John Goodman has stolen plenty of scenes with midsize and supporting roles, including memorable turns as the unhinged bowler and Vietnam veteran Walter in “The Big Lebowski,” the everyman father Dan on the TV series “Roseanne” and the lovable blue beast Sulley in the animated film “Monsters Inc.” This year, Goodman pops up in two high-profile Oscar contenders, playing a movie studio boss in the old Hollywood-inspired silent film “The Artist” and a doorman in the 9/11 drama “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”
Goodman spoke to 24 Frames from London, where he is working on the BBC miniseries “Dancing on the Edge,” about his work in two very different films.
You’re in two movies up for best picture at the Academy Awards. That must be gratifying.
Right now it’s cool. It would be cooler if one of them wins. But it’s just nice to be in successful things.
Let’s start with “The Artist.” How different was it acting in a silent film?
It goes back to the old days where you’d put up a scenario and then improvise your dialogue. The only challenge really was improvising with Jean Dujardin, who doesn’t speak any English — or, he didn’t at the time. He’s learning very rapidly. And I done flunked high school French. But we knew what we were talking about, and we listened very closely to each other, which led to a great ensemble feeling. Everybody knew they were doing something that was a little off, a little different, a little special. It created a great camaraderie in the cast. [But] the acting wasn’t really any different. You just look at each other and pay attention and listen.
Are you a big fan of silent movies?
Yeah. The older I get, the more I appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into what we do. Watching those guys creating, especially like Buster Keaton, [Charlie] Chaplin, I can’t believe that they did the stuff they do. Incredible skills went into it. What I’m learning to appreciate now is like my character [in “The Artist”] — these were really tough. They wanted to entertain people and wanted to put butts in the seats. To do that, they had to wrestle all kinds of stuff but ultimately have a gut feeling about what looked good up there and what people wanted to see.
What was it like working with director Michel Hazanavicius?
He presented me with a scenario for the movie since they couldn’t show me a screenplay, which was a beautiful printed scenario — it had pictures of old Hollywood movies. The way he presented it to me, I said, “Well this guy really knows his onions and he knows what he wants and he obviously has a passion for it.” So he kind of sold me there. And then we met on Wilshire Boulevard and talked about what he wanted to do, and I was ready to go.
You’re also in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a very different film in terms of tone, story and setting. Do you see any similarities between the two films?
Well, “The Artist” is a story of loss and redemption, and I guess in a way, “Extremely Loud” is as well.
What was it like working with director Stephen Daldry?
Oh, he was great. He’s story-first. He seemed to me like a theater guy, because he set up a rehearsal space in Brooklyn and we went over the scenes over and over and over again. I just love that. I really like to rehearse, figure out what I’m doing. I actually only wound up working one day on [the film], and they kept asking me if I still wanted to do it, and I said, “Yeah, I’m in.” The screenplay was very moving when I read it, and I wanted to be a part of it. I’ll follow Stephen Daldry off a roof.
It sounds as though there was a lot of improvisation on “The Artist” and more rehearsal on “Extremely Loud.” Do you have a preferred way of working?
I do whatever they tell me to pretty much, but I do like to rehearse to get it down. To me it pays off because I’m a slow learner. I don’t trust myself to improvise. Thank god the microphones were not on [for “The Artist”]. But the more you do it, you get better and better at it.
They say comedy is one of the hardest things to do in show business. As someone who’s done his fair share, do you find that to be true?
It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s as hard as people say it is. It’s something you feel. You either got it or you ain’t.
You’ve been to the Academy Awards before. Is there anything you’d add to, subtract from or change about the show?
No [laughs]. The show is what it is. I don’t think they should worry about pleasing people. I think that’s been a fault in the past. They worry about trying to get a new audience or whatever — just relax and be the Oscars.
— Oliver Gettell
Photo: John Goodman as studio boss Al Zimmer in "The Artist." Credit: The Weinstein Co.