John Goodman has been such a staple in Coen brothers films that it's easy to forget it's been 13 years since he last appeared in one of their movies (2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). Now he's back in a small but memorable role in their latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis," in which he pops up as a colorful jazz musician who goes on an unlikely road trip with the titular aspiring folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac).
When I walked into the hotel room to interview Goodman, he told me to "park it there" on the couch while he sat in the chair by the window, and to "slap it [my recorder] there" on the table in front of him. He proceeded to talk about the backstory he created for his character, what it was like to work with Bob Dylan, and why he's taking a break from movies for a while.
Moviefone: This is your sixth movie with the Coen brothers. Do they have to pitch you the part or do they just call you and say, "Hey we have a part, here's when and where to show up"?
John Goodman: With this one I just got an email that said, "Hey, madman, we got something you might be interested in." I said, "Yeah, man, shoot me the script." But I would've done it without reading the script. [Laughs]
Yeah, you have a good relationship with them.
Yeah, I mean, it's been a long time between drinks with these guys. I'm glad they asked me back to the party.
That's right, it's been 13 years since "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" So did you ask them why they didn't call you for "True Grit"?
Oh yeah, I watched "True Grit" and I said, "I could've done that, I could've done this..."
You could've worn the bear head.
[Laughs] No, that guy was irreplaceable. Everyone they cast, they couldn't have cast better.
No hard feelings?
No. Oh, hell no, man. They generate no hard feelings.
Was there ever a role where they called you up and you said, "No I can't do it"?
Haha, nope. That'd pretty much be unthinkable.
We don't get to know much about Roland Turner, the character you play in this.
I was curious, so I just made up my own backstory. As long as that didn't interfere with anything, I think that's just good for me.
What was the backstory you came up with for him?
I don't want to get into it too much, but I think he probably had polio as a kid and was disaffected from society. He was a very talented musician and he found a life in bop, the pre-swing jazz that was going on in the '40s. He felt very at home there. And he identified with it to the point that it kind of calcified something in him. By the time we see him in this story, he's really too set in his ways. And he's a heroin addict. It just causes him to lash out and reject all other music, it's just not good enough. His is the only way. And it's a possible alternate future for Llewyn. He could turn out this way too.
You never see Roland play an instrument. You thought he was a piano player, Joel thought he was a trumpet player, and Ethan thought he played sax. So which was it?
Piano. Yeah, like Bud Powell, that was his man.
He has this nearly silent companion and driver, Johnny Five, played by Garrett Hedlund. What did you make of their arrangement?
That's something I never really stuck my head in either. I'm afraid what I would have found out. [Laughs] I think Johnny Five represents a part of Roland that he wishes he was. And he just really likes hanging around with him. He refers to him as his "valet." And I think Johnny Five just likes to drive, so that's very convenient. It's great that you're asking about all these things because the more I see this thing, the more I'm wondering about these other characters. They could easily support their own stories.
Since your scenes in the film are separate from the rest of the movie, were you disappointed you didn't get to work with Carey Mulligan or some of the other actors?
I got to work with Oscar Isaac. I was excited to watch Oscar and to work with him. He's got bottomless talent and he's such a nice guy. The first thing I saw him in was "Robin Hood" and I wondered, "Who's this guy? Where'd he come from?"
He's kind of chameleon-like.
Yeah, he's an actor's actor. He doesn't make a false move. Just great.
One of the inspirations for Llewyn Davis is real-life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Were you a fan of his?
Yeah, he was a great 12-string player and really one of those guys whose interest in what we're now calling "roots music," presenting those old ballads accurately, was apparent in the way that he did 'em because he loved doing 'em.
We see a brief glimpse of Bob Dylan in the movie. Did you ever see him play back in the day?
No, but I saw him once when I got to work with him on "Masked and Anonymous." That was great because when he wasn't working, Bob would sit off by himself and play. One time when he was doing it, I snuck up there and started singing with him. It was an old hillbilly gospel tune. It was just wonderful. That was a movie that Bob wrote and starred in. I can't say enough about him.
You're in four movies this year and you did five movies last year. And you're still doing "Treme"...
I'm tired. I've had a wonderful time on 'em and I'm very happy to do 'em. I'm not whining or anything, but the fact is, I'm tired. I ran out of gas about halfway through the television show. I found going home to New Orleans on the weekends really helped, because it's hard for me working away from home. When I moved to New Orleans, I wanted to get away from the business end of show business. It was all-consuming. Uncomfortable.
So you're going to slow it down?
I have to. I'm falling apart. I gotta get a new knee, I need a cataract operation. Just little things, tune-ups, and I'll be right as rain.
You might have to turn down some roles.
Yeah, if I don't take care of this stuff, I'm not going to be able to work, unless they find radio drama.
You do have this whole other career doing voicework.
It's hard work. It is. For me. It's not digging ditches or anything, but it's hard for me.
What's been your favorite role that you've done for the Coens?
That's like asking which is your favorite child. The one I get noticed for the most is Walter from "The Big Lebowski," but yeah, I don't have any favorites.
You'd do them all again?
Yeah, but I'd do them better.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" opens on December 6 in Los Angeles and New York and expands to more theaters on December 20.