For someone who died last year, Jeff Goldblum can sure talk up a storm. He tells us about life, death and how his name became a verb
Published: 27 June 2010, Sunday Times
Being upstaged is an occupational hazard for an actor. If it was rotten luck for Farrah Fawcett to meet her maker while the paramedics were jumping on Michael Jackson, then pity poor Jeff Goldblum, whose first death notices, that same day, were also slipping by unnoticed. Mercifully, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated. The New Zealand climbing accident that had reportedly claimed him proved nothing but an online hoax. “My Mom, for instance, called up going, ‘You’re there!’” he recalls, affecting a relieved moan.
“It was disturbing and trippy. Some other friends called and said, ‘I just wanted to hear your voice.’ It was crazy. Is there any actor as convivial as Goldblum? The tallest working man in showbiz — at 6ft 4in, the Peter Crouch of his profession — saunters backstage at the Old Vic and is instantly being so nice and complimentary about you, his would-be interrogator (“Did you ever act?” he asks, the old devil. “Look at you. You look like a movie star”), that he’s got you in his pocket from the get-go. I had heard that this is part of the Meisner technique, the acting method in which Goldblum was schooled, through which one channels one’s performance by focusing upon the antagonist. Seems more a case of good old-fashioned buttering up. Soon we are “Jeffing” each other like old pals.
Dressed in white cheesecloth shirt and khaki trousers, Goldblum is in good nick: lean, lithe, sun-roasted to a walnut veneer. The thick, wavy hair, if perhaps a little hennaed, is tucked behind the ears, his brown eyes framed by a pair of horn-rimmed specs. At 57, he looks little different from the way he has appeared in any film in the past couple of decades.
Goldblum folds himself into a chair and pours a cup of green tea, which he carries in a flask. One is immediately concerned about spillage on his unforgiving outfit. The room is a strange one, largely unfurnished. It appears to be a shrine dedicated to Kevin Spacey, the walls decked with photos: stills from Spacey’s career; a snap of Spacey with Bill Clinton on Air Force One; a newspaper cutting of a young, hirsute Kev at a student demo. “You can’t beat it, right? Pretty delicious,” Goldblum enthuses. Turns out it is Spacey’s office. They just removed the desk.
During the mid-1990s Goldblum was just about the most bankable, and unlikely, star in the business
Two years ago, Goldblum and Spacey were a hit in the Old Vic’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. “Best times I’ve ever had,” he says. Now they are reunited, with Spacey as producer on their version of Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Goldblum stars with Mercedes Ruehl, playing Mel and Edna Edison, a Manhattan couple tipped over the edge by Mel’s unemployment, economic meltdown, a burglary and a summer garbage strike.
Directed by Terry Johnson, toting his recent Tony for La Cage aux folles, the play will occupy the Vaudeville theatre, the first time the Old Vic has put on something extramurally.
Goldblum loves Neil Simon: “I’m a big fan of The Odd Couple movie. I’m a big fan of The Sunshine Boys. He wrote the screenplay for one of my favourite movies in the 1970s, The Heartbreak Kid. Very funny.” The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which debuted in 1971, also became a film, with Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft. Given the current financial climate, though, the story is still timely. “Here’s a guy losing his job when New York was going through a tough recession, and here we are again, a lot of people worried about money,” Goldblum says, effortlessly easing into his verbal stride. “But I think it is larger. It’s also about his disenchantment with consumerism, materialism, capitalism, American Dreamism and its dark shadows...”
Goldblum in full flow is a wonder to behold. The full answer lasts 10 minutes. So verbose and stream-of-consciousness is he, you fear you might blow the whole allotted interview time on this one response alone, a meditation that veers from Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets to “corrupt and barren credos”, “the cosmic effect”, “the identification of self”, concluding with: “It’s like waking up and going, ‘Yah, Jeez.’
His answer brings to mind the verb that has been coined in the actor’s honour: “to Goldblum”, now rife on the internet, from a put-down delivered to a verbose character in the American television comedy Community Service. “Going on effusively, animatedly and maybe non sequiturly,” Goldblum defines it, proudly. His waxings, I add, sound not unlike the kind of thing his character in Jurassic Park, the chaos theorist Dr Ian Malcolm, would have uttered. He laughs, affecting the air of the hunted: “There’s a line that keeps coming back to me. Ian Malcolm says, ‘Life will find a way.’ I think that is dearly relevant.”
Good old Jurassic Park. During the mid-1990s, starring roles in this film, its sequel, The Lost World, and the alien-invasion blockbuster Independence Day made Goldblum just about the most bankable, and unlikely, star in the business. Strange, then, that this time last year, just as his life was flashing before our eyes, it was still pretty hard to pin a signature role on him. From studio smashes to humble independents, to walk-ons in sitcoms to his corporate work as the voice of Apple, Goldblum’s career has pinged all over the place. Most of it seems characterised by an ability simply to waltz in and steal whichever scenes he’s in. For the past two years, he has been starring as Detective Zach Nichols in the American TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of being an actor. I was passionate about it. That it came to pass at all — I knew it was a wild roll of the dice, without any logical thinking — and that I’ve continued to do it, very steadily, I feel luckier than ever,” he says. “Sanford Meisner, whose emphasis was on learning, says it takes 20 years of activity before you can call yourself an actor... and if you keep working after that, you can have a lifelong graduate experience. That’s been my context and my plan, if I had one.” He smiles. “I hit some interesting pinball points along the way, didn’t I?”
Everyone I know has their favourites — Goldblum’s cynical journalist in The Big Chill, maybe; a connoisseur’s choice, the crime lord (named, rather amusingly, David Jason) in the underrated Deep Cover; perhaps the molecular meddler in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, the film that got Goldblum pegged, for a while, as Hollywood’s resident wacky scientist. (Some boffin. In Independence Day, he destroyed the alien mothership by uploading a computer virus from his laptop, in the days when we were still on dial-up modems.)
You know what my favourite is, I say: The Tall Guy, written by Richard Curtis, the one that set the template for Four Weddings and everything thereafter. “Emma Thompson’s first movie. She’s a wonderful, wonderful person. Fantastic,” he coos. “And Rowan Atkinson is so funny. I love it to death.”
Goldblum was brought up in a middle-class Jewish household in Pittsburgh. His father, a doctor, and mother, later a radio announcer, had flirted with thespianism. “Both had curtailed, unrealised ambitions that may have come out in the wash to me.” One of four children (sadly, an older brother died in his twenties), Goldblum skipped university, noodled around as a lounge pianist (he is rated as a jazz man, performing regularly with his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra), then went to New York to learn his craft. Appearing off-Broadway, he was spotted by the eminent film director Robert Altman, who gave him small parts in California Split and Nashville.
Actually, the first official entry on Goldblum’s film resumé is... ahem... as a rapist in the Charles Bronson vigilante flick Death Wish (1974). He is billed, more kindly, as “Freak No 1”. “Yes, number one,” he emphasises. “Freak number one.” Should he ever get round to penning an autobiography, it would make a good title. He laughs. “Okay, if I come out with it, I’d better credit you with it. Freak No 1. Hahaha, that’s pretty good.” Has he kept in touch with Death Wish’s director, Michael Winner — nowadays a celebrity in his own right, a columnist for this very newspaper, Winner’s Dinners, “Calm down, dear” and all that? Word of such career diversions had yet to reach Goldblum. “Reeeeeally? I’ll be darned. Maybe I’ll give him a ticket.”
The first official entry on Goldblum’s film resumé is... ahem... as a rapist in Death Wish. He is billed as “Freak No 1"
By the mid-1970s, Goldblum was cruising through bit parts in Starsky & Hutch and Columbo. Famously, he bagged one line in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, as the party guest declaring on the phone: “I forgot my mantra.”
He soon became a favourite of the directors (and Spielberg collaborators) Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan, the former casting him in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, the latter in The Big Chill and Silverado. With The Fly, Goldblum had landed not only his first starring role, but a first taste of celebrity, by dint of his marriage to his co-star, Geena Davis. They earned themselves a distinguished place in movie history as one of Tinseltown’s tallest couples.
Goldbum certainly has form in this department. He was previously married to the Big Chill actress Patricia Gaul, and has had long-term relationships with Jurassic Park’s Laura Dern and Catherine Wreford (30 years his junior), who appeared alongside him in his home-town mockumentary, Pittsburgh.
He pours more green tea. I am still terribly worried about his trousers. I had heard that he is quite yogic, meditating at his Hollywood Hills home, having special macrobiotic food delivered daily. This is nonsense. He has a thing for sushi, but otherwise he is into sports, a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers American football team. He enjoys a regular workout. Are there personal career highlights? I know he’s proud of the film Adam Resurrected, a holocaust movie directed by Paul Schrader that never got a general release in Britain. “It’s all fleeting, it’s all going to be forgotten,” he ponders. “I’m getting better at enjoying it more than ever, so the more recent things feel good and memorable to me.”
He muses some more. “Goldbluming,” he quips. And reels off the names of the directors he says he’s been fortunate enough to work with — Spielberg, Schrader, Kaufman, Altman. “Even Woody Allen. That little bit I sort of cherish, because I’m a big fan of his. I watch his films over and over again.” He doesn’t keep photos or mementos, his only little indulgence being a folder containing a DVD of each of the films he’s made. “If there was a house fire, I doubt if I’d replace it. I wouldn’t mind paring myself down to a bowl and spoon and diaper of some kind.”
There are a couple of films out soon: The Switch, a romcom with Jennifer Aniston, and Morning Glory, a comedy about television news. Far more pressing, however, are the play rehearsals. He hasn’t been out much at all, he confesses, for fear of “taxing my zen-ergy or focus more than I need to”. But he’s loving it. He offers tickets, not only to me, but my “entire clan”, which is very nice.
Neil Simon is fond of quoting the actor Edmund Gwenn, who, on his deathbed, uttered an immortal showbiz zinger. “Dying is easy,” it goes. “Comedy is hard.” So glad Goldblum is still with us.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue previews at the Vaudeville, WC2, from Wednesday.
Exclusive Q&A on August 9th - see the show and stay for a talk with cast members Jeff Goldblum & Mercedes Ruehl. Tickets for performance and Q&A start at just £35.
Book at www.sundaytimestickets.co.uk or call 0844 412 2962