Goldblum’s life as a dog
Jeff Goldblum has been developing some canine habits lately. Stephen Applebaum finds out why
What is it with Jeff Goldblum and animals? The Pittsburgh-born Hollywood star tussled with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World, and actually became an insect in The Fly.
Now he is playing a man who thinks he is a dog in Adam Resurrected, a Holocaust film — due out next year — based on an acclaimed novel by Yoram Kaniuk and directed by Paul Schrader.
There is nothing even vaguely canine about Goldblum in person, though his lean frame could perhaps be termed “whippet-like”. A gawky, 6ft 4in figure with meticulously gelled hair and a ready smile, Goldblum has for months been researching the role of Adam Stein — a German-Jewish entertainer whose success in pre-war Berlin and sense of assimilation mean nothing after the Nazis come to power. The research has included spending time in Berlin learning about the lives of Jews before and during the war — “Jewish experience in Germany’s very particular, not like in Pittsburgh in 1952, but very different,” he says — and talking to Holocaust survivors.
The subject matter is proving tough and sobering, he says. But while “it’s a very difficult thing to live out as an actor”, Goldblum is careful to keep the challenging experience in perspective.
“We are shooting it for a few months, which is no period of time in relation to what people went through in those times,” he says. “I have talked to so many survivors now, and I say: ‘How long were you in camps?’ and they say: ‘Four years.’ It’s just unimaginable.” perspective. And I pray that I will, for my little part, be able to honour the opportunity and responsibility.”
The film’s German, Israeli and American actors include some offspring of Holocaust survivors. Goldblum is not one of them. He says that his own grandparents left Europe in the early 1900s. His paternal grandfather came from Russia and changed his name to Goldblum when he settled in America.
“My name should really be Pavatzek,” he laughs. But when the actor is asked to talk about his Jewish identity, he tails off into vagueness.
He was barmitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh and attended Hebrew classes. “Afterwards, as per my parents’ guidance, I went voluntarily [to synagogue] on a High Holyday or this and that. Since then in my adult life there have been many ways that I could be able to identify myself still as Jewish,” he says, dropping his voice. “There are things about me that are Jewish, although I have a spiritual appetite, I might say, where I identify myself with larger groups than just Jews. And those spiritual appetites have something to do with this movie, which is why it appeals to me.”
Can he elaborate? “With stories of horrible, shocking, violent, complete loss, it’s always — as the wisdom literature tells us — an opportunity for grace, potentially, and I’m interested in that. And that’s an element in Adam Resurrected.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that when Goldblum was first turned on to acting, it was more than just about portraying different characters. It was the 1960s, after all, a time when drama training came with yoga classes.
“I was kind of interested in space and the magical world beyond thinking, and the magical world of being, and of being anything and nothing,” he says wistfully.
Acting looked to him early on as if it could be a “spiritual adventure”. Though no one else in his family acts, his doctor father did once harbour dreams of a stage career. Goldblum’s mother was even picked out during a school play in West Virginia by a talent scout and invited to New York, but her mother refused to let her go. “They were always interested in theatre. They would go to New York and come back with play bills and cast albums. So maybe their blocked impulses visited themselves upon me.” Goldblum laughs.
He left home at 17 and relocated to New York, where he studied with the famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Though initially supported by his parents, he soon started earning enough money to support himself and avoid going down the struggling actor route of doing “straight jobs”.
Goldblum behaving like a dog is likely to be one of the film’s more bizarre sights. At one point, he even shares living space and food with the pet dog of the camp commandant (Willem Dafoe). “I’m made to be a dog for a little bit, so I become a little bit dog myself,” he explains. “I’m forced to humiliate myself. But I do it in order to keep my family alive.” Later, in the 1960s, in an asylum for Holocaust survivors in Israel’s Negev desert, Goldblum’s character is “faced with a boy who only acts like a dog. The movie has to do with getting sane and becoming human in some way, and helping this boy to become human.”
Given Adam Resurrected’s subject matter, Goldblum did not agree to take on the role lightly.
The Holocaust is a “very delicate, holy, sacred area”, he says. “People [who lived through it] are still alive and the world is still affected by it. So when I was reading the script, I kept thinking: ‘Is this rendition of it really good? Is there a reason not to do this?’
“But as I kept working on it and meeting the cast, my instinct was that it’s very worth doing. It’s worth doing for me at least, in my humble player.
Since then he has moved between independent films such as Igby Goes Down and Hal Hartley’s new movie, Fay Grim, and blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day.
When he is not acting, he can often be seen around Los Angeles playing piano with his jazz band The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, and, it seems, just enjoying life in general. Asked whether he has any regrets in his career, the 54-year-old gives a look that says: “Are you kidding?” He says he prefers some of his movies to others, but that is far as he will go. As for whether he feels that there is anything missing in his life, it appears he could not be happier.
“It feels like my appetite for life and creative work and play is as robust as ever,” he muses. “It’s less and less about trying to find myself in some future project or experience. I know now that things kind of come and go, and if I derive life from anything, it’s from being right here, right now.”
From an inauspicious start as a rapist in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (“that was part of the not-so-artful scene, but it was a successful commercial movie,” he says), Goldblum went on to secure a bit-part in Robert Altman’s California Split and then a bigger one in Altman’s masterpiece Nashville.
He also had a small role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but it was playing a yuppie in The Big Chill that finally turned him into a featured
Adam Resurrected is scheduled for release in 2008
Jeff Goldblum: “My name should really be Pavatzek”