By Jeff Labrecque
Updated June 24, 2013 at 06:40 PM EDT
Disney/Pixar; (inset) Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Monsters University

  • Movie

For a ubiquitous character actor who’s been working pretty much non-stop for 30 years in movies and television — including a heralded nine-season run on Roseanne — John Goodman is in the midst of one of the most successful stretches of his career. His most obvious score is Monsters University, the Pixar prequel to the 2001 smash that opened this weekend with $82 million, making it the fourth biggest animated-film debut in history. Goodman’s blue-furred Sully reunited with Billy Crystal’s one-eyed, walking green-pea Mike for the story of how the odd couple first met in college — when Sully was a lazy BMOC and Mike was an overachieving go-getter intent on becoming the scariest of Scarers.

But then there’s also Goodman’s recent on-camera work, which has included supporting roles in the last two Academy Award Best Pictures winners — The Artist and Argo — as well as a scene-stealing appearance opposite Denzel Washington in last year’s Flight. Throw in upcoming roles in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and George Clooney’s World War II drama, Monuments Men, and Goodman just might be on course for an elusive but long-overdue Oscar nomination. (See also: Barton Fink.) “Right now, I’m at the high point of the roller coaster, but it’s always going to dip,” says Goodman. “So I’m just out there trying to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Click below for more from Goodman.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It had been a dozen years since the first Monsters movie, and Pixar is still the gold-standard in animation — perhaps in Hollywood, period. How has the Pixar experience changed from your point of view, in terms of process and culture?

JOHN GOODMAN: Basically, it’s the same process. They’ve evolved in the technique that they use. Before it was just amazing to see them try to animate fur — seriously, it was a big deal then. They’ve kind of got those bugs out of the system, so it seemed like a little quicker process. Golly, is it fun to watch. They create a whole alternate universe and you buy into it immediately. After awhile, I forgot I was listening to myself and was just watching these characters.

What does Pixar do better than anyone else?

I think it’s the details. Details, details, details. They know how to tell stories without selling out for a cheap laugh. They’re respectful of the audience. They build an essential truth about that universe, that particular life, and you just buy into it with the good writing, and then everything on the screen is detailed. It’s layered, so you can go back and watch it again to pick out the little things.

I’m guessing it wasn’t too much a surprise that they wanted a Monsters sequel, but–

I was surprised, because originally they said there were no plans to make a sequel — unless they had a really damn good reason. And they came up with a pretty great story.

Was it surprising to you that they went with a prequel instead of a more conventional sequel?

I was pleasantly surprised. To me, it just sounded like a great idea and a natural, to want to see these guys develop. It kind of took me back to my fraternity days a little bit, and the feeling I had of kind of being an outsider at college. I was waxing nostalgic while watching it.

Typically, people don’t notice or mention chemistry between actors in animated movies, but you and Billy actually worked collaboratively and simultaneously when you recorded your characters. It really shows.

Yeah, Billy came up with that idea on the first [movie] — we should probably work together. Previously we’d been recording separately, and Billy said, “Let’s try this,” and the energy exploded. It really took off, and then Billy would go off on tangents, and I’d try to follow him. It just made it more exciting.

Does the return of Monsters make Sully your most-popular stopped-on-the-street character? Or is it still Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski?

It’s mostly Walter. But sometimes parents will try to force their children to take a picture with me, and they have no idea why. “That’s Sully!” [The kids] still don’t care.

With your other recent credits, people are starting to call you an Oscar good-luck charm…

That’s like tempting fate. And that’s not something that I had anything to do with. That’s the luck of the draw. But the more I get my mug out there, the more people pop it into their heads and maybe they can use me for something.

You just wrapped Monuments Men for George Clooney, who, last I saw you together, you smacked in the face with a tree branch, stole his money, and crushed his friend’s toad.

[Laughs] I hit him in the head with a branch and then George says, “I don’t think I get what you’re saying.” George is a funny guy. Originally I told him Monuments Men was like working with a 12-year old, because he has this kind of buoyancy of spirit and it’s infectious. I’ve loved working with him since we were on Roseanne together. He worked his ass off on this movie, but he makes it look easy. We all cracked each other up, but we were there to serve the script. And that’s a tribute to George.

In the movie, you play one of the experts who’s brought in to rescue priceless works of art from the Nazis during World War II.

Yes, he’s a sculptor who’s brought in to track down the stolen art from the Nazis and try to steer away damage from churches and the world of art there and in public places.

The original Monsters Inc. came out in 2001, the same year you hosted Saturday Night Live for the twelfth and I hope not the final time. Might we see you back at Rock Center anytime soon?

If they asked, I wouldn’t turn it down. But I don’t know if I’d be that much of an asset anymore. I mean, I love it. It used to be the absolute highlight of my year when I hosted the show. I just loved doing that above everything else. I don’t know, I’m probably a little rusty.

The big weekend makes me think we haven’t seen the last of Mike and Sully. Should we expect another Monsters movie soon?

No. Not anytime soon. But if they come up with something, I’d sure be interested because they don’t seem to make bad movies. Plus they’re great to work for. I think that starts from the top, with John Lasseter; he’s got one of those infectious personalities. He’s a big kid, too.

Read more:

EW review: ‘Monsters University’

14 Pixar classics: We rank them

On the scene: ‘Monsters University’ premiere

Episode Recaps

Monsters University

  • Movie
  • G
  • 102 minutes