John Goodman and Missi Pyle were intrigued when they were approached by director Michel Hazanavicius to play supporting roles in The Artist, his heartfelt and entertaining celebration of Hollywood moviemaking at its most magical. Missi Pyle plays Constance, an actress who is none too pleased when she’s upstaged by Hollywood’s reigning silent screen idol, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Goodman portrays Al Zimmer, the cigar-chomping mogul of Kinograph Studios, who walks the line between coddling and corralling his contract stars during the silent film era. In 1929, Kinograph is preparing to cease all silent film production as Hollywood transitions to talking movies, but some actors will prove more adept than others at making the change.
We sat down with Goodman and Pyle at a roundtable interview to talk about what attracted them to the unique project set during a pivotal moment in Hollywood history and told in a silent format. They told us what it was like playing characters that had no dialogue and where everything had to be conveyed visually, why they found the process liberating once they realized they didn’t have to worry about remembering their lines, and how shooting on location in Los Angeles helped inspire their performances. They also discussed what projects they have coming up next, including updates on Robert Zemeckis‘ Flight, Pixar’s Monster’s University, the Awards contender Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whether or not Goodman will appear in Kevin Smith‘s Hit Somebody and more.
MISSI PYLE: I think we had different experiences. (to John) Did you read it before your meeting?
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah, I got a scenario. It just sounded so different. I was intrigued and then after the meeting I was more than willing to jump on because it was different. And what the hell, I didn’t have to learn lines. “I’m your boy. Sign me up. It works for saps.”
PYLE: I just thought what is this? Okay, that sounds interesting. I actually auditioned for Penelope Ann Miller’s role and I knew when I walked in that it was a special role and I was excited when I got the call to come and play the role because that’s what I went to set thinking, that I was playing the wife, and nobody told me that I wasn’t. I don’t think anybody knew until I was sitting in the make-up chair. She was like “So you’re playing the actress” and I was like “Ahhh” and then it ended up being even more improvisational and more thinking on your feet.
Missi, I’ve always admired how expressive you can be with your face and the characters you play. When did you know that this was a talent of yours?
PYLE: I found out when I was too tall to play any other leading roles that I had to do something else. I grew up in Middle America and I don’t think my family was very funny, but I watched The Princess Bride. I always wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never seen any plays or anything and I watched that movie over and over and over again. I was just like “Oh!” I didn’t have an extensive film background or anything like that. I think it was just out of necessity because I couldn’t really … I always wanted to be funny like that. There was a male sketch group in my college. I was like why isn’t there a female sketch group? So then I started doing sketch comedy and all that stuff. It just happened. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s too much.
Don’t you have the clout now to create for yourself a more modest character if you’re still interested in playing that?
PYLE: I do. For some reason, characters that are closer to the center, if they’re not off center, it’s a little bit harder for me to gauge how to play them because so much of what I do is also based on the reaction of an audience, too. I mean, obviously, as one of the characters, especially in theater which is what I grew up doing, I think it’s also more interesting for me to play.
GOODMAN: We used to call it theAter.
PYLE: You did? TheAter.
Both of these characters are in one sense comedic but you still have to play them with a certain degree of straightness and reality and no dialogue. How did you wrap your head around what you wanted to do coming into this movie?
GOODMAN: You don’t. You don’t worry about whether it’s comedic. You don’t worry about whether it’s funny or not funny. You have a pretty good root of a character and you’re just expressing the truth to the person you’re sitting across from and a camera just happens to be running. In this case, there’s no printed dialogue so we made up our own. According to the scenario, certain things have to happen. It’s just basic storytelling. That’s all. The other stuff is for guys like you to worry about.
Did you ever dream in your career that you’d be able to do a silent film?
GOODMAN: I never gave it much thought. I never thought the electricity would turn off or anything like that. But it’s great. It’s a nice change.
PYLE: I never really know what’s going to happen.
GOODMAN: That’s for sure.
PYLE: It’s like we’re just professional temps constantly going out and doing what someone puts in front of you.
PYLE: Not right beforehand. I think I flipped on Turner Classic for a little bit. Again, obviously in this movie, the film within a film is a different story, but if the acting weren’t truthful, you wouldn’t have fallen in love with it the way you did, so that’s what’s the most important thing, even though these particular characters are larger than life in the sense that John’s a big guy who runs a studio.
GOODMAN: You’re not going into it with the thought that you’re doing a silent movie. You’re just doing a film.
PYLE: It’s just so much more…
GOODMAN: There’s no mics.
PYLE: And you don’t have any dialogue other than at the time that you know the intention, you know what’s supposed to happen, and I find it’s so much more liberating. You’re able to be more present because you’re not worried about what’s my next line. And in film and television, you don’t usually have as much time to learn them so on some level, unless you have a photographic memory, it’s harder for me to remember. Sometimes that becomes a part of it. The process is trying to remember and in this one you didn’t have to do that. You’re just able to be more present.
GOODMAN: I do. The older I get, the more I appreciate what came before. I’m fascinated by these guys who started everything. I just read a biography of Cecil B. DeMille. He was a two-bit starving actor who couldn’t make it. He just happened to know some people. He directed some things. They were going to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was raining so they wound up here.
PYLE: That’s what happened to me too!
GOODMAN: They had Squaw Man. They had to fight people off with guns. They had people shooting at them while they were shooting a film. But guys like these that invented the industry, they were just making it up as they went along. They were incredibly tough old bastards but they had to have an ear and an eye for what the audience wanted. They had to keep their minds open.
PYLE: It was such a new time as well. Storytelling has obviously been around forever and just the idea that this was so new, the idea that these films were made and these theaters were put in different [cities]. It had to be brand new and all over the country. They used some of the old theatrical studios. It was just this whole new [thing] and look how little it’s changed.
How crazy is that sensation of shooting a scene in a part of L.A. or Hollywood that looks like it did back in 1929?
PYLE: It’s incredible. There are so many places that are still the same.
GOODMAN: Yeah. That’s what’s cool about it. It really helps you out. It’s like putting on a period costume and greasing your hair down. It all helps.
GOODMAN: Pretty much what I already knew. I took away an appreciation for the craft of making a film and Michel’s passion for the period and love of cinema. A lot of that rubbed off on me.
PYLE: I think too just being a part of it, like when you’re acting in it, obviously you get a feel for actually being there, being what it’s like and to me I think just that everything is so fast now and I think back then everything was just a little bit more solid and real and everything felt like it had more weight. And then, of course, you think about as people are getting ready, the things that they wear underneath. You think about simple things that we have now like indoor plumbing and what those people did in order to just get ready in the morning. Hot showers? No, not so much. It was like an appreciation for all of that.
John, you have a new hairdo. Is that for a role?
GOODMAN: What new hairdo?
Is that for a part?
GOODMAN: Maybe…yeah, it is. I’m doing a movie called Flight.
GOODMAN: Yeah, in Atlanta, Georgia. I supply Denzel with fun. Let’s just put it that way.
Do you have to cut it again the next time they need you to be the Vice Principal of Air Conditioning School?
GOODMAN: I’m screwed there. I’ve gotta work there next week and I told them as soon as I get the Flight job what was going to happen with the beard, so I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it. I’m worried sick about it but I can’t.
I’m sure you can find a funny way to deal with it.
GOODMAN: Yeah, you’re right. Maybe they’ll just use a computer generated pad on there.
Talking about how movies have changed, what about how TV has changed? You were on the classic sitcom Roseanne, had some trouble getting sitcoms done later and are now doing a show like Community. What has that experience been like for you?
GOODMAN: It’s just work.
Is it the same as it ever was?
What’s coming up for your character?
GOODMAN: I wish I knew. I don’t even know when I’m working next week. I only work a day a month and now it’s been six weeks since I’ve worked so I don’t know what’s going on. They call me when they need me and they’re going to get a little surprise with the hair and the beard this time. I don’t know. Since I work one day, I get to jam about six pages of dialogue into one day. It’s rough.
You’re also in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
GOODMAN: Unfortunately, they kept cutting my role down and then they’d ask me “Well, do you still want to do it?” and I’d say yeah because the script was that good.
What is your character?
GOODMAN: He’s a doorman at the building where the kid lives.
You have some other films in the works as well?
You have some voice over work too?
GOODMAN: We’re doing the prequel to Monsters Inc., Monsters University. The Coen Bros. are knocking on the door again so that’ll be swell.
How great is it to be Sulley again?
GOODMAN: It’s cool. It’s great to work with Billy (Crystal).
Is it different to play the younger version? Are you doing anything differently?
Have you started recording?
GOODMAN: Yeah, I’ve done two sessions so far. I got another one in December.
John, are you going to do Hit Somebody with Kevin Smith?
Red State was excellent. Did you know when you were doing that, that he had this big plan to put it out himself?
GOODMAN: I don’t think he did until Sundance, so no.
Missi, do you have any films in the works right now?
PYLE: Actually I do. I’m starting production on a film that a friend of mine wrote and I’m producing called A Boy with a Moustache and then I’ve also been writing a film as well, a female raunchy comedy.
Those seem to be in vogue these days.
PYLE: Yeah, it’s kind of funny because we started writing it well before Bridesmaids came out. We were excited about how well it did at the box office. How much did it make?
GOODMAN: A million dollars!
PYLE: It was over $200 million. It’s that exciting moment where the glass ceiling goes away.
What about My Uncle Rafael, Joey Stefano and Dark as Day. Are any of those projects coming out?
You have such an interesting career and you work quite a bit but you don’t have paparazzi peaking over your fences. What’s it like to be in that zone in Hollywood where you are in demand but you don’t have that intrusive part of the success?
PYLE: Well I would like to be able to get a table easier. I don’t mind it at all. I really love being a character actor. I have to say I wish it were a little easier. There are still a lot of things that I don’t get, like I do wish I had more of my own… I’ve done so many television pilots. I’ve done eleven I think and I’ve never had one get picked up. There was never one that I was a guest star on. It’s just fascinating, but I don’t think it would be fun to be recognized all the time. I remember I walked through Central Park and I saw you (referring to John Goodman) sitting on a park bench before I knew you.
GOODMAN: (joking) Laying on a park bench?
PYLE: (laughs) With a bottle. I was like “That’s John Goodman!” and now, here you are with me.
Do you get the fans that recognize you but don’t necessarily know what you’ve done?
PYLE: Yeah, I get a lot of that.
Do you get ones that went to high school with you?
PYLE: Right. “Did you come into my restaurant?” But I have gotten once and awhile someone who will say my name and I’m like “Ahh!”
PYLE: That’s a good question. I just stayed at Alicia Silverstone’s house for five weeks when I was just coming back, because I live part time in Montana and I just moved back. She’s a vegan and so I really wanted to try to do it. Of course, she doesn’t use paper towels. She’s the greenest human being. It’s like fate. Her whole body is.
Was it hard for you?
PYLE: I’m still mostly vegan now. For me, it’s been very exciting to do that and the whole world kind of shifted for me a little bit after that. I mean just thinking about the little things like how many napkins you get and paper towels. It’s crazy that people just waste so much.
So she’s a good influence?
PYLE: She was a very good influence on me.
Anything to add, John?
GOODMAN: No, ma’am.
Do you recycle?
The Artist opens in theaters on November 25th.