If Adam Goldberg is typecast as an actor, it’s only because he plays the type so well: intelligent, intense, and often caught up in his own insecurities. It began, perhaps, with his turn as Mike Newhouse, a misanthropic teenager searching for his place in Richard Linklater’s ’70s-set coming-of-age cult classic Dazed and Confused (1993). A brief, but extremely memorable, arc as Chandler’s unhinged replacement roommate Eddie on the second season of Friends cemented this on-screen persona. Throughout the 2000s, it continued with roles like Jack, the dissatisfied American in Paris, opposite Julie Delpy in the two-hander 2 Days in Paris (2007). Or, more recently, the hitman Mr. Numbers in FX’s Fargo (2014).
But acting is not Goldberg’s primary form of creative self-expression. The 44-year-old Santa Monica, California-native is also a photographer, musician, and filmmaker. He’s released three albums—the first one as LANDy in 2009 and the subsequent two as the Goldberg Sisters in 2011 and 2013—a documentary (Running With the Bulls, 2003), and countless shorts. No Way Jose, his third feature as a writer and director after Scotch and Milk (1998) and I Love Your Work (2003), comes out tomorrow. “Acting feels like the anomaly in the group,” he explains. “I spent a lot of years trying to use acting as an instrument with which to express myself in a very personal way and I think it actually impeded my ability to be faithful to the parts I was playing, or the film itself, because it was so important to me to put all of myself into something. I think the only way to do that is to do things which are much more solipsistic,” he continues.
In No Way Jose, Goldberg plays a parallel present version of himself: the one-eighth Mexican Joseph “Jose” Stern, a musician stuck playing children’s birthday parties and sleeping on his friend’s sofa following a bad breakup. Of the main cast, only three actors were “conventionally cast”: Ahna O’Reilly, who plays Jose’s ex; Emily Osment, who plays his half-sister; and Gillian Jacobs. The remaining roles are filled by Goldberg’s real-life friends.
EMMA BROWN: When did music enter the picture for you?
ADAM GOLDBERG: I played drums when I was a kid, but I didn’t ever really play with people. I was never a kid who had a band. I used to drum at my home alone to records—I’d pull out a David Bowie record—but I was never a kid who was writing songs and I never really picked a guitar up. In college [at Sarah Lawrence], my roommate John Glick, who tragically passed away, would play guitar and we would sing songs all the time, mainly Beatles songs. After I dropped out, I started recording with some friends. I was still playing drums and singing, which was a weird combo. I would tinker with a piano, but sort of weird jazz. My ex-girlfriend, towards the end of our relationship—I was 22 or 23 or something—I remember having some dream where I wrote this song. Some point after she and I broke up, I started magically writing songs. [laughs] I don’t really know how to account for it. I had a guitar and someone showed me some basic chords. The stuff I was playing at the time was more influenced by Sonic Youth. I was writing songs on the acoustic guitar, but I bought everything at once. I bought a cheap Mexican Stratocaster and a small amp and a FourTrack. To me, the writing of a song and the recording process were bound up in one experience. I do that to this day; I forgo the conventional writing process altogether and just begin recording, and then it informs me, and I add to it. That’s a very long way of saying that there was a long gestation period and then an evolution. I had sort of a band in the ’90s. I was terrified of playing live, but I would try anything. I used to ride a motorcycle. It was power-ish trio—I wanted to be Sebadoh or Built to Spill. I made a demo that I always thank Christ I never went out with. We made the art, we made the press kit, and I was like, “Eh… I don’t know.” [laughs] And then I never did anything with it. By the time I made my first record, I was 37 years old. I had been working on it for several years, and it wasn’t necessarily a record I knew I was making. I was recording songs, and then before I knew it I had probably 30 songs in various states of recording and mixing. Some that were very home, self-recorded, some with a band called Black Pine—a local band at the time in Los Angeles, who I ended up collaborating with quite a bit. Some with Steven Drozd, who’s in the Flaming Lips, in a much more official recording setting. Once I did that I was in pretty deep. But like I said, it was an extremely long gestation period. I’m glad because the stuff I make now, I can still stand by most of it. I seriously doubt that would’ve been the case if I somehow managed to release some of these earlier recordings, although some of them appear in my movie I Love Your Work and another thing I did for IFC called Running With the Bulls.
BROWN: Were you confident that you had found your sound when you went to record the LANDy stuff?
GOLDBERG: I can’t say for sure that I’ve found a particular sound. I think that some of the things that are interesting about the record I made are maybe also frustrating, and maybe considered immature. It’s funny the descriptions I’ve read of the music, because everyone needs to give music context, a frame of reference. Often times I think, “Yeah, that applies to two or three of the songs, but not these other four songs.” I think that’s because I have so many influences and so many different kinds of music. I’ve done that very overtly. I do feel confident. When I sit down to do something and record it, I know what that voice is. But for the LANDy stuff, I would joke that it’s a “best of,” even though it’s my first record. Because some of those recordings began in 2003, and the record came out in 2009.
BROWN: I know there is a lot of jazz in Scotch and Milk. Was that something you were super into growing up?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, I was a gigantic jazz fan. I have tattoos on my arms now of Art Pepper and Billie Holiday and Chet Baker quotes. I was sort of obsessed with Coltrane, David Bowie, and Elvis Costello—I had this triumvirate of music I was obsessed with as a teenager. My mom had a boyfriend when I was 10 who was a huge jazz fan, and when I was 16, he gave me a big percentage of his record collection, which I’m staring at as we speak. It was when people were making the switch to CDs. I just went in deep. I like to cite the fact that I was up one night spinning Art Tatum records or something like that into the wee hours the first time I took the SATs. I just did miserably. I also had a NyQuil problem, and I remember being very sleepy, during that particular exam. [laughs] I underachieved quite extraordinarily on that exam.
BROWN: I hope you included that in your application essay: “The reason I had to take the SATs twice was my love of jazz.”
GOLDBERG: I wasn’t a great student. I was horrible at any kind of objective task, and really stressed out. Jazz hindered the distribution of Scotch and Milk. The thing that makes that movie the movie is also the very thing that makes it [impossible to distribute.] People were interested in distributing that movie, which was already a very tiny black-and-white art film. But no one could afford the music. I was this punk 24-year-old kid when I wrote it. I didn’t fucking know what I was doing—”I’ll put a bunch of jazz in it.” I have Jimmy Scott, who’s the now late Jimmy Scott, in the movie, and he’s the only officially cleared music in the thing. We flew him out to play a gig and simply recorded the gig as we filmed it; it wasn’t even the playback. So no matter what happens, I will always have this extraordinary experience of having filmed and recorded a Jimmy Scott performance, and it’s committed to black-and-white, 35mm, celluloid. If nothing else came of that film, it was worth the years of agony that it cost me. [laughs]
BROWN: You mentioned that in the past, you got caught up in trying to express yourself through your acting roles and it was better to do that through music or art or writing. Have you ever had a really cathartic acting experience?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, but they’re almost always the same—crying or fighting. It almost stops mattering what the context of the film or the TV show is. I always compared it a little bit to athletics; it almost touches the same part of oneself, like an amazing workout. [There’s] something that is quite literally very physical about it, for instance my fight scene in Dazed and Confused, or my death scene in Saving Private Ryan are two things that immediately spring to mind. Oftentimes, the shortest distance between wanting to express something and genuinely feeling that thing is something physical. If someone shoves you, you get a feeling that wells up in your stomach and in the base of your throat. If you’re at all present, it’s almost impossible for it not to conjure up all these feelings. So I’ve certainly had that experience where afterward it feels like great sex or something like that.
BROWN: When you left Sarah Lawrence, were you confident that you were going to make it as an actor? Because it’s such a precarious profession.
GOLDBERG: I didn’t really leave to act. I had acted all through high school; I had taken acting classes outside of high school as well as in high school. But concurrently, from the age 15 onwards, I was also really interested in filmmaking. I took like a USC summer course my junior year of high school; we had a filmmaking class at our school that was taught by students at CalArts. I was fairly sure that I would just be doing it all. I remember writing down on a piece of paper when I was 15 years old something pretentious like: “In order to be existentially fulfilled, I need to write and direct movies in which I act.” I wrote it down and that was that. I would later come to realize I hated acting in the movies that I made, but that’s another story. I was always making these short films and video projects. My senior project in high school was a parody of other people’s senior projects. People would often just go on a road trip and document it, so it was a cross between satirizing them and satirizing On the Road, or me satirizing a pretentious kid who wanted to have an On the Road experience. The film is a pseudo-documentary of me driving around my block for a week. It was called On the Block. To this day I mourn the loss of that VHS tape—no one can find it. I’m convinced it’s my best work.
But anyway, when I was at Sarah Lawrence, I was as close to a nervous breakdown as I ever want to come. I felt burnt out. I had to get the hell out of there. So when the year was up, I left with the intention of going to CalArts film school, and during that year I didn’t get in. I sent them a film I had made using a friend of mine who was having a nightmare that he was at the McDonald’s playland at the middle of night. Scored by Eric Dolphy, another jazz musician. They didn’t go for that. Then my first girlfriend from high school and through that year of college dumped me, and I sort of said, “Fuck this. I’m going to join an acting class, and I’m going to get an agent, and I’m going to get a girlfriend.” And I did. I still wanted to go to CalArts, so I made another film about writer’s block and got in. But I could barely breathe being in a classroom. Having been out of school for two years at that point, I couldn’t do it.
BROWN: Did you ever have a period of, “What am I doing?” when you started out as an actor? Or did you get parts pretty consistently from the beginning?
GOLDBERG: I got the first thing I ever auditioned for. I was like, “That’s it; I’m in.” It was two scenes in a pilot, which ended up being a James Earl Jones series called Gabriel’s Fire. I played a southern guy. We were all sitting around the TV—me and my mom and my girlfriend at the time, and friends were watching on the East Coast. We watched the entire show, following along with the script, and my scene was about to come up, and it didn’t come up. My next scene was about to come up and it didn’t come up. I was completely shattered and heartbroken. I was really convinced that getting that job was going to change my life. [laughs] I think the next part was a nonspeaking role in Designing Women, and then I got a little part on Murphy Brown. About a year later, I got Dazed and Confused, which didn’t change my life. I had to come home from Dazed and Confused and go do a fucking day’s work on Son in Law to pay my rent, which I have people who chide me about to this day. If you watch that movie— and I suggest that you don’t—I’m dressed up like a Native American at a Halloween party in full face-paint and my one line had to be looped. I was in Portland at the time, and they said, “Can you come down and record that line?” And I was like, “No.” [laughs] So someone’s doing an impression of me in that film.
BROWN: Did you originally audition for Mike in Dazed and Confused?
GOLDBERG: The way that film worked was that you had a meeting with Don Phillips, who famously cast Fast Times [at Ridgemont High, 1982]. Then you had a meeting with Don and Rick [Linklater], and then I think everybody read for Pink. Then you came back to read for the role you wanted. I did everything to get the part. That was the only time in my life to this day that I hired a coach—an audition coach. It’s crazy looking back on it, because I’m clearly playing some sort of version of myself, but I wanted this role more than anything in the entire world. I auditioned for Mike, and then there was this pizza party, which has become famous, I guess. Everybody was there; I’m told Vince Vaughn was there, but I didn’t know who he was to remember him at the time. There were three people for each role. The night before I was driving downtown listening to Led Zeppelin, Neil Young—I was steeped in the music of the time, whatever I could do to completely immerse myself. I went there just so fucking amped. I had just come out of the toilet and I was washing my hands, and Rick Linklater came in and stepped up to the urinal. He was peeing, and I was washing my hands, and I was like, “Hey, man.” And he was like, “Hey, man. How are you doing? The good news is you got the part. The bad news is you’re going to have to read with a lot of different people for Tony.” That’s how I got the first role that really meant the world to me. I spent the day reading with a bunch of different guys, and had a blast—I was in a daze, I guess, literally.
BROWN: Was No Way Jose easier to make than your previous films? I know Scotch and Milk was particularly difficult.
GOLDBERG: None of them have been easy. They’ve all been nightmares, really. In every situation, I’ve made some sort of Faustian deal, at the risk of seeming a little dramatic. I think this accounts for the huge gaps between the movies I’ve made—it’s been 10 years since I Love Your Work. You sort of say, “Okay, I’m never doing it again that way; I really learned my lesson on that.” Then, as time goes by, you really want to make a movie, you want to express yourself, you feel like that’s what you’re sort of here to do, no matter how difficult, and you make deals in the dizzying cloud of your single-minded desire to get the movie made, and there are consequences. I’ll just leave it at that. [laughs] This wasn’t easy, and it remains not easy. In terms of the distribution of it—albeit not in a conventional theatrical context—it was the easiest. It was picked up by Sony Worldwide. It began with zero financing, and then it was augmented a negative pickup. It was this weird amalgam of this insanely tiny independent movie—shooting in our houses and our friends’ houses; most of the people are my friends and aren’t necessarily working actors—that you’re delivering to this gigantic multimedia conglomerate.
BROWN: When you get this itch to make a film, is it that you have a specific story in mind, or just that you want to have that creative outlet?
GOLDBERG: It’s both. I think No Way Jose was kind of a little bit more of the cart leading the horse in that I felt like I needed to do something that was lighter, that was more linear, that exercised this other muscle that I have exercised as an actor—namely in 2 Days in Paris, which was, regardless of how it might have been publicized, an extremely collaborative process that entailed a lot of improvising. I wanted to make a film that was “my” film that utilized these things I felt—this sounds much more cynical than I mean it to sound like—that I had been giving away for free in these other contexts. I wanted to give myself a space to do what I had kind of done as an actor.
BROWN: How did you find Emily Osment? Was she one of the people cast through conventional means?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, the people I didn’t know prior to the making of the film in prominent roles were Ahna [O’Reilly], Emily, and Gillian [Jacobs]. I had met Gillian, but I certainly didn’t know her. Ahna I had met through a casting director. I saw Ahna doing an interview, and based on that interview, we had breakfast or lunch and I said, “You want to do this?” I don’t know if she knew what she was getting herself in for, because I actually pre-shot the film while rehearsing it. Not the entire movie, but maybe an hour of it. I would shoot the rehearsals on a 5D, and I would edit them later on, so we would use that both as a frame of reference for shot-lists and rewrites. It was a pretty involved, arguably arduous rehearsal period. The Emily story is pretty funny, I guess. We actually made a little video about it, coming to a YouTube channel near you. She tweeted at me one day and I tweeted back at her, and we got into this sort of Twitter banter. That role was initially meant for someone much younger. Emily now refers to it as this “dumb half-sister,” but it was originally written as a super precocious 10-year-old. I took it in another direction, and then I opened my eyes very early one morning and I was like “Emily!” So I DMed her—I didn’t have her email or anything, I didn’t know her, and said, “Weird question, want to be in this little movie I’m doing?” She was like “Sure!” Emily’s the fucking greatest. She’s super busy. She’s got 2.2 million followers or whatever—something insane—and she’s so fucking down and no BS and like, “Let’s rehearse.” I would have had her in more scenes, but she couldn’t do it because she was busy at the time, so she’s got this one big scene, which was one of the most fun and laid back days I had on that set. And we’ve remained friends. She just makes me laugh.