A suave goofball in ‘Life Aquatic’

Times Staff Writer

In the role of Capt. Hennessey, he’s a chardonnay-sipping scientist who brings his own designer couch to sit aboard a rival’s decrepit ship -- a debonair oceanographer who revels in showing up his nemesis in the new Wes Anderson film, “The Life Aquatic.”

It’s a small part but a perfect fit for Jeff Goldblum, who, in his 30 years on screen, has had a knack for getting involved with artful, offbeat directors in their prime. Whether he was uttering the classic airhead line “I forgot my mantra” in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” annoying his college buddies with writerly mumbo jumbo in Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” or botching an experiment in David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” Goldblum has built an enviable career playing left-of-center characters with understated comic perfection.

For Goldblum, it’s not a matter of type casting -- so much as like attracting like.

“The movies I like to see, and my own taste in things, may sometimes not be exactly down the middle of the plate. It might be knuckleball-y in some way. Maybe those people have been attracted to me. People attract each other who have a taste in that vein.”


Like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing, he said as he tapped out a bit of air piano on a table at the Four Seasons hotel bar.

“Virile. Passionate. But, um, um, unexpected and, um, adventuresome,” he said. “Somehow, me and the very lucky luck-of-the-draw meet.”

In person, the 52-year-old actor displays more than a few traces of the intriguing characters for which he’s known. He hums. He stutters. He furrows his brow when listening to questions, answering them with long anecdotes that he interrupts with strings of nonsensical syllables when he’s lost in the story or searching for a word.

Perhaps it was this off-center charm, his endearing, if oddball, charisma that gave him his first lucky break as a 20-year-old living in New York. A student of legendary acting instructor Sanford Meisner, the Pittsburgh native was performing in the comedy “El Grande de Coca Cola” when he was discovered by director Robert Altman, who saw promise in Goldblum’s portrayal of a Honduran nightclub performer.

In 1974, Altman cast him in the film “California Split.” The following year, in the classic “Nashville,” he cast him again -- as the memorable, nonspeaking Tricycle Man, who rode from scene to scene on his three-wheeled chopper.

It was through a similar theater-related incident that Goldblum was cast in “The Life Aquatic.” Goldblum was in New York, not starring in but watching the Broadway incarnation of Tom Stoppard’s “Invention of Love” when he ran into his friend Seymour Cassel.


Cassel, whose role in “The Life Aquatic” ends early when he is eaten by the elusive jaguar shark, was at the play with Anderson. The director invited Goldblum to dinner, then to a cold reading of the script, and then to take the part of Hennessey, even though Anderson originally wrote it for an English actor.

In “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” the title character, played by Bill Murray, is a Jacques Cousteau-type who vows to avenge the death of his colleague, embarking on a journey full of unforeseen detours. Hennessey is Zissou’s rival -- a man with more money and even more style.

On the set in Italy, Goldblum had the opportunity not only to act but also to indulge his main hobby: music.

Off camera, he often sang the songs of famed bossa nova singer Antonio Carlos Jobim with Seu Jorge, who plays a Brazilian troubadour crew member in “Life Aquatic.”

For Goldblum, singing is merely an artistic exercise, much like piano, which he’s played since he was young.

As a teen, he cold-called cocktail lounges asking if he could play piano and was, on occasion, hired. In the ‘90s, he formed the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, a jazz act that he started with fellow actor Peter Weller and that borrows its name from one of Goldblum’s childhood neighbors.


The band used to play weekly gigs in Hollywood, but hasn’t been performing lately because Goldblum has been too busy. They’ll regroup, however, for a show New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles.

Goldblum’s hectic schedule has even led to a hiatus from teaching at Playhouse West. Goldblum is a founding member of the school for actors, writers and directors, started in 1981.

He just finished work on “Mini’s First Time,” a film written and directed by Playhouse West alumnus Nick Guthe. The film, due out next year, stars Alec Baldwin, Carrie-Anne Moss and “Thirteen” star Nikki Reed, with Goldblum playing the girl’s “Hollywood producer type” next-door neighbor.

Two weeks ago, he guest starred on an upcoming episode of “Will & Grace.” In January, he’s likely to film a couple more, as yet another unconventional character: a rich entrepreneur -- “a Richard Branson type” -- seeking revenge for his defeat as high school class president.

Slipping into character for a moment, Goldblum adopted a look of indignation as he recalled the character’s teenage humiliation. “Somehow, I’ve lived with that,” he said. “Now that I’ve made $500 million, one of the unhealed wounds is this loss, and I come back.”