Even in the cocaine-and-creativity-fueled orgiastic landscape of Hollywood in the 1960s and ‘70s, Robert Evans stood out.
From behind an extensive selection of oversize glasses, the preternaturally tanned actor-turned-studio executive saw brilliance in scripts and actors where no one else did. In fewer than 10 years, he took the near-dead Paramount Pictures to No. 1 by launching a string of film classics, including “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” “The Godfather” and “Chinatown,” all while maintaining a “This is Hollywood, baby” lifestyle that earned him the title “the playboy peacock of Paramount.”
He was, in a phrase, larger than life.
And nothing is tougher to play than “larger than life.”
Unless, perhaps, you are an actor better known for enigmatic subtlety than joyous scenery chewing.
In Paramount+’s “The Offer,” which chronicles the epic “almost didn’t happen” journey of “The Godfather” from book to screen, Matthew Goode takes on the role of Evans, who fought for (and sometimes against) Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic vision — and what seems to be a marriage of opposites turns out to be, as such marriages often are, a perfect match.
Its broad strokes are right, but Paramount’s ‘The Offer’ tries to burnish its tale of the classic film’s making with fictions it mostly doesn’t need.
Goode has built a career on playing the less showy parts in very showy stories: the responsible if smitten bodyguard in “Chasing Liberty,” Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited,” Colin Firth’s dead lover in “A Single Man,” Finn Polmar in “The Good Wife.” He has played more than one creepy villain but is cast more often in romantic roles. Paired with Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret, Goode’s wildly seductive Tony Armstrong-Jones brought sex appeal to “The Crown” just as his Henry Talbot had, a couple of years earlier, taught Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary to love again on “Downton Abbey.” (And to answer “Downton” fans’ most pressing Goode-related question, he does not appear in the upcoming “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and does not know if his character is alive or dead.)
But even when playing a brooding vampire in forbidden love with a witch, as he did in the recently concluded “A Discovery of Witches,” Goode tends to conjure his characters’ intensity from restraint. Few actors get more out of a beats-long stare or a quirked smile than Goode.
Evans was not a man known for restraint. With a singular presence and a deeply personal cadence, he preened and strode, quipped, opined, demanded and screamed into many, many telephones. While working with Evans, Dustin Hoffman gathered the material for a subgenre of Evans impersonations, from the bathtub drowning scene of “Marathon Man” to the Evans-inspired producer he played in “Wag the Dog.”
Not an obvious role for a soft-spoken Brit. And no one was more surprised than Goode when he was cast.
“Originally, they sent me scripts for another role,” he said during a recent interview, “and I thought, ‘Any day now they’ll be phoning for an audition or a meet for this role.’ And it just never materialized. I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s going to be someone famous and someone really good and I’ll watch it anyway.’ Because,” he adds, laughing, “sometimes you don’t watch it because you feel really wounded.”
Then, one day, while he was supposed to be golfing but was instead waiting out a rainstorm in his car, his phone rang. It was a transatlantic call with all his agents. “I wondered, ‘What have I done? I’m in real trouble.’ And they said, ‘You’ve got the job, you’ve got Bob Evans.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I haven’t met with anyone, haven’t talked to anyone.’ But my agent said, ‘We said yes on your behalf.’”
He is telling this story, complete with the name of the golf course near his home in Surrey, England, in part because he is an energetic storyteller — one trait he does share with Evans is the ability to speak in a string of perfectly structured paragraphs — but also to underscore how he felt when he got the role. “The fear of God,” he said.
It wasn’t until he spoke with director Dexter Fletcher that he actually believed he’d been cast. "[Producer] Nikki [Toscano] said I was the only one they had considered and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, which big star dropped out at the last minute,’ but I didn’t want to question it.”
This was well after the scandal-plagued Armie Hammer dropped out as “Godfather” producer Al Ruddy, to be replaced by Miles Teller.
But Goode had his own logistical obstacles to overcome. The pandemic had left him with free time but made getting a visa to work in Los Angeles, where “The Offer” was shot, almost impossible.
“I had to go to Budapest to get my visa; it was so busy in London that I would have lost the job.”
Then there was the prep.
“I did a lot of homework, went down a lot of wormholes on YouTube,” he said, including the Hoffman/bathtub scene. “I didn’t want to watch [2002 Evans documentary] ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’’ again because that was when he was older and our rhythms change when we get older, but there’s amazing interviews from the 1970s and he’s incredibly candid and charming.”
Goode worked with Fletcher to make sure their ideas were in sync. “When I came to L.A., the costume fittings helped put the armor on, and then the final thing was, ‘Which pair of glasses do we use?’ They showed me a box and there were like 20 pairs and I said, ‘I’m going to use all of them.’”
When he slipped the glasses on, he said, it all came together. Still, it is not easy to step into a Hollywood icon’s loafers, even if said icon is no longer around to judge. (Evans died in 2019.)
“I never met him,” Goode said, “though I found out recently I’d been in the same room; he came to the AFI screening of ‘A Single Man.’ So there was a little less pressure on me than on Anthony [Ippolito], who plays Al Pacino.” Still, he was quite nervous, Goode said, until Fletcher put it in perspective: “Dexter said, ‘Well it could be worse. You could be playing Brando.’
“Which,” Goode adds seamlessly, “Justin [Chambers] did brilliantly.”
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“The Offer” is based in large part on Ruddy’s memory of events and is told from his perspective; it will no doubt spark the sort of debate common to scripted retellings of famous recent events. Coppola, for example, had by many accounts a much more antagonistic relationship with Evans than the series portrays.
Goode says the series was thoroughly fact-checked, though “as Bob would say, there’s your version and my version and somewhere in between is the truth.”
Goode said he kept “bumping into people who knew Evans and they all described him the same way — charming, generous, funny, kind. You don’t need to like the character you are playing, but I was pleased to know that although he was Hollywood royalty, he didn’t have airs and graces. He could have a chat with anybody.”
Including Goode himself. During the seven months he was in Los Angeles, the actor had many conversations with the man he was playing.
“I don’t do Method, but I do during rehearsals, so I spent a lot of time in my role, sometimes having amusing conversations with myself as Robert. I’d be sitting there,” Goode said, leaning back and into character, “a libation in my hand and from sheer boredom, ‘I don’t agree with the casting, man,’” he said, in Evans’ voice. “‘You don’t know me’ [in Goode’s voice] ‘and that’s exactly my point’ [back to Evans]. Who the hell are you?’”
It’s an alarmingly believable and amusing interchange — “hours of fun,” Goode said — but it was also necessary.
“His timbre and cadence are incredibly idiosyncratic,” Goode said, “so if I don’t get that right, I’m really going to sink. And that’s one reason I’d joke around. You really need to get the voice, not just the lines in the script. You’re going to fail big time if you can’t be him on any subject.”
Evans was “definitely different than anything I’ve done,” he said, and coming from Goode that’s saying a lot. Since he starred in the swoony teen romance “Chasing Liberty,” Goode has done romance, mystery, fantasy, lots of period dramas and even the superhero genre — he played Ozymandias in the 2009 film “Watchmen” (again “sharing” a role with Jeremy Irons, who played Ozymandias in the 2020 HBO series and Charles Ryder in 1981). Caught somewhere between romantic lead and character actor, Goode has become one of those reliable, ubiquitous performers whose quiet force often allows others to shine more brightly.
His role in “Downton” came about while he was shooting “Self/Less,” a film in which he co-starred with Dockery. “She said, ‘Why don’t you come and play my husband,’” Goode said. “So I was cast by Michelle Dockery.”
He is not upset, by the way, that he is not in the new “Downton” movie. “I tend to end series rather than start them, and the ‘Downton’ family is very close. And there are so many actors that it seems impossible they were able to schedule the ones who are in it.”
Also, he had something else to do. It’s tough for even a terrific series to stand out in today’s wildly overpopulated television landscape, but given its subject matter, and the fact that it heralds the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather” “The Offer” has a better chance than most at getting the attention it deserves.
As does Goode, who, despite starring in films and series that have won many awards, has few of his own. With any luck, his portrayal of Evans will change that. Taking us through, as Goode says, the best and worst of the man, it captures the high-wire thrill of moviemaking. Goode’s Evans doesn’t just swing big, he swings big with confidence and joy. He is larger than life because he believes that movies make life larger than itself, and Goode makes us believe that too.
At the end of filming on “The Offer,” the real Ruddy gave each cast member an inscribed glass horse head. “That’s something I’ll be able to treasure,” Goode said. “My mantle isn’t too cluttered, so I should be able to fit that up there.”
Perhaps next year, it will be a little more cluttered than it was.
Where: Paramount +
When: Anytime, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and sexual content)
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