John Goodman turns in a moving performance in The Monuments Men as Walter Garfield, a role inspired by real-life Monuments Man Walker Hancock who was an acclaimed artist and St. Louis sculptor. Goodman’s character is part of a motley crew of art historians and museum curators who rush to the front lines of WWII in a race against time to save priceless works of art from Nazi thieves. Opening February 7th, the buddy action thriller directed by and starring George Clooney boasts an impressive cast that also includes Jean Dujardin, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balazar, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Goodman who spoke about what attracted him to the role, why he said yes to the project before reading the script and had the same reaction when the Coen Brothers offered him Inside Llewyn Davis, why honoring the generation that sacrificed so much to win the war was a big hook for him, how his acting process has changed over the years, his upcoming role in The Gambler and his reaction to William Monahan’s script, working with the Wachowskis on Speed Racer, hosting SNL and his favorite sketch, the possibility of a Monsters University sequel, and looking back on making The Big Lebowski. Check out the interview after the jump.
JOHN GOODMAN: Thank you. I’m glad because it was so much fun to do. I took a lot of pleasure out of it.
When George Clooney calls you to be in his film, is it an automatic yes or do you always read the script before doing any role?
GOODMAN: I’m going to be honest and say it was an automatic yes before I even read it. I told them, “Yeah, okay, let me read the script first,” but I wanted to do it anyway. He outlined what it was, and then they gave me a copy of the book (The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter) as well as the script. I just fell head over heels and I really couldn’t wait to get started.
What about when it’s the Coen Brothers?
GOODMAN: Yes, that’s an automatic yes. It’s the same deal. When they offered me Inside Llewyn Davis, I hadn’t heard from them for a long time. I got an email from Ethan and I was already intrigued because I’ve never seen them really write anything bad.
What was it about your character in this that made it a role you just had to play?
GOODMAN: The fact that the guy was too old to serve in the military. That was a big deal with a lot of guys. They wanted to serve. They wanted to do something. Everybody wanted to sacrifice, because without the sacrifice of the normal people, the non-military people in the country, the war would have been lost. The whole country had to pull together. I wanted to convey a feeling of that. He’s too old to serve voluntarily. What can he do? Well, it’s like manna from heaven comes down. He gets this opportunity to serve his country with his expertise. I just wanted to do it. That was a great hook for me.
Was there any special preparation or research you did for the role?
GOODMAN: I just read a little bit that I could about the man, Walker Hancock, who my character was based on. He was a sculptor from St. Louis, Missouri where I’m from. He sculpted this Soldiers’ Memorial in St. Louis that I would drive by on the city bus when I went downtown with my mom every couple of weeks or so. I’d see this huge sculpture, and even as a little kid I thought it was pretty cool, and it was the guy that I’m playing that did it. That’s amazing.
From when you got the script for The Monuments Men to what you guys filmed, how much changed along the way?
GOODMAN: Not much. When I watched it last night, some scenes had shifted in order to give it more dramatic punch. If something really tragic happened, George had to shift a scene that was a little lighter. There was a lot of shifting of scenes but that was about it. It was pretty much the same idea.
GOODMAN: I’ve learned to listen to myself more and allow things to happen instead of forcing things, and it seems to have served me better. It’s more relaxed. I trust myself a little more. I don’t beat myself up as much as I used to. There’s still too much of that, but I’m learning to trust myself more.
How did you get involved with The Gambler?
GOODMAN: They sent me the script. I was a little hesitant just because I still don’t know if I can pull it off or not. I’ve got a lot of work to do between now and the time we shoot, so I’m going to take it easy and just learn the lines and go over and over and over them. In this way, I think something organic will happen and I’ll just listen to those voices that tell me what to do, or not. Or I’ll fall on my face.
What was your reaction to William Monahan’s script?
GOODMAN: Boy, it’s a great read. I worry. I don’t know if I ought to put this out right now, to talk about my concerns about it. It’s a lot of dialogue. I’ll just say I have my normal concerns about whether I can pull it off or not. I’ll just say that.
Can you tell me anything about your character?
GOODMAN: Not really yet. I know he’s a loan shark but I really don’t know what that means. I don’t know how he operates. I don’t know where he gets his money from. There’s a lot I just don’t know. I need to meet with the director, ask some questions, and just get some simple answers. That will do me fine. And if I don’t get an answer, I’ll just invent stuff for myself. But yeah, there’s just so much I don’t understand right now, but I haven’t really started working on it yet.
GOODMAN: I remember how creative they were and I remember how much I liked Berlin. At the same time, I was very homesick. It was a new experience for me. I’d worked in Berlin previously but for a shorter time. This time I was over there for three months. I was isolated. We shot a lot of green screen stuff which kind of threw me back to when I was doing community theater in a church basement where you have to imagine where you are. So, it was kind of like that, and once I looked at it that way, it was a lot of fun. They were good to work with. They were very funny.
How much fun do you have hosting SNL and do you have a favorite sketch that you’ve been a part of?
GOODMAN: There’s a sketch that they do. They did it the week before I hosted this year called Bill Brasky. They’re just a bunch of drunks talking about a legendary salesman. They’re drunk salesmen. It’s just goofier than hell. It makes no sense, but it just always made me laugh. There are a lot of favorites that I have but this is the first one that came to mind.
They wore me out this time. I was in every sketch. By the time I got through the middle of dress rehearsal, I was out of gas. I was whipped. They do things differently now. They do a lot of pre-shoots which take a lot of time and energy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I hadn’t done a show in about 12 years and they really made me feel welcome. It was really nice to go home again.
Monsters University was a huge worldwide hit and now Pixar is going to do short films with some of the characters like the way they did it with the Toy Story characters. What’s your involvement with the short films?
GOODMAN: None yet.
Do you think another sequel could happen?
GOODMAN: I don’t know. They weren’t going to do a sequel to Monsters, Inc. and then they came up with a great idea, so I don’t know.
You’ve done so many great roles in so many films. When people meet you, what movie or show do they almost always want to talk about? Or is it so varied it’s hard to say just one?
GOODMAN: Roseanne. Roseanne or The Big Lebowski.
When you think back to making The Big Lebowski, do you have one or two memories from filming that that always come up? Was it a fun shoot?
GOODMAN: I remember how much I loved it. It’s another show where I would go to the set if I wasn’t working just to see what they were doing. I was pretty much totally involved with it. It was a labor of love because I loved the script so much, and I just love working with Joel and Ethan (Coen).
Did you think at the time it would become what it has become now?
GOODMAN: No. I had no idea. I was just selfishly wrapped up in how much fun I was having in it and I really didn’t care.
When you look back on your career, is there any advice you would offer your younger self?
GOODMAN: Relax. Just relax and have fun doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry so much about being results oriented. Just commit yourself to the moment. That’s what I’d offer myself now for the future. It’s still an ongoing process.