Jeff Goldblum on THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, Wes Anderson, Burritos, and More
By Dan Casey on March 8, 2014
Living in Los Angeles, you’re bound to run into celebrities every now and then. On my first trip to L.A., I was eighteen years old, and after spending an evening dancing at an all-ages club, my friends and I sauntered over to the West Hollywood IHOP, which I now know to be an Ellis Island of sorts for all manner of tired, drunken, and weary yearning to fill their bellies with buttermilk pancakes. I saw Breckin Meyer, of Rat Race fame, at a booth packed with ladies demanding more pancakes like Robert Baratheon demanding a wineskin on the day of a grand tournament. To be fair, I’d probably be doing the same thing if I’d been in his position. Seeing them out of their natural habitat is both overwhelmingly exciting and mundane all at once, but there are certain celebrities whose star power is undeniable even when you catch them out of their element. Case in point: Jeff Goldblum.
Over the past three years I’ve spent living in L.A., I’ve run into Mr. Goldblum three separate times: twice at brunch and once at a nightclub. Both times at brunch, I had several moments of long, unbroken eye contact with the veteran actor, which was odd to me because I don’t stare when I see celebrities; rather, I get self-conscious and look away because I feel bad about staring and imagine that they probably just want to be left alone to enjoy whatever activity their doing. It’s the same reason why I didn’t tell Michael C. Hall how much I admired him as an actor when I saw him at the gym one time, but I digress. When I saw Goldblum at a nightclub, he was behind a piano, accompanied by an ensemble of other musicians, playing freewheeling jazz standards with the kind of gangly, lanky energy that only he can bring. Now, I’m not trying to name drop. What I’m trying to communicate is that Jeff Goldblum is in a class all his own. It didn’t feel like I was spying on him at brunch; it felt like he was examining me, taking in his surroundings with the bemused knowledge that he is Jeff Goldblum eating brunch and we’re just everyone else. When I finally had the chance to sit down with the actor at The Grand Budapest Hotel press day, I was bearing all of this in mind and could not have been more surprised when I finally met the man himself.
Jeff Goldblum is a sharp motherfucker. I mean that in every way possible — his wit is finely honed, his intellect is fierce, and his clothing is worthy of a GQ fashion spread. Clad in a pale blue-that’s-so-pale-it’s-almost-white suit, a red bowtie, and his signature glasses, Goldblum has a warm, jovial presence about him and a presence of mind that immediately makes you feel both welcome and at ease. His demeanor off-screen is nothing like his character Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, a stern, bearded, by-the-books attorney who finds himself caught between his employers, the nefarious relatives of the late octogenarian dowager Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and the side of truth, justice, and the Zubrowkian way. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper of the grandest sort, a piece of pitch perfect genre fare that feels as though it has been transported from another era to our modern cineplexes. Every character seems to abide by a set of principles, a deep-seated set of rules by which they live their life, and Goldblum’s character is no exception. During our conversation, we talked about his experiences working with Anderson, adjusting his acting style to match Anderson’s particular brand of hyper-stylized madness, dealing with Kovacs’ internal struggle, and much more.
Nerdist: I am very happy to be here, and I don’t know why it didn’t click for me, but I did not realize you were in the film. And then when you came out, I pumped my fist in the air. I was so excited, because it was wildly unexpected, but I was very happy to see you back working with Wes Anderson again.
Jeff Goldblum: How nice! Thank you. Yeah, and he’s got unexpected — you know, whether you’ve read the cast list or not, the way the movie unfolds, and many of his movies — that’s the one thing that I like — one of the things I like about his movies. It’s so surprising. Everybody’s seen everything at this point.
JG: To make a movie not like other movies or other things — anything that you, you know — keep you at least…
N: Yeah, keep you engaged, and — not in suspense, but just intrigued, and you want to learn more.
JG: That’s a good trick. That’s a pretty good trick, now.
N: It’s definitely a challenge.
JG: You don’t do that just accidentally. That’s part of the fruits of his unique devotion — lifelong devotion and passionate devotion to something that he’s pursuing — his voice that he’s developing. We get a chance to sit there and go [makes a surprised face]…
JG: That opens up, just like acting, I find, craft-wise. It’s that little door of the game of acting that everybody’s doing. Even though you know it’s on the page. It’s that surprise, the unexpected, the unanticipated element that you hope to bring to it, and wonder when, even though you knew it, you have to pretend like, and hopefully even get the experience of, [makes another surprised face]. “I didn’t know you were going to do that.”
What I have to do in response is worked out, but I’m making it up right now. If you get that element, that’s a portal to all the other things that may — alivenesses and — that may occur to you. And likewise, I find in receiving them, in a movie like Wes Anderson’s, it’s kind of… [a hotel worker wheels in a trolley with his lunch] — You’re so nice! Thank you very much. Thank you. That’s the doorway of an open experience, above vulnerability.
JG: Receptive vulnerability. If you go [gives a knowing look] — THAT, you know, that — you can have an experience of delight and you know, get moved — I find this very moving, this movie; et cetera, et cetera.
N: I think you really hit the nail on the head there. Being able to provoke that reaction, but an unexpected reaction — something that elicits a response, and a meaningful response. I think that–this film is chock full of those moments. That’s one of the things that I really enjoyed about it. It feels — you know, Wes Anderson has such a specific patter to his films, and a very self-assured visual aesthetic, and this film it just felt like it was transported from another era. Just classic caper, but still felt very modern and present — I really enjoyed it.
So as an actor, how do you — do you have to adjust your style at all to match that tonal quality he’s going for?
JG: Well, you want to jump on the train — you know, a very particular, got a ticket to that particular track.
JG: So, you know — knowing Wes, imagining what it might be — but, he helps you! He was like, “Please come about this train, I’ll tell you how I got here.” He was inspired by this and this and this and this, and he tells you about these Stefan Zweig novels, and I read some of that, and that’s a particular sensibility. And then, maybe you’ve heard it or not, about how we all stayed in this hotel in Görltiz.
N: So I’ve heard.
JG: There was a communal room, where he offered a table of books or of hotels and things that gave him the aesthetic — he doesn’t do this accidentally.
N: That’d be quite the coincidence.
JG: This is very purposeful, and for him exciting and enjoyable, so you look at the books, but then he had a stack of movies — have people talked about this?
N: No, not that I’ve heard.
JG: So, so, he says, “We’re not imitating this, but here was my inspiration and kind of something of the tone that we’re going for,” and there were movies — and I’m a very interested student, and there are big holes in my education, and filled in — I had never seen these movies. Grand Hotel — I had never seen Grand Hotel. I’d never seen Shop Around the Corner, or To Be or Not To Be I’d never seen. The Mortal Storm, if you know — I’ve never seen. We all had DVD players in our rooms, and so we’d check them out and look at these things. And then he showed us — he had Bergman’s movie called The Silence, about surreal goings-on and events in this big hotel. So all of that, you know — and so, hopefully… and then, not only was the script very, already thoroughly envisioned, but he had these animatics — you’ve heard about those…
N: Yeah, I heard it was essentially an almost fully animated version of the film.
JG: Yeah, so I think, having evolved and developed and enjoyed himself on Fantastic Mr. Fox, and you see some of the models he’s using in this, and other ways of making handcrafted, beautiful things — He had this tool of animatics, needing — because of the puppetry in that — needing to kind of have worked it out beforehand, with camera moves and shots, which were fine–they were kind of the way the movie was. And he has an animator — it’s an animated story board — beautifully done, you’ll probably see it and sell it on the DVD extras — and then he’s doing all the voices. So you hear the [snaps fingers] orchestration of it, he’s kind of putting all that, it’s only very helpful, creatively inflaming.
N: Yeah it’s that sort of preparedness for a project that you don’t hear about often. I imagine that’s a tremendous resource when you’re trying to delve into these characters.
JG: I think so. It’s very actorly. A lot of good actors take that. But the other thing is nice where they go, “I don’t know what this is going to be,” or “Help me,” “Develop it with me,” or “How do you want to look?” or “What do you think?”
That’s OK too, but this is also wildly creative, and I like it a lot where they go, “Here’s this, here’s this, what do you think of that?” And then you fill in in a way that’s very Altman-esque, or I don’t know what — masterfully free-spirited. He loves actors, trusts actors, and goes “How do you now marry yourself with this? You know, because I’ve kind of written it for you.” And so on. And so it’s also very freeing, and then you get on the set, its meticulous sculpting, with many takes, you’ve probably heard.
N: I heard that Tony Revolori, Ralph Fiennes, and Harvey Keitel had to slap each other 42 times. [laughs]
JG: Yes. All that, but you’re doing all these things, because he’s — it’s the last chance to be there and get the raw material from which he’ll take it, but to make your sculpture — and it’s a pleasure to do it with him. I don’t know about getting slapped, but you know… but like that. Wait, what was I going to say? So… wait — free spirit!
JG: So, you’re filling it in, and he’s going, “OK, that. Now, just from pleasure, let’s do another one.” But it feels like an actorly thing to do, because there are elements of truthfulness and substance and humanity that he wants you to fill in. That’s what it’s designed to do in his taste. I believe he has this, he’s purposely done this theatrical, whimsical character and story and environment, and I think he wants you–it’s not a cartoon, he wants you to fill it in in a very actorly way.
N: Yeah. There’s a definite animated quality to the film, but I think it has a very delicate balance of a sense of collaboration and precision.
JG: That’s good. Yeah. And finally, the whole upshot of the thing, if you read Michael Chabon’s introduction [in The Wes Anderson Collection], under the Wes Anderson appreciation file, he compares it to Nabokov, and his movies to Joseph Cornell’s boxes, where the artifice is offered, and the framing is sort of offered as an enjoyable aesthetic, but it only serves to deliver the real punch of it more effectively. Steven Colbert called it a “Cake — yes, with frosting, and a beautiful cake, but a meat cake.” You know, hearty mixed-grill inside.
N: Yeah, gotta have some protein in there.
JG: Plenty of protein.
N: One of the things I really enjoyed about the film is that everyone in this film seems to live and die by a set of principles. They have these sort of guidelines by which they live their life, and Kovacs is sort of on — you see that it’s a decision he has to make, because the rule of law is so important to him, but he also has these two warring factions. How did you approach this internal struggle with Kovacs?
JG: That’s a beautiful question and insight. Yes, I loved that. I loved that aspect most of all, probably, along with all the other accoutrement. I love that essential event and story challenge within it. That’s pretty good, because when is that not relevant to our lives and to the goings on in the world, then and now? The two sides: greed, brutality, darkness of one kind or another, we could talk about it, and peace, beauty, gentleness, love, poetry, et cetera, et cetera.
How you — whose side you’re on, at any one moment, any one day, and how you’re going to most effectively be a soldier, a heroic soldier in that war. I’m a devotee of that struggle myself. All good movies have a lot to offer — touch on that. Some of my favorite movies — Brando in On the Waterfront — whew!
JG: [slowly shitfting into a pretty decent Brando impression] It’s pretty good. It’s comfortable to be… yeah, I could just do nothing, sit on a bag and get money, you know, or go along like I always have in this family, they’ve taken care of me, but now… they were going to throw him off the roof. Quit talking about this conscience thing — you’re driving me crazy!
JG: [Exhales] Yeah. I am John Friendly, because you’re a dirty stinking mug, and I’m glad what I did to you — you hear that?? You know — I like that — that’s pretty good!
N: I’ll say!
JG: That’s kind of — but I like that — I like that story. So I tried doing that. I went over it with Wes. I said, “Is this what you’re thinking?” Because it’s on the page. It is beautiful writing. It’s the tip of the iceberg. And you go, “Is this what I’m thinking? Is this what I’m feeling underneath it? And when do I know what I know? When do I think and feel what I think?” It was yeah — this moment when he says, “You know, I think there’s bad things going on here, let’s turn it over to the authorities, right?” He goes, “You just play along and don’t make waves, agreed?” And I go, [leaning in, sotto voce] “Not agreed.” Meaning, I don’t think it’s occurred to him before…
N: Right, right.
JG: …I needed to make that stand before that moment. That’s a pretty good moment! You can try to act, and you can fall short of it.
JG: It’s nice to try that.
N: It’s the intent that’s important. I just have one last quick question for you, and it’s a bit of an oddball, so please bear with me.
JG: All right.
N: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
JG: Oooooo.. Umm…not metaphorically, just food-wise?
JG: I suppose you mean — well, I like a nice balance. Here’s what my nutritional consultant said — you should have at any one meal and every few hours is good, like five or six times a day, whatever the size of your hand, have this much protein [gestures to open palm of hand] — so that would be a nice piece of clean, sustainable fish or chicken breast, and then this much carbohydrate [gestures to cupped hand], so a whole grain, everybody likes quinoa or brown rice at this point would be fine — there might be others, whole grains — I’m always open to new–but a whole grain. And then this much vegetables [spreads arms out like he's measuring something preposterously large], as many as you want, so it would be chock-full of fresh greens vegetables.
N: Fantastic. That sounds delicious. That should be on menus.
JG: That’s my goal. That’s my ideal burrito.
N: Thank you so much! It’s been my pleasure to talk to you.
JG: Thank you for doing this.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is in theaters now.