‘I thought film wasn’t really going to happen for me,” says Henry Goodman, sitting behind a cappuccino at the National Theatre. A private man, Goodman does not do interviews at his south London home. So the National Theatre is his chosen meeting place. “But it’s a great role,” he says of the Ang Lee movie Taking Woodstock, which opens later this year. It might at last make Goodman, if not a Hollywood star, a Hollywood character actor.
On stage, Goodman is a performer whose range is unsurpassed. He has a versatility that is greater than the much more famous McKellens and Stotts of this world. Ten years ago he gave National Theatre audiences the greatest Shylock of modern times; he was later an acclaimed Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company; and while everyone gushes about Peter Capaldi’s spin doctor in the new movie In the Loop, most have forgotten that it was Goodman who blazed the Alistair Campbell role-playing-trail in the satire Feelgood. Next week, he opens in the West End opposite Juliet Stevenson in a revival of Tom Kempinski’s psychiatry play Duet for One.
As at home in Restoration comedy as he is in musical theatre — Goodman’s oleaginous Billy Flynn in Chicago was so smooth you could ski down him, and his recent Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof so lovable you wanted to hug him. And now at 58, looking fit, trim and with a rucksack slung over his shoulder like a student, Goodman may be reaching the top of his game.
He can currently be seen in cinemas as the Leeds United football club chairman Manny Cussins in the Brian Clough film The Damned United. But the role he is talking about between sips of cappuccino is in Taking Woodstock, in which the East End-born actor plays an old-school Jewish motel owner in the Catskill mountains whose son, Elliot Tiber (played by American comedian Demetri Martin), was the lad who in 1969 staged the most famous music festival on the planet.
“Another Jewish role,” Goodman acknowledges ruefully. “Well, I’m not going to turn them down.” By which he means he is not going to say no to roles offered by Oscar-winning directors, whether the parts are Jewish or not.
But the Jewish roles offered in America are very different from the ones offered here. “I get scripts all the time that have people at barmitzvahs going…” he raises his hands in mock hora, and then sings in the voice of a shtetl yiddle: “Ya da, da, da, da, da, da…”
In other words, Goodman is talking — and singing — about the kind of off-the-shelf clichés for which British TV and film directors reach whenever there is a Jew in the script. They are the kind of Jews that are one step away from shtetl immigrants like Goodman’s grandparents, who ate onion and black bread and kept a goat in their back yard in Cable Street.
“Yet in America and in Canada they write about Jews that are janitors, TV stars, policemen. Where are they in British life? They exist.” He scans the National’s foyer. “They run the National Theatre. They sweep the streets, they’re architects, lawyers; but where are they reflected in our culture? What’s reflected is…” up go the hands, “Ya da, da, da.
“The culture needs me to be a clichéd Jew. I think: ‘What a shame.’ My problem is I don’t want the people who make these decisions to define my career.”
Perhaps ironically, Goodman turned down the ultimate in non-Jewish roles to play Tiber’s father in Taking Woodstock. It was for a Disney epic called The Prince of Persia for which he was offered a fat contract to play “an Arab on a horse in the middle of the desert somewhere”. But, as he says again, actors like him do not turn down directors like Lee. At least, not for money.
So it must have caused this country’s most versatile actor to think very carefully before taking on the role of psychiatrist Dr Feldman opposite Juliet Stevenson’s wheelchair-bound Stephanie Abrahams. Stevenson plays a virtuoso violinist who, like the brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pré, on whom Abrahams is based, suffers from multiple sclerosis and has lost the ability to play her instrument and, with it, the will to live.
“It’s a psychological battle between two people,” explains Goodman, whose performance is, for my money, his best since his Shylock. “I can feel the audience enjoying being psychological detectives, as well as the emotional discomfort. They love being voyeurs, seeing what psychology works with them as well.”
Goodman knows about psychology. His father, a tailor, was a schizophrenic. And Goodman, who was the youngest child of six, witnessed the traumas brought about by his father’s illness. He is keen to depict family life, and life in the East End, as being “much more light than dark”. But it did get dark.
“My mother was brutally beaten,” he remembers. “She was deeply loyal and looked after my father for many years until eventually she was told that either he or the children would have to be taken away.”
Goodman was 12 when they took his father away. “It was a traumatic decision. But people were fantastic in the Jewish East End and protected and supported us.”
It is for this reason that before he came to Duet for One, he had read a lot about psychology in a bid to understand his father’s condition.
“I was reading RD Lang by the time I was 11. So I’ve always been interested.” But he has never had therapy? “No. I’ve been tempted,” he says in a jokey, self-deprecating way. But there is a controlled air to Goodman that suggests whenever his psyche needs help — and he was, after all, on the wrong end of the most famous sacking in showbusiness when Mel Brooks dumped him out of the Broadway production of The Producers — it is an inner strength to which he turns. “I’m lucky. I’m an actor” he says, as if acting was its own therapy, as if psychiatrists couches are not full of actors.
His first taste of the acting profession came when Goodman and his twin brother — now a teacher — appeared at the age of 10 in a movie about a concentration camp called Conspiracy of Hearts. “The first picture I saw of myself was of me standing behind the wire of a concentration camp,” he says. Then came RADA, and a lot of street theatre. Whatever happens with movies, theatre will always be his passion.
These days family life happily has none of the childhood traumas of the East End days. Goodman prefers to protect the privacy of his wife Sue — a choreographer — and their two grown-up children, but once he starts, he cannot stop proudly talking about them. His son Ilan is an actor, his daughter Carla a theatre designer. So he did not discourage them from risky theatre careers? “If I was an electrician, you wouldn’t be surprised if they were interested in electronics. It’s their decision. They know what it’s like to be away from home at the theatre every night. They know how crazy, depressed, and manic and frightened I can be in my professional life. They know who I am at home.”