he just jumped off the screen. I just thought he was fantastic, and he was good in this, and he’s a wonderful guy to work with.
Have you seen 12 Years a Slave?
No, not yet, I was going to go see it the other day, but I just ran out of time so I saw Gravity instead.
Because Gravity is easier to digest?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I want to prepare myself a little more for 12 Years. I get drawn into movies too easily. [Laughs.] I don’t want to carry that around with me for the rest of the week. It’s a little harsh. I am looking forward to it, though. I really like that — what’s his name? The mean guy.
Yeah, he’s always so good, Jesus Christ!
Do you have a particular interest because you live in New Orleans?
No, I think it’s an amazing story; it sounds like it’s time for a little refresher course on racism in the country, and I like Chiwetel. I like watching him.
You’re a jazz buff, right? Is that one reason you were interested in Dancing on the Edge?
Yeah. I still don’t know much about jazz in England or that period. I really know more about the era that preceded that, like the beginning of jazz, until then, before it evolved really into swing. I think that what they were going for — nobody told me this, but just from the sound of it, it sounded like they were going for an early Duke Ellington feel with these guys.
Was Llewyn Davis appealing in the same way as Dancing on the Edge, in that you got to be steeped in music again? Although you spend all your time in the backseat of a car.
Yeah, he was from a different period, a bop musician.
Was it partly appealing to be part of the sixties folk scene?
That was 1961. Eh, I don’t think my character represents a damn thing except for just an old gas bag. They [the Coens] needed to annoy Llewyn on a car ride, so they thought of me.
You hadn’t done a movie with them since O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. Had there been a rift?
No! They kind of ran out of gas with me. They started writing characters that were too similar, for me. They even had the same names in one case. They’d written one character for me who was just too similar to everything I’d been doing for them, so they decided to cut me loose and go with somebody else. I think that was all it was; they didn’t have anything for me. There’s no rift. God, no.
What movie did the repeat start on?
I don’t want to say because it might look bad to mention the other actor, that he wasn’t the first choice, so I’d rather not say.
What was so similar about all the characters?
Oh, they’re just loudmouthed fat guys.
And that’s different than loudmouthed fat guy in the back of a car in Llewyn Davis?
Yeah, he was actually gassier. More gas! [But that part was] not long enough. I want more. That’s part of being an addict, don’t you know?
How does it feel to have Garry Trudeau write your dialogue for Alpha House? He created the show; is he writing every script?
I think most of it. There are other writers, but Garry’s the one who hangs around the monitor every day and tells you when you drop a comma. He is very particular about his style. I would be, too. He’s very delightful to have around. I like Garry around.
Is it fun playing a Republican senator?
Yeah, Congressmen are loons.
Did you do any research on this? Is it a real thing, Senators having these kind of middle-aged frat houses where they all live together in D.C.?
Yeah, Jonathan Alter from Newsweek magazine — a political writer and a very good one — is one of our producers, so he keeps everything accurate. He’s also great to have around. Guy knows his onions. I did not do any research. It didn’t feel necessary. It’s all in the script.
Do you think of yourself as a pioneer, going into uncharted water of making TV directly for the Internet?
No, I think I’m just another stiff that’s lucky to have a job.
What’s after this?
Selling Llewyn Davis, this [Alpha House], and I’m going a little later to start selling Monuments Men. Press junkets, interviews, stuff like that. And that’s it. I don’t have anything. I want to get my left knee replaced because it’s TIME.
That’ll take you out of commission for a while?
Nah, not bad. Six weeks is what I remember it was with the right knee. But I want to get on it early in the year.
Monuments Men was pushed back from a late 2013 release to early 2014. Does that help you out?
No — I gotta talk to people, but I might have to wait until Monuments Men comes out. I mean, Christ, they’ve got so many good people in there, they don’t need me to do publicity. You tell them that!
It seems like all your activity could’ve been over by the end of this year if it had kept its release date.
Yeah, actually, I was expecting that. So I’ll have to put it off a little longer, I guess.
Yell at Clooney for that. He’s the one who’s taking so long to edit.
Goddamn, George! Bastard! Fucker!
Ha. Well, this seems sufficient for a meandering Q&A that was supposed to be about Dancing on the Edge.
Yeah? It’s Vulturized?
Anything else I should know about Dancing on the Edge?
Oh yeah, that. [Laughs.] It’s a delightful romp through thirties London!
By the way, what makes something “Vulturized”?
Oh, you’re in Vulture. Isn’t that what this little thing’s called? I’ve been Vulturized!
Does it feel good?
Yeah, real picked over. Like carrion. Isn’t that what vultures eat? Like it’s the middle of the California desert, the remains.
The remains of John Goodman?
Yeah, on an isolated strip of highway with a vulture standing over.