Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Jeff Goldblum is interviewing me. Every time I ask him a question, which is of course to be expected, he slyly segues to an inquiry as to my own family, my own interests. Do I like to sing? Do I like to act? Do I have a large collection of clothes in my cupboard because of the “interesting things” I wear? Just one minute into our conversation, I find he’s waiting on me to name a collective noun that would describe a group of Goldblums.
“A gaggle, or a flock. It wouldn’t be a murder of Goldblums, it would be a...?” he wonders. The actor’s speech is full of such splendid vocabulary and off-kilter intonations, words that possess a kind of shimmery energy that seems to pour out of his ears. He phumphers, which is to say... you know... he sort of... has an effusive way of going on and on about something. He says ‘gee’ a whole lot, an earnest refrain that encompasses his own humble enthusiasm, and one he’s used as one of his most notable characters.
“Gee, the lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh... staggers me,” he says as Dr Ian Malcolm, a mathematician specialising in chaos theory in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). Dr Malcolm, who serves as the massively successful film’s voice of reason, was undoubtedly the role that solidified Goldblum’s status as a global celebrity and bona fide sex symbol. Unsurprisingly, he says that the doctor is one of the characters the public associate with him the most.
“Yeah, they sometimes say, ‘Hey, you look like that guy from Jurassic Park,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ Or else they say, ‘I really liked you in Ghostbusters,’ and then I say, ‘You’re thinking of Harold Ramis! You’re mixing me up with Harold Ramis,’” he laughs.
We’re on the Chateau Marmont patio, a quintessential destination for Hollywood meetings, and I wonder how anyone could mistake Jeff Goldblum for anyone else. A legend of cinema for some four decades now, Goldblum first emerged in the 1980s as ‘Freak #1’ in Death Wish (1974), a villainous character who exclaims “I kill rich cunts!” Hardly likable. But it was his unique voice, expressive physicality, and ability to make his performances flicker with his own idiosyncrasies, that caught the public’s imagination from the start. In The Fly (1986), his breakthrough role, he plays a scientist whose own experiment gruesomely transforms him into a giant insect; in Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), a delectable blend of science fiction and romantic comedy, he stars alongside Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans as a furry blue alien who romances a valley girl played by Geena Davis (the pair were married at the time).
In the 90s, Goldblum experienced new levels of fame. There was Jurassic Park, of course, but also the extra-terrestrial disaster epic Independence Day (1996), in which he plays a computer genius who successfully disables alien technology and casually saves the United States from the attack. The film became the second-highest earning movie in history at the time of release – second only to Jurassic Park. More recently, there are the three films he’s done with Wes Anderson – The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Isle of Dogs (2018). His unselfconscious humor and serious commitment to his characters perfectly accents the tone of these films, a likely result of his own rapport with their director.
While Goldblum might possess the mystique, charm and résumé of a classic Hollywood star, he has the creative spirit of an experimental beginner. Despite his roots in a different era of old-school showmen – his first agent in LA represented Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis – he’s most recently become an unlikely fashion figure, often sporting banana-printed, flame-licked Prada shirts, tight leather jackets and pinky rings. He’s also the face of countless viral memes, at least one of which borders on the scatological.
“In my life, just like in music or acting, I try to build in the possibility of surprise” – Jeff Goldblum
I tell him about a provocative meme that addresses him as a “fashion daddy”, in which the creator fantasises about Goldblum choking him out with his “Balenciaga boxers”. Goldblum, unruff led, assures me that he doesn’t own any Balenciaga boxers, just a pair or two of Balenciaga sneakers, and that if he did own a pair, his wife Emilie would be the only viable collaborator in such a scenario.
Last year, Goldblum met Miuccia Prada, the designer responsible for so many of his recent outfits, including the aforementioned shirts that he debuted on his press tour this summer. “There was a party with Mrs Prada,” he recalls of the Venice film festival. “It was so fun we stayed till the wee hours. The end of the party was just Mrs Prada and me, Guillermo del Toro and Emilie, and a couple people sitting around a table, talking. I think I said, ‘What’s your favourite movie about fashion?’ and then I said, because I’d recently seen it again, ‘It’s not really about fashion, but the main character is a person that works in fashion... The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder.’ She said, ‘That’s it, that’s my favourite movie about fashion.’”
Goldblum never expected to rise to prominence as an international fashion plate in his 60s. “I didn’t have any goal or aspiration to (do) this kind of thing,” he says. “Who could have foreseen this whole scene as it takes place nowadays?” But he’s trying to squeeze every drop of juice out of each moment and each day, every which way. “All the different juices! I still yearn for a connection to, not only myself, but to the world, you know? More every day. I want to be more involved, more engaged. I feel more and more open. That’s my intent anyway, it’s what I enjoy about living, acting and piano- playing... For me, it’s about my interest in other people just as much as it is about putting on a show for them.”
One of the ways Goldblum puts on a show is as a jazz pianist, performing weekly at a supper club in Los Angeles. A couple of days after we meet, I catch a packed-out gig. He plays the piano with eyes and eyebrows as expressive as those we see on screen, and poses with a hundred or so fans during each and every intermission. “We’re gonna do another album, you know,” he says of his band, Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. (Last year, they released their first LP, and started selling bespoke tie-dyed merchandise that would go well with those Balenciaga trainers.) “We’re working in a focused and progressive way, which I’ve never even done before”. But while his career as a studio recording artist is relatively new, Goldblum isn’t new to music: some decades ago, he brought his art-teacher sister Pamela on to Late Night With David Letterman with him for a piano duet in which she played one of the verses with her nose. “I’m going through a growth spurt musically (at the moment). Some of it is difficult, but it’s fun to try these things – movie parts, all kinds of things.”
“When Jeff walks into a room I smile,” says comedian Sarah Silverman, who recently collaborated with Goldlbum on a cover of the 1927 song “Me and My Shadow”. “He makes my face hurt from grinning. He has the joy and wide-eyed wonder of a child with the knowledge and experience of a village elder. It’s an excellent combination.”
Goldblum takes pride in bringing a sense of unpredictability to every element of his craft. “In my life, just like in music or acting, I try to build in the possibility of surprise,” he says. “It’s not just a rote, mechanical practice, it’s the other kind of practice – creative.” Most notably, the actor recently flexed his improvisational muscle as the alien overlord Grandmaster in Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok (2017), a role that was largely ad-libbed. “We actually had our first meeting for Thor with (director) Taika Waititi right here,” he says, gesturing to the chateau garden. As ruler of the planet Sakaar, Goldblum lent an unexpectedly camp edge to the action-packed superhero movie. Complete with silver hair, stark eyeliner and a single, metallic blue stripe down his chin, he brought laid-back charisma to the part of the manipulative despot. (The Grandmaster has blue skin in the comic, but Waititi insisted on making him flesh-toned in order to accentuate Goldblum’s own Goldblum-iness.) “Jeff’s approach to acting is so organic and free. He uses every part of himself,” Silverman says. “It’s fun to watch someone have fun.”
“(People move) here in hopes of getting rich quick, finding gold or getting famous – having their own personal experience. (It’s) a religious fanaticism of some kind. I think America holds the record for the development and invention of that kind of thing” – Jeff Goldblum
Worlds apart from Sakaar, Goldblum’s most recent film might be surprising for some because of its soberness. The Mountain is a work of historical fiction by writer-director Rick Alverson, in which Goldblum stars alongside Tye Sheridan and Denis Lavant as a doctor specialising in lobotomies. “My character is taken from the real-life character Walter Freeman, who pioneered lobotomies in America in the 40s and 50s – and infamously the sister of President Kennedy (Rosemary Kennedy) came out very badly,” says Goldblum. “It’s a springboard – Rick invented this character, taken from that.” In the film, set in the Pacific Northwest, Goldblum’s character starts a new life on the west coast after facing disgrace back east. He goes from institution to institution pitching his new ‘transorbital’ approach to lobotomy, done efficiently through the eye rather than opening up one’s head for major neurological surgery.
Goldblum says the film reminds him of Willy Loman’s philosophy in Death of a Salesman (‘‘If you look good, you can be anything”) as well as Kurt Andersen’s 2017 book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – observations that indicate he feels this story has some bearing on the present-day American nightmare. “It’s about the seeds of our culture here,” the actor explains. “And how from the very start it was full of violence, ignorance and get-rich-quick types. Our land has produced an abundance of nutty (ideas), and it all fits (together) in one way or another... All these particularly American, misguided, utopian ideas.”
I point out that the west coast of the United States is linked to the occult more than other parts of the country; people have always moved west with the desire to transcend their reality. “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “(People move) here in hopes of getting rich quick, finding gold or getting famous – having their own personal experience. (It’s) a religious fanaticism of some kind. I think America holds the record for the development and invention of that kind of thing.”
Director Alverson felt lucky to work with Goldblum for the first time. “It’s rare to work with an actor of Jeff’s stature and experience and find such vitality and curiosity, such graciousness on and off set. I tell people he’s suspiciously well acclimated to life,” he laughs, before considering. “Personally, I think his profoundly dark sense of humour is the great secret to his wellbeing.”
For Goldblum, who has worked with auteur figures from Paul Schrader to Robert Altman, it’s the directors themselves that are always the main draw to a project. “I don’t think you can be good in a movie that doesn’t have a good director,” he says. “You can have your talent on display, and try to bring it to bear somehow, but you can’t really be inventively used, and striking, unless the movie’s good, and that means the director (has to be) good.”
The Mountain also continues Goldblum’s legacy of performing in films that draw their themes from science. The actor, who has great reverence for the exploratory qualities of science, considers “fact-based investigation” a “worthwhile, noble and inspiring pursuit”, and an especially important value given the state of the American fake news problem. And while his admiration for science has been somewhat instrumental to his career, he says he could have never predicted the outcomes for his own Hollywood experiments. “I feel particularly compelled to pursue science, and I’m happy to be playing some of these parts.”
“If you don’t feel poetry in you as a result of discovering our common beginnings from stardust and the Big Bang, then where are you going to get your divine notions from?” he continues, animated. “And I dig that. I’m into it myself, and now, having kids (Goldblum has two, with Emilie), if I were to show them anything, it would be science. There are other portals into reality, of course, and I’ve devoted my life to the unseen and to playing, and to the imagination and all of that, but science is darn interesting. And now, of course, when it’s under assault by people who think otherwise, it’s particularly important to do so.”
For Goldblum, discerning and spiritual in his commitment to the truth, reality is everything – and unlike some other actors, he doesn’t seem to think he exists at the centre of it. “The facts of the universe are plenty, deeply magical,” he assures me.
The Mountain is in US cinemas this summer
Grooming David Cox at Art Department using R+Co, photography assistants Robbie Corral, Sidney Meret, styling assistant Jake Sammis, production Mini Title