The Big Read – Jeff Goldblum: sex and drugs and jazz piano

You've seen him in Jurassic Park and the fly. You may have posed for a selfie with the statue of him by the Thames this summer. But Jeff Goldblum has a hitherto little-known sideline as a jazz performer – and his debut album is out today. Kevin EG Perry meets Goldblum in LA to talk sex, drugs and underage jazz bar piano tinkling, and finds a man whose sense of wonder is utterly undiminished.

Jeff Goldblum lost his virginity the same night he made his professional stage debut. It was Tuesday July 27, 1971, and he was a gangly 18-year-old from Pittsburgh who had moved to New York the previous summer to follow his dream of becoming an actor. He was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse under the great acting coach Sanford Meisner, and had managed to get a part in the chorus of a new musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Opening night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park was a success, and afterwards some of the cast and crew ended up at dinner together.

“There was this woman who seemed exotically older to me,” recalls Goldblum, his eyes sparkling as we wait for our breakfast outside in the patio section of the Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood institution beloved of Marilyn Monroe. “I think she was in her late 20s. Nine or 10 years older than me. She worked in the costume department. She’d been married and was now separated, living in a loft in some place like Tribeca or SoHo. This was all exotic to me. We’d flirted a little bit. After the meal she said: ‘Let’s share a cab home.’ In the cab there was some, uh, um… kissing. She said: ‘Come to my house.’ We went there, and, well, I won’t go into all the details but that’s where I lost my virginity.”

A momentous evening, by anybody’s standards. I ask him if he felt like a different person the next day.

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“Another mosaic piece was laid into the final thing, certainly,” he says. “I told her, just before we did it. I said: ‘I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve never done this before.’ She seemed to like that. She said: ‘Really? Really?’”

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Getty

He tells this story exactly as you’d imagine Jeff Goldblum would tell the story of how he lost his virginity. He plays the part of his mysterious seductress with vampish delight, and all the while he’s leaning in across the table as if to marvel at the miraculousness of it all, of life itself. He gives the impression of being in a constant state of wonder. One of his favourite turns-of-phrase, which he deploys several times as we talk, is to lean back in his chair, pleased about something that’s been said, or something he’s just eaten, and to say happily: “Well, how about that?”

There is something special about Jeff Goldblum. You don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve seen it for yourself in three decades of film roles that have stretched across films such as The Fly, Jurassic Park, Independence Day and last year’s Thor: Ragnarok. It emerged recently that Steven Spielberg was at one point considering cutting Goldblum’s character Dr Ian Malcolm out of Jurassic Park. The fact that Spielberg thought better of it says a lot about Goldblum. His character is probably not strictly necessary for the plot of that film, yet we all know it wouldn’t be anything like as much fun without his slightly otherworldly presence, his strange mutant charisma. His Jeff Goldbluminess, if you will.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what Jeff Goldbluminess is ever since I listened to his debut album, ‘The Capitol Studios Sessions’. It’s a collection of jazz standards, some of which you’ll know – ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, ‘I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)’ – and some you probably won’t. For the last few decades, Goldblum has been playing low-key jazz nights in Los Angeles with his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Then, in October last year, he happened to be booked on The Graham Norton Show on the same day as Gregory Porter. Goldblum volunteered to accompany Porter on piano, someone at Decca Records saw it, flew to LA to see Goldblum play his regular Wednesday night gig at the Rockwell in Los Feliz, and just like that Goldblum found himself with a record deal. “I never thought of making an album, really,” he says, sincerely. “It’s all taken me by surprise.”

It’s the kind of album you want to play at a dinner party, which, for me, means I’ll first have to become the sort of person who organises dinner parties. It makes me want to cook for people, just so that I can do that sort of half-dance around the kitchen when you’re cooking and listening to music and sliding drawers closed with a nudge of your bum. What I’m trying to say is that listening to Jeff Goldblum’s album makes me want to be a better man. It makes me want to be suaver, more sophisticated, more like, well, Jeff Goldblum.

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jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Getty

Today, his easy charm has been on show from the moment he arrived and won over the waiter by telling him he looks like either a young Keanu Reeves or K.D. Lang, both of which the waiter appreciated. Goldblum declines coffee but orders heartily – scrambled eggs with goat’s cheese, mushrooms, raw onions, salad, “your healthiest multi-grain toast” and then, on the side (“I know I’m getting a lot”) Irish oatmeal with fresh berries. “Oh boy!” he exclaims after he’s finished ordering. “Well look at us, lucky dogs!”

The Chateau is a Hollywood landmark, and Goldblum is at home here. He lives just around the corner. He tells me about coming here to meet directors such as Wes Anderson and Taiki Waititi. During the two hours we’re here we’re interrupted both by Jaws actor Richard Dreyfuss’ wife Svetlana – who has Richard on the phone, and could he please speak to Jeff? – and later by the Glee actor Jane Lynch, who he invites to come see him play at the Rockwell. Goldblum tells me about the time he bumped into Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken here, and whiled away some time swapping stories. “Excuse me for name-dropping!” he says, catching himself. “The thing is, I myself am sort of impressed with it all. This cast of characters in Hollywood.”

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Getty

We’re a long way from West Homestead, the Pittsburgh suburb in which Goldblum grew up. He was born on October 22, 1952, and his parents Harold and Shirley were a doctor and a radio broadcaster who had both, much earlier in their lives, entertained the idea of becoming actors. Goldblum adopted this dream for himself around the age of 10, but at the same time was also playing piano as often as he could. “I had the same relationship with it as I do now,” he says. “I didn’t know why I was doing it, I just liked it.”

At the age of 14 he did something so wildly precocious that it looks now like an early example of nascent Jeff Goldbluminess. He locked himself in the family study with a copy of the Yellow Pages, and he rang up every local cocktail lounge he could find. When they answered, he would announce, in the most adult voice he could muster: “I understand you’re looking for a piano player.”

“Most of them said: ‘Who is this? We don’t even have a piano!’” he remembers. “But some of them said: ‘Not really, but we do have a piano. Do you want to come down and play it?’ So I got a couple of jobs. I was too young to be in a bar, of course, but I stuck to my task. My parents drove me to one place, and then there was a girl singer or two that I remember latching on to – without being yet, as you know ‘active’ – but just magically in proximity. These were showbusiness girls! They said: ‘Sure, you play and I’ll drive us to the gig.’ So I accompanied some singers, much like today.”

That was the first seed of what would become the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Snitzer herself was a friend of Goldblum’s mother, whose name he remembered fondly years later when he came to form his band. On YouTube you can see an interview with the sprightly centenarian in which she recalls young Jeff being “very upset” that he wasn’t accepted into the local drama school, Carnegie Mellon. She credits her brother-in-law, a talent agent named Lou Snitzer, with suggesting to Goldblum that he chase his dream to New York.

“Lou was right, of course,” says Goldblum, when I remind him of this. “If not for that I wouldn’t have gotten away from my family, wouldn’t have studied with Sandy Meisner, and then that summer gotten my first job in Central Park and lost my virginity. So, thanks Lou Snitzer!”

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Pari Dukovic

Even in New York, Goldblum always made sure he had a piano at home, but by now his acting career was slowly starting to take off. He had a wordless role as a mysterious man on a motor-trike in Robert Altman’s Nashville, then a solitary but memorable line in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “I forgot my mantra.” His breakthrough came with The Big Chill in 1983, which opens with a famous funeral scene set to The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ – a song which remains close to his heart.

“‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need,’” he says slowly, turning the phrase over like it is his own long-forgotten mantra. “That’s a koan that keeps on revealing itself. Certainly now that I have kids I can see that the human mechanism is a machine that wants to want. I think of that song when I try to impart its wisdom to my son Charlie, who is three, and who is struggling with this. Wanting something but not getting it is a part of life. The logical extension of that, which I like, is to want what you have. Choosing to want what you already have may be a central pillar in your journey through life. It’s something I aspire to myself.”

Since The Big Chill he’s played a dazzlingly diverse range of roles, but always seems to bring a touch of Jeff Goldbluminess to whatever he’s doing. “I like to characterise, I don’t just use my literal behaviour,” he says, “But I do find pieces of myself appearing in things.”

One of my personal favourite Goldblum cameos comes is in the unimpeachably classic season seven Simpsons episode A Fish Called Selma, where he plays MacArthur Parker, Troy McClure’s agent. This means he gets to deliver the set up: “Ever hear of Planet of the Apes?” To which Troy responds, sublimely: “Err… the movie, or the planet?”

Goldblum had forgotten about this, so he makes me repeat the joke for him. He enjoys this very much. “That’s funny. They’re good writers over there,” he says, with perhaps some understatement, when he’s done chuckling to himself. “Well, how about that? How about that?”

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Pari Dukovic

As his acting career grew, he lobbied directors to include his piano playing in films like The Fly and Earth Girls Are Easy. However, he didn’t perform for an audience again until 1985, when he started playing in Hollywood hotels with his friend Peter Weller – who you may remember from Robocop or Naked Lunch, depending on how you were brought up. In 1994, Goldblum even got a taste of playing an arena rock show with, of all people, Aerosmith. He’d met the band the previous year while hosting Saturday Night Live. Then while shooting the movie Nine Months, co-star Tom Arnold suggested they go and check them out.

“He said: ‘Hey, my pals Aerosmith are playing out at this stadium. We’re taking a helicopter’,” recalls Goldblum. “I don’t know how this was all arranged. I found myself backstage and stood in the wings watching the whole show. Towards the end of the show, Steven Tyler says: ‘Hey, Jeff Goldblum! Are you going to play with us or not?’ The keyboard player moved aside and told me the chords. Steven Tyler came up to me singing in my face. It was great, but that was enough for a lifetime.”

The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra keeps things more low-key, happy to play intimate shows with a rotating cast of guest singers. On the record, Goldblum is joined by former American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart, Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May and the comedian Sarah Silverman. The pair duet on ‘Me And My Shadow’, but not before Goldblum has introduced her by, as is his habit, pointing out who she looks like. “This is part dark, part bittersweet,” he says on the record, “but do you not look like the most beautiful Amy Winehouse?”

Goldblum, it turns out, was a big fan. “I never met her, but I loved her,” he says. “I remember when I first saw the video for ‘Rehab’ while I was working out in the gym someplace. That video I thought was particularly effective. I couldn’t stop watching it. I loved that, and loved her stuff. When she died I was particularly upset.”

The mention of not going to rehab brings us to Goldblum’s own vices, which apparently are few. While he projects the sort of bon vivant image where a martini glass wouldn’t look out of place resting on his piano, it’s difficult to even imagine him stumbling drunk. He says he can’t remember the last time he was, and traces this back to his childhood.

“My parents would drink, and I would make them gin and tonics,” he says. “I was always hyper sensitive to it.” Here he performs a perfect comic mime of a child inhaling gin fumes and getting light-headed. “I was like: ‘Wow! That’s something!’”

His parents would also smoke marijuana, and Goldblum remembers his older brother giving him his first taste. “He was kind of a hippy,” he remembers. “I remember when he started coming out with all this crazy talk about ‘the counter culture’. The Beatles records were all coming out: ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, ‘The White Album’. We went to his place and we had a hash pipe. We put some hash in it, and it was really something! That summer was the last summer before I moved to New York. Then in New York, the year that I lost my virginity in ‘71, I took mescaline three times and acid once. That was the last time I took anything hallucinogenic. I haven’t taken ecstacy, or mushrooms, or anything really since 1971. Every once in a while I’ll experiment with grass. Even recently I took a sliver of a chocolate thing, but I’m hyper-sensitive to it, and I don’t, kind of, like it.”

Here he pauses, and gives a flourish of his hands, as if perfoming a magic trick to summon up a little natural Jeff Goldbluminess for me to observe. “As you can see, I’m plenty intoxicated and free, so why would I want anything more than what I have?”

He does say, however, that in the early years of his career he would drink before acting performances as a way of calming his nerves. “I was frightened in some ways, and would self-medicate with what I saw as performance enhancers,” he says. “Like a little shot of drink. It worked and then very quickly became counter-productive, so I gave that up.”

He replaced alcohol with coffee for a while, and then decided that even caffeine was too much like a crutch. “For the last four years I’ve been devoted to no enhancement of any kind,” he says. “I like a good sleep or a nap, or food that sits well with me, but besides that I show up without feeling that I need anything that I don’t have.”

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Getty

That last line strikes me as an important way of understanding Jeff Goldbluminess. He doesn’t need anything he doesn’t have. At 66, he appears to have achieved a life free from worrying what anybody else thinks of him. “Music has informed my acting life and my life in that way, because I just enjoy it purely,” he says. “I’m not looking to get anything from it, really. That has bled over into my acting experiences. I was always a little: ‘I hope this is good.’ ‘I hope people like it.’ ‘I hope it leads somewhere.’ That’s all gone away, and I think that’s because of how the music has cross-trained me. I think it improves the quality of what you’re doing if you’re doing it purely for love.”

In that vein, while he says he “gets a kick” out of things like the shirtless, 25-foot statue of himself as Dr Ian Malcolm that recently appeared near Tower Bridge, what he really seeks out and enjoys are the moments of human contact he gets at his jazz shows.

The following night, I head across town to the Rockwell to see him in action. Before the music even starts he’s out working the room, going table to table to personally thank people for coming. There are moments of confused, starstruck nervousness and many, many selfies, but soon enough, as Goldblum himself puts it “people are at their ease and we’re in some sort of, uh, communion.”

This, then, is the essence of Jeff Goldbluminess. It’s taking delight in the world and the people around you, whoever they are. “It’s a great gift,” says Goldblum. “We’re all frightened and vigilant of other people, and that’s probably a good idea, but I’m allowed an entree into people’s dearness and their sweetness. That’s very wonderful.”

A couple of weeks ago, a tweet by the former SNL writer Chris Kelly about meeting Goldblum went viral. It recounted how Kelly had been introduced to him at a party, and Goldblum had exclaimed: “My god, of course!” “I couldn’t believe it,” wrote Kelly. “He know who I was? Then he proceeded to say, ‘My god, of course!’ to every person he was introduced to. I love Jeff Goldblum.”

What makes this story such a quintessential distillation of Jeff Goldbluminess is that he understands that we all have the power to make those around us feel a hundred foot tall, even just for a moment. He does this, in one way or another, to every single person I see him meet. Well, how about that?

jeff goldblum
Photo Credit: Pari Dukovic

Jeff Goldblum & The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra’s ‘The Capitol Studios Sessions’ is released today on Decca. They play London’s Cadogan Hall on November 17 and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on November 22 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

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