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Denzel Washington's Dizzying 'Flight': Denzel Washington plays a commercial airline pilot whose heroism puts him under intense scrutiny in the new thriller Flight from director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Back to the Future).
John Goodman faced a possible career-ending bout of stage fright head-on...and it worked. / Robert Sebree / USA WEEKEND (digitally enhanced)

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John Goodman doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would let anything bother him. On-screen, his congeniality is contagious. Even when he plays a villain or a friendly enabler, like his character in Flight, the Denzel Washington thriller that opens this week, audiences want to root for him.

He is America’s Everyman. And like many Americans, he has battled his share of personal demons. He gave up smoking in 2003 and alcohol in 2007. Two years ago, he lost 100 pounds (and gained some back). He also successfully overcame a bout of stage fright, a phobia that could easily have derailed his career.

Recalling the experience, which happened 27 years ago but is as vivid to him now as it was then, Goodman says, “I was on Broadway doing Big River, and right before my entrance, I had cold sweats. They poured over me, and I just couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t remember my first line.

“I was just going to step onstage and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry. I don’t belong here. I don’t remember what I’m supposed to say.’ As soon as I opened my mouth, the line came out.”

The anxiety-ridden scenario repeated nightly. “I wish I could describe the hollowness and just stark terror,” he recalls. “And then after a week, it went away by itself. Maybe it was the acceptance of it.”

Acceptance is a key factor in his sobriety, too. “I think your brain changes, and all the good stuff comes,” Goodman says. “Your sober friend sinks in after a while. I try to accept whatever comes my way.”

And come it has. The actor, who turned 60 in June, is busier than ever, wrapping six movies in a row (including Argo and a sequel to Monsters, Inc. with Billy Crystal) and a pilot for a new sitcom with Roseanne Barr. While the show was not picked up, the experience left him eager to work with his former co-star again. “It was like we didn’t miss a beat,” he says. “I’ll do anything to make her laugh. She has a great laugh.”

For now, Goodman is enjoying the simpler things. “I’m finding myself where I was in my early 20s,” he says. “If I see a beautiful building or the weather, I just appreciate them. That doesn’t cost anything.”

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Check out John Goodman’s Q&A below.

Why did you decide to stop drinking?

“It’s called ‘a moment of clarity.’ I was in a bad place, and I couldn’t stop. I finally admitted that I needed to. I was 55.”

Do you want to talk about that moment of clarity?

“No. It’s pretty private. I’ll save it for an AA meeting.”

How has your life changed?

“I drank for about 30 years. Now I feel better. It’s like night and day. I think your brain changes, and all the good stuff comes. Your sober friend sinks in after a while. I try to accept whatever comes my way."

And a lot has been coming.

“Two years ago I was out of work for about three months. I thought my career was over. I was really concerned. I was going nuts and barking at everybody. This summer I was out of work for two months, and I liked it.”

What about your film roles this fall?

"In Flight (with Denzel Washington), my character figures he provides a service to the community by providing them with drugs. In Trouble with the Curve, I play a baseball executive who’s an old friend of Clint Eastwood’s character. In Inside Llewyn Davis, I play a jazz musician with a little heroin opportunity. It’s a Coen Brothers film set in 1961 in Greenwich Village at the very cusp of the folk boom. It’s about a pretty self-involved folk singer — not Bob Dylan — but he's on the bill with him.”

Who do you play in Argo?

“He’s a real guy named John Chambers. He was the first makeup artist to win an Academy Award. He was in the vanguard of prosthetic makeup in the late 1960s. For instance, he designed the first Planet of the Apes masks and the ears for Spock in Star Trek.

And there are more films?

“In The Internship, I spent a day with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, who play dinosaur salesmen on their way out, so they retool as interns at Google. I play the boss who fired them. In Monsters University (sequel to Monsters, Inc.), I get to work with Billy Crystal again. The energy really explodes. And I start Hangover III on Friday [Goodman started filming in September]. It breaks from the formula of the first two movies. It’s a pretty exciting caper film. I play a criminal. I’ve got to be careful what I say. I don’t want to get yelled at. I have a fear of getting yelled at.”

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What about the new Roseanne Barr series being talked about?

“We did the pilot last spring and had a ball. We really did. It was a lot of fun, but NBC wasn't interested. It would be nice to find something to do with Roseanne.”

You’ve said that you felt trapped while making Roseanne.

“There was so much other bad weather around, and I was drinking a lot. It makes everything so much worse. Roseanne is in a lot better place than she was then. It was like we didn’t miss a beat when we started working together again. I’ll do anything to make her laugh. She has a great laugh.”

When did you give up worrying whether people like you?

“I used to deny it really hard, but I had a real need for approval from everyone. I’d come up with stupid jokes. I was trying to tap dance to make people laugh — to the point where I realized I didn’t really want to talk to people. I’m not home free yet. It’s a goal. You don't want people to think there’s nothing there.”

What does having fun at 60 mean?

“A lot less than you'd think. I’m finding myself where I was in my early 20s. If I see a beautiful building or the weather, I just appreciate them. That doesn’t cost anything. It’s a process. I hope it gets better. That’s what they tell you when you get sober.”

How are you feeling these days?

“Good. Being healthy is nice. When I go to the doctor, I feel I’m getting a good report card.”

What prompted you to lose weight?

“Food is another addiction. [Eating] is not something I particularly enjoy doing, but I did it. I ate constantly. Two years ago I lost over 100 pounds and bought a new wardrobe. Then I went away on location in New York in the winter. I couldn’t get out, and I started nibbling on things, and then my new wardrobe didn’t fit me. Now I have a series of cheaper wardrobes. I’m like a set of those Russian stacking dolls.”

What about exercise?

“I’m enjoying it more. I’m arthritic, and if I don't exercise I freeze up, and it’s really hard to walk.”

What’s your exercise routine?

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“I put my trust in other people. I have to ask for help because I won’t exercise on my own. In New Orleans I have some people I work with, and I went out and found somebody in Los Angeles. In L.A. I go to a nice gym. It gets me out of the house.”

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you be doing today?

“Unskilled labor. I’m too lazy to work and too nervous to steal. I probably would have been a career bartender.”

Where did you get the confidence to go to New York and look for work?

“I didn’t have any confidence. The motivating thing was the idea that I’d kick myself in the rear end for the rest of my life if I didn’t try.”

What happened?

“I went to see a Broadway play and said to myself, ‘For God’s sake, I could do that.’ This was fairly early on. I’d been in one production. Show business is screwy. It can be creative and rewarding, but there are so many distractions.”

You’ve been married for 23 years. What's the secret to a successful marriage?

“I had to get a wife who would put up with me. She put up with a lot.”

Any unfulfilled ambition?

“I’d like to learn how to teach. What’s nice now is what I call working with kids — people younger than me who are getting into acting who are talented and enthusiastic."

How do you celebrate Halloween?

“I like sitting around on the porch with a big barrel of candy. ‘One piece for you, one piece for me.’ It’s Halloween, a special day!”

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