He's gifted whether he's doing smarty-pants wit for the Coen brothers, playing a paranoid survivalist in "10 Cloverfield Lane" or being funny, charming and deep in pantomime in the silent-screen comedy "The Artist." During a recent phone conversation about his latest film, John Goodman wisecrackingly proved that even when the cameras aren't rolling, he can put on one heck of a show.
In "Kong: Skull Island," he plays a loony researcher leading explorers to an uncharted land mass in the South Pacific where many, many problems are encountered. It is just the sort of role he has fun playing, but the strongest draw was to revisit a film legend. Goodman always enjoyed the King and wanted to honor him. He felt that the new film, a funny, exciting allegory set at the end of the Vietnam War, was the first story that measured up to Kong's 1933 debut.
"They could have stopped at '33," when "King Kong" and the sequel "Son of Kong" were released six months apart, he said. "My God, that's the only decent one I've ever seen," he added, lamenting the wretched big-budget remakes by John Guillermin and Peter Jackson and various Japanese attempts, each disaster films in a different sense.
"When I was a kid, I loved it just for the goofy animals and stuff, and seeing girls get tied up," he said with a laugh. "That means something to you when you're 7 years old.
"But when I got older and a little bit hipper as to how it was shot, that's when I really became fascinated in it. It's bold stuff, and it really paid off. It's become kind of a national myth since the '30s. 'King Kong' is part of the movie lexicon. It is a part of the culture, so we're going to keep taping it. The first thing that sold me on this film was King Kong."
The second, he said, was getting out of the states for the winter. "We shot in Hawaii until Christmas, then to the east coast of Australia, and then we went to Vietnam," where it was the first Western film to shoot in many years.
"Kong," set in the early 1970s, reminded Goodman of his career's beginning.
"I went down to my college to try to walk on the football team. I didn't have the grades or the talent or really the desire, I just wanted to be on the football team to try to get a scholarship to try to stay out of Vietnam" through a student deferment. Although he didn't make the team, he did wind up performing for people under the spotlight, grateful not to have been drafted. His new film offers a darkly comic perspective on the era, he said.
As the conspiracy-minded obsessive leading the charge into Southeast Asia, Goodman plays "a guy who's certain of what he knows, and it's the same as our containment policy. The best and the brightest just got us in a quagmire in Vietnam. Nobody would listen, and I think it's the same with this guy. He knows what he knows; he doesn't really care about collateral damage, but he's got to prove it."
Goodman has warm memories of working with Bob Dylan on 2003's comedy-drama "Masked and Anonymous" and Joel and Ethan Coen in six films from 1987's "Raising Arizona" to 2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"Bob," he said with a sigh. Acting alongside Dylan in a script that he had written "made me take him down from a mythic level to where I was not pinching myself or anything to just taking him as is. Just working with him, because if you try to read anything into him or try to interpret anything but just face value, you could get yourself in trouble. Then it becomes an ego thing. Just digging him on his own, for what he is, is what I was fortunate enough to do.
"Bob had a device in his ear between takes and listened to his own music. I guess he had it piped in from his trailer all the time. It could have been anything, really, he has such eclectic tastes."
"The great part of it was hanging around between takes and the times Bob was onstage by himself playing something and I was listening by myself. Nobody else around. And then I started singing with him. That was about as good as it gets."
He and the Coens figured out 30 years ago that they teamed up pretty well, he said. "Ethan said that we're provincials that traveled to the big city and ended up together. I think we had a basic Mad magazine vocabulary going for us from the beginning."
"The first audition," to play a lunatic prison escapee in "Raising Arizona," "was great because we just sat around and goofed off for an hour or something. Even if I hadn't gotten the part, it would have been a remarkable audition." The Coens cast him as characters who are sketchy or outright evil, and he's fine with that. "I got no choice."
He said that at 64, his running commitments on film, TV and stage have been draining. "I'll be honest with you, I'm tired. I am."
He had just finished a run on the Broadway revival of "The Front Page" with Nathan Lane, "and it broke me." Returning to the stage after several years away, "there was a lot of stuff that was rusty. It was played at farce tempo. It was a good lesson, but to be honest, it did wear me down. I got pneumonia three times. I couldn't get enough energy to start working out, which would have fended a lot of this stuff off."
But he kept returning to the production for almost 120 performances because of his long friendship with Lane.
"I have known Nathan since 1976, and it's always a gas working with him. I mean, my jaw drops. He stands alone. He is amazing." Goodman said that his own busy schedule doesn't measure up to Lane's. "There's your hardest working man in show business."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186