The Self-Destructive Genius of John Goodman

Photograph by Mark Seliger

John Goodman looks like a man waiting to be set free. Dressed in an elegant, light-gray button-down shirt that fits tightly over his jeans, the six-foot actor sits uncomfortably at a small, glass-topped table in his midtown-Manhattan hotel suite.

“This is torture,” he says, leaning his massive frame – a cross between friendly ogre and man-eating grizzly – forward and sliding his imposing hands down his face. He means our early-morning interview, but it’s also clear that New York itself throws the 61-year-old actor off his game. “This place always scared me to death,” he says.

On the surface, his dread makes no sense. He’s riding a career high, filming ‘Alpha House,’ a political satire that marks Amazon’s maiden voyage into TV; appearing with George Clooney in the forthcoming movie ‘The Monuments Men;’ and taking part in the swirl of events here in New York around ‘Inside Llewyn Davis‘ (Goodman’s fifth collaboration with the Coen brothers, with the usual glowing reviews). But New York is the city he came to in 1975, with $1,000 given to him by his older brother, and where he caroused with other striving actors like Kevin Kline and Bruce Willis, slipping into an alcoholism he still struggles to control.

What Goodman really wants is the sense of stability he feels back in New Orleans, with his wife, Anna Beth, his golden retriever and cocker spaniel, his daily boxing routine and home gym. “The elliptical machine and I get along very well,” he says. But home is not just an exercise schedule. It’s a necessary, hard-won place. “Just to sleep in my own bed is therapeutic,” Goodman tells me.

For all his triumphs, there is something fragile about Goodman – the air of a man waiting for the other shoe to drop. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ in which he plays a sadistic jazz musician hiding a deep psychic wound, moves him, he says, because it’s about “fear of success.”

And success is something Goodman doesn’t quite trust. As a young actor starting to make his way out of children’s theater and into lucrative TV commercials, he pummeled his talent with booze. When Roseanne made him famous at the age of 36, his weight ballooned, eventually approaching 400 pounds (he looks like he’s down to about 260 now).

“Gratitude,” Goodman says, explaining what has kept him together through the self-inflicted ordeals that dog his success. “Gratitude for being able to do this.”

Dry now for six years, Goodman pauses to enjoy a swig of iced tea from a large plastic cup, then says, “I want to keep going to places where there is positive reinforcement, so I don’t get to the place where there are triggers. Because I don’t think anything on God’s green Earth could stop me if I really wanted to drink.”

He feels safe from those triggers only at home. And he works so much that he almost never is. It’s a catch-22 that clearly exhausts him. “I’ve been away most of this year,” Goodman says. “It’s taken a toll.”

His life is a constant attempt to balance the discipline he needs for his physical health with the acting work he needs for his mental health. Goodman smokes about a pack a day, after having quit for two years. Without the nicotine, he can’t act: It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

“I don’t want to quit while I’m working,” he says. “I go a little nuts, and I don’t want to inflict that on anybody I’m working with.”

There is an all-consuming quality to his approach to acting, which he has to cast aside when he’s not working. He rarely keeps up with his co-stars, even Jeff Bridges, who played the stoner-slacker Dude to Goodman’s fanatical fuck-up Walter Sobchak in ‘The Big Lebowski.’ When he saw Bridges a year after making the movie, Goodman admits, he barely recognized him.

“He was a different guy. During the whole shoot he had been the Dude. And then, there was this guy Jeff Bridges. It was kind of sad. I didn’t know him.”

There’s a bright side to Goodman’s demons. His struggle with weight and smoking, his constant vigilance about alcohol – all these pressures eating away at his well-being are precisely what he projects through his characters and what make him so beloved to audiences. Goodman is an honest-to-goodness regular guy. A tormented, complex, sensitive, intelligent, exceptionally weird guy, but a regular one.

“He’s normal but crazy,” Ethan Coen said when asked why the brothers cast Goodman in so many of their films. “Like everyone else. Only more vividly.”Goodman’s father, a mail carrier, died of a heart attack in 1954, when Goodman was two. John spent his boyhood watching his mother toil in a string of low-paying jobs. At Southwest Missouri State University, where he studied drama, he subsisted on food stamps. It wasn’t until he met Anna Beth at a party in Louisiana at age 35 that his life had some much-needed emotional ballast. They married soon after, and her family quickly became his. Goodman would hunt ducks with her father. “Her father and I were meant for each other,” Goodman says. He grew close to Anna Beth’s brother, too, a professional boxer who died suddenly of a rare disease at the age of 27. “Big, goofy bastard,” Goodman says, his voice suffused with tenderness. Goodman and Anna Beth even made it through Anna Beth’s foray into boxing promotion, which Goodman supported – until he didn’t. “It was interesting and expensive,” he says drily. Twenty years ago, Goodman and Anna Beth left California, where they had been living with their daughter, Molly – now a filmmaker in L.A. – and moved to New Orleans.

Walking down a crowded Manhattan street, as we do later that day, is enough to unsettle Goodman. He despises being recognized. “It could be anybody,” he says with disgust. “It could be Lassie.” As if on cue, an attractive young woman interrupts us.

“That’s John Goodman!” she says, and then addresses him directly. “It’s nice to see you.” She continues walking. I look over at Goodman. He has moved toward the curb, cringing.

“Was that necessary?” he says. For a moment, it looks as if he will be undone by this small encounter. But then he pulls himself together, perhaps drawing from those depths of gratitude, and that unmistakable face, which strikes an emotional, psychological chord in so many people, softens. He grins.

“She had to interrupt our conversation just to let me know who I am?”

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