When Jeff Goldblum appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to promote his latest role as a lobotomist in “The Mountain,” the 66-year-old actor proclaimed that he lived more in 10 minutes than most people do in a lifetime. The next day, he proved it.
Sitting in midtown Manhattan traffic for 45 minutes en route to an NPR interview, Goldblum covered a lot of ground: revisiting his origins in theater, recalling early work with Philip Kaufman and Woody Allen, analyzing the psychology of his blockbuster performances in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” worrying about Donald Trump, and explaining his recent quest to discover world-class auteurs. At the end, he squeezed in an impromptu catch-up with Billy Crystal.
Long beloved as a lanky, bespectacled font of charisma and intellect, Goldblum is now a genuine a pop-culture force. Two decades after “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” made him a household name, Marvel fans know Goldblum as eccentric alien tyrant Grandmaster in “Thor: Ragnarok.” This fall, Disney+ will give him an entire series to expand his curiosity to anything he pleases, with “The World According to Jeff Goldblum.”
Those are the kinds of paychecks that afford him the opportunity to gamble on bold material. “Right now, I’m enjoying a period of choice, and the ability to be discriminating,” he said, “so I’m only trying to do things that are exciting to me. Otherwise, I’d rather stay home with the kids.”
Goldblum is a creature of habit: He still plays jazz once a week with his band, the Mildred Snitcher Orchestra, and expects he’ll appear in future Marvel projects. To that routine he’s now added a passion for stranger, more experimental storytelling. The latest example is “The Mountain,” Rick Alverson’s eerie and poetic ’50s-set story of a traveling surgeon who becomes the unlikely father figure for his lonely assistant (Tye Sheridan). The enigmatic narrative marks the most uncharacteristic turn for the actor since Paul Schrader’s moody Holocaust drama “Adam Resurrected” over a decade ago.
“I’m not really focused on anybody else’s standards, but I am still trying to follow my own instincts and appetite to keep getting better,” he said. “I like the idea of working with people who are doing things intended to be strictly and purely adventurous.”
The Mountain Jeff Goldblum
Goldlbum had been a professional actor for nearly 20 years before he became famous, but his ambitions took root as a teenager studying under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. “Sandy told me, ‘Don’t copy anybody. Find your own unique way of things,’” Goldblum said. “The only career advice he gave me was just to do everything. Just keep acting. Do lots of different things. Some may work, some may not work, but do whatever you can.”
So Goldblum kept it up, with fleeting-but-memorable turns in late-’70s staples like “Annie Hall,” in which his declaration that he “forgot my mantra” epitomized the blend of spiritualism and ironic delivery that would become his hallmark. He singled out his role in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as a turning point. “Phil was a wonderful director, but it was really about the way he appreciated me,” Goldblum said. “I think he saw something about me that allowed me to find something more.”
Then came Lawrence Kasdan’s seminal college reunion drama “The Big Chill” in 1983, and the grotesque transformations of David Cronenberg’s 1986 “The Fly.” Goldblum’s celebrity image took off; while “Earth Girls Are Easy” flopped in 1988, it set the stage for his now-iconic scientist stud in “Jurassic Park.” The sudden influx of interest in the actor’s distinctive smart-aleck cadence caught him off guard. “I didn’t dare to think people were going to see something because of me,” he said. “It was the material and the movie. You can’t be good without a good director.”
Although Goldblum’s appeal never stopped expanding, there’s still a sense that he’s been hiding in plain sight. “Jeff’s a multi-talented chameleon, sometimes to his own detriment,” Schrader told me later. “It’s so easy for him to shift, deflect, and backlight his own image that viewers don’t take him as seriously as they should. When Spielberg saw ‘Adam Resurrected,’ he emailed me a comment saying he didn’t know Jeff had a performance of that depth in him. Steven, the gold standard. So, yes, Jeff has not gotten his due.”
On “The Mountain,” Alverson said he used Goldblum’s calming screen presence to represent the illusory nature of the American dream. “Jeff is remarkable,” Alverson said. “He was so down with it all. We have a lot of similar interests and curiosities about the problems of the world and contemporary fantasies that are ruining us.”
Although large-scale blockbusters don’t allow Goldblum to explore those themes, he finds ways to tunnel into the material. Consider the doom-and-gloom Congressional speech that the proverbial “chaotician” Dr. Ian Malcolm delivers in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which doubles as a repudiation of climate-change denial. “I worked on that really hard,” he said. “We were hammering it out up until the last moment, because it’s an interesting exercise in finding a pithy but impactful thing to say.”
In the 2016 dud “Independence Day: Resurgence,” Goldblum knew he could only do so much. “It was being rewritten while we were doing it,” he said, but he kept mining for substance in Roland Emmerich’s ludicrous plot about hostile aliens hiding out on the moon. “It sort of kept evolving as I found myself in this thing,” he said. “My character was an environmental activist in the first one. Now I’m trying to figure out how I feel about being part of a defense and military operation. I was trying to logically justify it all.” He shrugged. “I could’ve done better, I think.”
Studios may want to keep Goldblum tethered to the cartoonish neuroses of those ’90s franchises, but his enthusiasm to peer beyond the obvious suggests that he’s just getting started. While working on “The Mountain,” he started keeping a list of other living filmmakers whom Alverson suggested the actor meet. “Rick is educating me and turning me on to people,” Goldblum said.
He whipped out his iPhone and started going through the list: There was Lynne Ramsey, Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke. After watching Clare Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” and “White Material,” he decided he had to track her down. They have yet to connect, but Goldblum did manage to get to Guy Maddin, after falling for his unclassifiable cinematic gambits “The Forbidden Room” and “The Green Fog.” The pair met recently to discuss a new script. “He’s really something,” Goldblum said. “I hope it comes to fruition.”
Goldblum acknowledged that his broadening interest in contemporary filmmakers arrived at an unusual moment. “I’m a late bloomer,” he said. “It’s not that I’ve been wasting my time, but I have many areas of blindness. What do I have to lose?”
Goldblum’s upcoming Disney+ series points to the potency of his brand. In an age of viral memes and celebrity posturing, Goldblum connotes genuine depth when playing himself. There may be no better example than his startling appearance on Colbert’s live election special in 2016, when the actor wrestled with incoming news of a Trump presidency as the results trickled in. While a stunned Colbert floundered, Goldblum found his way to a soothing monologue about making peace with dark times, and concluded the segment by singing a few lines from the “Norma Rae” song “It Goes Like It Goes.”
That evening was a turning point. He had been celebrating his wedding anniversary with his third wife, who had recently given birth to his first child. “My wife and I had campaigned for Hillary in Ohio, and after all those months, I said, ‘Hey, look at what they just invited me to. It’ll be an exclamation point on this whole endeavor.’ The world changed that night in all sorts of ways.”
The SUV pulled up to a corner on Madison Avenue, and Goldblum stepped out, dodging cyclists in the bike lane. “Life changed in all sorts of ways that we may not even know for 50 years,” he continued. “I had just had a kid then, and I have two now. I was upset. I followed the news, and then I stopped following the news.”
He has recently taken an interest in the work of historian Yuval Harari. “It’s very exciting to me to hear about his thesis of what the American character was from the very start and how it’s developed and how it’s led to where we are now,” Goldblum said. “This, too, shall pass, and we’ll see how the whole thing goes.”
Goldblum towered over the crowds of pedestrians, and a few passersby noticed the actor as he made his way into the lobby for his next interview. He reached for the door when someone grabbed him, shouting his name. The actor looked puzzled as he peered down at a portly man hidden beneath a straw hat and dark shades. In the bright afternoon sun, he almost looked like Billy Crystal.
Wait: It was Billy Crystal, wandering down the street from a recent casting session. The pair reminisced about working together years ago on the anthology series “Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre,” in an installment that found Goldblum playing the wolf and Crystal as one of the three little pigs. “That was lovely,” Goldblum said.
Crystal grabbed Goldblum by the shoulders. “Are you back here? Or over there?” he asked, referring to the coasts. “I live back there,” Goldblum said. “I’m going to call you in a week,” Crystal said. “I have something for you look at.”
Goldblum grinned back and spread out his arms, which seemed to reach to both ends of the block. “I’ll look at anything,” he said.