In Conversation: Jeff Goldblum

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Jeff Goldblum has long been one of Hollywood’s most charmingly distinctive actors. But over the last year or two, the 65-year-old’s singular curveball charisma has blossomed online and on social media, where he’s become a reliable inspiration for memes and even been dubbed the internet’s boyfriend. “The online attention is a new ride for me,” says Goldblum, sitting surrounded by toys — both his own (a couple of keyboards) and his two young boys’ — at his rambling house in the Hollywood Hills. “But, by golly, it’s nothing that I’ve tried to engineer.”

The always-busy Goldblum, who’s reprising his role as mathematician Ian Malcolm in the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is a charmingly discursive and animated talker, his hands and eyes flitting about in frisky concord with his sentences. “I would hope any interest in me or my work comes from my aspiring to be authentic,” he says. “I’m certainly not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes about who I am.” He gives a playful smile and taps me on the knee. “But when it comes to being real and true, isn’t trying to find that what acting’s all about?”

Does the Jeff Goldblum persona that exists on social media jibe with how you see yourself?
Let’s you and me uncover the truth. Whatever it is that’s happened with my public reception, it’s fleeting. The ups and downs of show business are fleeting. Life is fleeting. But this particular experience — where does it come from? I’ve done a couple movies that have been well-received and widely seen — the Thor movie. And I remember a few years ago somebody said, “You know there’s this ‘Jeff Goldblum’s watching you poop’ thing.” This does seem to be a moment for me, doesn’t it? Hmm. There was The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs — my association with Wes Anderson didn’t hurt as far as the cognoscenti goes. And now when I do press — there’s lots of content needed for our communicative infrastructure these days — people will ask me to do things like, “Hey, Jeff, do all the parts in Jurassic Park” and then those things make the rounds online. It’s all cute, isn’t it?

It is, but my question was more about whether or not the “Jeff Goldblum” that’s used to generate viral content feels congruent with the real you.
I think what’s happened is that I’ve found my voice in a newer, more fun way. Things like Thor: Ragnarok and Portlandia, both of which had large elements of improvisation, were delicious experiences for me creatively. And they’re similar to what I’ve been doing with the press — whether it’s commenting on people’s tattoos or reading tweets about myself. I feel like it’s all creatively true. So yeah, the version of me that exists in social media is quite congruent with my approach toward authenticity.

What does “approach toward authenticity” mean? Aren’t you either authentic or not?
It means that I aspire to an ideal of authenticity in my public presentation and my work. You want to be without delusion or illusion in what you’re creating. You don’t want to lie. “The camera knows” has been said many times and maybe that applies here, doesn’t it? No one is fooling anybody. Your real character will out.

How closely do you follow social media?
A little too much. But only my own Instagram. I look at how many people have liked my pictures and I look at the comments. [He picks up his phone and scrolls through his Instagram comments.] Oh, look, somebody’s said, “Will you marry me?” That’s good enough for me. I don’t have to see the thousand other comments. But what is success? This is probably ill-advised but I’ll think, I’ve got 800,000 followers. Is that good or bad? It’s a doomed path to compare yourself to anybody else. I think success is the next-door neighbors in Death of a Salesman: Bernard and his father, Charley. They’re not trying to impress anybody or make a grand name for themselves. They’re only trying to keep their shoulder to the wheel, their nose to the grindstone, and scratch out a pleasant, simple tune as Tevye says. Death of a Salesman is not some highfalutin reference, by the way. It’s right in line with what we’re talking about. How was that? Is that good?

Pretty good.
You’re a good teacher. The little I know you, I’d like to take your college course and be otherwise turned on to you.

Stop it.
I’m sure I could learn much from you.

I doubt that.
Oh, no. There’s much I can learn.

Over the years some journalists have implied that your charm and flirtatiousness is a means of keeping writers at a distance. Is there any truth to that?
I remember this idea: that I turn the tables on the journalist as a device to deflect interest in myself. I think that’s a misreading of the situation. I’m not going to divulge secrets to you that I would divulge to my therapist or my wife, but I can talk to you authentically and also be discreet about telling yucky things. Within those parameters my intent is to be open and self-revealing and to give you what you need. I even think I’m rather generous in that way. I want to be generous in what I am sharing.

Does that represent a change for you?
Early in my career I was more worried about press interactions, so maybe I did a little evasive maneuvering. But here’s another thought about why my interest in other people is not a device: It’s part of the teaching I received from Sandy Meisner. Part of his thesis is that you’re interesting to the extent that you’re interested. So onscreen, instead of, “How am I doing?” it’s “What’s interesting about my partner?” I like making that kind of connection with somebody when we’re acting together and it’s not bad in life either. That explains things a little bit, doesn’t it? My interest in you, David, for example, is not a manipulative or strategic thing but is, in fact, somewhat wholesome. Does that make a lick of sense?

Yeah. Is there ever any concern that the popularity of the Jeff Goldblum persona gets in the way of audiences believing fully in your characters? Or that it might lead to you getting typecast as yourself?
We know actors — Daniel Day-Lewis, and I admire his approach greatly — who say, “When people see me onscreen I want to be entirely believed as some transformed character.” But no, I’m not worried about that. [Director] Taika Waititi, when we met at the Chateau Marmont before we started on Thor, said to me, “I want Jeff Goldblum in makeup in that role.” And I like to do that. I’d rather do that than characterize too extravagantly. People write Jeff Goldblum-y parts and they want me to do them and that’s fine. I think I can even do a better version of it. So no, this little Jeff Goldblum row that I’m hoeing is still adventurous.

What would a better version of you look like?
I’m careful; I don’t want to be a skeevy reality-show version of myself. But what I mean is that there might be great roles still to come for me that incorporate things that are recognizably my straight behavior. Who knows? I still am excited about transforming for roles. I wouldn’t mind playing a part with hair extensions and an eye patch and a funny accent.

So you want to play Jack Sparrow?
Oh, there might be something piratical in me. But let me tell ya, I just did a movie, The Mountain, with Rick Alverson. I play a character based on Walter Freeman, the guy who pioneered lobotomy in America. People were filling up the asylums after the war and there was no way to handle them. [Freeman] was like, “I could do some good here. I can do [lobotomies] quicker and better than they’re being done. I’m going to get an ice pick and go in through the eye socket.” Then he started to do them in his own assembly-line fashion, in an American way, fast and quick. Tye Sheridan — I’m giving too much of the plot away, but it doesn’t really matter — plays this kid who’s mother I’ve lobotomized. It all takes place in the magical, mystical Pacific Northwest. Udo Kier plays the tyrant father who runs a skating rink. He has a heart attack early in the picture. I think I’m having something similar right now perhaps. Who knows what’s going on in anyone’s heart? Anyway, this kid, played by Tye, and I …

Let’s skip to the end if that’s okay.
Let’s skip to the end! So this kid and I go on the road from asylum to asylum. As you can imagine, it’s a little Apocalypse Now. I’m drinking heavily, picking up women. It’s a version of the American critique. At the end of the movie we come to Denis Lavant — the grand artist from France — who plays a cult leader on Mount Shasta. Anyway, at the end of the movie you see the mountain and it’s kind of metaphorical. And there are these two kids who I think have been lobotomized by that point, that have lost their virginity together, and there’s the mountain. It’s an ambiguous ending. Doesn’t that all sound interesting?

It does.
Anyway, my character is not exactly Jeff Goldblum. That’s the point. You have to stop me, David. And I don’t drink coffee. I’m just an excitable guy!

So the way you talk …
I’m embarrassing myself.

No, no, no. The way you talk and your facial expressions, your hand gestures, your diction — it all translates onscreen as something very unique.
Yes sir.

When did you realize that this offbeat thing you have was something you could utilize as an actor? A lot of people — let alone those who make a living being watched by others — are inclined to tamp down their idiosyncrasies.
It’s an interesting question. I don’t know why I got this idea to be an actor. Early on I took piano lessons and it was only when my teacher gave me sheet music for syncopated things that I was like, “I want to learn how to play that.” So I’ve always liked being jazzy. But I was a fish out of water at school.

Were you? I was curious about that.
Here’s what happened. File this under “finding myself and utilizing myself as an actor.” In school, I was kind of quiet and …

Well, you grew out of that.
[Laughs.] I did, didn’t I? But yes, as a baby I did have something unusual. And this is my modestly copping to there being something interesting about me. But as long as you’re appreciating it, David, it’s okay for me to do that — I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. There were seeds of my strangeness early on but I wasn’t in possession of that until much later. Now, my dad was a doctor in Pittsburgh. If you know Pittsburgh at all, there’s a part called Squirrel Hill where there are a lot of Jewish families. I did not grow up in that. We were in West Homestead and my dad was the doctor to steel-mill workers. I was the only Jewish fellow in school. I don’t want to focus on the Judaic part of it but I was a little bit unlike other people. But when I went to Chatham Music Day Camp between fifth and sixth and sixth and seventh grades, and there were arts and crafts and music appreciation and archery and softball — I had the time of my life. I took part in drama class there and that’s when I said, “I’m going to be an actor.” I burst out of my shell. Oh, I had a great time. I even felt a connection with the girls there. And then I remember — I’m getting too excited about myself. Is this embarrassing yet?

No, it’s good.
All right, thank you. I’m going to skip ahead again.

Thank you.
[Laughs.] Then after I studied acting at Carnegie Mellon and in New York with Sandy Meisner, I started to get parts right away. I had a line in Annie Hall.

“I forgot my mantra.”
Yes, and it kind of worked in a way that I didn’t understand yet. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. Then, in 1978, Philip Kaufman, a very erudite and lovely fellow who lives a sophisticated life — he appreciated me.

You’re talking about when he directed you in Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
Yeah, it was his appreciation of me that opened something up. On Invasion of the Body Snatchers I was on set and my character had a line with his wife, Nancy, and she says, talking about aliens, something like, “Why do we always expect that they’re coming in metal ships. It could be these flowers.” And I said something like, “Nancy, I’ve never expected metal ships,” and I kind of tweaked it a little. And Phil said, “That’s good. Yeah, that’s good.” That day, I went, “Gee, I can just kind of find something in myself that could work.” Anyway, by golly, that was that.

Jeff Goldblum. Photo: Chuck Grant/for Vulture

You were born in ’51?
’52.

So your adolescence was the 1960s. But your personality feels, to me, so much more a product of the 1950s insofar as the clothes you like to wear, the fact you play piano jazz and not rock, and that you use words like “gee.” Did you feel connected to the youth culture of the ’60s?
My dad and mom were post–World War II creatures. They were frustrated — both of them probably thought that they’d be actors. Which is another thread of my story. But they would go to New York and come back with playbills and jazz albums. “Misty” was my dad’s favorite song, and Erroll Garner, who was from Pittsburgh, of course, was some kind of piano player. And my mom and dad liked to go out and dance the bossa nova and the cha-cha. I loved all that ’50s culture. But then, through my brothers, who are four and five years older than me, I started to consume the ’60s. I saw fashionable people come on The Mike Douglas Show and I thought, I’ve got to get a Nehru jacket and a medallion. So my mom and I went down to Gimbels department store and got those clothes and some John Lennon glasses. And my one brother, who sort of was a macho, Hemingway-inspired type, started to talk to me about the counterculture. Mostly what he was talking about was marijuana. And my mom started to grow marijuana in the backyard.

In the 1960s in Pittsburgh?
Yeah. She smoked a lot and wanted to smoke with us. She wanted to be part of the youth-culture thing. She was kind of youth obsessed, I think.

Did you get high with your mom?
Not really.

So did you?
This part of my life is a whole Philip Roth novel that I’ll only skim the edges of. But anyway, my brother took me one day to his apartment, his cool pad near where he was going to school in Pittsburgh, and he said, “Here’s some hash.” I’d never had anything before, and he put on Magical Mystery Tour and maybe Sgt. Pepper and maybe The White Album. I didn’t know what the heck was going on. It was like tripping on acid — I took that once in ’71. I took mescaline a few times that same year. I didn’t go to Woodstock, but around that time I became obsessed with acting. My only salvation seemed to be, I’ve got to be an actor.

And the early 1970s are when you moved to New York to give it a try?
Yes, and I was in Meisner’s class, which was a rendition of 1930s Group Theatre. It was serious, and deeper than just making a living. It was a calling. So what happened was that my countercultural proclivities were — what’s the word?

Subsumed?
Subsumed! We can use that. My countercultural proclivities were subsumed by acting.

You just mentioned Philip Roth, so while we’re talking about books: In the Reddit Ask Me Anything that you did the other day, you said that on an early date with your wife you read to her from The Great Gatsby. That’s an unusual early-date move, isn’t it?
Yeah, I did that. I’ve pestered people — there’ll be plenty of people you’ll come across who’ll say “keep Jeff Goldblum away from me with the books,” because over the decades I’ve done a lot of recitations. I like the written word. I like language. I like a good story for heaven’s sake. I try to be sensitized to anybody’s disinterest but for those who are interested I’m always raring to go. And yeah, early in our relationship my now-wife and I were at a restaurant and I happened to have Gatsby with me and I said, “Just for the heck of it, would you want me to read any of this to you?”

This sounds like a strategy.
I don’t think it was, but it may have been. As you know, you can go to dinner and there’s much to talk about but sometimes it’s also fun to share a reading or two. I also read her The Catcher in the Rye. In my past I’ve read Wuthering Heights out loud to someone.

Who?
Someone in my distant past. I can’t say who. I also used to pester people with P.G. Wodehouse.

What would you read to me?
Portnoy’s Complaint.

Portnoy’s Complaint? Really? Man.
Maybe I pick up something pervy from you. Or not. It’d be okay if I did. I think Portnoy’s Complaint is a grand novel.

I do like liver.
I think Philip Roth would be very enjoyable for us to read to each other; to read to each other lost on a deserted island together. We’d get a kick out of that job.

One semi-random question: Did you improvise the “I’m part gay” line in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou? It sounds improvised.
[Laughs.] No no no no no. Wes Anderson’s scripts are artful documents in themselves, and you stick to what he’s written. I’ll tell you a quick story about The Grand Budapest Hotel: I have a couple speeches in that movie, and there’s one where I’m talking about the will and stuff like that. I worked on it conscientiously. I made one change. One little change. And Wes Anderson went, “Yeah, that was good. Did you change this ‘and’ to a ‘the’?” That wasn’t something I’d done higgledy-piggledy. I thought the change was a little more elegant. And Wes Anderson said, “Yep, I understand. Do it the other way, please.” And I said, “Absolutely.”

If you can tell me: What happened with you and Law & Order? The stories I read about your leaving the show seemed to hint at tension behind the scenes.
Honestly, my appetite for constant acting practice was behind my taking that role. At that time I was doing a movie here or there, but I wanted a chance to do a series and go to work every morning. That seemed honorable enough. I had a fine time and they were fine people.

So there were no conflicts?
I may have been a little — I’ve changed. My criteria for taking a part now would be that I’ve got to be excited about it creatively. But I went in there [on Law & Order] and — I can tell you one story: I was working on a scene, and in it there was a body found by the docks. And I said, “This is like On the Waterfront because …” and one of the crew members said, “Jeff, this isn’t On the Waterfront.”

You’ve been a guest a few times on those Paul Allen boat cruises where he corrals a bunch of famous artists and scientists and business people.
You should go on one of those!

Maybe you can swing me an invitation. But what’s the most interesting conversation you’ve had on Paul Allen’s yacht?
So Jim Watson was on the boat too, and because I love science and scientists I went up to say hello — I’d played him in a movie. So I go up and he says, “Oh, Jeff. I never wanted you to play me in the movie.” “Oh, really?” “Yeah.” “Well, I did my best.” “You know who I wanted to play me?” “No, who?” “John McEnroe.”

I don’t understand.
Neither did I. I told what happened to Tom Stoppard — not to drop more names, but he was also on the cruise. I said, “You know what Jim Watson just said?” And Tom Stoppard said, “Are you sure he wasn’t thinking about John Malkovich?” So I went back to Jim Watson and I said, “Are you sure you mean John McEnroe?” And he goes, “Yeah, because you had scenes in the movie where you played tennis and I was a much better player than you depicted.” So in that sense, Jim Watson was absolutely right and John McEnroe would’ve been much better. It makes me think of John McEnroe doing other parts I’ve played. “Life finds a wayyou cannot be serious!

“Must go faster…”
You cannot be serious!

You and your wife have two little boys. What’s it been like to be a dad for the first time in your 60s?
As Willy Loman says: “Changes all the aspects.” But in getting together with Emilie — she’s 30 years younger — children were part of that consideration. How could this work out? What are the ways it couldn’t? But I’m feeling fit as a fiddle, and I naturally adore my boys. My feelings for them aren’t something that I had to try and feel. They were there right away. It’s wonderful. It’s challenging. But it’s all for the good. What would I rather be doing? Sitting here eating takeout Chinese food and thinking, Who can I call tonight? And not only that, but children allow you to think about how you might want people to live. For example, I want to expose my boys to science and the way we construe the universe.

What do you hope they’ll draw from that?
I would hope that they would learn the beauties of the scientific sensibility, which can give way to all manner of poetry and inspiration and creativity and excitement and wonder about who we are and where we are and what we can do. And I’d hope they develop an orientation in the fact-finding way instead of the old fairy-story way. Carl Sagan: One of his last books was called The Demon-Haunted World, and he said there are things that may be fun to tell stories about but that we need to compartmentalize that impulse appropriately. We need to honor our investigative powers.

Tell me a story you’ve never told before.
Something as-yet-heretofore-untold? Let me see. Ali Baba’s cave. The secret treasure trove. I’m rifling through the files mentally. Rifling through. Rifling through. Oh! That one’s from my distant past. Maybe? No. Okay, I don’t know if I’ve told this before. It’s for under the snarky file: Mrs. Moats, when I went to that Chatham day camp between fifth and sixth and sixth and seventh grade, she taught arts and crafts. And we were doing — oh yeah, and I still have it! — this picture of a butterfly made of mosaic tiles on a tray.  My mom and I came up with the butterfly design and we went to this specialty store to get some very unusual tiles. I brought them to camp to work on the project and Mrs. Moats was looking over my shoulder. There was something I didn’t like about her. She was too intrusive or authoritarian. And she says, “How about some more turquoise here?” I brushed her off and she said, “Jeffrey, I’m here for your guidance.” And I said to her, I remember it, “Mrs. Moats, I don’t need your guidance.”

Why does that stand out?
I mark that exchange as a landmark of sticking up for myself. Oh! And from when I was even younger — oooh — there’s the time I got into a fight with David Schwartz and the release of my cosmic fury made me burst into tears. Yes, he’d bothered my sister and I was in possession of the heat. It was a little heroic, a little protective, a little sensitive. That’s two for ya.

I have a couple questions based on perhaps apocryphal things I’ve read about you. The first is this: Is it true that on the set of The Fly you kept a fly in a plastic bag to study it for your performance?
Yes it is. I was very serious and passionate about that role. I knew I had to have a certain physicality, so I was looking for things that might inform that aspect of the performance. I’d done all my other preparatory due diligence so I got a fly and I kept it in my trailer and checked on it from time to time. [Makes some quick and impressively fly-like gestures.] Why not?

The second thing is that you hung out with a drug dealer for a couple days to prep for playing one in Deep Cover. If that’s true, how do you wrangle research with a drug dealer?
Deep Cover was an interesting opportunity and I wanted to do everything I could to prepare. I went on a couple ride-alongs with cops here in Los Angeles. I saw some events — a guy had just been shot and we raced to the scene. But the drug dealer? I haven’t thought about this in years. I think I had an acting colleague or teacher who, when they learned I was playing a drug dealer, said, “You know who you should really meet?” And, you know, drug dealers are around.

It’s crazy to me that actors are allowed to hang out with cops in the way you just described. I guess if you’re charming enough people will let you do anything.
Well, listen to this: I was told a story about an actor who was playing a surgeon, and not only did the actor pal up with the guy who he went to watch perform surgery but it got to the point where the surgeon said, “Hey, you want to cut a couple things? Nobody will know.” So, people, you want to make sure there are no actors in your operating rooms. Get that in writing. Or I just might show up.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Goldblum has appeared on Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s IFC sketch-comedy show multiple times, playing the owner of an artisanal knot store and “the Pull-Out King” — the proprietor of a pull-out bed superstore. Goldblum switched references in midstream here, from Arthur Miller’s classic American tragedy Death of a Salesman to a line uttered by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Goldblum and former Canadian Olympic gymnast Emilie Livingston were married in 2014. Previously, Goldblum was married to actress Patricia Gaul, from 1980 to 1986, as well as actress Geena Davis from 1987 to 1990. Goldblum and Davis co-starred in three films: the horror-comedy Transylvania 6-5000, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, and the sci-fi comedy Earth Girls Are Easy. Sanford Meisner was an American acting guru who developed a method of acting instruction called, appropriately enough, the Meisner technique. The most famous exercise in Meisner’s approach is the “repetition” exercise, in which actors repeat words until they feel that a fresh emotion has compelled a move to a new word. Goldblum was a devoted student of Meisner’s, and has regularly taught acting himself over the years. In 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Goldblum played the villainous Grandmaster. Encouraged by director Taika Waititi to improvise, Goldblum, clad in electric-blue makeup, delivered one of the funniest and most Goldblum-y performances of his recent renaissance. Despite having no formal surgical training, Walter Jackson Freeman II (1895-1972) popularized what became known as the “ice pick” lobotomy, in which a metal pick is inserted into the corner of the eye socket and then wiggled around to sever certain brain connections. Freeman, who participated in lobotomizing Rosemary Kennedy, was eventually banned from performing the procedure. Jeff’s father was a doctor, Harold L. Goldblum, and his mother, Shirley, worked in radio and later ran a kitchen-equipment sales firm. The two were, by their son’s account, a pretty snazzy duo. Jeff’s older brothers are Lee and Rick, the latter of whom died from kidney failure at 23. Goldblum also has a sister, the acclaimed visual artist Pamela Goldblum. Perhaps Philip Roth’s most infamous novel, 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint details the sexual explorations of its protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, including his masturbatory assignation with a hunk of liver. Goldblum played quirky (of course) detective Zachary Nichols on Law & Order: Criminal Intent for two seasons, from 2009 to 2010. Variety reported that Goldblum’s departure was “due to the uncertainty” about the show’s future. The series ran until 2011. Ex-Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen has regularly had ultraexclusive parties on one of his multiple super-yachts. To get invited you pretty much have to be one of the world’s most famous, successful, or otherwise influential people. Tennis bad boy John McEnroe uttered his catchphrase protesting a call against him at Wimbledon in 1981. It’s also the title of his 2002 memoir. Goldblum and Livingston are parents to two boys: 2-year-old Charlie Ocean and 1-year-old River Joe.
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