“I count on good directors to use me in imaginative ways”: The Mountain’s Jeff Goldblum discusses his endless drive to improve
Jeff Goldblum is known for his larger-than-life characters and his insatiable curiosity about the universe at large. In his latest project, The Mountain, directed by Rick Alverson, he takes on the part of a psychiatric doctor and practising lobotomist in 50s America. Though not his first doctor role, it is perhaps the most intriguing one to date.
We caught up with the actor at the 75th Venice Film Festival, where he discussed the fun of playing men of science and the importance of always moving forward in a creative and progressive way. But characteristically, the interview began off-piste as Goldblum spoke of a TV project he has recently signed up to, Finding Your Roots, in which a team research your ancestry using a DNA sample. This sparked an obvious question.
Weren’t you scared to give them your DNA? You should know better after Jurassic Park.
Oh yeah, well that’s true.
Your father was a doctor. What’s your view of doctors in general?
Well.. he was a good doctor. I got my work ethics from him. I do it every day even if I don’t have a job: play piano, work on my acting. He was like that. He kept trying to make himself better, studying, got to medical school. You need to stay current in that field and he did that, I think. He was academically ethically and well-intentioned and conscientious and I think patients adored him. He died in 1983 during the big chill, and I’ve run into people who’ve said: “your dad was a good doctor”. So that was my feeling about him. In my own life, I had health care, I’ve never had too many problems, I’m in good health but she [Emilie Livingston] just delivered two babies. We were tearful when we left the hospital. I think healthcare people are people of service and real selfless beauty.
Didn’t your father want to to be a doctor? You’ve played a lot of people of science, and being an actor, for a doctor, must be a little bit weird?
That’s my other feeling about doctors: that they are people of science. I’ve come to esteem, partly through my research in playing these characters, scientific methods and ways. Even though I’m still devoted to poetry and my work and imagination and pretending, I do like, in real life, the facts of the universe. I just had an interview on TV with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist. I’m starstruck with him and people who spend their lives following the curiosity of human experience and who we are, what we’re made of.
Didn’t your father try to convince you to follow in his footsteps?
No, he always thought a lot about academics. His life was changed from university life to medical school. That’s what allowed him to become a doctor and get a livelihood and raise a family. But when he first wanted to raise from his poor family, he thought of being an actor, a doctor or an actor. He wanted to be an actor for a second and so when I did it, and I wasn’t going to go to college straight away but an acting school, he was like “no college, what’s the fallback?” but I think he was also tickled and a bit excited and new that I was stimulated. In ninth/tenth grade I came back and was very truned on and I remember him saying “Jeez, the kid is stimulated” and he was impressed and moved by it. He told me if you found something that you love to do, that’s the compass and lighthouse, the key to your professional, vocational choice. So he knew that I was excited and he was very supportive. He financed my acting school but then I supported myself with jobs. I remember in that first decade he was thrilled to see me act. I remember he came backstage once, threw his arms around me and cried.
Your character is full of life compared to the other actors. You have this crazy energy. Is it why they chose you and when did people begin to recognise this?
Early on, I’m thinking about the beginning of my career. We did a kind of bombastic, funny review show. I was kind of antic and a little manic and theatrical and lively. Then they put me in a couple of scenes in California Split and I was a regular guy. But he used me interestingly. Good directors like Wes Anderson know how to use me. No one else would think to use me like that as the lawyer in Budapest Hotel or the character in Life Aquatic. You count on good directors to use me in imaginative ways and sometimes they use me in full theatrical ways but I’ve also been used in subtle and naturalistic ways. I hope what I do in this movie is at time unexpectedly lively but at other times, quiet and still. Rick was very good at directing me, knowing what he wanted in the acting and look of the movie. I’m thinking of other films… I don’t speak a lot in Nashville. I do a variety of parts to try and get better.
How did you feel about being a statue in London, for a while?
I knew nothing about it. I was as surprised as everybody else. Someone sent me a picture of it on the day that it came out. I was like “I can’t believe that, what is it, a balloon?” and then I read what it was and that it was 330 pounds and 25 feet long and thought wow. And then a lot of people posted pictures of it but I think they took it down but then somebody said they were touring it around so people could see it.
Which characters that you are attached to the most from all the films you’ve shot?
I try to get better so I like the recent ones as much as any. Right now I’m a little bit in love with this movie and the people who made this move with us. What a team! Elizabeth Warren who did the costumes and Lorenzo Hagerman who’s the cinematographer and it’s as beautiful a movie as I’ve ever been in, but recent movies… Taika Waititi is a wonderful director and he did that Thor: Ragnarok movie and I like how that came out. It’s a crazy character and he’s a delightful guy and he’s here on the jury, of course! We’ve stayed friendly with him and I love him a lot. And you mentioned the statue and that’s a depiction of that character I played in Jurassic Park because of its 25th Anniversary and I liked doing that little scene in Jurassic World Right now and playing that character again. And JA Bayona is a wonderful director and Colin Trevorrow is also very brilliant. I’ve been lucky: I’ve worked now for a few decades in100 movies, I’ve done a bunch of stuff.
What were your first thoughts when you were asked to do this film?
It’s a very special story. I loved Rick Alverson and I love his other movies, which are all special, starling, unusual and riveting. I found entertainment at times unexpected and disturbing, but also strangely amusing. I loved him and I loved this character, Walter Freeman. He’s based on a real person and was a very interesting guy, his story emerged during a dark and secret period of American history. That interested me a lot. I read this book called Fantasy Land: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Anderson telling the history of the American character and good things about it but the unflinching reflective look at how we got to places of difficulty. I saw the Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns and I like movies who critique and analyse and assess where we’re at and who we are. I like PT Anderson films There Will Be Blood and The Master. Earlier we talked about Nashville and that’s also about the darker side of the American character.
Rick told us that there are films from Hollywood that are becoming products. Were more auteurs when you started out?
Well yeah. You know better than I do. You read that book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in the 70s which I lived through and participated a little in those movies. That’s my own personal taste: I love watching Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Bergman (Seven Seals, which I just watched it, believe it or not. I’m catching up) I like the cinematic arts and I love directors who are artists. You know the change in the marketplace and you’ve seen what’s happening but I’m seeing more movies now because of my TV and what I can find of old movies so you can find the movies you like and are drawn to. If I was in charge I would certainly – and I’m no businessman and I don’t esteem making money so much – but I’m focused on something else. I would support people who have something passionate and personal and interesting and original to say, that can contribute to the awakened conversation that Rick wants to create.
That’s what I’m drawn to but luckily, even in Thor, even though the machinery was big and sells lots of tickets, being a commercial and consumerist product, the director…and my experience, I felt proactively that I could always bring my own ethics and standards to the experience. I can turn a literal commercial, TV commercial, for myself, into an interesting creative learning experience. And a genuine creative delight. I do also try to support endeavours which I hope will advance the standard of what we are trying to do.
Was the makeup in Thor your idea?
No, we evolved it as we were doing it. At the eleventh hour, I had some ideas but there were some very good people working on it. When we got there to Australia they had some drawings from the start, and then we camera tested it and that’s what we came up with. We had many different hair ideas and ended up with the kind of troll doll idea.
The Mountain is set in the 50s: make America great again, that nostalgia. How do you feel about the era; are you nostalgic too?
I’m not sure what the slogan means in his mind (Trump) or anybody else’s mind. I was happy to be involved with this project and in my own taste and endeavours that honestly look at our history and the three/four centuries since we’ve been around. There’s much to reckon with, much ignorance and brutality to make amends about. We have to move forward and certainly, as this movie depicts, the 50s were a time of deep ignorance, cultural stupidity and brutality and grotesquerie. We don’t want to go back to those times, we want to move forward in the most progressive and creative way and help ourselves as an entire world family. Myself, as I look at my childhood, yes I can have a rosy memory and even want to go back and see my childhood home in Pittsburgh, but it was always part of an overall picture and there were things in my own experience that have required a kind of continual awareness: how I got here and what was going on under the surface.
You compared the end of The Mountain to the end The Florida Project. What did you mean?
I had seen The Florida Project with my friend Willem Dafoe. I was trying to work out from Rich what he had in mind and what we were supposed to think and what we wanted people to think was going to happen to those two kids, and one thing that occurred to me as I saw The Florida Project was that the two remind me of each other. Of course, at the end those kids on that hand-held rendition of it, are running dangerously across the highway, coming from their life of familial deprivation, a fantasy land that was supposed to be a place of plenty but is actually a place of deprivation and ugliness. And they are running towards, the last image which is, of course, the Disneyland iconic castle. I thought: maybe Rick’s ending has something to do with that. In The Mountain, according to this New Age cult spiritualist, is Mount Shasta. I think that group is near there in order to gather from it and give to it one of the shockers of the planet, this misguided Idea of a place of spiritual yearnings. There’s an association with that utopian ideal, but then now we see these two people lobotomised in this American healthcare moment of brutality and horrible misguidedness, their brains have been done in by me. There they are, having lived this Americana life which rendered them numb and damaged next to this American icon that has been sold in another way as their hope. That another kind of delusion.
Some people say lobotomy ispired the zombie genre, and AIDS inspired The Fly. Did you discuss it?
First part…I don’t know if Zombie stories are inspired by lobotomy. Could have been. I don’t know. In Rick Alverson’s version, there’s the literal lobotomy and there are other kinds of lobotomy that we should be vigilant about succumbing to. I did also the movie Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, which is about people robbed of their humanity, replaced by a form without brains or the ability to think freely as an individual. I bet it has something to do with the zombie metaphor. Mr Cronenberg, I hope to see him, I know he’s here and I loved making that movie. We didn’t talk about AIDS at that time. I think after the fact it was analysed as having a connection and maybe he had something in his mind.
The Mountain does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Venice Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.