Why Jeff Goldblum, living meme and baboon whisperer, still matters
They, uh, broke the mold when they made Jeff Goldblum.
A delightful eccentric, whose charms lean into singularity, is a kind of cultural anomaly when it comes to lasting power. His iconography — from his “Creation of Adam”-recline in “Jurassic Park,” to a straight-ahead shot of his face from “The Fly” that adorned bathroom stalls the world over in the early age of the internet — are unavoidable. Yet while we know his purring, excitable cadence from nearly 50 years of movies, he’s rarely carried a film on his own broad shoulders. Somehow his star has remained fixed in the firmament, his idiosyncrasies so strong and endearing as to win him a two decade run of (mostly) playing himself — or who we imagine him to be.
The reason for Goldblum’s endurance — from indie film darling and “Annie Hall” cameo to Instagram fashion icon and latter day sex symbol — is now the subject of a book, aptly called “Because He’s Jeff Goldblum: The Movies, Memes, and Meaning of Hollywood’s Most Enigmatic Actor.” The title is also the book’s common refrain: Goldblum is so much himself, he is a case study of succeeding by being genuine. At least, as far as we can tell.
In the book, Travis M. Andrews, a culture writer for The Washington Post, speaks to dozens of Goldblum’s friends and collaborators, tracing a TV, film and theater career filled with corkscrew turns that resolved into a contented life as a father, semi-accomplished jazz pianist, internet real estate pitchman and “living meme.”
While Goldblum politely declined to participate in the book, and most insights to his inner life hinge on decades of press interviews — we sadly don’t poke much at the fact Goldblum referred to his early life as “a whole Philip Roth novel that I’ll only skim the edges of” — the book is an entertaining, often funny primer to Goldblum’s appeal.
Andrews admits the tome lacks some tension (everyone he spoke to loved his subject). But for any Goldblum enthusiast who might not know about the thespian’s yearslong crusade to include a magic trick in a performance, or his out-of-left field choice to circle his nipples with his fingers in a recent production of “The Music Man” (the director said no), it’s a guide to how the Goldblum prepares and continues to stay relevant.
I spoke with Andrews about the man, the myth, the meme, his curious connection to the animal kingdom and the secret to his long running success. The following conversation has been edited for length, clarity and to remove an anecdote about Goldblum’s early film role as “Freak #1” in “Death Wish.”
PJ Grisar: You came into this as a bit of a Goldblum skeptic. What made you want to devote a whole book to the guy?
Travis Andrews: One day, I was sitting around the Washington Post newsroom. Goldblum’s putting out this jazz album, his first one, and we just started talking about how popular it is, and I kind of just offhandedly say like, “I don’t understand how he remains so singularly popular — in a way that he’s almost more famous now than when he was an A-list Hollywood star.” And I swear this sounds invented, but my colleagues in a chorus [said] “because he’s Jeff Goldblum.” Like that’s self-evident. I started thinking more and more about it and I thought he was a perfect test case for how celebrity and fame has really shifted in the past 40 years. And meanwhile he’s also just an interesting guy with a lot of great films in his filmography, so it was a great way to explore this bigger idea while also focusing on someone that was endlessly a source of joy.
Do you think not fully getting the hype helped in your process?
I wanted the book to feel like an exploration, and so I kind of take you along my journey. I find that a lot of biographies are written from kind of the other way around, from a place of expertise starting out, and I think there’s something interesting in the journalist’s process, where you learn and you start digging into something and you just want to know more and more.
Are you a bigger fan now than you were when you started out?
I’m absolutely a bigger fan now, both of his acting — I think he is a better actor than a lot of people give him credit for, especially because he is a living meme. When you see him in a movie or a show, you want Jeff Goldblum and you want that persona, but when you look back, he really was an incredibly talented actor who really does the whole character acting thing and you can tell in some of those old movies. And then, just everyone loves him. It’s absurd. I spoke to so many people including a fiancée who had every reason to say something not so great about him, and everyone just had nothing but kind things to say.
There was one thing that was percolating a few years ago, the writer Nicole Cliffe had tweeted something cryptic about there being some creepiness on his part. You didn’t find anything about that?
No, and I followed that up, and I reached out to Nicole. Maybe she knows something I don’t. Obviously, who knows. I kinda started digging for that kind of thing… but nothing came up.
Going back to the living meme thing: What do you think is the root of his status there?
One thing I think that’s really important is just good timing. A meme expert was telling me this, for the book, when memes started being made, they were made by people who would have grown up with “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day.” And then he is so quirky, which obviously is useful. He also has such an expressive face, and has so many kinds of different looks throughout the years and movies that makes it very easy to make him a meme. In “The Fly,” he’s got this flowy hair and these bug eyes, and then in “Jurassic Park,” he’s like so chiseled and attractive.
Goldblum became someone that you could kind of project onto, in a way, which is what you’re hoping to do with memes, you’re generally comedic, but you’re projecting some kind of comedy on to this vessel
That gets to the question of how much of his shtick is put on. Do you think that you’ve landed on an answer as to how authentic he is? How much of it is leaning into mannerisms, he had already?
I think he figured out what parts of himself people liked. The weird kind of stutter, talking with long pauses and the purring. So much purring. He learned under Sandy Meisner, the famed acting teacher who said that you want to live truthfully in fictional circumstances. I feel like Goldblum’s almost doing that. He’s living truthfully, but in truthful circumstances — in real life. He is bringing up parts of him people like, but he’s not doing anything he doesn’t want to do.
One thing I would say is he’s been playing jazz music for 30-something years. And he’s been playing in a small club in LA once a week when he’s in town, and he only put out an album in 2016, and I think that he could have used his fame in the mid-‘90s to launch a big music career if he wanted to. I don’t think he wanted to. He also could have remained an A-Lister. After “Jurassic Park,” “Independence Day,” he’s one of the most bankable movie stars in the world, and he doesn’t choose A-list projects, he chooses weird indie movies, a lot of them that don’t work. He always says he’s not a careerist. And, and I think that speaks to his authenticity. The guy just does whatever he seems to be interested in, and I don’t think you see a lot of that in the world, and I think people are drawn to that.
Having done a little bit of Meisner exercises in high school — repetition particularly — really makes the strangeness of his interviews make sense to me.
In the interviews he always turns them around on the interviewer. Is he doing that because he doesn’t want to say too much personal life and he wants to kind of retain control of the interview, or is he actually interested in other people? One thing I found is that on every movie set he would go to, he would learn every single person’s name. In fact, he would ask everyone to wear name tags for two days. I spoke to a second grip who was like “I don’t know why the star of this movie was asking all these questions but he seemed really interested.” What’s the old quote, you’re only interesting to the point that you’re interested, and he really seems to either have taken that to heart or just naturally be that curious.
So, he’s not directly involved in the book. Did you get a sense of why he took a pass?
I think from watching and reading every interview he’s given over the years, part of it is that he wants to retain some sort of control. That’s speculative, I could be very wrong. I wonder if he’s gonna write a biography some day, he seems like the kind of guy who wants to write his own story. His manager passed on his behalf and they were very kind, and I believe they told people they could speak to me because so many people I was sure wouldn’t when I asked first did.
Do you have like a favorite Goldblum story that emerged from your reporting?
Have you seen “The Fly” anytime recently?
Ages ago. Though not at as tender of an age as you saw it — you mention in the book that was your first brush with him and you were in elementary school.
Yeah, seriously, scarred for life! At the beginning of the movie, he has these two teleportation devices. First he brings in a baboon. So on set they had a baboon, because you need to film that. And baboons are not nice creatures. They have two- to three-inch-long fangs, they can be pretty territorial. They can be pretty violent, obviously pretty strong. And I spoke to the script supervisor on “The Fly,” and she was telling me that she resembled, I guess, a former trainer of this baboon, and the baboon found her romantically interesting, and the baboon went into heat on set several times whenever he sees the script supervisor. And a baboon in heat is a baboon, you know, three times worse, obviously aroused and angry and screaming, and no one could calm down the baboon, except, Jeff Goldblum. He would just kind of go up to the baboon and like, calm it, and then just like walk around holding the baboon, which is just the funniest image in the world to me. And they were only able to film because Goldblum calmed the baboon, and something about that to me just speaks volumes about this guy. Of course he’s the one who can calm the baboon.
Love of him transcends species.
The best part is it wasn’t even the only baboon story I heard. There’s this movie “Threshold” that he was in. There’s a baboon in that movie and the director was telling me, “oh, yeah, Jeff would hang out with the baboon.” This guy just chills with baboons on movie sets. Sure, why not?