In Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, his second collaboration with the director, actor Jeff Goldblum plays Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, an important attorney representing the estate of the late Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). It’s her passing that sets off a chain of events both whimsical and sinister, all set in the glorious title hotel against the backdrop of fascism’s malevolent march across Eastern Europe.
Kovacs, with his Freud-like beard and dignified air, represents the respect for law and adherence to honor that, it is implied, will soon get swept away by a dark tide of evil in Anderson’s fantastical alternate history of a sophisticated, civilized and beauty-minded European culture that existed for a moment between world wars.
The role is just the latest in a long line of indelible performances from the Pittsburgh-born Goldblum, whose 40-year career has seen him careen from character actor to leading man to TV detective to, improbably, sci-fi icon in movies like The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day and the first two Jurassic Park films. Those latter two franchises are on their way back to screens, and I spoke with Goldblum about those and working in Wes Anderson’s universe again when he and I sat down recently at a hotel in Beverly Hills.
Den Of Geek: Were you looking forward to working with Wes again at some point after doing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?
Jeff Goldblum: Yeah. Like many other wonderful actors I think a lot of actors love him. He’s a serious and important moviemaker and artist. I think those are the kind of directors you’re dying to work with. Something where the movie turns out good, you know. Plus I was thrilled because I had a great time being around him and working with him and doing Life Aquatic ten years ago. He was very spectacular and generous…he’s so enjoyable and, you know, works in this unique spectacularly creative way. So that when I got the email that said, “Hey, I’ve written this script and there’s this part, Kovacs, I think that’s you,” it was a very thrilling occurrence. And I read it and yeah, not only did I love that, I loved the script, but who was also going to be in it and, my gosh, it’s a dreamy opportunity. And I think a lot of actors would run to do that because he’s great to work with and very actorly finally.
Everyone talks about the level of detail in his films. What’s it like as an actor to walk on the set and have that level of everything being so precisely detailed? How does it help?
I think it helps because if you’re an enthusiastic fellow like me – I’m a fan of that. Adam Stockhausen is the production designer and I was there while they were building out of this department store the different ages of this hotel. It was absolutely thrilling to be part of it. It’s like going into a Wes Anderson installation museum and you go around and it’s like, you know, you can’t stop doing that and going, “Wow, that’s a thing.” And then Milena Canonero is the costume person with whom he has collaborated and made these things, these art pieces and all the extras. You’re going, “Wow.” It’s just thrilling. So that helps because you’re already very enrolled in it and wildly enthusiastic and touched by and thrilled to be part of this thing.
How does he work with the actors on a personal, one-to-one level?
He wants the shooting itself to be an art piece of, you know, moment to moment beauty. So these people that are handpicked and then the crew who gets handpicked for their humanity and excellence are all there making this thing. I think purposely we were all set up in this hotel, we took over this hotel so it’s a kind of not traditional movie where there are big actors in it with trailers. You’re kind of invited to be part of this communal handcrafted camp experience.
So he and the other actors — you know, Ralph Fiennes and these fine artists are there doing something they’re passionate about and trying to get right and he’s in a condition on the set of kind of blissful focus. So it’s just up my alley, everything I aspire to and want to be around. And then the process feels very actorly. He gets terrific actors to obviously to be part of it because my experience is that it’s just a very creative – it’s just the kind of thing that I love.
A month before they started shooting I visited with Milena Canonero and saw this drawing of the character which was already fully envisioned with my face on it. We tried on different jackets and things and hats and glasses, from which she then built with her great team of artists the clothes. That was a great experience. Then Wes and I went over all the material — he had ideas and we talked about things and what I was thinking and feeling. All actorly things on how to find the story that I thought was under the surface. He intended Kovacs to be a guy who has some kind of burgeoning heroism in him, and it’s called to the surface in this time of crisis, you know, continent wise and worldwide and family wise.
Kovacs feels like he’s one of the last men standing against this tide of darkness that’s creeping across the land. Is that something that felt relevant to the modern world for you as well?
Yeah. I can start crying any moment thinking about it. I think it’s always and certainly now as relevant an issue as ever, you know. That seems to be a recurring challenge in life in the species to bring beauty and graciousness and elegance and love to a world which has challenging elements of greed and darkness of one kind or another. And you have to take sides finally. Everything you do is finally going to be political and impactful in one way or another. And you have to be as awakened as you can to what your life means and what it will contribute and what you’re doing and yeah, figure out what side you’re on. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what the most effective thing is. That’s a wonderful thing that the movie is about, yeah, that I find very touching and important.
What else did you do to prepare? Did you read the Stefan Zweig stories that were an inspiration to Wes?
Yep, read some of that of which I was not aware. I love to be educated by all these opportunities and Wes is a great, wise professor. So it was a great thing seeing what he was up to with this, particularly with all his other knowledge of movies that I’m always interested in. He had a stack of research material, old hotels and different periods that were very fun to look at in a room in the hotel that we’d all taken over. Plus a stack of DVDs. He said, “Not only read Stefan Zweig’s novels but I’ve also been inspired by and what we’re looking for in tone is maybe something related to these movies here. And you’ve all got DVDs in your room and players and see if you want to watch them.” I had never seen Grand Hotel. I’d never seen To Be Or Not To Be. I’d never seen The Mortal Storm. That one is with Jimmy Stewart and there’re elements of fascism and somebody standing up to it -– right up the alley of my character.
You’ve been involved in a couple of the bigger science fiction franchises of the last 20 years and they seem to be coming around again. And you seem to be involved in at least one of them.
Yeah, I have to support what’s happened so far to me which is that it seems that Jurassic World will be something I’d buy a ticket to. I was happy to work with Mr. Spielberg on those couple of movies. And I think I’m fully satisfied. But I love anything that he’s associated with. I’d love to see that and I’ve always liked dinosaurs. And Independence Day. yes, I’ve had some conversations with and a nice dinner meeting with Mr. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich because they’ve got something cooking. I don’t know what will come of it but they’re hopeful and I’m hopeful too. I haven’t read anything but they sort of described some things to me that I can’t talk about. But, you know, who knows what’ll happen. But I had a great time working on that, you know. I know people enjoyed it here and there.
Yes, a few people.
What does it say to you about Hollywood that this industry can support an artist like Wes who is so original and so creative, And yet at the same time does want to go back to the well for these franchises over and over again?
You know more about that than I do. It’s an interesting thing. I don’t stay focused on that so I don’t know. I only know my part of the elephant. It’s interesting. I like to read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls…I’m not sure where we’re at to the big picture right now. And I don’t know how Hollywood functions and why they do what they do but I’m lucky that I travel the path that seems to be, you know, taking a little here and there or contributing what I can here and there. So I’m happy as a clam.
What do you think has enabled you to keep you doing it for that long a period and weaving in and out of these different roles and phases of the business?
Well, luck. I can only think luck because I’m very grateful. I was obsessed with and was wild about getting a chance to do it back in Pittsburgh and I got a chance to do it and I’ve kept getting chances to do it so I’m very grateful. I don’t wake up where I’m not feeling highly appreciative. So maybe that has something to do with continuing, you know, the productivity. And an appetite for collaboration maybe and then the spirit of passion that I had from the beginning and appetite for it. Maybe that just may be unrelated and it’s only luck. But maybe that has something to do with, you know, because I stay every day focused on what I love doing about it and get clearer and more enjoyment out of acting every day. I’m kind of a late bloomer. (Acting teacher) Sandy Meisner said, you know, you can profitably approach the thing as a student forever. So that’s kind of what I do and I’m very interested in it. And so I love it. And I stay every day as focused on what I love about it and getting nourished by it and feeding and developing my love of it whether it’s one aspect of it or another. Maybe that’s not unrelated to the fact that I keep getting a chance or two to do one thing or another or maybe it’s just luck.
Have you seen David Cronenberg’s staging of the opera version of The Fly?
I have not. I’d love to. I should really. He’s great, David Cronenberg. I’d love to work with him again. I just loved having done what I did with him. He’s great.
The first film I ever saw you in was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and I recently had an opportunity to talk to Donald Sutherland a little bit about and was just wondering what memories you had of making that film.
The great Michael Chapman was the cinematographer who had done Raging Bull and many other things. (Director) Philip Kaufman is a wonderful guy to be around. It was a very special experience to work with him and he’s great, you know. I had a great time. San Francisco, 1978, doing that movie, he had something specific in mind. There was improvisation a little bit here and there. That was nice. Philip Kaufman sort of trusted me and appreciated me in some way that made me feel I sort of was special. I had a great time. Donald Sutherland was great. When I was 13 or something in the mid-1960s I’d seen Joanna. Do you know that movie? British movie. My parents used to take us to see art movies and during that period there were interesting art movies to be found and we saw them. Joanna was one of them. I think it was his first movie. And so I had an affection for him and an interest in him before and it was thrilling to be in (the movie with him). I’m thrilled that I was part of that and I have very fond memories of that.