The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jeff Goldblum’s a movie star, jazz pianist and an inescapable meme. What’s behind his enduring appeal?

An art installation of actor Jeff Goldblum is displayed in London in July 2018 in honor of the 25th anniversary of the film “Jurassic Park,” in which he played a mathematician. (John Phillips/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

This article is adapted from “Because He’s Jeff Goldblum: The Movies, Memes, and Meaning of Hollywood’s Most Enigmatic Actor” by Travis M. Andrews, which will be published on May 4 by Plume, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group.

The sun dipped slowly into the river Thames in the late afternoon of July 19, 2018. It was one of those perfect midsummer days, in which the sky was bluer than Frank Sinatra’s eyes and the air was as still as a wax museum, while the sun languidly set over the water in a glorious display. This serenity is usually what draws all the late-afternoon joggers, dog-walkers, and picnicking new lovers to Potters Fields Park. But that night, the sunset might as well have been an afternoon screening of the movie “Cats,” because no one bothered to so much as offer it a cursory glance.

Instead, everyone’s eyes were locked on an art installation recently erected in the grass, where it would remain towering over visitors for a week. The thing was massive, the size of Paul Bunyan, if Bunyan were (a) a real person and (b) slightly better dressed. More than one onlooker’s sexuality was called into question, as were a few relationship choices. It’s frankly incredible the joggers didn’t run into each other. How many glasses of wine overflowed as an idle hand kept pouring while its connected pair of distracted eyes was locked on the chiseled map that made up the statue’s abs?

Some young folks only slightly recognized the figure, but anyone who came of age in the 1990s knew immediately what delicious flesh they beheld: that of Dr. Ian Malcolm, i.e., Jeff Goldblum’s sexy, dino-doubting mathematician from “Jurassic Park.” Here, as in the movie, his shirt hung open as he reclined on one cocked arm like a swimsuit model from the 1960s, staring out into the great unknown, even though his leg had just been mauled by a Tyrannosaurus rex.

So, naturally, everyone did what everyone does in the face of spectacle these days: they whipped out their phones and took awkwardly framed photos of that statue while thinking of clever quips to write on Instagram and trying to find the proper hashtag.

There was a certain irony to the statue. After all, in “Jurassic Park,” his character famously decries the idea of bringing back dinosaurs, believing that something could go terribly wrong. And here he lay, two decades later, looking perfectly preserved, the size of a dino himself.

“This monstrously large Jeff Goldblum is how I like to imagine the man himself in his true form,” Helen McClory, who wrote a slim volume of flash fiction about our man called “The Goldblum Variations,” told CNN at the time. “Or how he would have appeared in the age of megafauna.”

“Life doesn’t have nearly enough large statues of men as sex symbols, so it redressed the balance a little,” she later told me. “I never got to see it in person, which is sad. I hope it’s touring about and I might get to, one of these days.”

Unfortunately, the statue was coming down on July 26, and Goldblum was busy recording a jazz album in the United States, so he didn’t get to see it in person.

Months later, while promoting said jazz album, Goldblum appeared on “The Graham Norton Show” alongside Jamie Lee Curtis.

“I didn’t know it was going up. I found out the day it went up,” Goldblum told Norton, still visibly excited by the absurdity — which has been something of his lifeblood over the decades.

Norton responded that there was a surprise in store for the actor and walked across the stage to what appeared to be an end table draped with a dark cloth, which the host quickly whipped off. Goldblum’s jaw fell open when he saw what sat beneath: his own noggin, only much, much, much larger, now removed from its body, which had recently sprawled out before London’s Tower Bridge.

Norton picked up the statue’s head, and he began wobbling under its weight like a cartoon character. Goldblum jumped out of his seat and was quickly replaced with the head.

“Look at that thing!” he exclaimed. “Look at that thing. Oh, my golly.”

“You can post it on Facebook,” Curtis gleefully interjected.

“True or false: a pun is the lowest form of humor,” Goldblum ribbed back without taking a pause.

The entire time, a papier-mâché head, larger than an average eight-year-old, sat on the couch and stared blankly into the audience.

Perhaps the strangest part of the statue episode was that Goldblum wasn’t the first actor to be praised in such fashion, but it was the first time that anyone really noticed or cared. In 2013, a 12-foot-tall statue of Colin Firth appeared in the middle of the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It showed Firth as Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice,” complete with a soaking-wet white shirt clinging to his well-defined arms and chest. Yet it didn’t create much buzz. The Hollywood Reporter offered one of the more energetic quotes about the statue: “It makes swimming a bit more interesting, and I think the swans like it.”

Goldblum as a subject, though, has the inherent power to make oddities go viral. It seems there’s just something about Jeff Goldblum.

The late-stage careers of aging actors in the new millennium generally follow a couple of well-worn paths. Some retire, others burn out, and others still have their careers sunk by scandal. But the most common one involves stars’ aging like fine wines. As they earn stately wrinkles and regal gray coiffures, many former heartthrobs take on Serious Oscar-bait roles or choose to play against type in popcorn flicks — while mostly remaining out of the spotlight, particularly the sort of spotlight that comes with the viral social media stunts that have become the bread and butter of modern fame. (Think Adam Sandler crashing a wedding photo shoot. Or Tom Hanks crashing a wedding photo shoot. Or Will and Jada Pinkett Smith crashing a wedding photo shoot. Or . . . well, you probably get the point.)

Colin Firth, a contemporary of Goldblum, is a prime example. Always an earnest actor, Firth continued taking on weighty roles as he entered his fifties in movies such as “A Single Man,” “The King’s Speech” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” In recent years, he began taking (or reprising) safe roles in popular comedic franchises, such as the Kingsman, Bridget Jones and Mamma Mia! series, where he could use the gravitas his dignified wrinkles afforded him to shine.

As a result, Firth has become a reliable actor, someone who can help carry a weak movie and who adds a certain depth and complexity to ambitious ones. But his reliability also means he feels like a safe choice, making him dependable but not necessarily exciting. You’d never catch Firth popping up on, say, a Comedy Central gag show about puppets making crank calls, but that’s exactly where you’ll catch Goldblum, who regularly appeared on “Crank Yankers.” That might be one reason why the fanfare surrounding Firth’s larger-than-life Hyde Park statue paled in comparison to the ballyhoo surrounding Goldblum’s.

The other path available to movie stars seeking a second act is best epitomized by the latter-day career of Bill Murray — if it can be called a career. Unlike Firth (or George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Michael Keaton, Michael Douglas or [insert male star of yesteryear here]), Murray has, in recent years, become better known for his absurd antics than for any movies he’s been in since his big Serious swing “Lost in Translation” (2003). During the past few decades, the comic has taken to appearing in unexpected places, where he’ll do something charming before disappearing again into the ether, like some unknowable but lovable ghost. The best known of these stunts is when he reportedly sneaks up on unsuspecting people and whispers, “I’m Bill Murray. No one will ever believe you,” and then runs off.

While that might be the stuff of urban legend — the inherently clever setup of the bit is that no one can ever prove nor disprove it — he’s been captured on-camera plenty of times doing things like crashing a bachelor party to offer the groom-to-be marital advice or joining a surprised couple for their engagement photos. Each time, celebrity bloggers rush over each other to tell the story of crazy Bill Murray. The “news” then begins circulating on social media to the point where mainstream outlets such as USA Today and CNN decide to pick up the story, further cementing Murray’s stardom without the actor so much as making an official statement, shooting out a tweet (he’s not personally active on social media, in any case) or, of course, appearing in a new project.

Goldblum is similarly popular in those digital spheres. He’s a great interview, often displaying a mixture of intellect, wit and open-heartedness that the Internet tends to eat up. His unique fashion sense, fueled by a personal stylist, has helped him become a mainstay in men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ. These days that means not only does he grace covers and is endlessly profiled, but he (and his sartorial choices) are constantly circulating on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

But unlike Murray, it never seems like Goldblum is trying to remain relevant or make headlines. And unlike someone like Firth, it never feels like he’s taking a particular role because it’s safe. If anything, he seems to pursue things that are unsafe, at least career-wise. At the moment this sentence is being written, Goldblum is currently in the midst of touring behind his first jazz album. Jazz isn’t exactly a popular genre these days, but Goldblum doesn’t seem to give a damn. He loves it, so he’s going to pursue it. And it works. The album debuted at the top of the jazz charts, moving at least 3,000 units in the first week. Perhaps the publicist of Universal’s Decca Records, which released his album, said it best. “As far as I can tell, everyone loves Jeff Goldblum,” Decca director of A & R Tom Lewis said in a statement. “He’s a fantastic jazz pianist, a great band leader and just about the loveliest man in the world. His love of jazz is infectious and whenever he plays, he makes you feel very happy. If we can take Jeff’s music into people’s homes, then we will be helping, in our own small way, to make the world a happier place.”

And it’s true. In the process of writing this book, I spoke with dozens upon dozens of people. Many of them had great cause to like him, but a handful of others (like, say, an ex-fiancée) might have taken the opportunity to pull a few skeletons out of the old closet or to at least throw a little shade. But, no. Everyone had nothing but kind words to say, no matter how lengthy or brief their connection.

So, as Kanye West once rapped, what’s the basis? Just what is behind all this widespread veneration?

Ronald Allan-Lindblom, the former artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts who met Goldblum when the actor was starring in a play in his hometown back in 2004, has a theory.

“My impression of Jeff and his work is that Jeff has never tried to be anyone other than who he is,” he said. In other words, Goldblum is authentic, at least insofar as a celebrity can be “authentic.” He gives off the impression — one confirmed by those who have worked with him — that he only does what he wants to do, and he only wants to do things he finds interesting. So while he may lean into a certain image of himself, it’s because he finds that image interesting.

But at the same time, he’s unknowable. As McClory said, “He’s a bit of an enigma as a person: for all that he seems accessible and warm and friendly, there is an aura of mystery to him. It’s hard to imagine him doing prosaic things like buttering toast — in my mind at least, he would imbue even that with some kind of flair. In terms of his career, he is known for some iconic roles and for generally adding pizzazz to whatever film he is in, so he’s not just known as ‘famous for being famous,’ a kind of hollow celebrity. He seems like a living meme — something unexpected, usually wonderful, or puzzling, with a uniquely strong image.”

They’re both onto something.

By doing only what interested him (let’s put it this way: the guy went from “Jurassic Park” to a stint on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” to “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” to a tiny arc on “Glee”), Goldblum has created an image of himself as genuine — either inadvertently (thus authentically, which some who know him believe to be the case) or purposefully (but skillfully enough to make it seem inadvertent, which others believe to be true and which would be a tremendous feat requiring one to spend one’s entire life in the role of oneself, rather than just being oneself). Either would be an impressive accomplishment. It’s no easy task to come off as “real” in the social media age, but it’s also an achievement that is uniquely Goldblum, a man who forwent an almost guaranteed decade or two of superstardom to follow his own weird, confounding muse.

So, how did he pull this off?

I have an idea to start with: because he’s Jeff Goldblum.