Jerusalem Post

July 14, 2005

The enigma of Jeff Goldblum

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

Tightly packed into a gray pinstriped suit, actor Jeff Goldblum bounds out of the elevator with a broad smile on his tanned face, looking every centimeter of his towering 6-foot, 4-inch frame.

He stoops down to shake an admirer's hand, listening patiently as his attractive, blonde-haired publicist introduces the man pumping his arm, a black-hatted, tzitzit-wearing hasid. Goldblum smiles politely.

A few minutes earlier, Goldblum took a brief tour of the gleaming new Jewish Children's Museum in Brooklyn, a state-of-the-art edifice just across the street from 770 Eastern Parkway, home of the late Lubavitcher rebbe and the spiritual center of Chabad-Lubavitch.

It's an unusual setting for Goldblum, who hardly has set foot in a Jewish building since his bar mitzvah almost 40 years ago, in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. But it's just a short trip from Manhattan, where the actor who got his first big break with a single line in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977) is currently starring in Martin McDonagh's new play on Broadway, "The Pillowman," directed by John Crowley.

Gracious to the point of flattery, Goldblum seems to be having a good time. Along with an entourage that includes PR people, museum administrators and a mystified reporter, Goldblum rides up and down the museum elevator in search of the right floor as a mustachioed guitarist strums the kibbutz classic "Tsena, Tsena" and actor Jeffrey Tambor-who plays the quirky jailbird Dad in FOX's critically acclaimed comedy "Arrested Development"-sings the song at the top of his lungs.

Goldblum, unfamiliar with the Hebrew words, merrily claps along, twisting and turning to make sure everyone in the elevator is enjoying themselves. They all beam back at him.

Trapped in the middle of this bizarre scene on a rainy evening in Brooklyn, I feel like I've stepped into an alternate universe.

It only heightens the weirdness surrounding Goldblum, who has played dark and mystifying characters in such movies as "The Fly" (1986), "Jurassic Park" (1983) and, most recently, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004).

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post several days later, Goldblum seems more grounded, relaxed before that evening's performance of "The Pillowman." In that play, Goldblum plays Tupolski, an interrogator of an author in a totalitarian state whose bizarre short stories bear a striking resemblance to horrific crimes that then take place in his hometown.

"I just loved that particular play and talked to John Crowley, the director, and was so taken with him and impressed with the cast, too," Goldblum gushes, explaining his reasons for coming back to New York from Hollywood to do "The Pillowman," for which he has collected an Outer Critics Circle Award.

Goldblum says it's refreshing to be out in front of live audiences again.

"It's challenging and humbling and educational to try to do the best by the play every night and the best by the audience and to do the whole show," he says. "It's very delicious in the way we worked on it in depth a long time in rehearsal."

In an interview with a reporter, it's hard to tell to where the actor Goldblum ends and the man behind the actor begins.

Pressed on details of his personal life and his upbringing, Goldblum reveals little more than one might find in a publicist's bio: Born Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum in Pittsburgh in 1952; moved to New York at 17 to begin a career on stage; made it to the big time in 1983 with his performance in "The Big Chill."

I ask him about his Jewish roots, and Goldblum seems to have little to tell in a story that ends with his bar mitzvah and the conclusion of his Hebrew school education.

Honored by the Lubavitch youth organization Tzivos Hashem with the Joseph Papp Humanitarian Award-named after the late theater director and financier of programs for Jewish children in the former Soviet Union-Goldblum says he doesn't quite know why he was chosen for the award. Officials with Tzivos Hashem confirm that it has less to do with Goldblum's Jewish activity (little to none, it seems) or his support of the Joseph Papp Humanitarian Fund (none, Goldblum says) than with Goldblum's ties to the late Papp (Papp gave Goldblum his first acting job) and the efficacy of bringing a Hollywood actor to a fundraising dinner to turn out large numbers.

On the night of the awards ceremony, Goldblum ascends to the podium to receive his prize wearing a large black skullcap after sitting through a video tribute to him with testimonials from several Hollywood actors and directors.

"It's just so trippy and amazing to see all this," Goldblum says. "This is as wonderful an evening and an event as I've ever had in my whole life. It truly is."

A few minutes later, he is whisked away in his limousine back to Manhattan.

In our interview several days later, I try to extract a little more from Goldblum about his Jewish identity. He seems to have little to tell.

"I've continued to, you know, identify myself culturally with Judaism and have exposed myself to wisdom literature that's from one tradition or another," he says, his voice trailing off.

I ask whether his Jewishness factors into his work in any way.

"In the obvious ways-ways that, you know, I can imagine that Jewish humor has something to do with certain shows."

Goldblum seems much more comfortable answering the more common questions actors typically face, about his recent films, the characters he plays and coming back to act in a play in New York after so many years on the silver screen on the West Coast.

He says he chose to do "The Pillowman," in which he interrogates the suspect author with double-talk and mind games, simply because it seemed like an interesting project, not because he seeks out dark and mysterious characters.

"It's not any conscious career shift for me. I just at any one time do what feels like the most interesting material for me and work with the most interesting people," Goldblum says.

"I feel like I keep choosing a variety of things and get drawn to some light things and some dark things," he says. "I guess I keep enjoying exploring and discovering."

Though Goldblum says he likes living in California, it's refreshing to be back in the Big Apple.

"It's delightful to see people and meet people. People are generally sweet. I've been making new friends," he says. "The press has been very nice and have not been particularly intrusive and they've been respectful of things I'd rather have kept private, like any personal things."

Married and divorced twice, to the actresses Patricia Gaul and Geena Davis, Goldblum is now engaged again-for the fourth time, actually, following a broken engagement in the late 1990s with the actress Laura Dern, who appeared alongside him in "Jurassic Park." This time, the subject is Catherine Wreford, a 23-year-old actress from Winnipeg, Canada.

"You're 52," I inform Goldblum, switching to my old-Jewish-man persona. "When are you going to settle down and have a family, already?"

Goldblum seems nonplussed by the question. "I'm engaged to this wonderful girl, and maybe we'll do it sometime," he offers unconvincingly.

He sounds much more convincing when he says he'd love to visit Israel, which he has never visited before. "Maybe I'll go soon," he says.

For now, however, Goldblum is shackled to Broadway, where he appears nightly in "The Pillowman," through September.

"I still sort of pick from the best projects that come my way," Goldblum says. "It's clearer and clearer to me that acting and storytelling can sometimes teach me about things spiritual and human and continue to interest me in the many delightful aspects of human experience."