John Goodman bares his soul in The Righteous Gemstones
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23 December 2019

John Goodman bares his soul in The Righteous Gemstones

The Righteous Gemstones tells the story of a mega-wealthy, world-famous televangelist family with a long tradition of charity work – as well as a tradition of greed and corruption. But all their misdeeds come home to roost in this hilarious series, HBO’s most-watched comedy debut in three years.

The series was created and written by Danny McBride, who also stars as Jesse Gemstone, the anointed successor to his father’s empire.

John Goodman stars as televangelist Eli Gemstone, the head of the family and the megachurch. With The Righteous Gemstones now streaming first on Showmax in South Africa, we caught up with Goodman to find out more:

What appealed to you about this character and this story?

It was funny, and that counts for a lot. And it was well-written. I like Danny McBride’s view on things Southern. He’s from there, he’s very observant and it’s a nice prism. He makes these people funny by never talking down or punching down – it’s just basic human nature. And when I read the script, it seemed new to me – I can’t remember seeing any other funny preacher families.  

At first your character, Eli Gemstone, just seems like a crook. But then you see this weariness and melancholy about him. Where does that come from?

He’s devastated over the death of his wife. She was the reason the Gemstones are where they’re at now. The building of the business was a joy, and it all derived from her – he was so in love and would do anything for her, and the fact that she’s gone is still devastating to him. So he’s lost interest and he’s depressed. The only challenges he has now are business-related, and he and the Gemstones are kind of rapacious there – he just grinds people under his feet and doesn’t care.

Did you approach the character like you would play, say, a mafia boss? 

That’s what it feels like, which is always kind of fun. He’s behaving like that because this is the way he knows how to get things done best now – just by taking over things, by acquiring things.

How real is his faith? Does he really believe in the mission of his church?

I think he might think he’s following the Lord’s will, but you can get in a lot of trouble when you start thinking that. He’s a man of faith, but there are other things to temper that now – greed, loss, and I think he’s given up on his children. He tries to do what he thinks is best for them, but I think he just knows they’re going to mess it up.

We see how devoted the Gemstones’ followers are and the mountains of cash they donate to the church because of it. Why do you think people do that?

The big schism in the church in the 16th Century, when Protestants became Protestants, was over the indulgences that the church would sell you to guarantee your soul and deliver it from hell. This isn’t that drastic, but I think people want to do right by their pastors, prove how worthy they are and maybe buy themselves a little insulation. That’s a sweeping generalisation but that accounts for a lot of it, I think.

“I think he might think he’s following the Lord’s will, but you can get in a lot of trouble when you start thinking that.”

John Goodman

Early in your career, you did the TV show Roseanne but then went on to have a big film career. These days, does it make a difference to you whether a role is on TV or film?

No, not at all. Well, now I don’t have time to do films any more. But I just think of this series as a long film. I don’t try to aim towards anything – it’s just whatever comes along. It’s how I respond to the material, and that’s mostly a gut thing because I’ve never been accused of being overly smart (laughs).

You’ve worked with a lot of amazing directors and auteurs. What is it about creator Danny McBride that makes him a unique voice in Hollywood today?

Initially, the attraction was how quick-witted he is. And that’s not surface – he’s very intelligent. I also admire what he and his production company have done where the series is filmed in Charleston, South Carolina, which is to attract production. It puts a lot of good people to work. They bought or rented this old Sears department store and they’ve turned it into ground central for this young empire. There are sets there, art departments, production, writers – all this stuff under one roof, and it’s really amazing to see. I admire the hell out of that.

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