The reinvention of Jeff Goldblum – ‘I’d always try to slip piano playing into my movies’
“Isn’t it all just crazy?!” Jeff Goldblum says with a bemused smile, hands aloft in disbelief, as he reflects on what he describes as his recent “growth spurt”. He’s not referring to a sudden change in his already imposing height (he is six foot four) but to the fact that now, aged 70, he has managed to carve out an incredible second career as an acclaimed jazz musician alongside being a Hollywood actor. “Isn’t it really something?!”
Goldblum’s singular style and talent stood out in Hollywood from the get-go. A famous one liner in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (“I forgot my mantra”) stole the show, while his turn as an eccentric scientist in David Cronenberg’s gruesome sci-fi horror The Fly earned him a cult following. Blockbuster success arrived in the nineties via Independence Day and Jurassic Park and, more recently, he’s been a frequent face in the films of Wes Anderson. And, in between all that, there’s been jazz.
An appearance on The Graham Norton Show in 2017 is what led to Goldblum’s surprise second career. Musician Gregory Porter was a guest on the show and Goldblum, who’d been playing piano since childhood, volunteered to play for him. It was watched by a boss at Decca who flew out to see Goldblum and they signed him on the spot. Since then, he’s released two albums with his band, The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, and an EP, Plays Well With Others, arrives this week.
He’s done all this in between work on last year’s Jurassic Park: Dominion, a new Wes Anderson film and a role in Wicked – a Wizard of Oz prequel. How does he find the time? “It’s sometimes challenging but I’ll tell you, I do find the time,” Goldblum laughs, saying his love of jazz makes him determined to play whenever he can. “Even with a very demanding schedule, long days and racing home to sleep and shave and racing to the set again, I make it work. I have a piano in my hotel room and an electric keyboard in my trailer so, when there’s a moment or two, I’m practising and playing.”
Goldblum lights up when talking about music, his well-known enthusiasm and zest for life as bright as ever. He’s looking very Jeff Goldblum from his hotel room in LA, wearing a black, wide-brimmed hat, a dazzling bright, neon yellow shirt that probably only Jeff Goldblum could get away with wearing and, of course, his trademark chunky black square-framed glasses. He pulls them down his nose as he reaches for a leather-bound book from his desk. “Can you see that?!” he says excitedly, holding it up, fanning through its pages.
The book contains all his sheet music. He flicks from song to song and stops at Moon River, which has been covered by Mattiel Brown on his new EP (Goldblum plays piano throughout but doesn’t sing). “Well, I’ve always loved that song,” he swoons, recalling how a teacher introduced him to it as a teenager. “Gee it was pretty, I really, really loved it. I’ll bet that was before I saw Audrey Hepburn sing it in the movie [Breakfast at Tiffany’s] too, which I also fell in love with, so I have a history with that song.”
Another song he has a history with is Don’t Fence Me In, a song Kelly Clarkson sings on the album (she agreed to do so after Goldblum appeared on her show and asked her). “She did this knockout crackerjack version and isn’t it something,” he says, clicking his fingers and humming the tune. He fans the book again, stopping at A Baptist Beat, his vibrant EP opener. “Gee, that’s a rousing number. Hoo boy, thank Hank Mobley who of course wrote that,” he says of the song’s late composer before firing off anecdotes about the history of jazz via the tracks that make up his new project. His jazz knowledge is encyclopaedic, his passion infectious.
Another jazz singer he says he admired was the late Amy Winehouse. “Oh I absolutely loved Amy,” he says. “When I was working on some movie, I saw the video for Rehab and immediately I couldn’t stop watching it. I was crazy about her. It was so sad and heart-breaking what happened to her: she was uniquely brilliant. I was so sad about her passing.”
Like Winehouse, Goldblum’s love of jazz developed early. His parents sent him to piano lessons as a youngster – but the rigidity of it was something he initially hated. Then, he heard the song Alley Cat and he fell in love with music. By the time he was a teenager, he was a natural performer, seeking out gigs to play in his hometown. “I started to take lessons and then I got the idea I’d like to play to people,” he says. “I got the telephone book and got cocktail lounge numbers around Pittsburgh and got a couple of gigs. My parents would drive me to them when I was about 13 … it was totally the seeds of what I’m doing now. It was fun, and it’s still fun.”
Goldblum’s parents were artistic (both considered becoming actors themselves) and immersed Goldblum and his siblings in painting, music, theatre and ballet. He left for New York in his late teens and decided to pursue acting as his main career but always kept music on the side. “Thanks to my parents I was exposed early on to the arts, and they transformed and maybe saved my life with that. It nourishes and transforms your whole life.” Despite his success as an actor, he still played low-key gigs in LA whenever he could.
Did he ever regret not pursuing music sooner? “No, I had my heart set on acting but I just kept playing anyway in my own way because I just love music,” he explains. He managed, he says, to have the two co-existing side by side. In his films, there are frequent nods to it. There’s the jazz of Annie Hall, he plays a piano in The Fly, and even in last year’s Jurassic Park: Dominion, where he reprised his role as Dr Ian Malcolm, there’s mention of jazz great Miles Davis.
“That’s all me I’m afraid,” Goldblum says, pointing at himself, laughing. “I’ve tried to slip it in here and there. As the Grandmaster in Thor, I said to [director] Taika Waititi, ‘Hey, maybe I’ve got a piano in my empire room there’ and sure enough, he let me play … music is a big part of my acting life and always will be.”
As a parent of two young children, Goldblum ensures their access to the arts is similar to his as a child: both now play the piano. “When it came time for [his wife Emily] and I to take on the very serious job of influencing a child’s life, it occurred to us both that a big part of that should be the arts.”
He says he often duets with his children at home. Could they end up following in his father’s footsteps? “You may have more to do with them in the future,” he says with pride about their musical abilities. “But you know, we have no ambitions. They’re just normal kids and we’ll just see what they’re interested in and curious about,” he says, determined for them to have a childhood away from the limelight.
While his kids frequently appear with him in music-themed videos on Instagram, so too does his Jurassic Park co-star Sam Neill. The pair often recorded songs together while filming of Jurassic World: Dominion (in between the Covid pandemic). The blockbuster hit screens last summer and reunited Goldblum, Neill and Laura Dern for the first time on screen since 1993’s Jurassic Park.
“Well, I would do anything with Sam Neill,” Goldblum says emotionally, reflecting on his time spent with his co-star and good friend. “I loved all those moments that we had together. Boy, that was a nice way of spending time during Covid while we were trying to make that movie.” Last week, Neill revealed in his new autobiography that he’d been diagnosed with stage 3 blood cancer. Goldblum said he’d known about the diagnosis for some time.
“He shared it with us early on,” he says quietly, his usual animated self now quiet. “He’s been in constant touch with me and, well, he looks fantastic, he sounds great,” he says, on the back of Neill himself revealing on social media this week that he was now in remission and had been for eight months. “Hopefully, he’s as healthy as a horse now. I just adore him,” Goldblum continues, saying he’s hopeful his friend will recover.
He says these events, reuniting with his Jurassic Park co-stars 30 years on, becoming a father, entering his seventh decade and playing jazz that spans “all of life”, has made him reflect on the passage of time more than ever. “It’s a good and constant reminder of this fleeting and romantic little moment that we have, however long it lasts,” he muses. He starts to sing Donny Hathaway’s For All We Know. “‘For all we know, we may never meet again … tomorrow was meant for some, but tomorrow may never come for all we know.’ Isn’t that good? It says it all. It’s fun, it’s fleeting … it’s life.”
He continues: “And life, well, it’s been a fun, full meal,” he reflects. “If nothing else were to happen, I’d be as happy as a clam. But I’ve never been as appetised to do more … I’ve been as busy as a beaver recently.”
Indeed, he’s not stopped working in recent years. He’s just finished filming a new Netflix series called Kaos, which he describes as “a modern version of some of the Greek mythological characters.” He plays Zeus alongside Janet McTeer; he has also just finished filming Wicked alongside a cast that includes Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo – people he says he would love to work with on music in the future.
“Cynthia is so fantastic, and Ariana. I just spent a lot of time singing with them. I wasn’t shy,” he laughs of his time with them on set. “I’ve already [sung with them] for fun, we were at a party, I played and they were singing. They love music and we identified different songs [we could play]. If that could go further, it would be a dream come true.”
In a few weeks, Goldblum will perform at the Royal Festival Hall and Ronnie Scott’s. Last time he was at the jazz venue, he delighted fans with selfies and autographs as he mixed with the crowd during the show. Likewise, his set at Glastonbury 2019 was similarly interactive: the show was the talk of the weekend and cemented his status as a cult figure among fans.
He wouldn’t have his shows any other way. “Glastonbury, well that was a once in a lifetime event for us, it was just delicious. And Ronnie Scott’s – well, we’re just thrilled about coming back there … jazz is familiar to some people but not to everybody, so at our gigs we get a chance to enrol or otherwise introduce people to this kind of music. And some people are there who have seen me in the movies and not [heard this music before] so it’s a real thrill to do that. I get a big kick out of seeing people.” And what about his cult status? “It’s all very fun and fleeting. I get a kick out of that too,” he laughs.
A WhatsApp message arrives from his band about changing one of their arrangements. “Oh, I must practise this,” he says giddily, heading for the hotel’s grand piano, “I mean, isn’t this all something?”
Plays Well With Others by Jeff Goldblum and The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra is released on Friday March 24 on Decca.