John Goodman has seen “Inside Llewyn Davis” three times, and walked out with a different thought on each occasion. He left one viewing feeling “gobsmacked” by the questions of what an artist is willing to give up to succeed and where the line exists between art and show business. He left another feeling deep worry for the title character, whose future is unresolved at the movie’s end. But the third time, Goodman says, “I was thinking that all the other characters, you could write a short story about each of them. They’re all interesting characters. They’ve all got stories to tell.”
That includes Goodman’s own character, right?
“Mehhhh,” Goodman says. “He’d be too irritating. You can’t sit through that guy for more than 10 minutes.”
Ten minutes is about all the screen time Goodman gets in “Davis,” his sixth collaboration with the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, about a misanthropic folk singer (Davis, played by Oscar Isaac) who spends much of the film wandering New York’s East Village circa 1961, bumming favors and cigarettes. But 10 minutes is all Goodman needs to kill it as a bombastic jazz musician who finds himself riding in a car from New York to Chicago with our folkie antihero—a situation that brings joy to neither.
“He’s just an angry guy,” Goodman says of his character, Roland Turner. “It reflects on Llewyn because he represents a possible future for Llewyn, sitting in the back seat of a car, having somebody drive him to the only gigs that he can get because he’s so angry and so obstinate about his music.”
But Turner is more than just a fun house–mirror version of Davis. He is a weird, ornery narrative projectile hurled by the Coens at their protagonist for intense dramatic and comic effect. He’s the sort of character Goodman has played before. He admits that all of his Coen roles, with the exception of Gale Snoats in “Raising Arizona,” have been “kind of bitter guys. Or angry. Rage-fueled.”
A character whose defining quality is anger can, in the wrong hands, be one that the audience dismisses before ever bothering to engage. But Goodman’s Turner demands the attention, and rewards the viewer for it.
“Just by reading it over and over, the character found its own voice,” he says. “That’s the way it’s supposed to happen—something happens inside you that changes the way you read the script. That’s the character speaking to you and you gotta listen to him, let him out. Don’t fight it. Relax. It’ll be over in a minute.”
Turner’s voice, wonder that it is, is only the second most distinctive thing about the character. The first is his hair, an execrable bowl cut that earns Goodman a spot in the weird movie hair hall of fame alongside Jack Nance in “Eraserhead” and Hugh Jackman in “X-Men.” It was Goodman’s idea.
“I wanted it to look like Gerry Mulligan, the great baritone sax player whose haircut always stood out to me as really different,” he says. “It was a little too thick.”
Thick, yes. Also horrifying.
“Yeah,” he says. “I dug it.”