No five words heard over the phone quicken the pulse like: “You’re on with Jeff Goldblum.” (“Well, hi, oh my goodness, yes, and, listen, thanks so much…”) Here, calling from his sofa in the Hollywood Hills, is the actual human center to this whole Post-Goldblum Era. An era when video memes of the actor’s characters fill all corners of the Internet. When his Jurassic Park hipster scientist, Dr. Ian Malcolm, inspires a 25-foot-long statue in London, reclining like a Manet odalisque and bearing a sphinx-like gaze. A year when acclaimed Scottish novelist Helen McClory’s new book, The Goldblum Variations, offers stories, puzzles, and musings on its ineffable title figure, whose surname, like Walken or Malkovich, has acquired a liminal aura of its own. This effect comes to certain people after decades of being uniquely themselves in public—in Goldblum’s case, seizing talk-show spots for improvised forays into the bawdy and surreal. Or, after 50 years as a jazz pianist, releasing his debut album, The Capitol Studios Sessions, last year, and a follow-up, I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This, this month. Now this 67-year-old wonder brings his magnetic, “childlike” curiosity to National Geographic’s latest deep dive, “The World According to Jeff Goldblum.”
So, Mr. Goldblum, how did you come to your latest incarnation, National Geographic explorer?
Well, they had this Nat Geo Explorer show they were experimenting with, and I hosted a couple of episodes, and we just hit it off. I love the people over at Nutopia—that’s their production company. They did “One Strange Rock” and a lot of great stuff. And I said, “Here’s what I think I could enjoy doing. Here’s how I could contribute in a way that might be a little different.”
The episodes are deep, freewheeling, and always very you. You kick one off with: “Jeff Goldblum here. I’m an actor. Known for my hands, my stillness … and my [in a whisper] childlike sense of wonder.”
Every aspect of this show is creatively delicious. Each week I introduce myself a different way, and we’ll do voiceovers where they’ve written stuff that’s very, very brilliant and interesting, but I say, “Hey, I think I can do something less conventional.” In the moment you mentioned, I had them play me the images that would go over the voiceover they needed, and I just sort of extemporized on what I saw. My hands: “I’m known for my hands.” The clip’s in slow-motion. “I’m known for my stillness.”
That “childlike sense of wonder” is apparent to anyone. You have a 4-year- old and a 2-year-old. Does that boost one’s sense-of-wonder quotient?
Having young kids enlarges my curiosity and interest and sense of wonder about the world, but for the show, along with unusual takes on a subject, we try to bring a larger idea and higher-altitude perspective on things as a whole. Being a little later in life causes that naturally.
Five years ago, The Washington Post announced your marriage to Olympic gymnast Emilie Livingston as “Jeff Goldblum married a contortionist half his age.” Which many of us read and thought, “Well, of course.”
Well, yes, so far I feel fit as a fiddle, and I’m full of vitamin A, and Emilie is not only a world-class athlete but wise beyond her years. So somehow we are miracu- lously compatible.
“The World According to Jeff Goldblum” views its subjects through the lens of you as a kid from Pittsburgh, you as a public figure, and us as an American society, drawing deeply on your personal connection to cultural history. Do you ever feel a gulf between you and your wife when it comes to that shared experience, given the age difference?
I’ll tell you what happened one time, and it’s not to make her seem foggy- headed—because she’s not—but she was in the Olympics and sheltered in a way from pop-cultural things for many years. I said to her, because I like to play games and quizzes with her, “Hey, if I was one of The Beatles, which one would I be?” And she said, “Rex Harrison.” I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to tell anybody you said that, but we just saw My Fair Lady. You’d never seen that before. There was the actor who played the professor, remember him?” And she stopped herself and said, “No! George, George, George Harrison.” But it was a moment that I thought, “Geez, we’re from different eras.”
Speaking of different eras, millennials love you. I’m looking at an Instagram page full of people’s tattoos with your face as the dominant theme. Could you feel yourself becoming a meme?
Yeah, I became aware at some point. I’m not on social media, really, except in the last couple of years on Instagram, but I’ve seen these things, people getting tattoos of me and all kinds of funny stuff like that. So yeah, I seem to have become some- thing. I get a kick out of it. But something like that’s so fleeting.
Your jazz career, meanwhile, is definitely not fleeting. But your group name uses some kind of hepcat jive I’m not sure I quite dig. What is it again?
Ah! The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. You like that? There was a lady named Mildred Snitzer, who used to be a friend of my mom’s, who would visit us in Pitts- burgh frequently. And around the time we were playing the Hollywood Bowl and the Playboy Jazz Festival, someone said, “Well, you gotta have a name.” We’ve been playing together for 25, 30 years, and I always tried to stay under the radar, but right then her name occurred to me, and I thought it would work. She was a lovely woman. In fact, she lived to be a few years over a hundred, and we were playing a gig one time, and the band manager said, “Hey, guess who’s here tonight?” I said, “Who?” “Mildred Snitzer.”
She came, she found us, and sure enough we were playing, and she walks in and starts to bop around to the music. She’s in her 90s, wearing some kind of sequined gown.
Well, it sounds as if she made quite an impression long before that.
She was sort of a singular woman, kind of a—I wouldn’t say hippie, really—but she sort of was more natural, and she would get on the ground and say to Mom, “Exercise is really good for ya, Shirley,” and she would start doing her exercises that she kind of made up…
Right now, I feel I’m hearing a formative pubescent experience.
Ha ha. Well, I was always susceptible to, ah, stimulation of one sort or another.
On the Nat Geo show, you quote your dad to that effect.
Oh, that’s right! He always encouraged my fascination. He was going to be a doctor or an actor, and he chose medicine. But he always said, “You should just find something you love to do. That’s key to your vocation.” He realized, as I now do, that it’s a lucky thing if you find some- thing that you’re crazy about that you can then pursue as some kind of professional vehicle. I’ve found a couple such things. My teacher, Sanford Meisner, said, “Use what exists,” and creative people, oftentimes, I think are doing just that.
The Meisner principles of acting seem to run strongly through everything you do. That whole stress on listening, improvisation, spontaneity…
That’s right. My teachers were big landmark people in my life, and now, having kids, it makes me think of that. Last night, I was showing Emilie the first part of [1974’s] California Split—we only saw the first 15 minutes, because that’s kind of how we watch a lot of movies these days; just before we go to bed, after we put the kids to bed, we watch some Apple TV—anyway, it was my second movie, in which I have just a few lines and a couple of scenes. But I remember see- ing it early on and watching Elliott Gould and George Segal in it, seeing them and the great Robert Altman, who was a great teacher, improvise from this script and mash-up some of what was written. At the time—this was after I had studied with Meisner—it was a perfect kind of post- classroom project for me. But it wasn’t until now, 40 years later, as I was watch- ing it last night, that I thought I’d be able to do a little more than what I did early on. I said to Emilie, “If I was doing this movie now with Altman, there’s some- thing more I could bring to the table. I would know how to, and I’d enjoy working with him and improvising even more.”
What was your wife’s response?
Well, I’m embarrassed to say how complimentary she was, but it was something like “Gee, there’s something wonderful about the way you keep studying and your innocence and the way you keep grow- ing like this.” I’m getting chances to do all sorts of things in that vein. These jazz shows are sort of extemporaneous and uncharted, and the documentary series uses me in a nourishing way, so I’m happy as a clam.
All right, well, thank you, Jeff Goldblum. You’re an American treasure.
Oh, you’re an American treasure. You’re … Ali Baba’s cave.