Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a meticulously handcrafted delight in which even the most distinct actors feel as if they've been a part of the film's fictional Eastern European universe since birth. From star Ralph Fiennes down to the concierge cameos that I'll not spoil here, you never once sense a familiar tic or obligatory gesture from these performers with whom we have, in several cases, a decades-long history. Every actor is serving at the pleasure of the filmmaker; their sense of play is fully engaged and intensely focused on their specific contribution to this grand illusion.
It's a particular joy to watch a versatile talent like Jeff Goldblum disappear into the role of Deputy Kovacs, the executor of a massive estate that includes a coveted, Renaissance-era masterpiece. A large portion of Goldblum's dialogue is reading through the convoluted will of the deceased Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and he announces each bequeathal with a strangely touching precision. Kovacs is attempting to do right both by the law and by a dear friend, and he is well aware that few will be happy with the outcome; executing her wishes may even place him in danger, but his devotion to Madame outweighs any concern for self-preservation.
Goldblum previously worked with Anderson on 2004's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, which was something of a transitional work for the director. Anderson was beginning to yearn for greater aesthetic control of his films by this point, something he didn't fully achieve until FANTASTIC MR. FOX in 2009. Since then, Anderson has been operating at the peak of his powers: MOONRISE KINGDOM is a brilliantly bittersweet ode to childhood, while THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a wondrously melancholy lament for a bygone cultural sophistication. For Goldblum, Anderson's creative maturation was evident in preproduction, when the director showed him the animatic for the entire film; the totality of this vision was both stunning and inspiring for the actor.
Goldblum has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, often in the prime of their careers, so his praise for Anderson should not be taken lightly. When I interviewed Goldblum last week at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, I was eager to get his take on Wes Anderson then and now. But when you fall into a conversation with Goldblum, you can't help but follow along as he digresses - especially when the dapper 6'4" actor greets you at the door in a natty white suit with a bow tie. The guy's just got a way about him. I'd hop in a telepod for Goldblum any day of the week.
Jeff Goldblum: Would you like some fruit or yogurt?
Jeremy: I just had a lovely plate of fruit in the hospitality suite, but thank you.
Goldblum: Alright. I admire your sideburns.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Goldblum: That's a good length now. It's not yet a mutton chop. A mutton chop needs to be a little further down. But that's very Neil Young or Crosby, Stills & Nash. Everybody used to have that.
Jeremy: I try to cultivate the Neil Young look.
Goldblum: Nothing wrong with that. Did you see that documentary that Jonathan Demme directed?
Jeremy: I did. I interviewed Demme for that. He was great.
Goldblum: I love Jonathan Demme, and I love that movie. I like Neil Young a lot. That must've been interesting.
Jeremy: It was. Also great: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. I thought it was fantastic.
Goldblum: I thought so, too.
Jeremy: He's on an amazing run.
Goldblum: Isn't he? He's developing at the height of his powers. He can only go further from here. He's something.
Jeremy: Have you ever worked with a director where you could so clearly feel he's at his creative peak?
Goldblum: I'm like Zelig in that regard. I've been so lucky, you know, being in Woody Allen's movie. It was a tiny thing that I did, but at the moment of ANNIE HALL... I love looking at that moment. It's a pretty good, important moment. And NASHVILLE with Robert Altman. I had a little part in CALIFORNIA SPLIT, and then I did NASHVILLE. That was a heck of a time to be with Robert Altman. Phil Kaufman when he did INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in '78 and then THE RIGHT STUFF: that's a pretty good Phil Kaufman intersection. Lawrence Kasdan at the moment of THE BIG CHILL; that's probably where you want to hit with Lawrence Kasdan. And David Cronenberg at the moment of THE FLY. Not to say that these directors didn't do great things before or later, but I feel very lucky. Jesus, I've just mentioned a few off the top of my head! And we know actors - I'm thinking of this because of this Wes Anderson thing - that have had whole careers doing fine and dandy things, but you get them privately and they go, "Oh, but once in my life if I got a chance to work with someone like him." They don't have movies like that on their [filmography]. So I feel very lucky.
Jeremy: And your sensibilities mesh beautifully with Anderson's.
Goldblum: That's very flattering. I admire him. I'd be going to this movie anyway if I wasn't in it. I'm a fan. And we do mesh. It is my taste. Not only does he have the hand-crafted frosting on this cake, and all aspects of the aesthetic, but it's like Steven Colbert said the other day: "It's a meat cake." Nobody should be misled; there's real meat in there. And if you read Michael Chabon's introduction to [Matt Zoller Seitz's THE WES ANDERSON COLLECTION]... that book is awfully good. The long interview and the insights into all of his movies are really good, but the Michael Chabon introduction is eloquent and brilliant and moving. He compares him to Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Cornell's boxes, and says that this so-called artifice that he is happy to show you only serves to deliver us more effectively to something in the movie that's very deep and substantial. It's Jungian subconscious and big and dreamy and human and soulful.
Jeremy: From THE LIFE AQUATIC to THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, I know that he had very involved animatics for this film.
Goldblum: I bet on the DVD you'll see some bits of that. It was great.
Jeremy: Did you watch it all? I know that Ralph Fiennes did not.
Goldblum: I was very interested in how Ralph does what he does in all aspects. He's a very sophisticated practitioner of the art. But everybody's a little different. I find it very actorly in contrast to the cliche. Supposedly Stanislavsky would offer you line readings. I have always enjoyed, because I trust that I can make anything my own as per my original teacher Sanford Meisner, who encouraged us to find a way to do that... I enjoy asking directors or writers "Tell me how you hear it. You tell me how this sounds. Let me see the way you imagine me walking in the door. Okay, good. Now instead of telling me, I see everything in your mind, so how about this? Or how about that?" I was happy to see all of the animatic, which is a fantastic thing in itself. You hear him doing all the voices, so you get his tone and musicality and orchestration of the whole thing, which I found only helpful as a springboard to imagination and creativity. Originally, we rehearsed a little bit. I was doing LE WEEK-END right around the time of preproduction, so Wes and Adam Stockhausen were building this thing inside the department store, which was fantastic to see in all of its stages. And [costume designer] Milena Canonero and he and I got together with their team and started to go "Here's the rendering of your face and the image that we want for the movie," which is kind of how it wound up. "Here's some coats and here's a hat and here's some glasses and keep growing that beard and..." how did we start that?
Jeremy: The animatics.
Goldblum: Thank you! (Laughs) So at that time we sat down, I said, "I've already worked on this," and [Wes] said "Oh good, let's have a little session." It was very delightful and exciting. And he said, "Watch this!" He had his computer. He said, "I've already made these things." I was like, "Wow, really?" And he said, "Here's the scene with you and Willem [Dafoe] at the art museum, which is inspired a bit by TORN CURTAIN." Did you hear that?
Jeremy: He referenced TORN CURTAIN? I didn't catch that.
Goldblum: There's a little sequence that if you go back and look at Paul Newman being chased around, it's like this thing. He doesn't keep that a secret. I said, "That's fantastic! Send that to me, and I'll look at that again. That's better than reading the script because I see what you want." And sure enough he stuck to the camera moves and cuts, and it kind of became the movie. What's better than that? I found that terrific.
Jeremy: So much of your dialogue is the recitation of legalese, but it's oddly poetic legalese. It flows.
Goldblum: That's Wes.
Jeremy: But having these long stretches of dialogue like that, something that could be so officious, how do you make that sound so pleasurable?
Goldblum: I knew what he was getting at. I knew it could be pleasurable in his little construction of it, so I dug that. I like acting and I like figuring out how to solve the puzzle, and... what was I going to say? Something involving this gesture here. (Looks to his outstretched left hand.) Oh! Then I go, "I better call a lawyer in the meantime and find out what this is about, and what some of these [words] mean." I did some of that, like "How do you pronounce that?" You know, all the actorly work that you do. I enjoy it! I love puzzle solving.
Jeremy: How are you on takes? Do you have a preferred method?
Goldblum: I like to be used by a creative person how, one way or another, they want to collaborate. I never worked with Sidney Lumet, but supposedly he did it like a play. He rehearsed it like a play, got them in a rehearsal room with tape, because he knew the dimensions of the set or the location. Then you'd get to the set, and from what I've heard he would do one take. It was like opening night. I'll bet I would've liked that. I just did a play at Lincoln Center, and I love that feeling of "All we've got is this one." There's something great about that. But I also like the way Wes did this. I've worked with people where you go, "That was good." And they go, "Well, nothing really worked yet. Let's see." Or where they go, "We're finding it." That can be okay, too. Or improvisation, where it's like, "Surprise her with that." But this is good, too: where everything is quite worked out and really what's left is for you and he, in the precious time that is allowed, to do it. It's a particular pleasure. He gets a pleasure out of being in this focused state of bliss as he's doing the scene. He says, "Let's just do one more for pleasure," and it winds up that you've done twenty takes. But it's just taking forty-five minutes or an hour, and that's precious little time that you're with him doing some collaborative sculpting. It's wildly pleasurable.
Jeremy: I could pick so many scenes out of your filmography and ask you to discuss them, but I want to single out one that I haven't seen you really comment on. You have a really great, totally off-kilter scene with David Bowie in INTO THE NIGHT. He's throwing such bizarre energy at you. "You're very good." What was it like getting that scene down?
Goldblum: I love David Bowie. That was a thrill. And John Landis is a different kind of interesting and exuberant. As a filmmaker, that was a good time to be involved with him. I loved it. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer, too. But David Bowie... come on. He's a real artist, and someone real interesting to do something with.
Beaks: Was he playful?
Goldblum: He knew what he was doing. He was playful and cool and available and professional. He was also scary and interesting.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is currently in limited release, and expands this Friday, March 14th. Jeff Goldblum is also very proud of his work in Roger Michell's LE WEEK-END, so do a Goldblum double feature if it's available to you this weekend. And if you're in the L.A. area, you can always drop by Rockwell to see Goldblum play a little jazz piano with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra.