The Mantra of Jeff Goldblum

Published March 4, 2014

ABOVE: JEFF GOLDBLUM IN THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT.

It would be easy enough to summarize Jeff Goldblum’s over-40-year career by calling him the most quotable movie scientist in recent memory: in films ranging from David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror remake The Fly (1986, as a scientist whom one should never arm-wrestle), to several of the 1990s’ most beloved blockbusters (as scientists who, whether pursued by dinosaurs or aliens, “must go faster!”), to Wes Anderson‘s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, as the titular seafarer’s—and his dog’s—”part gay” scientist foe), Goldblum has developed a reputation as a reliably eccentric intellectual who knows his way around a zinger and, occasionally, a woman.  

Yet Goldblum is not so easily typecast. He has a tendency to turn up where you least expect him—leaping nimbly from the boards of the Old Vic to Law and Order: Criminal Intent to singing Biz Markie on Jimmy Fallon. Remember him as the voice of Verminous Skumm, the polluting villain on Captain Planet (1990)? Or the noirishly hilarious Deep Cover (1992) sleaze? (“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp, you motherfucker!”) Or the guy who came on screen after you won the Jurassic Park video game and told you to get up and go outside? Goldblum has a tendency to steal all and any scenes, no matter how small: in an especially Goldblum-y twist, his one-line cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977, as a party guest who’s “forgotten his mantra”) is often ranked among the best performances of his career. 

Now 61, the veteran actor continues to delight—albeit with a few more lines—as Deputy Kovacs, the cat-loving estate lawyer in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which opens this week. Reached by phone during a busy press day at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, Goldblum displayed the same enthusiasm for his profession that led him, as a high schooler, to trace the words “Please God, let me be an actor” on his shower door every day. He’s also, as it turns out, equally enthusiastic about his new puppy, his music, his bi-colored facial hair, and, well, pretty much everything else: get him talking, and that famous Goldblum voice takes off at a rapid clip, free-associating and riffing on words like the accomplished jazz pianist he is.

But this has everything to do with his career as an actor, as it happens, and not just in improvisational roles like his recent turn on Portlandia. In acting as in jazz, as Goldblum might put it, the play (as a verb) is the thing. And unlike many of the roles that have catapulted him to his own idiosyncratic version of stardom, it’s not rocket science—it’s loving what you do. In other words, while he may not be planning to reprise his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm in the forthcoming Jurassic World, it’s not likely he’ll be sitting around.

JENNY HENDRIX: So here you are in a hotel again, appropriately enough. I heard you spent quite a bit of time in a hotel in Germany while filming with Wes Anderson. What was that like?

JEFF GOLDBLUM: It gets 10 Goldblums out of a possible 10 Goldblums! You can imagine, with this cast… For a guy like me, it was a pretty peachy experience. I was there for six weeks, and it was quite joyful. We were in Görlitz, this wonderful, sort of untouched town from a long time ago that was very enchanting-looking, and then they took over this department store, and Adam Stockhausen the great production designer, with Wes, built this Wes Anderson world. All the locations were not far from this hotel called the Börse Hotel that we stayed in. We kind of took it over and all the cast and people stayed there and every night, Wes would have a chef of his come over and he’d say, “Tonight’s dinner is ‘this time’ after the shooting” and he’d have special foods. Not unlike the character that Ralph Fiennes plays, it was all about civility and gentility, making each meal special and each moment an event.

HENDRIX: This is your second time working with Wes, though it’s been awhile. It always seems to me that he’s built up something like a theater troupe for himself, with these actors he uses again and again. Did it feel that way to you after doing The Life Aquatic?

GOLDBLUM: Yes! Bill Murray was in it also and Owen Wilson, again. Jude Law I’d never met. Jason Schwartzman was great to hang out with, and Edward Norton. It’s not only like a theater group though, which Wes is entirely delighted to create, but like the little families that occur thematically in his movies. Wes makes the shooting itself a kind of art project and a family experience. In this movie, there’s this underground family of unexpected collaborators in the concierge world, not unlike boy scouts in Moonrise Kingdom, who get together to do something special and rather unexpectedly effective.

HENDRIX. One of your co-stars is a very fluffy cat. How did the two of you get along?

GOLDBLUM: Well, it was not a movie cat, and I think Wes was a little bit leery of it. He’d had experiences with movie cats where they promise you, “Oh yeah. He can do this,” and they wrangle them, but it sometimes doesn’t turn out, so he’d got a person whose cat it was, a local.

HENDRIX: A German, cat then.

GOLDBLUM: Yeah, it was a German cat! I hung out with it. It was supposed to be mine and we put it in some more scenes possibly than it was written into, because it’s my… It’s my dear, dear cat and then… But I don’t want to spoil anything.

HENDRIX: Would you say you’re a cat person?

GOLDBLUM: I’ve lived with cats and loved cats, but I’m also a dog person and currently have a new, six-month-old puppy: A red-haired standard poodle. He’s quite distinctive looking. Absolutely delightful. Biggish…

HENDRIX: Oh good! I have a dog myself. Her name is Memphis, like the city.

GOLDBLUM: I like that. Memphis. If I had a child that would be a good name: Memphis Goldblum.

HENDRIX: What’s yours called?

GOLDBLUM: Woody.

HENDRIX: After Woody Allen? Or Woody in Toy Story?

GOLDBLUM: Or Woody Guthrie or Woody Harrelson. Or Woody Strode. Woody Strode was a great actor; he was in Spartacus and several other things.

HENDRIX: [laughs] So your character has a stylish, rather Freudian look. How did that come about?

GOLDBLUM: Oh yeah, well everybody in these Wed Anderson movies has some sort of interesting, striking style, and Wes does himself. Milena Canonero is the great “costumière”—is that what you call it?—who worked with Kubrick and who collaborates with Wes on many other things. I was doing that movie Le Week-End, which I’m also proud of that’s coming out the week after, and I was in town, near Görlitz where they’d already established themselves. I showed up and got together with Milena and her Italian, spectacular crew and we tried on some things. Wes told me to start growing my facial hair and showed me pictures of Freud and [the Italian writer Luigi] Pirandello. Then I came back, and as you can imagine, he was very detailed, and meticulous about it. You know, take a little bit off there, a little bit off there, look at pictures of Pirandello, da da da da, and then we came up with that thing!

HENDRIX: The facial hair is very distinctive.

GOLDBLUM: They were surprised that my mustache came in black! The lower chin was white—that’s the way it came in. I was happy with that.

HENDRIX: So you’re back on Portlandia again for the fourth season. That must be a different experience after working with Wes.

GOLDBLUM: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are spectacular, and I like the way operate over there. I like improvising—speaking of the opposite of a Wes Anderson movie—I like im-pro-vising ga-lore, it’s really fun. But I’ve done this movie called Pittsburgh—it was all improvised. I’ve been trained in a certain kind of improvisation. In some movies they want a hybrid, paraphrasing version of things, and I do plays these days where you have to say everything that is written, and Wes Anderson likes you to do that. So I think you’ve got to learn how to do both things.

HENDRIX: You also teach acting, is that right? What’s some of the advice you give your students?

GOLDBLUM: Oooooooh. Involve yourself every day. Work hard and figure out how to love doing it all day, every day. It’s getting into a made-up situation and making it good and making it real and just playing, just practicing and playing. Like the musicians that I played piano with: they never expect to be rich or famous, but they, for the sheer joy of it, play every day, all day.

HENDRIX: Are you still playing a lot of music?

GOLDBLUM: I play, when I’m not working, once a week, these days on Wednesday nights from 9:00 ’till midnight at Rockwell—like Sam Rockwell or Norman Rockwell—in Los Feliz, with a bunch of great musicians. I love playing. We play jazz. We actually never rehearse and play different things and surprise each other and ourselves and the crowd suggests things and people get up and sing.

HENDRIX: I’ve been hearing rumours about another installment of Jurassic Park in the works. Will we be seeing you as Dr. Malcolm again?

GOLDBLUM: I don’t know anything about it, so I guess I can confirm I’ve had no… I know nothing about it. I was satisfied with my two appearances, but Steven Spielberg directed those. I don’t know if he’s directing this one, but I like those two. So I think that means I’ll be buying a ticket and happily watching it.

HENDRIX: Do you feel like you’ve moved on from that period in your career, when you were doing those sorts of blockbuster films, as opposed to the smaller, more indie roles you’ve taken on lately?

GOLDBLUM: I don’t know if I have compartmentalized different periods of my career that way, but yeah, I seem to be always doing a variety of things. Luckily.

HENDRIX: Well, you certainly always seem busy.

GOLDBLUM: Thank goodness!

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL COMES OUT THIS FRIDAY, MARCH 7. LE WEEK-END COMES OUT MARCH 14 IN LIMITED RELEASE.