Jeff Goldblum on Checking in to Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’
If there were a handbook of impressions every cinephile felt capable of performing, it would probably open with Christopher Walken, William Shatner and Jeff Goldblum, all of whom have carved out bodies of work in no small part because of their unforgettable performance styles. But despite his pedigreed position in the geek community, having starred in everything from Death Wish to The Fly to Independence Day, Goldblum has all but disappeared from fans’ radars in recent years as his opportunities migrated to the small screen. But that seems likely to change today with the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest effort by Wes Anderson, a filmmaker at least as distinctive as Goldblum.
Predictably, the experience of speaking with Goldblum about his work is as unique an experience as his performances, especially as both are born from his naturally gregarious, perhaps slightly too thoughtful, disposition. All of which is why a recent conversation at the Los Angeles press day for The Grand Budapest Hotel was such an invigorating – scratch that, intoxicating — challenge, finding the right way to tap directly into that febrile intellect and explore the process he applied to his character, a lawyer who finds himself at a moral crossroads when members of the family he works for ask him to ignore improprieties of a potentially murderous nature. In addition to discussing the meeting of minds between himself and Anderson, Goldblum talked about his own creative impulses, and the challenges – and opportunities – of finding collaborators who enable him to maximize his unique gifts in the service of telling magnificent stories.
Spinoff Online: What does the specificity of Wes’ vision sort of enable you to do and what does it sort of challenge you to do?
Jeff Goldbum: Let me try to describe: You’ve probably heard it from other actors and different people will tell you – it’s very specific, as you heard. You probably know about all the very complete envisioning in the script, in the document that gives you the whole thing, including descriptions of how you look, including all the text that is gonna be just like the Coen brothers, I hear tell, and other people and plays that you work on is gonna be exactly required exactly as written. Although we got together a few weeks before, because I was doing Le Week-End, which comes out March 14. I like that movie. But I was doing that in Europe, in Paris, so I got a chance to do a little rehearsal and get together with him and with [Oscar-winning costume designer] Milena Canonero and try on costumes so they could build it and all that stuff. But finally when I came back and did it on the day – that big speech for the will, for instance, I dropped a “the” and after a couple of takes he said, “OK, let’s do it again. Can you put that ‘the’ back in?” [I said], “Really, here’s my thinking about it, because here’s why I’m doing that.” [He replied], “Uh huh. OK, but I like it – I do like it.” Because he’s kind of musical and very specific. That’s what we’re talking about.
So there’s that, and there’s then the rendering of how it looks in picture form – beautiful. But the answer is that part of it is, at least for me and I think for a lot of actors and very terrific actors – myself not included — are thrilled to get something already very complete instead of starting from, “Well, I don’t know. What do you think you look like?” You know, that’s OK, too, and I enjoy collaborating like that, but having already something and something very tasteful and brilliant, in my opinion, that’s conceived visually and in terms of the whole story, that’s what you want. That gives you a big help. But then there’s then a lot to go – then you’re marrying of his vision and specificity with what you can bring is enjoyable and substantial. Because he is a kind of a great combination of how can you describe it – of conviction and meticulousness and specificity, but freedom. And he loves actors, he loves the acting process. Because I think along with his whimsical theatrical ideas, he wants actor types, I think, to fill it in with some depth and truthfulness and emotion and humanness and logic. So there’s a lot to do there. And then he is an admirer, I think, of people like Altman, so there’s kind of a spirit of freedom and improvisation even though you’re not making up stuff on the text within it. There’s a kind of spirit of freedom and trust and what do you want to do with this and everything like that. Even on the set as he massages it at the last moment and you do many takes, it feels collaborative to me and actorly and creative.
Well, given how sort of anachronistic his work is, how difficult is it to marry an emotional authenticity to an environment that’s not altogether realistic?
I don’t think difficult because many other things are taken care of, and so that’s the thing when we rehearsed, so-called, that day when I came before. We talked about it in ways that I know as actorly and how I try and make things good. Because even though it’s a fairy tale, it’s a phantasmagorical extrapolation of events and historical events, it’s still about real things and that element in my character where events have me in that last scene having to choose. You don’t know much about it and know much about how long I’ve served this family and with what ambivalence and how the political clouds that are forming and the elements in this family and my suspicions about what went on with the death of the wonderful mother. As all those are, you know, storming around in me during these couple of days of our events, finally he says, I say, “Look, I have suspicions about this. Let’s turn it all over to the authorities.” As you know, in that scene he goes, “Just don’t make waves. Just play along like you always have.” And he says, “Agreed?” I go, “Not agreed.” And I think in that moment before “not agreed” there’s all kinds of naturalistic – as I was talking now I’ve never said this before, but it never occurred to me before that it’s like a Brando in On the Waterfront. It’s that same issue of, hey, I’ve gone along with this. It’s been the path of less resistance perhaps, but we’re at a point of moral decision now and I have to go this other way unexpectedly.
So all that is kind of real stuff and we talked about it, and I said, “Is this what you imagine I’m thinking and feeling underneath this stuff?” And we talked about that. So it was not only easy with an interesting story and I’ve got a meaty issue. I love that story, and that’s a very beautiful and challenging thing to get right. If you don’t see much of it, you don’t hear much of it in that moment. That’s challenging. And he was with me. You know, I had sort of sussed out what I’m sure he wanted from that. So, you know, it’s challenging but all there for you to chew on.
How would you characterize Wes now as opposed to 10 years ago when you worked with him on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou?
Well, he’s found his voice. so to speak. It’s like hearing Thelonius Monk or Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett in the mature years, where you go, “Oh, that’s – in a second that’s Frank and that’s Thelonius Monk.” I think he’s still on a growth spurt, that’s kind of fantastic to be around. So yeah, I mean I don’t know. I watched Rushmore and I find that very – I don’t know if it was very accessible, but it is to me. I can’t stop watching that, I love that. So he’s always – he hit the ground running. He’s very brilliant and knew himself from the start. And so but now he’s at the top of his form and little things changed. There was still his sensibility in all its aspects there that were similar, and his spirit and enjoy and pleasure, enjoyable to be around and make movies and he’s very enthusiastic, and so there was that. The little things since Fantastic Mr. Fox that I think have sort of entered his toolbox for this was some of those models that you see in this, sort of delightfully, that were in Rushmore, for instance. And some of the things that he got from that like you’ve heard about the animatic version of the movie that I think he sort of got with on Fantastic Mr. Fox, that was very interesting on this. Plus I think even more in the Altman vein making every moment of shooting a kind of art piece in itself and an enjoyable communal event. I think he’s gotten more assurance and conviction and particular in his ways to set up the atmosphere with many specifics so that people are around the shooting like to be with each other and have this sort of shared experience. In contrast to some traditional movie making where people go back to a trailer and da dah, da dah, da, dah, da, dah. There’re several specific elements that I won’t bore you with like that that are a little bit further evolved.
Well, when you are working with someone who has such a clear idea of what he wants, do you go into it knowing exactly the way this is gonna look, or do you experience it and find yourself surprised? Is your work a matter of just fulfilling the vision that he originally conceived or is it, you know …
Somehow you’re meeting him halfway there. Because, like I say, it feels like a plenty, a very full and nutritious meal to offer him halfway in collaboration. He wants it and is trustful and all that. So that’s what it feels like. But I’ve thought about it, done whatever I’ve done before the fact and then on the day of shooting you go, “Oh, so that’s how that went.” You know, I didn’t know. You learn many things in that 11th hour of how it’s gonna feel and what you’re gonna do and what you’re gonna make because even in this very enigmatic [process], it wound up to be pretty much the way it is. There’s still all sorts of things to kind of work out it feels to me and room to enjoyably play and create. So after the day of shooting you go, “Hmmm. That’s the way it worked out.” We did a lot of takes. I don’t know what they’re gonna use of that. So we’ll see. And then finally when I saw it, it’s what you might have imagined it to be, but finally I found it very impactful and kind of surprising or unexpected in many elements — not only what I did but the movie itself. I had read it many times but I was really knocked out by the onslaught of beautiful things that kind of take you on a trip. And then the story itself, which was this, you know, between the two of them and Ralph’s performance and the romance, the unabashed romance that’s not dissimilar from Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore and different things that are kind of like first wild love. I found it very breathtaking and moving finally. That element of the Chinese box within the Chinese box and the Russian dolls and the story within the story, I didn’t get how moving that element would be.
One of the things that I loved that you did in recent years was your little Tim & Eric thing in the Billion Dollar Movie, which I still quote.
And those things on their television shows. I love them.
You have through your performances created such a distinctive body of work, and working with folks who have such distinctive styles. How difficult or easy is it to find these sort of likeminded people who really allow you to explore your talent in such a full way?
You’re so nice, thanks. I always was not particularly strategic or smart or focused on how is this gonna happen. Here’s what I want and who’s doing this and how am I gonna – boy that’s tough or it’s easy or – that’s kind of not the way it happens. I entered this as a wild sort of “Let’s see what happens,” you know, adventure of passion. And so accidents happen, maybe having to do with that, who, where I’m at and what I have an appetite for and how it attracts the people that it does – and my final ability to choose this one. That’s how it happens more, but however it does I feel lucky because of what you said very well. That’s how I feel about it and I’m grateful I get a chance to do that.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens today.