Interview: Caroline Goodall

Actress Caroline Goodall is one of the few actresses to ever appear in two different Steven Spielberg films. Goodall has acted in films, TV and on stage in her long and successful career. She was born in Britain and has appeared in huge projects like CliffhangerDisclosure and The Princess Diaries.

Goodall starred in Hook and Schindler’s List for Spielberg. Those two films couldn’t be more different in tone or story. Hook is based on the legendary children’s story, Peter Pan. Schindler’s List is a true story about one of the most horrific moments in our world’s history, the holocaust. Hook is an example of Spielberg’s mastery of blockbuster filmmaking. Schindler’s List shows the director’s fascination with historical drama—especially dealing with WWII.

I spoke to Caroline Goodall about her experiences working with Steven Spielberg.

How did you get your role in your first Steven Spielberg film, Hook?

I had been a theater actress. I trained under the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was at the National Theater. I had done some long form television series…which were prevalent at that time…and they have sort of come back now. I was about 30. I didn’t have any aspirations for a career in the United States. I didn’t really want a film career. I was a dedicated theater actress.

I found myself in the US because I followed my heart there. I was involved with an American actor. I thought I would be there and just see how things went. My plan was to write and to learn about the business. I wasn’t expecting any work. I was packing to go back to England for Christmas. My agent then rang and said, ‘There is a meeting, can you change your plane?’ I was like, ‘Nah. Don’t tell me it’s Murder, She Wrote.’ He said it’s Steven Spielberg and I nearly fell off my chair. I said, ‘What is it?’ He said it’s sort of like Peter Pan and it’s just a meeting. Just go and talk to him.

I went to Amblin and it was a revelation. It was an amazing office. Even in 1990 or 1991…it was amazing. His office was open to all. It felt like a house. It didn’t feel like a studio. He sort of pioneered that sense of work life. We sat in this boardroom, that looked more like a dining room, and just talked. I found him to be one of the most charming people. He reminded me of my father’s younger brother. We talked movies and he asked if I wanted to do an audition.

About a week later I came in and met with Robin Williams (the star of Hook) and Steven Spielberg. Steven had a video camera and he asked us to do an improv. I was used to improvising because I had done stand up comedy and with my theater training it was easy. It felt organic. Having Robin there, who was so open and fabulous, was like playing tennis with John McEnroe. We had a great time. At one point I said to Robin, ‘You aren’t saying anything.’ This is Robin Williams, he never shuts up [laughing]. He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Ah…but I got the job.’

I walked out of that room and five minutes later they walked out. Just as I was collecting my keys and was shaking. I was saying good bye to the casting agents and they told me I had the job. I went to my apartment and tried to call everyone and all I got was answering machines. Nobody answered me and I didn’t know who to tell I had a job with Steven Spielberg.

Hook was the first 100 million dollar budgeted movie ever. It was amazing. It was inspiring. It was an extrodinary entry into the world of filmmaking for me. I was spoiled right from the beginning. It was such a high bar to set. We had the sound stage from Wizard of Oz and it was used for Neverland. We used the stages where they made Gone with the Wind for London in the film. It was incredible. Watching Steven, who was so generous, would allow you to sit beside him. He would explain his shots and his thought process. It made me fall in love with film. Prior to this, I was all about theater. It was such an eye opener that I fell in love with what film could offer. I have largely been a film actress ever since.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed on Hook? You were working with Robin Williams and Steven Spielberg on the most expensive film ever made at the time. Was there anything you relied on as an actress to get through any moments of anxiety?

You know when you are so overwhelmed you go into another zone? That was more or less where I was. Especially the first few days. The whole thing started with a great big brass band. Kathleen Kennedy (Producer) organized that to send us off.

I was so lucky that I was working with the most generous people. They went out of their way to make you feel comfortable and like family. I think that Steven chose me…gave me his blessing…felt I was the right person for it…that relaxed me. Maybe I didn’t know anything else? I had done a lot of work prior. I did a lot of work with what I would call top directors in theater and television. It was never a question of me thinking I was stepping up from something small or amateur. You don’t get to be at the Royal Shakespeare Company without working with extrodinary people. There is also a naivety of youth. I wasn’t that young…thank god. If I was in my early 20s it might have been different. I was 30 and I had about 10 years under my belt. I guess I felt ready. I knew the character and how to play her. Steven creates such a safe environment that you just feel held. He is the consummate director.

How did the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg again on Schindler’s List come about?

Well again, serendipity. I was actually in Canada working on a show and one day I was at my hotel and I got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office. Steven got on the line and told me he was working on a project, Schindler’s List. He asked me if I had heard of the book it was based on, Schindler’s Ark. I said yes I have. He said this is what I am doing and if I was free. I told him I was going to be done with the show on Monday. He needed me the week after. I asked him who I was playing and he said, Emilie Schindler. I said, ‘Oh my god, really?’ He asked me how my German accent was. He told me he was going to call me back and if I could read something to him in German or something in a German accent. I was shaking. I ran to a bookstore in Vancouver and I ran to the section with language courses. In those days it was cassette tapes and I grabbed one that said, ‘Learn German.’ I played it over and over. Then I called a friend in London that was a dialect coach. He and I got on the phone and he gave me some tips. The next day Steven called and I read parts from the book, Schindler’s Ark. He said it was ok and that they would have dialect coaches on set. He told me it would be great if I could come and that was how it happened.

Obviously, Schindler’s List is a much different kind of film than Hook. What was it like for you to work with him on such a difficult film, with such a difficult subject matter?

Steven always casts brilliantly and gets the most extraordinary crew around him. He wanted to be outside of his comfort zone in Poland. So he chose a young Polish director of photography, Janusz Kaminski. He knew he needed a Polish crew and hopefully a Polish crew that spoke English. He was pushing himself quite far outside of his comfort zone on purpose.

I remember on the first day of shooting I was there…he had this little piece of paper attached to the camera…and it basically said on it less is more. He gave himself a tight schedule, 75 days. Now that feels like a long time, but then, if you think that Hook was 120 days, that was a short shoot. He was so prepared for it. Ironically, he was editing Jurassic Park at the same time in Paris. He has this amazing brain that can compartmentalize when he needs to. He is a genius.

It was very cold in Poland. We had a very desperate and extraordinary cast. A lot of the cast was from Israel, Poland, Germany, and England. We had no American actors. He didn’t want anyone from the ‘New World’ as he called it. He wanted people who had experienced in their DNA the Second World War and the Holocaust. He chose relatively new actors. Liam Neeson was known, but it was relatively his first major role. The same goes for Ralph Fiennes. Ben Kingsley was possibly the most venerable of all the actors.

We all bonded. Everybody was in the same hotel. We were all on location together. We all threw ourselves into it. We were all relatively new and young so there was no sense of hierarchy. We shared a lot in terms of wardrobe and things like that. The material was so compelling and moving. It was like a cause for us all I think.

I think looking back…there are so many parts that make up the sum. When you see the final movie you are blown away. You had a sense of it when you were there. I watched as much as I possibly could because I always love doing that. I was there for the clearing of the ghetto scenes. I was there for the great march across the bridge. Branko Lustig was one of our producers and he had been in the concentration camps and he had the tattoo. We had such a sense of verisimilitude for everything. There was a real commitment.

How do you view Schindler’s List in his filmography? It is his most difficult film to rank or critique because it is such a harder film to watch than E.T. or Hook. Is it fair to try and rank it within his filmography? Or, is that unfair to the subject matter and goals of Schindler’s List?

What he wanted to do was to tell a story, knowing he was at the height of his powers, that resonated with the serious side of Steven. He knew how to press the finger on the pulse of popular culture so well that he became a hit maker. His attitude was that he wanted the studio to give him something back. He went to Sid Sheinberg, the then head of Universal, and said I will do Jurassic Park for you, if you let me do Schindler’s List. They were horrified that it was going to be in black and white. They gave him little money for it, relatively. But, he said I made you all this money, this is my payback. The studio didn’t think the movie would have the impact that it had. This was Steven’s passion piece.

Ever since then he has dedicated a lot of time to historical fiction, or historical faction. Whether it’s Lincoln, whether it’s Saving Private Ryan, all the Second World War movies. He is obsessed with the Second World War, because it had a huge impact on his life growing up. Because of his own family. Then there is his fantasy films, where he can be more playful.

My take on Steven’s work when I look at it is that generally he has a very moral universe. If you look at his films, there is generally the struggle of everyman between good and evil. Everyman has to choose. So whether it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, whether it’s Schindler’s List, whether it’s E.T., whether it’s Jurassic Park. There is always the one central character…who has the big moral dilemma…which way do I go? Do I go to the dark side or do I go to the light? In that respect Schindler is within the canon of Steven Spielberg films. The film is about the struggle for the soul of Oskar Schindler. If you look at it through that lens, all of Steven Spielberg’s work absolutely lines up.