[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Goliath Season 4.]
For the final season of the Billy Bob Thornton-led Amazon Original drama Goliath, the focus turned to Big Pharma and the opioid crisis, and a big part of it was the relationship between the Zax brothers, Frank and George, played by Bruce Dern and J.K. Simmons.
The gist of it is simple: Frank had been working on a non-addiction opioid. George chose to release a drug knowing it was addictive because he wanted to make money. (He’s found guilty.) At the center of this is the relationship between family members. George has his lawyer attack Frank’s mental health and claim he had his brother get long-term care due to delusions and that’s why he was pushed out of the company when Frank takes the stand to testify against him. And Frank does that because the original witness, his daughter Kate (Clara Wong) — is put in a mental institution just like he’d been by George.
Here, Dern breaks down Season 4 for Frank.
That courtroom scene in Episode 7 was so heavy and intense. Talk about filming it?
Bruce Dern: Billy Bob and I go back 30 years or so, and he called me and said, “How would you like doing a series? I know you did Big Love.” I said, “Well, I really didn’t have much to do.” He said, “Well, here, you and J.K. Simmons would play brothers and you would have a great deal to do because you’re basically Big Pharma.” And I said, “I’m not a Sackler, am I Sackler?” (Sackler’s the real family that runs Big Pharma). He said no. I said, “What’s the role?” He said, “Think Raymond Burr in Rear Window.” I got immediately what he was talking about, and so we started from there and it was exciting.
Then we got all the way down to the courtroom and you find all the machinations of what we’d gone through in our lives — J.K. and I and my daughter, and so forth and so on. You finally get down to the fact that [Frank’s] the only one that can testify against his brother, because at the last minute [George] puts [Kate] in the same place he put me to get her out of the way, illegally — but it looks legal — and that led to the courtroom. And throughout the series, I do a thing that I’ve done my whole career that are called “Dernsies,” things that I put in that aren’t on the written page that have to do with the behavior that’s demanded at that time in certain scenes. That’s why I was overly responsive to the judge and I would say things like, “Is he allowed to do that?” meaning the lawyer jumps up in the middle of what I was saying, something like that. That all comes from me. So they were very embracive of that.
[Producer and director] Lawrence Trilling was wonderful that way. He was very encouraging. All these guys encouraged me to do what I’ve been doing through all the years, which is if you can find something that beats what they have on the page, bring it on because we know it’ll always be within the character. It’s not something you’re doing just to be cute or clever or anything else. … [Then] when [Billy Bob] and I worked together in the scenes, we had real conversations.
That dynamic was so interesting, even before Billy knew who Frank was.
He spent a few years with my daughter [Laura Dern] and I was around him maybe once a month or so [during that]. And he directed me in the movie All the Pretty Horses. … I knew we were on the same page and I knew that — forgive my arrogance — if we could have real conversations in the fourth year of a show — I was not in at the first three — where Billy and I have scenes where we’re really talking to each other, it might just, I don’t know, raise the level of what everybody else is trying to do in a series when they’ve been doing maybe something else throughout the thing. By putting me in there and J.K. in there, suddenly it’s about what we’re really saying to one another. I enjoy that. That’s why at 85, I look forward to the future. I’m always excited by how people see me down the road from beyond where I am, and\ that’s why I’ll never stop.
We only ever saw the brothers as being antagonistic. I particularly liked when Frank calls George a parasite because it’s such an apt description. Was there ever any love for his brother from Frank?
Let’s say from birth to 17 or 18, I think they probably had a normal relationship. As brothers, I was older, he was a little younger. Then when we started a business together, I was more of a chemist than anything else, and I was extremely upset when I found out that what we’d come up with was addictive. Therefore, I didn’t want to be a part of laying that on the American public, if you will. That wasn’t my job in life. I felt the opposite and he became so headstrong and believing that. At first, when you hear it, it sounds like a valid cause that he has because he doesn’t want to see people in pain. That’s why he was all for it. He was giving something to be pain-free. I just had to get out of there.
That got more and more cantankerous because in the long run, which you don’t find out until we get to the courtroom, I never sold my stock. So therefore I had 51% and he had 49%. And the only way to get rid of me was to declare that I was crazy and put me in a home. Later on, when he does the same thing with my daughter, who’s not crazy at all, who happens to be extremely with it, puts her in the same place and gets away with it, well, that’s just the height of [it] and we had no relationship after that. We were probably 25 when that first began, so now that’s been many, many years for me and a lot of years for him and his whole Candyman projection and everything. I’ve seen five performances that I don’t think I could have ever given myself, and his performance in Whiplash was one of those five. … I had a great deal of respect for J.K.
The wonderful thing about Goliath is it was so welcoming to me and him. They embraced us from day one and they also let us know they expected big stuff from us.
You were outstanding, and it was such a good season.
I was most proud [that] it appeared that we went out on the edge every now and then. The women may get undersold in this, but they shouldn’t, they are superb in this show. … I got as sad as I was when I was in the room with my daughter the second time when I go to visit her in the home [because it reminded me of my relationship with my daughter]. [Clara] broke my heart and she was very good in the series. She was one of the buried treasures that I found in the series. I didn’t see anybody that wasn’t as good as it gets.
Those scenes between Frank and his daughter were heartbreaking. He was trying to be a father as best he can at this point, but he knows it’s too late.
Absolutely. It is too late, and she told him that in her apartment and everything else. So when he gets a chance to go and talk to his brother and then he starts hearing from the other lawyer … Regardless of the stuff the other lawyer came up with — yes, Frank had fits of depression and stuff where he would fly off the handle so forth and so on — but that doesn’t make him belong in an asylum for nine years. I made it very, very personal.
And they did a cute thing when [Billy] goes out to the train station in his dream and looks up and wants to know if the train’s on time. I was the third cowboy and I say to him, “You ask too many goddamn questions.” They put me in the exact same outfit from 1972 and The Cowboys that I wore when I killed John Wayne for that scene. I didn’t think of that. They come up with that. Who does that? I liked that.
Goliath, Complete Series, Streaming Now, Amazon