How do we love Jeff Goldblum? Let us count the ways.
There was the time he stole our hearts as Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, of course, and his equally charming scientist in Independence Day. The nervy, fast-talking journalist of The Big Chill; the physical comedy of Earth Girls Are Easy; the unsettling, animalistic energy at the center of The Fly. There’s his voice. There’s his laugh. And then there’s his penchant for jazz piano.
Though it may be one of the less-celebrated tools in his belt, Goldblum’s been playing music as long as he’s been an actor — which explains why SF Sketchfest’s “Tribute to Jeff Goldblum” this Saturday stars his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, who’ll play tunes between film clips, classic Goldblum-y riffage with the audience, and more.
We caught up with the actor/musician just before Christmas, when he called from his walk-in closet in LA. He has a little couch in there, you see.
Jeff Goldblum: Yes! I love it up there. We were at Michael Feinstein’s [at the Nikko] last time, and I had a blast. Though, to be honest, I don’t know much about this show — I like to be surprised, so I keep myself from knowing too much about it. Our manager, John Mastro, interfaces with the venue and makes everything sound good and directs the show, which I think will have some film clips in it this time around… the so-called audience gets to decide some things, too. I like not having that control.
You’ve played piano since you were young?
Yes, my parents gave us all lessons as kids, and I had some facility, but I didn’t know the joys of discipline then. It was a lesson once a week… I wish I could do it again. Even if it’s a broccoli activity, now I know the delicious fruits that can come from that.
And then I got it into my head when I was 15 — this was in Pittsburgh, where I grew up — to play in cocktail lounges. I’d just go in and say ‘Oh, I understand you need a pianist.’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t know how you heard that, but sure.’ I got a couple jobs that way. But I already knew it was a side passion, because I wanted to be an actor from the time I was in fifth grade.
So I go to New York at 17, 18 to study acting, but I always had a piano. I did a musical or two on Broadway where I’d run into real musicians… and then about 20 years later, doing Buckaroo Bonzai, I met [actor] Peter Weller, and he plays the trumpet, so we’d get together and play.
And then Peter did a Woody Allen movie, and Woody said, ‘You guys should do what I do and have a weekly gig — you have to play out.’ So we did that, played at Sunday brunch for a few years, and then he went and had a family and a directing career, and I’ve maintained this group. It all came full circle one night a few years ago, we played the Cafe Carlyle, and the night before we played Woody’s band was playing. I hadn’t seen him since [Annie Hall], so me and my bass player went and sat in the front row… and he had us come up and sit in. It was delightful.
Have you ever thought about recording an album?
You know, people have approached me about that, but I’m not careerist about this. I have no strategy or goal. I just love music. I think of myself as a late bloomer, I’m still learning — and I’m sort of glad that I never have to play gigs; it’s never a job to me. I’ve been on a couple of other people’s records — Lincoln Adler, the great sax player. And I did a little charity album.
Also, have you seen the Apartments.com campaign? We recorded a new commercial recently where my character, Brad Bellflower, who ostensibly created this thing, plays the piano and sings — it’s the theme song to The Jeffersons. Mark Mothersbaugh was there recording, so… well, this is a Super Bowl commercial. I hope I’m not spoiling anything.
Going back to the time you’ve spent in San Francisco — I recently rewatched the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it struck me that they succeeded in making the city look really claustrophobic, anxious and dark. What was the shooting like?
That was a wonderful experience. [Director] Phil Kaufman is a fantastic fellow, his whole family is fantastic — I first met him on The Right Stuff. He’s just very enjoyable, and seeing San Francisco through his eyes and his whole crowd — [Tom] Luddy, [cinematographer] Michael Chapman, who had also done Raging Bull. And oh, gosh, Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright — it was wonderful. We’d go to interesting restaurants; it was a very refined, smart shoot.
That was also one of quite a few films you’ve done involving aliens — either fighting them or playing them…
Earth Girls Are Easy, yes!
…and I know you have another one coming up, having just finished Independence Day: Resurgence. Was that just a no-brainer when they asked you to do it?
Yes, we shot that over the summer in Albuquerque. And definitely, I like Roland Emmerich. He’s a wonderful director, and he obviously had a fire in his belly about making it good. The writers were meticulous and careful and thorough about the script, and I loved the other actors: Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, who I’d never worked with before or since [the original Independence Day], so I relished that opportunity. And we have wonderful people joining the cast; I get kind of a romantic side story with another scientist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg — who I loved in Antichrist, Melacholia, Nymphomaniac — so meeting her and working with her has just been fantastic.
Since you’ve been in so many alien movies, I’m curious if you ever think on how aliens often represent a fear of something or someone else — the way there’s a lot of Cold War subtext in alien movies from the ’50s, etc. Do you have any thoughts on what our aliens represent in 2016?
Wow, well, I didn’t have any metaphorical, cultural parallel in mind going in. I mean, I do think it’s interesting that in America we do have this whole issue about “the other” living amongst us, and the threat that poses in some people’s minds: that fear of the other, and having your world, your space invaded and taken over.
Whether it comes through in the movie or not, I think my character is having a kind of an epiphany around that issue. It’s been my job to stay on the case and prepare technology and weaponry, in the event that there’s another [alien invasion], so I’ve been preparing for another one this whole time. Who exactly the aliens were and what they were up to gets a little bit clearer — it’s not just “Gee, I think they’re after our resources, they want us to die.” The first one, it was vague but malevolent, of course, which allows us to be righteous when we fight them, to feel like we’re the good guys.
In this one, I think we come to think more about what they’re up to in other areas of the cosmos, that in fact it’s a visitation, and how that might point to our own ignorance. In my character’s mind, at least, the concept of the “visiting other” is an opportunity to learn about our connection, where we all singularly may come from, how our stupidity is maybe shared by others, and how we have to solve it together. And the realization that conflict resolution, when it’s solved by violence, weaponry and war technology, is, well, a dead end.
That’s all relevant to things I’m thinking about. The movie may be more ambiguous, when you see it — if you want to see it as a pro-war movie, I suppose you could. The “other” is still very simply evil. And the stronger you are, the more you kill, the better.
Speaking of big things that happened this summer, you became a father.
Yes! Charlie, who was born on Independence Day. My wife Emilie and I met about four and a half years ago, and then late last year we got with child — she told me the day before our wedding, and it made the whole thing kind of glowy. The due date was July 4, and we said, you know, that’s just a rough marker — but it happened on that day. Luckily the producers built a little window into my schedule right around there, so I got to take a week off. He’s doing great, Emilie’s doing great, everybody’s healthy.
Well, mazel tov.
[Here the conversation degenerates into a long Jewy discussion of how both our names were changed by our grandparents — his used to be Povartzik — and then turns to Yiddish in general.]
…Speaking of, did you hear this latest nonsense [in last night’s debate] with Trump saying Hillary “got schlonged”? And then today he came out and said “no, no, that doesn’t mean anything vulgar, shame on the press.”
Hearing it used as a verb was the really confusing part for me.
Right! You don’t “get schlonged.”
Have you been following the election closely, then?
Yeah, too closely. I’m a little bit addicted. I just watched this clip twice this morning of Hilary at a town meeting yesterday, and she took a question from this adorable 10-year-old girl, who asked her “What do you think about bullying?” and this and that. And the way Hillary was listening to her, I found very moving already… and then her response was just so dear and genuine and smart.
That job is tough. Maybe impossible. But somebody’s gotta do it, and you certainly want the smartest person.
We’ll wrap up with something from a long time ago: You brought up Annie Hall, but your first film role was actually as “Freak #1” in the first Death Wish, with Charles Bronson, in 1974.
Yep, I was 21. I’d just done Two Gentlemen of Verona on Broadway, and my agent sent me out for a movie, and here I was auditioning with all these scuzzy-looking guys. And then I got the part, and here was the director, Michael Winner, who was kind of notorious, and I don’t remember what I was doing — I think I was supposed to run up the stairs, and I was kinda walking. Anyway [Winner] yells in front of everyone, “Goldblum! Start acting NOW!”
It sort of shook me; I’d been studying with Sandy Meisner, and [Winner’s] was not exactly the most nourishing kind of direction. But after a couple of decades, I started to teach, and I thought about that fairly often — how he wasn’t wrong. It’s actually kind of a nice way to look at it. Start acting now. Start acting now.
Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra perform at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 7pm. $50; sfsketchfest.com.
Note: Interview edited for length and clarity (and for Goldblum’s tendency to interview his interviewer).