Jeff Goldblum
Photo by Alex de Brabant

Jeff Goldblum: “I can do this in a hundred ways”

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Short Profile

Name: Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum
DOB: 22 October 1952
Place of birth: West Homestead, Pennsylvania, United States
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Goldblum, would you consider yourself an eccentric?

Well, I may have, for a time, bridled at that particular word. If I’m, you know, unconventional, it can be fairly seen sometimes by some people as eccentric. But my path has been from the start one of a devotedly, singular kind of expression. It makes me think of the training that I had in acting with my teacher Sanford Meisner in New York early on. He said, amongst other wise things, that we should try not to copy anybody and find our own unique voice. I think I took that to heart, that’s one of the things that I’ve tried to do, and I’m still on the threshold of finding something more from my personal gizzard.

What about before you moved to New York? Being devoted to a singular kind of expression doesn’t sound like it would necessarily make you popular in high school…

Oh boy, yeah. Certainly in the school that I went to... I felt alien in a way! (Laughs) The people with whom I originally went to school were very different from my sort of sensibility group that I found later—I don’t think any of them, for instance, pursued the creative arts. So I was kind of different, because early on I took piano lessons and I had some facility for drawing and painting. I liked tap dancing and then had an interest in mime.

“I’ve always been disciplined and I’m still nothing if not conscientious.”

Mime? Really?

Sure, I went around, put on white face and leotards and a horizontal striped shirt and ballet slippers and did mime demonstrations in school! (Laughs) I also think I had a different sense of humor than the people that I originally grew up with. I was thrilled and kind of enflamed to find what felt like my real family when I went to New York at 17 and started studying acting. I still find myself interested in working on that personality. I made it into a little experimental project in the last few decades, you know.

What do you mean?

Well, it’s fun to adopt a different perspective, another kind of physical presentation of yourself, a different point of view about all sorts of things that may not be literally your own. But I like the idea of a challenge: of weaving that, marrying those character elements with something unexpectedly of my own too, you know. And mixing it up into a kind of delicious cocktail!

Has that cocktail become more Jeff Goldblum over time? Critics often write that there’s “a lot of Jeff Goldblum in this role,” for example.

I follow the beat of my own drum. I think I’ve gotten more confident and self-trustful in my ability and my natural appetite for play, and not over-adorning it with anything. Just relying on the simplicity of play. Like my character in Thor: Ragnarok, the Grandmaster, he’s almost 14 billion years old and immortal and can do anything that you can possibly imagine but what gives him most pleasure is play. And I would say that about myself. I’ve always been disciplined and I’m still nothing if not conscientious, but in terms of the process — how can I say it? I jettisoned what feels like unnecessary technical things now.

“I like to think of acting as only what you’re doing when you’re playing pretend.”

Does that mean that you just show up to the job now?

Well, I trust that if I’ve got a night’s sleep, if possible, and have had something to eat, and have worked on the part, I can kind of just show up. It’s of course a case-by-case basis, depending on the part and the scene. But just put some attention and some good honest effort into trying to solve the puzzles of the scene and it will work out, without overly trying to inflate my condition, my inner thinking and feeling — without overly abusing myself.

How do you ensure that balance?

I like to think of acting as only what you’re doing when you’re playing pretend. When you say, “The literal circumstances of life are not what applies right now and we’re going to play a game where we pretend that we were in other circumstances and we’re other people under other circumstances.” When I’m not doing that, then I’m not really acting.

Didn’t Marlon Brando say we are always acting?

I think he did and I’m interested in what he thought, because I love him and still he’s a mysteriously brilliant genius to me. I think he was talking about role-playing and the masks that we all wear in life, which, of course, I know about. But I think it’s different. I may be, you know, sometimes engaged in trying to entertain others, but I like to think of acting as only happening when you’re playing the game. It finally needn’t have a lot of rococo decoration on it.

“I had kind of an inner experience of, ‘Hey, I think I’m doing something here, I can contribute differently than anybody else.’”

Has a director ever asked you to tone down your own personality for a part?

Look, I can do this in a hundred ways. I find if I tickle myself, there’s more than one way to skin the cat. The directors I somehow have always been attracted to, and who have been attracted to me, have not been such confrontational types. But for instance, I was working all day yesterday with a director and he was suggesting things that I thought immediately, “I don’t like that idea so much.” But I didn’t say anything. I’d be happy to sort of try out some of the things that he was doing and then just kind of launch into something of my own. And if it works, everybody involved always seems to go, “Hey, that’s what I was thinking about!”

When did you first realize that you could portray your own version of a role and get away with it?

Well, maybe I’m just mythologizing my nostalgic memory of it, but I remember a moment on the set of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We were doing a scene and Veronica Cartwright’s character says to me, “Why do we always expect metal ships?” And I say to her, and it was a line we came up with on the set, “Well, I’ve never expected metal ships!” Now, it’s not that that moment is so startling or striking. But to me, just the way it happened, and I think because of Phil’s special sensitivity and appreciation of me in particular, I had kind of an inner experience of, “Hey, I think I’m doing something here, I can contribute differently than anybody else.”