Jeff Goldbum (The London Sunday Times Magazine, August 5, 2018)
We are in a small, dark supper club – The Rockwell. We are in a bohemian district of Los Angeles. Packed to the rafters. The waiter warns the food will take a while. But no one’s here for the food. They are here for Jeff Goldblum, to hear him play jazz piano with a curious charm. Soon his be-ringed fingers will flash and sparkle across the keyboards.
Everybody loves Jeff. I’m not sure if that was always the case but somehow, rather stealthily he’s now Hollywood royalty. Not just for reprising roles as Ian Malcolm, the scientist in the Jurassic movies, for blockbusters like Thor and Independence Day. Not just for turning in so many expertly quirky roles including his recent gangster chief in Hotel Artemis. Not just for his iconic and still quiver making performance in The Fly in 1986. But because he survived it all. He’s 65 and has grown into his face and body. 6 foot 4 ½ no longer seems geeky. He’s sexy in a way that he never used to be.
He comes onstage and he’s so fully himself. Random friends are texting me messages like ‘he got me through my college years’. I’m not sure what did other than be around and be a constant but he’s still doing it.
He’s in a sharp suit and thick rimmed glasses and snappy hat. He’s his own warm up guy. He plays a game with the audience called The Movie Game. Similar to that one a few years ago Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where everything led back to him. Any film, any co-star and then it’s a direct Goldblum association.
Then, in manner of Dame Edna, he’ll select audience members, no point in cowering because he’s coming for you. In his game Would You Rather, first up it’s Johnny Depp vs Orlando Bloom. He asks “Chrissy Iley, which one smells better?” As one reviewer said “You haven’t truly heard your name unless you’ve heard Jeff Goldblum say it.” Its a great voice.
Then it’s Nic Cage vs Matthew McConaughey. I go for Cage and tell the audience about the time McConaughey was getting a haircut and he made the stylist pick up all the hair from the floor in case someone would perform voodoo on it. I think he has researched every person I’ve ever interviewed.
Then the show itself begins. He favours cool jazz from the fifties and sixties. There’s an incredible energy to his playing and his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra all have presence. He’s generous onstage. The audience whoops especially for ‘I Wish I Knew What it Felt to be Free’ which Brits would recognise as the theme tune to Barry Norman’s long running BBC film show.
He’s been doing these shows on and off for quite a few years but Decca Records picked up on his talent when he accompanied Decca artist Gregory Porter – who he met at an airport – on the Graham Norton Show.
The atmosphere at The Rockwell was recreated at Capitol Records with a club set up, Imelda May on guest vocals, Sarah Silverman on Me And My Shadow and a celebrity filled audience for the album recording of his version of Cantaloupe Island, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Straighten Up and Fly Right.
The next day we meet for brunch at the Chateau Marmont. Goldblum is wearing skinny black trousers, a multi coloured knit shirt that looks Italian and a very soft fawn suede jacket. It’s a hug hello and I can feel it’s a body that he takes care of. He gets up at 5.30 am every day, practices piano and then works out. He became a daddy for the first time in his sixties. He now has two little boys, River Joe who’s one and Charlie Ocean who’s three with his wife Emilie Livingstone (35), a former Canadian Olympian gymnast.
He invites me to smell his neck so that at some future point I can compare his scent to Depp, Bloom etc. He smells of dark flowers. “Ah yes, the title of my first autobiography – Dark Flower.” He’s joking, of course. We agree it would be a good title. There is something dark about him but something deliciously floral.
I’m wearing my wide, dark rimmed sunglasses so we match. We swap glasses for a quick photo op.
He’s wearing more jewellery than me. A classic Tank Cartier watch and quirky gold and silver rings on every finger. His wedding band is platinum with rose gold on the inside and his wife Emily had put on an engraving ‘Patches plus Peaches eternal love.’
Who’s Patches and who’s Peaches? “She’s Peaches because she’s quite peachy and my first nightmare which I recalled to her was about a witch trying to tie me down on a tree stump. I was four or five years old and instead of cutting my head off she said ‘Peeeaaches, Peeeaaches.’ I told my two older brothers that dream. We all shared a room and when we went to bed at night they would all go ‘Peeeaaaches’ and scare me.’ He mimics a gurgling witchy tone.
“She is Peachy and she is Peaches and I have a nice distribution of hair on my torso but on one side, right here there’s a little bit of extra. It’s a patch so I’m Patches.”
Isn’t Patch a dog’s name? “I AM a dog!” he says enthusiastically. “I LOVE dogs.”
He was in the Wes Anderson animated movie Isle of Dogs where he was the voice of Duke. He has a dog, a red poodle called Woody Allen. “Officially the term is apricot but Woody is darker and redder.”
Did he name his dog Woody Allen because he admires his namesake as a director or as a clarinettist? “It’s either or both”.
The names of his boys Charlie Ocean and River Joe “were not just tossed up.
I spent years before I had kids fantasising about what their names would be. What would go with Goldblum?”
Charlie had dark feelings about the introduction of his younger brother so we keep them safe and say you can hit the floor. You do not have to suppress your feelings. You can say you don’t like him but you can’t hurt him. And now there are many moments of friendship and sweetness. They bathe together and Charlie helps and protects his younger brother. River always wants to know what his brother is doing. He’s just started to walk. He’s a bit wobbly but he follows Charlie around.”
Goldblum too was a younger brother. One brother four years older (Rick who died at the age of 23 from kidney failure), the other (check name) five years older went into real estate. He also has a younger sister Pamela who is an actor and artist.
At the moment his wife and children are in Toronto with their mother and grandmother and last night Goldblum slept only with Woody. “He sleeps with us anyway. Last night it was just us and we are very close.”
Now we look at pictures on each others phones. I am showing him cat pictures, he is showing me dogs and babies. It’s almost like there’s no barrier and there’s instant intimacy, or maybe it just seems that way. Maybe it’s all part of the smart illusion.
Actually No – he’s an insatiably curious person about all sorts of things . Where do I live? What do I like? Who am I? And I ask if this is a distraction technique just so we don’t talk have to talk about him. “No,” he says, a little abashed and refers me to his acting teacher Sandy Meisner who instructed him that the best performance was always about chemistry with other people and although this is not quite a performance it’s an exchange of sorts and I see him feeling around for the correct level and pitch of the interview. “He said you have to be interested otherwise you’re not interesting.”
Did everyone always love Jeff and how exactly did he help my friend through her teenage years? “Ah yes. I show up and sense somebody on this block having a difficult teenage time and I get them through,” he jokes, bemused at his sudden superhero status. In fact it’s taken a while for him to arrive even though his breakthrough performance was possibly in The Big Chill over 30 years ago.
There was a brief first marriage to Patricia Gaul 1980-86, The Fly co-star Geena Davis 87-90 and a brief engagement to Laura Dern but essentially over two decades as single man. When we tried to play the Would You Rather game at brunch I tell him I can’t throw female stars at him because I don’t know if he’s slept with them or not. “Well there’s that but I think it’s nicer these days in that setting to stick with men. I’m hypersensitive to the challenges of womanhood.”
Has he had experiences of female co-stars crying about having to touch the white bathrobe? “No. I was never reported to about Harvey Weinstein. I never worked with him but if you watch something like Mad Men and you have grown up in that culture you can imagine what women have been subjected to. I have had frank discussions and heard women’s stories. Who doesn’t have a story of some discomfort or even some kind of traumatic circumstance and women all over the world still need to fight and we need to fight it with them for equality and dignity.”
Indeed, Goldblum is a “nice fella”. His comedy skirts the edges of discomfort but never humiliation. He likes the idea that he’s very available. “I’m not trying too hard you know. I like the idea that I’m offering something of interest and amusement. I do it to set up the music. As a performer it’s all about a shared experience. I feel I’m hosting a show. It’s kind of like a sixties one – Playboy After Dark. Hugh Hefner early on had a TV show. When I was a kid I used to go to a special part of the dial to find it because it was at that point one of the only portals into adult sensuality. It was called After Dark and the conceit was you’re in some kind of living room, a salon and there’s talk and there’s music. He was in a smoking jacket and had couches in different areas. Ostensibly it was a party and there was a piano.”
The album has a living room party vibe about it. It immediately places you right there. It was produced by Larry Klein who is famous for producing Herbie Hancock, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell.
Did he imagine that he’d ever have a jazz album? “As a kid I would write on the shower wall please God let me be an actor. I think around eight or ten something happened in middle school where I went to this camp and fell deeply in love with performing. I was baying at the moon about it.”
Was he always a person who fitted in or stood out? “Early on when I was a kid I fitted in to our little family. I developed into my own individual person and then through junior high school and high school I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit in with some groups until I found the arts programmes in that camp. That in one way or another saved my life.”
Now he’s able to fit in and stand out.
“I had piano lessons from eight years old and studied but I didn’t study acting.
My parents both liked music, my dad particularly. If we went on vacation to Miami they would do the Mambo. They took dance lessons in the Cha Cha Cha. You can imagine that era. They also had a taste for jazz and Errol Garner. He was a famous (jazz) pianist from Pittsburgh and they would bring records home and play on the HiFi. He really is kind of wonderful so I was exposed to that kind of music early on. That’s how I got interested in jazz. When I was 15, I went into a room and locked the door because I felt it needed to be secret and I looked through the Yellow Pages and would call one club after another saying ‘hey, I understand you’re looking for a piano player.’ Most people would say no but a couple said, ‘How did you hear about this? Come down and play.’
So I got a couple of jobs when I was fifteen. My parents would drive me to them and somehow I met a girl singer who was older and could drive and I would play for her. It was never that I was trying to be a musician. It just happened. Even with this record. It just happened. I’m not saying it’s going to be my new career.”
And this career wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t met Gregory Porter at an airport. “A few years ago I went up to him and said Mr Porter? I love your music. And then I was going to be on the Graham Norton show a few months ago and the musical guest was Gregory Porter promoting his Nat King Cole album so I offered to play the song with him. That’s how his record company Decca got the idea and here we are.”
We’ve yet to order as we’ve been talking thick and strong. He seems very in the moment but says, “I am nothing if not disciplined. I have a conviction about work ethic. When I was a kid I didn’t know about the joys of getting homework done but after that I couldn’t help but practise my piano and now I have to tear myself away. We’ve been playing for about 20 years and it just developed under the radar. At first I wasn’t as good as I am now but I made sure I played so I could develop and memorise everything that we were playing. I would go through them most days even if I was on the road I would talk to the concierge in a hotel, find a music store down the road or play the piano in the lobby.”
So people in the lobby of a random hotel would find him giving an impromptu performance. “Yes I like to play with people around.”
Finally we get to order brunch. He wants scrambled eggs but it’s not on the menu. He doesn’t power order or suggest that most kitchens have eggs. He goes for ancient grain bowl from the menu. He likes to eat clean. “I get up at 5.30, do my piano and my workout first. I like to get eight hours sleep so it means going to bed at about 9.30.”
He now has a gym in his house where he and his wife workout. Emilie was a rhythmic gymnast. “Those are the dance gymnasts. They do all the hyperstretch contortions. She was the Pan American champion when she was young and she studied in Russia from 11 to 16. She’s now learnt Cirque du Soleil aerial stuff. She doubled for Emma Stone in La La Land. She was the dancer whose body you see dancing outside the Planetarium. And that movie Valerian, Rihanna plays a part in it and every time you see her face it’s Emilie’s body who’s dancing. We met at the gym. I saw her working out and toddled over and said well you’re not the usual…”
That was his pick-up line? He stalked her in the gym? “It wasn’t a pick-up line. I was interested in what she was doing. I have no lines and formula but I did start up a conversation. It was Equinox on Sunset and that was seven years ago. I went to see her perform and then invited her to a gig. I said I wonder if she’s going to do some contortion dancing on the piano. I said to the guys we should do the song from Fabulous Baker Boys Makin’ Whoopee, the one that Michelle Pfeiffer sings. He sings “Another bride, another groom
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee”
And she got on the piano and she did an amazing routine. We got the dog first. We were talking about children. She introduced it,” he says with a proud daddy smile.
Everyone must have said how strange it was that he got to sixty and wanted children. “Yes, right. I had to think about that and I’m still thinking about what it all means and trying to navigate the calendar and my gift of living every day. But when she said maybe it would be nice to have a baby it was so sweet and deeply genuine. I said if you’re serious we should talk about it. I had a therapist at the time who I took her to see. Luanda Katzman – we began having several sessions over a period of time where we excavated considerations and finally we both got enthusiastic about having a child and getting married. We got married here – in the Chateau Marmont in one of the bungalows with fifty people – mostly her family. We had already started to try to get pregnant and the day before the wedding she presented me with a sonogram saying ‘Look what happened’, so it made the wedding sweet and romantic.
I was a bachelorly kind guy of in the way I never had food in the house. The first time she opened my refrigerator I had a bottle of water and some Chinese takeout. Now it’s a family fridge with abundance all over. It’s great.”
He never wanted to have children before? “Not seriously even though I’ve been married before.”
Then he was alone for a long time. Was that on purpose or coincidence? “I never plotted it that way. There was no strategy but at this point it all seems to have been necessary and perfect, including the not having children.”
Because he wasn’t ready? “I think that may have been part of it, yes. Exactly.”
He wants to know if I can sing. Maybe we could do a performance together. I don’t tell him my story about when I blew Bryan Ferry off stage because my version of Jealous Guy was so much better. I just tell him no I can’t sing.
He suggests that maybe we could do poetry readings together. He once read the whole of Wuthering Heights out loud to someone. “Yes I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights and I was so touched by it I wanted to read the book to somebody. I have often read books out aloud and I’m about to do it professionally for the first time. My friend Norm Eisen who is the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic has written a very interesting book about working for Obama. He is a very wise and wonderful guy. I met him via Wes Anderson when we were doing Grand Budapest Hotel. He said ‘we have a guy who is a model for your character.’ So I went to Prague and he let me stay in the Ambassadors Palace and we’ve been in touch ever since.”
He loves food. Nothing fried or saucy. It’s part of the plan to stay healthy, not for getting good roles but for the role of daddy.
Does he think he’s going to go for a girl child? “I’d love a little girl. The other week Emilie said ‘gee I’d like to see you with a girl but I don’t think she really wants it. I think she’s happy to stop with these two.”
Perhaps he has a girl out there already who’s 25. “Not that I know of. I’ve been pretty good. If I could talk to my young self it would be to expose my young self to many lessons that I have come by gradually. I’ve not always been good. I’m still trying to learn about health and relationships and hygiene and how it keeps revealing itself to me in many more refined ways. It’s good that life happens the way it does really. You don’t get a view and no one can tell the future and it’s all a surprise. I’m amazed and pleased at the way things have turned out. Come on, what’s unpleasing?” We make our exit where everyone seems to greet him to say hello/goodbye. I’m not sure if they are fans or friends. He’s all about making the world a happier place and at the same time he’s all about science, astrophysics, astronomy, practical ways to save the oceans.
“Science is pretty inspiring. The extent and size of the universe and the place of our planet in it. We’re fragile. We need to stick together and do right by ourselves.”
He is all about the feel good – and his gift is to make people feel happy when he plays
Jeff Goldblum debut album is out on Decca records