The tall guy: Jeff Goldblum gets personal
He flew in The Fly, chased dinosaurs across Jurassic Park and saved the world in Independence Day. Now, Jeff Goldblum is wowing London's theatreland. But enough about me, he tells Esther Walker, let's talk about you
Film stars are supposed to be smaller in real life than you think they'll be, but Jeff Goldblum measures fully 6ft 4.5in tall. That doesn't mean an awful lot until you actually stand near him: then he towers above you, looming giraffe-like in doorways, with angular knees and elbows poking out of all corners of the sofa, like a large spider trying to fit into a matchbox.
If Jeff were a stick of rock and you broke him in half, the little letters running through it would probably say HOLLYWOOD. His face is instantly recognisable, either from the many blockbuster films that have marked his 34-year career – most notably, perhaps, Independence Day and Jurassic Park – or the series of Heineken adverts he starred in, which were aired ad nauseam during the 1990s. He's familiar even now at 55, despite the deeper laughter lines and flecks of grey in his once jet-black hair.
Jeff is currently making waves on the London stage. Since February, he's been appearing in Kevin Spacey's Speed-the-Plow at The Old Vic, and when we first meet, he's surfing the crest of a theatrical wave, having received warm reviews for his role as the ruthless film producer Bobby Gould. Almost every night of the three-month run is sold out. He wears jeans (the only pair he bought on his visit to the UK, he tells me), with dark green trainers, a red checked shirt and prescription aviator glasses.
The venue is 50 Buckingham Gate in central London, a sterile serviced apartment block where celebrity interviews often take place. It's a brutally cold day and he's not only wearing a raincoat, recently purchased from Comme des Garçons, but an enormous, thick parka of the sort you sometimes see directors wearing on film sets in Prague. The room where the interview takes place, however, is cosy and plush, with tasteful art on the walls and vast sofas.
Jeff isn't easy to interview. Having a solid, linear conversation with him that goes from A to B is like trying to nail jelly to a greased piglet. It's not that he's not nice; he's charming. But he seems determined to ask me as many questions as he answers. Maybe it's intended to be polite, but I find it disconcerting. "Do you act?" he drawls. "Do you sing? Dance?"; "I like that wonky tooth you've got"; "Jeez, what a lot of freckles on your arms"; "Can I see your hands? No, come on, gimme, let me see. I'll bet they're like your feet, too"; "What's your middle name?"; "How tall are you?"
It's good-natured enough, but even so, it's awkward. "You're probably going to say, 'Oh, I warmed him up, I buttered him up and then, chuh, what a jerk he is and talked about my freckles and stuff," he informs me. Probably not, but all this question-asking makes him sound very defensive. "Oh," he says, looking hurt, "you know, some people say, 'He doesn't like answering questions about himself and he wants to turn the tables on you' and all that, but that's just what I'm like. I'll answer anything about myself." He smiles dreamily.
Goldblum's instant recognisability, thanks to films such as The Fly, Jurassic Park I and II and The Tall Guy, means he's there in my consciousness, like John Cusack or Eric Idle. But the last decent exposure he had in this country was in the 1997 disaster flick Independence Day, which grossed more than $800m worldwide. Since then he's appeared in nothing more blockbustery than the 2002 Kieran Culkin vehicle Igby Goes Down and the weird 2004 Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
As for TV work, he's starred as the unconventional homicide detective Michael Raines in the US series Raines and done turns on Will & Grace, Friends and The Larry Sanders Show. He produced a mockumentary called Pittsburgh, where he plays himself trying to get his girlfriend a Green Card by getting her to star in the musical The Music Man in his hometown of Pittsburgh. More recently, he took on the heavyweight Adam Resurrected, a film about a mental institution in Israel for concentration camp survivors. It's admirable stuff, a far cry from being chased by a triceratops.
Then, in February, Goldblum landed, like an alien from outer space, at London's Old Vic, to appear opposite Kevin Spacey in his production of David Mamet's play Speed-the-Plow. The show thrilled the critics ("Wow, these two guys are on fire!") and delighted the punters. The play is funny, slick, only 90 minutes long. But it's Goldblum's electric, mesmerising, exotic performance that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Being in a West End play gives actors from across the pond a lot of free time, particularly when they don't have a wife, girlfriend or children to distract them during their long days in London. What, I wonder, has Jeff been up to? I ask him if he reads a lot. "I like PG Wodehouse!" he says, snapping his eyes open and sitting up. "I've read every Jeeves story, Lord Emsworth, Blandings Castle, all the stories, every single thing that he wrote. I was very into it for a while." Pause. "Do you read a lot? Do you read aloud with your boyfriend to each other? [Whispers] I think that's a nice thing to do. I like that."
I change tack and try to get a few Then-Bobby-De Niro-Said-To-Me stories out of him. He's been in the business for 34 years; how has he seen things change for young actors?
"I don't know," he says, looking as baffled as he might if I had asked him what colour curtains I should get for my living room. "I teach acting here and there – are you asking about working at entry levels? I don't know anything about it. My manager would know." But things must have changed in Hollywood in 34 years, surely? "Do you think so? I have no idea. Like what? You still have to be in LA, you still need an agent. It's probably not dissimilar. I even stay unfocused, no, not unfocused but just otherwise focused on my own professional path. I just live moment to moment, day to day, just act, you know, do what I do and feel what I feel and I'm not even sure how I'm still here. I go from job to job and I'm not sure exactly how it happens. I'm no professional; I'm not a professional... I don't know anything about the profession." Perhaps it was a stupid question.
So does he miss Hollywood? He's been in the UK for a long time. "Yeah, it's nice in Hollywood," he says, eyes half-closing. "I miss the space in the Hollywood Hills." Then his eyes flick open. "Who do people tell you you look like. Which actress, I mean?"
I nudge him on to the firmer ground of Adam Resurrected. "It was intense," he says of his role as Adam Stein, a Jewish former circus performer forced by a concentration-camp guard to pretend to be a German shepherd dog. "Paul [Schrader, the director] likes to describe the film as a man who was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy. That's a little cryptic though. I had a year to prepare for it, thank goodness, and I immersed myself in it, I did as much work as I could. I went to a concentration camp in Poland, the one that's said to be the most intact – it was a very powerful experience. I went to Israel for the first time a couple of times and talked to some survivors in Los Angeles."
This is the first time that Goldblum, who is Jewish, has done a part where his Jewishness is part of the character. Is that why he took the part? "Oh, it was a creative project. I've never done a movie about this subject, so there were Jewish things about it, you know. Yes. Mmmm."
Is he observant about his religion? Does he celebrate Passover, for example? "Oooooh, you know," he says, his giant hands wafting about in the air, eyes rolling in their sockets. "I celebrate it in my own way, nothing traditional or traditionally observant." Does he believe in God? "Uhhm, not in the way I think people... ssss... uhh, do I believe in a figure outside myself, a being, who lives somewhere... where we can't see them who, you know, umm, sends you to heaven or hell... I'm not sure I believe in that bit of it. I, I, I, err, ahh you know... I believe in stillness and spaciousness."
It's a mesmerising display of stammering and obfuscation. And all the while his head is rolling and his hands are drifting about and his rubbery face is performing acrobatics as he rolls his eyes back into his head, works his jaw and flutters his eyelashes. Then he jerks his chin up and his eyes twinkle. "Do you like Japanese food?"
Back in Hollywood, Goldblum has a personal trainer; he eats special food that gets delivered to his house by a company, when he's not eating sushi in one of his two or three favourite places. He works out, he drinks little alcohol (although he isn't teetotal) and hasn't smoked dope since his twenties. He lives in the Hollywood Hills in the same house he's lived in for the past 20 years, and he's getting new carpets put in because he's away so he doesn't have to deal with the mess and fuss. There's a pool and, his pride and joy, the garden.
"I, I, I, just adore it," he says, his idiosyncratic little stutter creeping in. He closes his eyes in ecstasy at the thought of it. "When I get on the plane when we're done [with the play] and the car brings me to my house, I'll put my bags at the door..." and now he whispers "... and I'll walk around the outside, walk around and see what's grown, because everything grows all the time."
Does he take care of the garden? "You'd think!" he says, laughing. "But no, no I don't. I have a gardener." He folds his arms, grins and lets his eyelids droop. "What's your boyfriend's name? Does he cook?"
Jeff Goldblum was born in 1952, one of four children, in Pittsburgh, to a doctor father, Harold, and his wife. He taught himself to play the piano and got his first job aged 15 as one of those guys who tinkles away in a corner in a certain kind of restaurant at cocktail hour. At 17, he decided not to go to university and moved to New York to study acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse.
It was Robert Altman who gave Goldblum his first break, in 1974, in the films California Split and Nashville. He moved straight to Hollywood, where he's been ever since. He takes acting seriously, although he never, thankfully, mentions his "craft". "I'm a humble student trying to learn. My teacher [in New York] said that it takes a lifetime to learn to be an actor, 20 years certainly, minimum, and everything you do after that you treat as a graduate programme." Speed-the-Plow, he says, has been a bit like "acting camp".
But I suspect that being in London, doing the same play night after night, is getting to him and sending him a bit nuts with boredom. The weather and a series of uncharacteristic illnesses have kept him from getting out and about in town. "I haven't really been walking in the parks; it's been a bit too cold. I should do a tourist thing, and I'm scared that I'm going to leave here and people will say, 'Wow, you still haven't seen ba ba ba ba da ba ba? What should I not miss? I should really catch up on some things. I went on the Eye, though, the London Eye. It's been a kind of monkish existence," he adds.
After the first interview, I give him my phone number in a gesture of good faith. "Maybe we'll have lunch!" he cries. "OK!" I say, taking this as good old-fashioned insincerity. But he means it, and rings. So we arrange lunch for the following week. Then he rings again during the week: "Just saying hi." We have a nice chat, but it is slightly strange behaviour from a big-time Hollywood actor to ring up a journalist he doesn't really know, just for fun. For a start, it's dangerous: an unscrupulous journalist could lead an old man like Jeff on, get him to be all sleazy and then write about it.
After all, Goldblum is considered something of a ladykiller. He got married at 23 to an actress, Patricia Gaul, and stayed married for 12 years, only divorcing in 1987. Then he fell in love with Geena Davis, whom he met while filming Transylvania 6-5000. They got married on a whim while driving through Las Vegas and were divorced three years later. Then there was Laura Dern, his co-star in Jurassic Park, who shared his Hollywood Hills mansion for a while. But they never married. Then, more recently, he was seeing Catherine Wreford, who played the girlfriend he tries to get a visa for in Pittsburgh. He's now unmarried, with no children. "I never really particularly passionately wanted children," he says, shrugging his shoulders.
"Please, can you tell me about the braised squid?" Goldblum asks the Polish waitress at the undistinguished restaurant I take him to for our lunch "date". "Is it done with butter or oil or what? Oh, butter? OK, I won't have that, then. And mizeria, what is that? Oh no, I don't want that. Uhm uhm uhm. OK, I would like six oysters to start and then the steak tartare, as a main course, but please no toast. Oh OK, but can you just put the toast on the side then? Does it come on the side? And some red cabbage. What is that cooked with?"
Spring has truly sprung by the time Goldblum and I meet for lunch. He arrives without his duvet-parka this time, in his raincoat and a jaunty blue trilby. "I've always considered myself emphatically not a hat person," he says. "I don't think I need any more eccentricities. But I was out shopping with my sister Pam and she saw it and said, 'That's your hat.' I like it. Sometimes I wear it when I'm playing with my jazz band."
He had taken the hat off as he sat at our table, but now he casually settles it back on his head and smiles. Then he forgets to take it off and eats his oyster starter while still wearing it.
"If you were anything on this menu, what would you be and what would I be?" he asks. "I think I'd be the haunch of venison and you'd be the devilled kidneys." Then he suggests that we go and see a movie and hands me a copy of Time Out. I laugh and say that my boyfriend probably wouldn't like that. We fall to talking about relationships.
"You know, people think romance and passion has got something to do with ownership and possession, but it doesn't. It can be but it doesn't have to be. It's not all [he mimes holding a phone to his ear and whines] 'Where are you? What time are you back? You're not out with der der der, are you?' I like something more transcendental."
As well as Time Out, he's brought a book to lunch. It's by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the recently deceased Indian sage who hung out with The Beatles. Easily the weirdest part of an already weird lunch was when, to my (concealed, I hope) horror, Goldblum invited me to read a bit of the book with him: he plays the part of the "teacher" and I am the "disciple". It was difficult not to laugh at the strangeness of it all.
But he's quite into meditation, in a very LA way. His routine in London is that he gets up, has breakfast and then meditates. Later, he has a nap. The morning of our lunch, he had a dream that he was playing the piano in a bar but he forgot what he was playing and had to make it up. ("Do you dream? I dream a lot.") Probably, I say, something to do with the fact that he forgot his lines in Speed-the-Plow the previous night. He sits back and narrows his eyes as if to say: "Don't shrink me."
He does singing exercises in the morning ("You know, la la la la LA la la la laaaa,") to keep his voice supple for all the zippy dialogue in the play. "The larynx is an amazing thing," he says. "It's like a muscle but also an instrument that you can train and play." He mimes playing a tiny violin.
He is baffled when our main courses arrive. The steak tartare comes with the yolk of an egg balanced in half an eggshell on top of the meat. His eyes wobble here and there in panic and he holds his hands up as if the waitress has placed a still-breathing calf on the table. "What, what – I mix it all together my-SELF?" "Yes," the waitress says. "Just to mix in with fork yourself. Yes."
It turns out I was right: he is obviously bored in London, although he's too polite to say it in so many words. "I don't know if it's just my hotel or what but the TV here is just..." he holds a hand to his chest and his face droops like he's been stabbed. "Like, four little channels and all of them showing soccer all the time! I've got a pretty big lazy streak and sometimes I think what I'd really like to do is stay home and just watch a lot of TV. In the States, there are 1,000 channels. I watch a lot of rolling news, I can get addicted to it a bit."
He doesn't watch network drama shows like Grey's Anatomy or The Sopranos, he likes kooky little shows like The Office, Extras and The Larry Sanders Show. "Have you been to LA?" he asks. No, I say, but I might be going out soon to do an interview. "Well, God!" He exclaims: "I'll give you my number and I'll show you all the best places." He writes down his number and I ask him to draw a smiley face next to it. It's the strangest smiley face I've ever seen – he's given it hair. And the mouth is outside the face. I tell him it's weird.
"I am weird," he admits ruefully. "I am a very weird gentleman. Tell me a joke. What's your best joke?"
We step out into the sunshine, and he stoops to kiss me once on each cheek to say goodbye. "Call me every day," he says, mock needily, grasping my shoulders. "Call me every day and leave a joke on my answering machine."
Then, suddenly, he snaps out of it. He draws himself up to his full height and saunters off, turning to throw me a little wave. "Great to see you!" he drawls, flashing me a flawless Hollywood smile.
The Fly 1986)
In a brilliant bit of casting, Goldblum plays an eccentric scientist who turns into a fly after an experiment goes wrong. With his twitchy bug eyes and freaked-out breathy voice, Goldblum makes this kooky Eighties hit (co-starring his future wife Geena Davis), which marked his entry into the A-list.
Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)
Teaming up again with Geena Davis (the only woman in Hollywood tall enough to make him look a normal height), Goldblum is worryingly convincing as one of three randy aliens that crashland in Davis's California pool. Comedy ensues and Davis must choose between the Valley and outer space.
Jurassic Park (1993)
In many ways, the movie of the early Nineties: flawless special effects, homicidal giant lizards, a sarky script and Jeff Goldblum as rock-star mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, who seduces Laura Dern's Dr Sattler before our very eyes with a drop of water and a short speech about chaos theory.
The Tall Guy (1989)
In Richard Curtis's first feature, Goldblum is Dexter King, a goofy actor who falls for a nurse (Emma Thompson). He ends up as the lead in a musical of The Elephant Man. The film is notable for the sex scene with Thompson, featuring a carton of milk, Goldblum's bottom on some toast, and a cactus.
Independence Day (1996)
The most successful of the mid-Nineties disaster movies, Independence Day marked a special point in American social history, with the black and Jewish guys saving the world. Goldblum is the Jewish guy, David Levinson (a maths and computer whiz) who notices aliens are going to attack. He and fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) take down the aliens with a computer virus.