Ahead of his new film Isle of Dogs, Sophie Bew sits down with the supremely affable Jeff Goldblum who tells her about Wes Anderson, his love of acting and his philosophy of life
Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum needs little introduction. His IMDB page charts 121 acting credits and works as a roll call of collaborations with Academy favourites like David Cronenberg, Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg among others. Also a jazz pianist, Goldblum has the ability to segue seamlessly between cult hits like Annie Hall and Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, and commercial colossi like Independence Day: Resurgence and Thor: Ragnarok, pouring his trademark charm and wit into every role – no discrimination. Tomorrow sees the release of his latest foray with filmmaker and auteur Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs, and we caught him between stops on his press tour.
At 65 years old and achingly handsome, it’s hard to find a bad word anywhere about Jeff Goldblum. There’s a limitless supply of co-stars, directors and collaborators ready to praise him: his uncanny ability to disarm women with a compliment (Liam Hemsworth); his unadulterated engagement with whomever he converses (Bob Odenkirk); his authenticity (Olivia Munn); his incredible body (Willem Dafoe); his remarkable work ethic (Kevin Kline); his hypnotic voice (Ed Norton). Fellow actor Paul Rudd once said: “There’s a twinkle in Jeff’s eye and something in the way that he just delivers whatever it is that he’s saying that makes you want to enjoy the joke as much as he seems to be enjoying it himself. He’s so engaged and alive in the moment.” And such is the joie de vivre with which he approaches any given task, that his free-flowing love and jazz-improv approach to life flows through even our brief chat. He’s on the way home to LA, where he’ll go straight into rehearsals with Seth Rogen for a Netflix show Hilarity for Charity, before putting together his first jazz record at the iconic Capitol Records Building on Hollywood Boulevard. He’s a busy man but there’s no conversation too small and it’s impossible not to marvel at his seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm.
In Isle of Dogs, Goldblum plays Duke, a dog in a pack played by a star-studded cast of Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bryan Cranston and Bob Balaban. “We, of course, have been exiled to this trash island” he explains. “We’re just fighting to survive. And then we run into this boy, who comes down to the island bravely looking for his dog. He’s 12 years old and loves his dog very much, and his dog is devoted to him. So he goes out there to find him and we devote ourselves to this mission without giving it a second thought and risk our lives to get them back together again.”
“Wes Anderson makes these movies that you're so proud to be in. He’s just so fun and an actor’s director” – Jeff Goldblum
Goldblum refers to this epic journey as “a landmark piece of cinema” more than once – and the tenderness he lavishes on the escapades of his stop-frame-animated character, is effusive. His adulatory tone is impressive when you consider that Goldblum quite literally phoned in the performance – though it feels no less authentic. Due to scheduling clashes, he had to record the part of Duke from a studio, with Wes directing on the phone – a moment he savoured in its briefness. But it’s no less of a performance. Anderson’s approach is so considered Goldblum explains, that with just a few hours on the phone he’s forged Duke’s place in the pact with absolute coherence. “It was very intimate and very much fun,” Goldblum explains. “He makes these movies that you're so proud to be in. He’s just so fun and an actor’s director.”
I wonder what an actor’s director does. “Well, it means he’s directing me. I enjoy his sophisticated direction, he is always very specific and he talks in a way and collaborates in a way that is very particular but at the same time very freeing and trusting. It’s just a grand experience. He reminds me of Robert Altman, in that the shooting of the movie is kind of an art piece in itself. Wes has his eye on what he wants the result to be, but everyday, every moment of his shooting is kind of a romantic adventure and a collection of people and events that are really unforgettable.” The usual ensuing press tour and its obligatory conferences, carpets and appearances can be exhausting to even the most hardened star but for Goldblum it’s a chance to spend time with Wes and his co-stars. “I enjoy the press, talking about this movie that I’m so proud of and it gives me a chance, for the first time to be with, you know, all these people, have dinners and events and laughs and conversations with Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johansson and Frances McDormand, you know, Greta Gerwig and F. Murray Abraham, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance…”
“I fell so deeply in love with it that I would write on the glass shower door every morning: ‘Please God, let me be an actor’” – Jeff Goldblum
Jeff Goldblum has been starring in feature films since the early 70s, but his love of acting far precedes his first role. Growing up with “arty patrons of the arts in Pittsburgh,” Goldblum would take road trips in the family’s Ford station wagon with his parents up to New York to see arts cinema – his free-bird mother smoking Chesterfields and throwing half-finished food from the window as they drove. It was Mr Goldblum Sr that inspired Jeff’s career choice: “My dad had said ‘find something you love to do that might be a comfort through a vocation,’” and it was at a summer camp between 5th and 6th grade that he took part in a play and realised what that could mean. “And then I went to college in the summers between 9th and 10th and 11th grade, and they had real classes in acting and I fell so deeply in love with it that I would write on the glass shower door every morning: ‘Please God, let me be an actor’ and then I would wipe it off so no one saw it before I left.”
While both conviction and focus have served him well over the last four decades, it’s evident that there’s something more elemental to his success and personal happiness – some kind of vibration or connection. Goldblum’s been known to quote a zen model of self-truthfulness (translation: practising self-acceptance) as something that anchors him; at other times it’s an ability to find fulfilment in any task – no matter how small. Also his wife, 33-year-old dancer Emilie Livingston who is “particularly down to earth: she’s from Canada and she’s a beautifully deep, and in some ways uncomplicated, soul. I learn a lot from her”. But I have a feeling it’s also a lot to do with jazz. Goldblum learnt the piano as a child, along with his three siblings, enjoying it as “a parallel passion” to his acting. Even working a couple of jobs in Pittsburg cocktail lounges at the age of 15-16 before he went to New York to study acting. Scats and bebops work their way into many an interview or piece to camera. These days he plays jazz piano at a weekly gig at Rockwell, a bar in Los Feliz, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, he explains. “Come, you'll be the guest of honour!” he adds. That charm again.
“Follow your own pattern and ecstasy, as they say. Find your own unique voice that only you know best about, you’re the authority of your experience” – Jeff Goldblum
It’s no coincidence that jazz is his genre of choice though. There’s an inherent freestyle play in this style of music and collective improvisation sees jazz artists feeding off the the rhythm and energy of both their bandmates and audience. It’s a pure exercise in mindfulness and engagement with the present moment – an unselfconscious stream of consciousness, even. Surely a jubilant metaphor for his approach to both art and life? “Well yes, I love the spontaneity of it and the interconnection of it and the personal, unique demand of, you know, finding your own voice. And that’s a nice model in life that I aspire to. And then of course in acting, it has a lot of crossover: I like to do plays that you have to render verbatim but bring a kind of spontaneous seeming quality to. But I also like to very freely improvise too.” He describes Thor director Taika Waititi as a specialist in the subject – a master of joyful improvising. “And then I just did this movie with Jodie Foster [Hotel Artemis, currently in post-production] that was very free and working with her was like a wonderful duet.”
Goldblum has a small but iconic role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and amid the hubbub of a Hollywood party he bellows his one key line down the phone to his guru: “I forgot my mantra!” Besides jazz, does Goldblum subscribe to any other models for life? Any gurus, I wonder? “If I was going to expose my boys to anything [Jeff has two sons: Charlie Ocean, two and half, and River Joe, one] – I think it would be one of the scientists who I’ve come to admire and esteem: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking, who just passed. Those of human curiosity, intelligence, investigation and [who] stay rooted in a fact-based reality – which seems important more and more now than ever. I like to aspire to their worldview, because they not only are brilliant but they find a deep sense of wonder and awe in the facts of our cosmic story.”
As Goldblum makes his way back to LA to see his boys – “I’ve missed them the past week” – and to his home, filled with paintings by his younger sister – “whom I adore, she’s a wonderful painter” – I wonder how we can all be a bit more like Jeff, have a bit of what he’s having. “Well certainly don’t try to be like me! Follow your own pattern and ecstasy, as they say. Find your own unique voice that only you know best about, you’re the authority of your experience and of course as the Beatles said: it’s all about love.”
Isle of Dogs is in UK cinemas from tomorrow
To read Jeff Goldblum’s guide to life, head here