Back to Magazine Archive Home



by Ben Svetkey

Photos:Jeff and some dino palsJeff getting swallowed by a raptor

If the ouch is living in you, let it out," implores Jeff Goldblum. "No matter how difficult, no matter how much of a struggle, if you have an ouch inside you--an organic ouch--let it out!" Goldblum is offering this helpful tip inside Playhouse West, an acting school in North Hollywood where he teaches an improvisation class every Friday afternoon. As he struts and frets upon its dinky stage, waxing energetic on the Ouch Method, 20 young thespians-to-be follow him with big, awestruck eyes. Over the next three hours, he'll teach them how to express the ouch through dramatic experience, how to contextualize and particularize the ouch, how to tell the difference between an organic ouch and a big fat phony one.

"What we're really doing here," he tells the class, "is learning how to live truthfully through imaginary circumstances. That's what acting is all about."

Of course, living truthfully isn't exactly a snap when your imaginary circumstances are filled with seven-ton prehistoric carnivores who've never studied the Meisner technique--but then, that's what makes Goldblum a star. Endearingly quirky, sexily neurotic, with a semiautomatic delivery that makes every line of dialogue sound like it's been fired from a jammed Uzi, Goldblum, 44, manages to turn even his straightest parts into off-kilter acting adventures. In The Lost World, Steven Spielberg's $80 million sequel to Jurassic Park, opening May 23, he reprises his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm, the slightly chaotic chaos-theory expert who once again finds himself potential snack food for a pack of Jeep-stomping T. rexes. Turns out there's another dino-infested island--Site B, which somehow got overlooked in the first film--and two rival human groups are claiming dibs. The bad guys, led by Arliss Howard (To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar), want to trap and exploit the dinosaurs. The good guys--Goldblum, along with Julianne Moore (Nine Months) and Vince Vaughn (Swingers)--want to protect and study them.

Goldblum says the sequel is "darker" than the first, with "more danger and more bad stuff for human beings"--and reports from an early screening indicate a high body count for a PG-13 film, as well as some brutal surprises (even the dog gets it). But it'll probably be similar in at least one respect: Like its predecessor, Lost World should rake in behemoth bucks. The original is the highest-grossing film in history, having earned more than $900 million worldwide since 1993. The only film to come close was 1996's Independence Day--which, curiously enough, also starred Goldblum. Even a brontosaurus could see where this is heading: If Lost World fulfills its hype as the most ferociously anticipated film of the summer, Goldblum will have pulled off a hat trick not even Luke Skywalker could manage, headlining in the three biggest hits of all time.

Hard to find the ouch in that.

I remember going to my first Event Movie," Goldblum recalls. "I must have been about 11 years old. It was at this beautiful old movie palace outside of Pittsburgh, in West Homestead, where I grew up. And all three balconies were packed. Kids were screaming. Popcorn boxes were flying. You couldn't hear a thing. It was a semi-riot. I still dream about it."

That film, 1963's King Kong vs. Godzilla, was obviously a seminal cinematic experience for Goldblum. One might even suggest--if one were prone to snap psychoanalytical judgments--that this early encounter with a 400-foot screen lizard was the childhood episode that turned Goldblum into an actor. Then again, sometimes a Godzilla movie is just a Godzilla movie. "Both my mother and father toyed with show business when they were young, so maybe it was in my genes," Goldblum says. (His father, Harold, who died in 1983, was a doctor; his mother, Shirley, still lives outside Pittsburgh.) "All I know is that early on, it was this wild, feverish kind of call for me. I was like, 'I've got to do this.'"

At 17, Goldblum left West Homestead for New York City, where he pretended to be a year older in order to study with acting guru Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. In no time at all Goldblum was making his stage debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival and landing his first movie role, playing a mugger who brutalizes Charles Bronson's wife and child in the up-with-vigilantism hit of 1974, Death Wish. "It was the first movie I tried out for," he recalls. "And we had to do the audition in mime. Pretend that the wife was here and the young girl was there and go ahead and rape and kill them." He demonstrates some raping and killing in mime. "It was a controversial movie at the time."

The rest of Goldblum's early career is film history--at least if you hit the pause button and look closely enough. Over the years, he's had a Gump-like knack for popping up during key moments in American cinema. In Robert Altman's Nashville, for instance, you can spot him wheeling around on an overgrown tricycle. Or in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, he's the hapless party guest whose single indelible line is "I forgot my mantra." ("Actually, I said a few more things, but they didn't wind up in the movie.")

There was a brief flirtation with TV in 1980, playing a stockbroker-turned-detective on ABC's Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, but the gig nearly killed him--literally. "There was an accident with the tailpipe on my trailer and I passed out from the fumes," Goldblum recalls. "Ben Vereen [his costar] saved my life." Hard to bounce back from that, but soon he was turning up in decade-defining films again, this time with more dialogue--such as 1983's The Big Chill, in which his PEOPLE magazine writer was pretty much the only yuppie in the group you didn't want to smack. In 1985, he bagged his first leading role, starring with Michelle Pfeiffer in Into the Night; a year later he got an even bigger one, enduring five-hour makeup sessions to play a man who turns into a bug in The Fly.

Buzzing around in a big F/X flick turned out to be excellent preparation for Goldblum's next major career metamorphosis--landing the part in Spielberg's first dinosaur movie. "Jeff was the first person I went to," says Spielberg. "He was the no-brainer choice for the first Jurassic. I thought of him when I first read Michael Crichton's book. He has such an intricate and yet offhanded way of delivering dialogue. He gives these wonderfully elliptical, off-center performances."

Goldblum had only one question before signing on--the same question he always ponders when considering a role. "I ask myself if there's something about the script that my nervous system wants to experience," he says. "Because even though your brain knows you're acting, your nervous system doesn't. To your nervous system, you're going through a real experience." Turns out Goldblum's nervous system was drooling over the chance to be in both Jurassics--although sometimes he found the giant on-set dino-puppets a tad too real. "Oh, the dinosaurs are totally scary," he says. "Some of the machinery is actually dangerous. You have to turn off your walkie-talkies when you're around them, like on an airplane, because these things might get out of control. And if they get out of control they can kill. They're very big and very powerful, and they can kill."

The only thing bigger and more powerful on a Jurassic set is the director--and at times he could be pretty scary, too. "With Spielberg, there are no rehearsals," Goldblum says. "None. In Lost World, I had an eight-page scene with RichardAttenborough--no rehearsal. Even when you're blocking for thecamera, he's like, 'Okay, that's enough, let's shoot.'" ExplainsSpielberg: "You want to capture the actors when they taste the words for the first time, when they look at each other for the first time--that's the sort of magic you can only get on a first or second take." Besides, he adds, "on a movie like Lost World, what's to rehearse?"

For Goldblum, the role of Ian Malcolm was actually slightly more challenging the second time around. Along with under-rehearsed and potentially lethal animatronic costars, he had to deal with some pretty heavy changes in his character. He's now a more somber Malcolm, with an estranged stepdaughter (who, amazingly enough, also ends up at Site B) and a wrecked career (go figure--his colleagues didn't buy his dinosaurs-that-got-away stories). Even the film's look is darker this time out, with cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, who shot Spielberg's Schindler's List. "Almost all sequels--Batman Returns, Aliens, The Godfather Part II--are darker than the originals," says Lost World screenwriter David Koepp, whose script takes some out-of-the-way detours from Crichton's book, including unleashing killer dinos on the streets of San Diego. "You can't use the same old tricks--the audience has already seen people being eaten by dinosaurs, so you have to try harder-edged stuff."

Good thing Goldblum had been keeping up with his Meisner exercises. "Hey, whatever works," he says. "If an actor wants to conjure up a past life that included some dinosaur on some other planet--why not? Listen to music. Do push-ups. Anything that gets you there. That's what I tell my students."

In his movies, Goldblum usually comes across as a smart, likable oddball. In real life, he's exactly the same, only taller (he's 6'4"). He's the sort of guy who actually stops to smell the flowers, grabbing a bouquet off a restaurant table and taking long, ecstatic sniffs. ("Lovely," he moans. "Lovely!") He's also the type that breaks into a tune without the slightest provocation. "He plays jazz piano and knows every song ever written," says Will Smith. "I spent a couple of weeks with him trapped in a spaceship in Independence Day, so I know what I'm talking about."

Of course, even into the most serene existence a little chaos theory must fall--and Goldblum has suffered his share of troubles. One devastating blow struck at 19, when his 23-year-old brother, Rick, died of kidney failure while traveling in Morocco. (He has another brother, Lee, who sells real estate in Pittsburgh, and a sister, Pam, an artist in L.A.) "Rick was a huge influence on me," Goldblum says. "Who knows how I'd be different if he had lived? It's like chaos theory tells us--a butterfly flapping its wings can change the weather across the globe."

His romantic life has had its storms as well. His first marriage in 1980, to stage actress Patricia Gaul, only lasted about five years. He and Geena Davis jumped into a spur-of-the-moment Las Vegas wedding after they met on the set of 1985's Transylvania 6-5000, but they filed for divorce in 1990. His latest flame is Laura Dern, his costar from Jurassic (she's not in the sequel), but that's been rocky too. The pair recently called off a two-year engagement; Dern has lately been linked with Sling Blade auteur Billy Bob Thornton, whose wife recently filed for divorce. "I don't want to say much," Goldblum ventures carefully. "Laura and I are not traditionally together. But we're very close. I adore her and respect her unbelievably."

And yet, for all these inner ouches, Goldblum has to be the least angst-ridden stage-trained actor ever to escape New York. To the casual observer, anyway, he seems utterly content. "I've always been like that," he says. "Just ask Mrs. Veblin, my fourth-grade teacher. She wrote on my report card, 'He's a joy!'" He raises an eyebrow. "That might suggest a title for your story."

"Yeah, Jeff is totally quirky but in a great way," says costar Vince Vaughn. "He's like a great big kid. Very playful, very warm. He's always got great games--improvs and sing-alongs. Whenever he'd come to the set, the whole tempo would change."

"You know, it's easy to be a s---head in this business," agrees Peter Weller, who's been jamming at jazz clubs with Goldblum since they met on the set of 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. "It's much harder to be the Buddha. And Jeff is definitely the Buddha."

Back at Playhouse West, Goldblum's acting class is running late. "More learning, less time!" he orders.

Two by two, the students have been taking turns up on stage, improvising their guts out with objects like old cowboy boots, a broken cassette tape, and a can of Play-Doh. Goldblum watches excitedly, pacing the aisles. The dialogue isn't exactly Chekhov--or even Eszterhas: The actors mostly just repeat each other's lines over and over, getting more and more worked up, like pairs of deranged parrots. ("You look tense." "I look tense?" "You look tense.") Occasionally some of them decide to break down into serious sobbing. It brings to mind another line from Annie Hall ("Touch my heart--with your foot"), but Goldblum insists that this is truly the way it's supposed to be done.

"It's a primitive exercise, very primitive," he whispers as the students keep practicing. "They'll learn, but you can't give them all the answers at once."

Finally, after the last improvisation has sputtered to a finish, Goldblum offers some parting words of encouragement and inspiration. "Excellent! Very spontaneous--just like life," he tells his pupils. "Great organic ouching."

Back to Magazine Archive