Cult actor. Style icon. Jazz star. Viral meme. Older dad. Where did it all go so right for Jeff Goldblum? Ben Hoyle finds out.
A roar of excitement erupts inside the Californian hall as 7,000 fans spot a gangly silver-haired man sauntering on stage, waving theatrically. Jeff Goldblum is wearing a black and white tie, a colourful shirt patterned with polka dots and sections of comic strip, slim black trousers that somehow elongate his 6ft 4in frame and gleaming black and white loafers.
The outfit would be a sartorial disaster on anyone else, but on Goldblum it proves a triumph, cited by Vogue as proof that the actor, pianist and now social media star is "one of Hollywood's most snazzy dressers".
He has come to this convention centre across the street from Disneyland to unveil a trailer for his latest venture: a series for National Geographic (now owned by Disney) called The World According to Jeff Goldblum, in which he travels around America sharing his inexpert take on everything from denim and ice cream to tattoos. "I know nothing, that's the premise," he explains. "I'm a humble student and, in fact, kind of a late bloomer." A long pause. "A late Gold-blumer."
The event is held by Disney to hype up future releases by screening sneak preview footage and parading the biggest stars in front of the faithful. In the space of 48 hours, the fans cheer for Robert Downey Jr, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Jamie Foxx and the whole cast of this winter's ninth and final instalment of the Star Wars saga.
No one makes a bigger impression than Goldblum, whose pop-culture currency has never been higher. He is to be reunited with his original Jurassic Park co-stars Laura Dern and Sam Neill in Jurassic World 3 and celebrates by posting a retro location photo of the three of them on his Instagram feed, which has nearly two million followers. (It also features recent pictures of the present-day Goldblum wearing a lot of zebra print and an exceedingly skimpy pair of shorts.)
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“You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.” Happy as a clam-asaurus to be reunited with my brilliant costars from the original Jurassic Park @lauradern and @samneilltheprop for the next installment of @jurassicworld...coming soon. 😎🦖🦕🌋
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He is about to release a second jazz album, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This, as bandleader of Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra (it's named after a family friend from his childhood), with appearances from celebrity guest singers including Miley Cyrus. At 67, Goldblum is suddenly in demand.
But has he any idea why?
"Not really," Goldblum confides in that unmistakable voice with the slightly off-kilter delivery. We're sitting in a corner of the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, a five-minute Goldblum stride downhill from his house, and he does indeed look genuinely mystified. "How'd I get so lucky?" he says, breaking into a grin. "I'm a lucky stiff."
Goldblum has decades of film credits behind him including Nashville, Annie Hall, The Fly, The Tall Guy, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, a clutch of Wes Anderson movies and the Marvel blockbusters Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. He is at a loss to explain why things have suddenly come together as they have now but is nonetheless "surprised and grateful", as you would be.
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Goldblum's own guess is that it's somehow a consequence of his enhanced zest for life after marrying Emilie, a 36-year-old former Olympic gymnast, in 2014 and having two children (his first) with her. Those boys – Charlie Ocean, 4, and River Joe, 2 – have been "invigorating and revivifying", he says.
But that doesn't account for how his recording career sprang out of an encounter on The Graham Norton Show with the jazz singer Gregory Porter (they performed a duet, an executive from Decca Records saw it and commissioned an album that topped the jazz charts on both sides of the Atlantic and led to an appearance at Glastonbury); or, really, for the meeting on a photoshoot with a stylist, Andrew Vottero, who became Goldblum's sartorial guide, leading to his unexpected arrival as a beacon for outré men's fashion.
And, frankly, nothing explains Goldblum's emergence as an inexhaustible source of internet memes (Jeff as a centaur; as all the characters in Sex and the City; as various flowers and many more). In a review of the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra's first album, the music site Pitchfork proposed that, "Every sensible person should aspire to this precise degree of celebrity: Goldblum is rich enough not to have to worry about money again, yet he can still wander into a Trader Joe's [a supermarket chain] without a security detail."
The man himself confirms that he exists without much harassment. Filming The World According to Jeff Goldblum, he went to conventions for tattooists and gamers "in all sorts of places. People are nice. Very nice."
So, it seems, is Jeff Goldblum.
A couple of years ago, American GQ put together a guide on to how to be a better person. It was composed entirely of quotes about Goldblum from 34 of his famous friends, including Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Edward Norton, Willem Defoe, Paul Rudd, the Nobel prize-winning scientist James Watson and Laura Dern, who said, "Everyone from my grandma to Steven Spielberg to the psychic who said that there was a ghost living in his dining table would say the same thing: he makes you so damn happy to be alive."
Sometimes Goldblum can do that just by his appearance.
Today he is wearing an ensemble pulled together especially for the occasion (even though there is no photoshoot). It features black Uniqlo socks, black stretchy chinos from Saint Laurent, a delicate Cartier watch with Roman numerals that he bought precisely because it was not "one of those big, honking, manly, virile watches that guys wear", a polo shirt, buttoned to the neck, which turns out to be Prada (I know because he, having forgotten, leans over and insists I check the label), and a black "kind of golf jacket thing" inspired by Warren Beatty's fashion choices that "is sort of thrilling – I've been looking for something like this all my life" (he encourages me to stroke his arm to feel the fabric).
When he was a boy, he liked to dress up and was "obsessed with collars and ties". He went through a Rat Pack phase and then a hippy-era thrift-shop period. There's a photo of him at 14 dressed in bell bottoms and John Lennon spectacles with a medallion and turtleneck in homage to Sammy Davis Jr. As an adult he dressed confidently but had "a lot of bad ideas" until he met Vottero, who helped him ruthlessly edit his wardrobe down to a "permanent collection", which he hopes will pass to his sons. What if they never reach 6ft 4in? "The whole thing is a fantasy of some kind," he mutters. "Why not?"
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Sitting with him, you do have to acclimatise to some startling gestures and a range of never-ending vocal tics. To make a point, Goldblum will sometimes daintily lift his fingertips to the side of one eye as if feeling for a bruise on his smooth, ageless skin. To convey enthusiasm, he will roll his shoulders and bounce up and down on the sofa like a marionette. Quite often he looks over his shoulder conspiratorially, just for dramatic effect. His pupils roll around in his eye sockets. He flutters his eyelashes.
Goldblum also chuckles to himself, hums and mumbles, stifles the odd burp or yawn, chops up his sentences into disembodied fragments and then sticks them together on the hoof as a sort of word collage that may or may not make actual sense. He seems to prefer to think aloud at all times, trusting that a grin or a change of emphasis, or an engagingly antiquated turn of phrase or a funny voice or just an "anyway" will maintain interest while he works out what he wants to say. Occasionally he stops dead and stares right at me, wide-eyed for emphasis. Once, while discussing the writer Yuval Harari, he loses his thread briefly, squeezes my knee like a stress ball and then resumes: "So! Free will!"
He started playing piano as a young boy, but only really embraced it when his teacher gave him the syncopated jazz piece The Alley Cat to play. There was a sense of difference about him from early on that, in addition to growing up in an artistically inclined, middle-class Jewish household in a non-Jewish part of Fifties Pittsburgh, meant that he was a "fish out of water" to his family and his classmates. He only finally found kindred spirits as a teenager at a summer drama school. But he was often happy anyway.
"I was comfortable in my own skin," he says. He could charm adults, including his father, who "got a kick out of me", and from a young age he knew what he wanted from life: to act. (For years he never told anyone. Instead, every morning he would write on the steamed-up glass door of the shower, "Please God, let me be an actor," then wipe it off when he left.)
Jazz became a passion. His father, a doctor, loved the pianist Erroll Garner. His older brother Rick – the second of the three boys – liked Miles Davis, Stan Getz and the Modern Jazz Quartet. At 15, Goldblum hustled his way into playing cocktail lounge gigs in the Pittsburgh area, sometimes persuading the female singers he backed to drive him around.
Piano never became Goldblum's livelihood, but for the past 30 years he has been playing live with his band. As he says this, he starts hammering out notes with his slender fingers on our table as if it were a Steinway.
He practises every day at home after doing his gym routine at 5.30am and before the children wake up. Sometimes he reflects on what crack professionals his bandmates are and starts thinking, "I hope I'm not screwing up." By and large, though, because his identity and finances haven't been invested in success as a musician, "It's been kind of fun and, in a way, has informed some of my so-called acting life."
Goldblum first saw Emilie Livingston in a Los Angeles gym eight years ago. "I introduced myself: 'Hi, my name is Jeff Goldblum.' I said both names."
Do you normally do that? "No, but I do not like to assume that people know. So I say, 'Hi, I'm Jeff, you know – that dih dah dih dah.' "
But in this case you used your full name?
"Well, I think I was trying to get ... to maybe use any ... was already immediately struck by, and interested in, and bushy-tailed about making an impression …"
Right. So you were actually trying to say, "I am famous."
"I might," he concedes with a smile. "Without falling into, 'Hey, do you know who I am,' or doing anything like that. I was trying to do an elegant version, my own variation, probably not successful, of, 'If you happen to know, by the way, I'm Jeff Goldblum.' "
Emilie, who "didn't know who I was, and still has not seen most of my movies", continues to take a "cruel delight" in this story, and brings it up "more often than it needs to be", he says.
She told Goldblum she was a dancer. She is also a former Olympic rhythmic gymnast, a contortionist who remains "as contort-y as ever" and an aerialist who worked as a body double for Emma Stone in La La Land and for Rihanna in the sci-fi adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
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That night Goldblum, by nature an early to bed kind of guy, found himself at midnight "driving along Hollywood Boulevard, going to see her dance". Then, a couple of days later, "She came to see me and she did contortion on top of my piano as we played. [They struck up Makin' Whoopee, the tune that Michelle Pfeiffer writhes around to in The Fabulous Baker Boys.] And then she came over a day or so later. Anyway, I won't go into the details or be indiscreet, but, you know, pretty soon, although I'd been married a couple of times before [to the actresses Patricia Gaul from 1980-86 and Geena Davis from 1987-90] and had got a little kind of territorial, I was kind of, 'Gee, feel free to bring your stuff over,' surprising myself."
A little further down the line, she asked him, as things were going so well, "What if we had a baby?" Goldblum wasn't sure. He wasn't totally opposed to the idea, but he wanted "a chaperone" for their conversations about it. His therapist, whom he had been seeing for a couple of decades, took on that role.
What were you afraid of?
"You know, I'm 30 years older than Emilie. [I thought] will I be a good father? What do I have to offer? Does it mean we'd want to get married? What does that mean? Weddings give me the heebie-jeebies." He sings a snippet of Here Comes the Bride with a grimace.
About a year later, he and Emilie got married at the Chateau Marmont, with their therapist officiating. Charlie arrived the following year, followed by River in 2017.
Both boys are on a "no screen time" diet nearly all the time and their parents try to avoid being on their devices around them. They have never been to the cinema, "nor do they watch TV. Nope. They have not seen a whole movie. Their friends, I guess, get sat down in front of Finding Nemo or something like that and get enchanted. But no, we do not do that. It's not exactly Amish, but I think it's probably the right thing to do."
Even so, Goldblum is itching to get cracking with their film education. "Somebody told us – Tilda Swinton actually, not to drop names – 'Don't show them anything much. Start with Buster Keaton and Chaplin.' So I did. Emilie and I are going to introduce a little bit, not too much, but I like to show them Chaplin shorts and they're crazy about it. Yesterday, I showed them Laurel and Hardy. But then I started to show them snippets on YouTube of The Wizard of Oz." Soon he hopes to take them to a cinema to see a children's classic.
Do you worry about being an older dad?
"I take them to karate class and they have swimming lessons at our house, and I drop them off at school. I see dads who are younger. I'm feeling good. I can do everything. But it's not that it doesn't occur to me. I would not want to say goodbye to them prematurely. There would be an extra reason to be disappointed to check out earlier than I hoped."
I want to get back to his inner tapestry. At first Goldblum says that he can't be "anything but grateful" for how everything in his childhood "was the way it needed to be to result in all this".
Then he says he is thankful for how supportive his parents, both now dead, were of his artistic ambitions. They took the children to dance classes and art galleries and later paid for his first flat in New York.
His paternal grandfather had been a poor first-generation immigrant from Russia who ran a luggage and sweet shop. Goldblum's father "was a little ashamed of his dad because he didn't embrace assimilation", and he, like Goldblum's mother, flirted with the idea of acting. But when as a teenager he "stuck his head in the back of an acting class, he thought to himself, 'Oh, this is out of my league,' " and became a doctor instead.
Goldblum believes that if he had not chosen acting himself, "I would be more like him. Not as emotionally adventurous and open."
His father, though, had a "traditional masculine sense of himself". So when he found out that Goldblum's eldest brother, Lee, who died only a few years ago, was gay, "He didn't tell the rest of us. Sent him to a therapist in order to 'fix him'. It was all secret. That's not so nourishing."
Both parents proved unable to nurture Lee "in a way that gave him maximum independence and self-reliance … My dad was, without knowing why, conspicuously cruel to him at times." Lee flunked out of medical school, lied about it, joined the army and ended up "driving a taxi and having troubles of one kind or another: physical ailments, overweight, pharmaceuticals abuse and self-medication issues, and finally came home and lived with my parents for the last couple of decades of his life."
There were other tragedies. The middle brother, Rick, died at 23 from kidney failure. It was "part his fault" because he "mishandled his illness and fragility", but Goldblum wonders how much responsibility his parents should bear for that too, because Rick "was not armed with enough tools of self-reliance".
At 17, seeing these disasters brewing around him, determined to "survive" and possessed of a "heat-seeking" ambition, Goldblum escaped to New York. His dad was "tickled" to enrol him in a two-year acting programme, but later Goldblum deliberately distanced himself from his parents after counselling from a series of therapists who told him not to feel obliged to call them. "That was the advice I got and I took it and I think it was healthy advice. Because I saw my eldest brother suffer from too close an entanglement with them." His sister, Pamela, the youngest sibling, agrees with his point of view, he says.
In the summer holidays after the first year in New York, Goldblum got his first professional break. A Shakespeare Festival production of Two Gentlemen of Verona required a guard who just needed to be tall. He got the part, the production was a huge hit and he lost his virginity on the night it opened. Goldblum spent a year with the show on Broadway, and then finished his training a year later when he was more mature and more receptive to it than he might have been earlier. (He later co-founded an acting school in Los Angeles based on Sanford Meisner's methods, where he taught for a long time.)
He got the first film part he auditioned for. The film was Death Wish and the role was "Freak#1", a murderer and rapist who triggers Charles Bronson's vigilante killing spree. Michael Winner was directing. "He yelled at me. The first thing he did, the first scene, I was skulking up the stairs and he said [cue his uncanny impression of a hoarse, high-pitched posh English voice]: 'Goldbloooom, staaart actiiiing now!' "
He smiles. "I was scared and angry but, as it turns out, it was a good direction. 'Just start acting' was really pretty good advice."
Goldblum hasn't stopped since.
"I've never been ambitious to get any place particularly," he says. "I was a hippy-minded, creative purist, at least in my idealistic imaginings. Who knows, there may have been other narcissistic hunger for attention of one kind or another, but really, predominantly I was just kind of wild-eyed – childishly, probably – on this odyssey of creativity. Unstrategically. And I still could advocate for this position and adhere to that religion. Where are we going, any of us? We're going to die at one point or another. We all know this is fleeting. We're part of a much larger picture and [something's wrong] if we're not enjoying the ride from moment to moment."
I Shouldn't Be Telling You This is released on November 1.
Written by: Ben Hoyle
© The Times of London