I feel ready now, in my late 60s, to be better and better at film,” says actor Henry Goodman. “The theatrical muscle, the theatrical instinct will never go and I don’t want to let it — I want to keep working in theatre, it’s deep in my DNA — but I am developing a greater affection for film than I’ve ever had.”
This year alone, Goodman has appeared twice on our cinema screens, in cameos in Their Finest and The Limehouse Golem. Other recent film roles include Dr List in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Leon Trotsky in The Chosen and Elliot Tiber’s father in Taking Woodstock. He’s an honorary patron of UK Jewish Film and this year, and at this month’s UK International Jewish Film Festival he is one of the judges for the Dorfman best film award which recognises “powerful and outstanding filmmaking” in both fiction and documentary films.
In his latest movie, Love is Thicker Than Water, screening at the UK IJFF next week, Goodman plays another paternal figure. His character, Levi, is a middle-class Jewish doctor and, explains Goodman, a man, “who is capable of enormous warmth.”
“There’s something rather touching about playing someone like that, he tells me over coffee in a Wimbledon shopping centre café, not far from his Raynes Park home.
Directed by Ate de Jong and Emily Harris, Love is Thicker Than Water is a charming, quirky and gently comedic film. When Vida (Lydia Wilson) and Arthur (Johnny Flynn) meet, they quickly fall in love but their different backgrounds and respective familial expectations are obstacles to their future together. Vida is a Londoner from a privileged, Jewish family (Goodman stars as Vida’s father) and Arthur is a working class, aspiring animator from a Welsh mining town. The film explores whether love can overcome cultural and communal difference as well as societal pressures.
When Goodman received the script he recalls that he found himself drawn to it. “My first instinct was that there’s a lot of layers in this story,” he says. “What happens in one family as the members of the younger generation reject the older generation and try to make their own life, despite inevitably being shaped by what they’ve inherited? The traumas of the past will not go away and the more the next generation try to run from it, sometimes, the more confused and lost they get.”
Levi’s family also suffers from the legacy of the Holocaust, he says, which affects his relationship with his wife, played by Juliet Stevenson. But he’s keen to emphasise that the film is not all about trauma.
“It’s also sweet and cheeky. There’s a lot of joy and humour,” particularly between the two young protagonists.
The film’s title can be interpreted in different ways and Goodman admits to not being absolutely sure what it means.
“It’s an emotive phrase,” muses the affable 67 year old, “We tend to think it means you stick with your own kind, you can never get away. But if it’s thicker, it can coagulate quicker, it can carry more. So it can be a rich, uplifting and supportive thing but it can also be a heart attack.”
Although Goodman appreciates that it is easy to see Levi as a clichéd role, “in the my-son-the-doctor and all of that” kind of way, he disagrees with that interpretation. “He’s good and solid but he’s deeply wounded. I think it’s quite clear that he might be empathetic with his patients but he lives a very lonely life.”
Goodman’s impressive CV reflects his considerable versatility. Indeed the JC’s theatre critic, John Nathan has described him as a performer whose range is unsurpassed. That range has included playing a large number of Jewish characters — an Olivier award winning Shylock in the National Theatre’s 1999 production of The Merchant of Venice, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Sigmund Freud in Terry Johnson’s Hysteria.
He has also brought Henry Kissinger, Groucho Marx and Primo Levi to life on screen and on stage. But, by taking on so many Jewish roles, does he feel a burden of responsibility towards his Jewish audiences?
There’s certainly a feeling that, “he’s one of us,” Goodman acknowledges. “Taxi drivers still stop me in the street and say, ‘You done awright!’ and so on a subtle, personal level that creates a wonderful sense of pride.
“I’m very pleased that all the people who supported me as a young kid in very tough circumstances — the youngest of six kids with a mentally ill father — get nachas from my success,” he adds. “I’m also deeply grateful to the Jewish and non-Jewish people that liberated my opportunities but I’ve learnt, as an individual and artist, that I can’t serve up what they need,” he says. “You never lose responsibility but I can’t be an ambassador.”
That responsibility does influence the roles that he looks for. “I’m resistant to the perception that far too many Jews automatically have to be bad characters. There are not enough [roles] showing them as decent, kind human beings, which many, many wonderful Jewish people are. I know because I’ve benefited from them.”
He is equally conscious of the characters he is approached to play and the potential of Jewish stereotyping. “If you look at Billy Flynn in Chicago — an Irishman — why did they come to me? I’m not saying don’t, it was a wonderful role and I had a fantastic time, but he’s a corrupt lawyer. We have to be careful. What I want to resist is that’s the norm reflected.”
Goodman’s East End childhood certainly had a profound impact on him. “I don’t think in the sense of having a chip on the shoulder. More of a making the best out of it.”
It was a tough upbringing but he does not want to give the impression that it was, “all dark. It was a mix of joy and [difficulty].” His father was violent, suffered from schizophrenia and was taken away when Goodman was 10. It was obviously traumatic but he also remembers, “huge, overriding, community support.”
From a young age, Goodman loved to act. His ability to mimic his teachers at the Central Foundation Boys’ School and getting the cane for it made him popular among his peers as the class clown. Then came acting classes at Toynbee Hall and by the age of 10, he had got his first stage role. He quickly got hooked on the idea that he could be other people. Acting was a means of escape. “I loved my East End background and more and more I really cherish how lucky I was but I wanted to escape it. I wanted to be a very fine British actor.”
His background may have also helped give him the resilience needed to survive in a career where rejection is commonplace, especially in the most public of professional knocks, when he replaced Nathan Lane in the Broadway production of The Producers in 2002, only to be sacked just before the opening night. “I had Jewish journalists saying, ‘This guy is finished,’” he says, in an American accent. But it did not damage his career, not that he knew that at the time. Very soon afterwards he was offered several jobs and just over six months later, made a strong comeback on Broadway in Molière’s Tartuffe.
“I always had this deep, quite honest reaction at the time, as well as now, that they were wrong. I’m not saying there weren’t moments of feeling wounded, shocked and hurt — of course there were.”
The jobs have continued to flow and he is currently exploring the possibility of touring Looking at Lucian, his one-man show about the artist Lucian Freud which ran in Bath over the summer, with a set designed by his daughter Carla. There is also the prospect of more film work and he has done some “interesting” play readings.
The creative streak runs strongly in his family. “We’re all poisoned with the same dart of arts and stuff,” he laughs. His son, Ilan, is an actor and appears in a short film, The Outer Circle, which is also screening during the festival. His wife, Sue Parker, a choreographer, has just retired as artistic director of a community dance project.
“I hope you’ve got what you need. I always talk too much,” he says, before heading home to make some calls. “[Right] now I’m waiting to see where the chips are going to fall and the truth is, I don’t actually know.”
Love is Thicker Than Water is at the Phoenix, East Finchley on November 12, followed by a Q&A with Henry Goodman and directors Ate De Jong and Emily Harris. www.ukjewishfilm.org