The enigma of Jeff Goldblum
Jeff Goldblum stoops to shake an admirer’s hand, listening patiently as his attractive blonde publicist introduces the man – a black-hatted, tzitzit-wearing hassid. Goldblum smiles politely.
A few minutes earlier, Goldblum had taken a brief tour of the gleaming new Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn – a state-of-the-art edifice across the street from 770 Eastern Parkway, home of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and still the spiritual center of Chabad-Lubavitch.
It’s an unusual setting for Goldblum, who has hardly set foot in a Jewish building since his bar mitzva almost 40 years ago in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. But it’s just a short trip from Manhattan, where the actor who got his first big break with a single line in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) is currently starring in Martin McDonagh’s new play, The Pillowman, directed by John Crowley.
Gracious to the point of flattery, Goldblum seems to be having a good time. Along with an entourage that includes PR people, museum administrators and a mystified reporter, Goldblum rides up and down the museum elevator in search of the right floor as a moustachioed guitarist strums the classic “Tsena, Tsena” and actor Jeffrey Tambor – who plays the quirky jailbird Dad in the critically acclaimed TV comedy Arrested Development – sings at the top of his lungs.
Goldblum, unfamiliar with the Hebrew words, merrily claps along, twisting and turning to make sure everyone in the elevator is enjoying themselves. They all beam back at him.
Trapped in the middle of this bizarre scene on a rainy evening in Brooklyn, I feel like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe. It only heightens the weirdness surrounding Goldblum, who has played dark and mystifying characters in such movies as The Fly (1986), Jurassic Park (1993) and, most recently, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post several days later, Goldblum seems more grounded and quite relaxed before that evening’s performance of The Pillowman. In that play, Goldblum plays Tupolski, an interrogator of an author in a totalitarian state whose bizarre short stories bear a striking resemblance to horrific crimes that take place in his hometown.
“I just loved that particular play and talked to Crowley and was so taken with him and impressed with the cast, too,” Goldblum gushes, explaining his reasons for coming back to New York from Hollywood to do The Pillowman, for which he has collected an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Goldblum says it’s refreshing to be in front of live audiences again. “It’s challenging, humbling and educational to try to do the best by the play every night, and the best by the audience, and to do the whole show,” he says.
In an interview, it’s hard to tell to where the actor ends and the man begins. Pressed for details of his personal life and upbringing, Goldblum reveals little more than one might find in a publicist’s bio: Born Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum in Pittsburgh in 1952; moved to New York at 17 to begin a career on stage; made it to the big time in 1983 with his performance in The Big Chill.
I ask him about his Jewish roots, and Goldblum’s story seems to end with his bar mitzva and the conclusion of his Hebrew school education.
Honored by the Lubavitch youth organization, Tzivos Hashem, with the Joseph Papp Humanitarian Award – named after the late theater director and financier of programs for Jewish children in the former Soviet Union – Goldblum says he doesn’t quite know why he was chosen.
Officials with Tzivos Hashem confirm that it has less to do with Goldblum’s Jewish activity (little to none, it seems) or his support of the Joseph Papp Humanitarian Fund (none, Goldblum says) than with his ties to the late Papp (Papp gave Goldblum his first acting job) and the efficacy of bringing a Hollywood actor to a fundraising dinner for publicity.
On the night of the awards ceremony, Goldblum ascends the podium to receive his prize wearing a kippa after sitting through a video tribute with testimonials from several Hollywood actors and directors.
“It’s just so trippy and amazing to see all this,” Goldblum says. “This is as wonderful an evening and an event as I’ve ever had. It truly is.”
A few minutes later, he is whisked by limousine back to Manhattan.
In our interview, I try to extract a little more from Goldblum about his Jewish identity. He seems to have little to tell.
“I’ve continued to, you know, identify myself culturally with Judaism, and have exposed myself to wisdom literature that’s from one tradition or another,” he says, his voice trailing off. I ask whether his Jewishness affects his work in any way.
“In the obvious ways – ways that, you know, I can imagine Jewish humor has something to do with certain shows.”
Goldblum seems much more comfortable answering the more common questions about his career.
He says he chose to do The Pillowman, in which he interrogates the suspect author with double-talk and mind games, simply because it seemed like an interesting project.
“It’s not a conscious career shift for me,” Goldblum says. “I feel like I keep choosing a variety of things and get drawn to some light things and some dark things. I guess I keep enjoying exploring and discovering.”
Married and divorced twice, to actresses Patricia Gaul and Geena Davis, Goldblum is now engaged again – for the fourth time, actually, following a broken engagement in the late 1990s with Laura Dern, who appeared alongside him in Jurassic Park.
This time, the subject is Catherine Wreford, a 23-year-old from Winnipeg, Canada.
“You’re 52,” I inform Goldblum, switching to my old-Jewish-man persona. “When are you going to settle down and have a family already?”
Goldblum seems nonplussed. “I’m engaged to this wonderful girl, and maybe we’ll do it sometime,” he offers unconvincingly. He sounds much more convincing when he says he’d love to come to Israel, which he has never visited.
“Maybe I’ll go soon,” he says.
For now, however, Goldblum is shackled to Broadway.
“I still sort of pick from the best projects that come my way,” Goldblum says. “It’s clearer and clearer to me that acting and storytelling can sometimes teach me about things spiritual and human, and continue to interest me in the many delightful aspects of human experience.”