The actor describes a year of preparation for his most challenging role ever, in a story that artfully blends imagination with insanity. Based on a novel about Holocaust survival, Adam Resurrected tells of a man who once was a dog who meets a dog who once was a boy.
By: Izumi Hasegawa
Izumi Hasegawa: Can you talk about learning the performance aspect of this for all the shows your character does, and little techniques he uses within the story?
Jeff Goldblum: Aside from the cabaret stuff?
IH: Mainly the cabaret stuff. It pops up at various points.
JG: When I get a part, I figure that’s the time I should start preparing it. I’ve been teaching for the last 20 years, and I like craft, new investigations, experiments…so good things come out. I had this a year before I actually did the part. I learned the nuts and bolts of it early on and had students in my backyard. I have a guest house that’s like an acting space, so the students would come and I would learn the whole thing like a play. They would do the other parts and I’d have a kind of run-through every day.
Then, in that year, I went to Germany. I went to Israel for the first time to suss out where my character might be living, what that life might be like, ’cause we don’t know. It’s the tip of the iceberg, the last few weeks in the story. I’ve been in Israel for what, 10 years or so…the war is 1945 — that’s the period I’m in — that mansion is another five years, to 1950, and this is the ’60s. I had to put together what exactly happened to me. After you’ve seen me lose my mind in that graveyard and eat dirt, I somehow lived some place. I meet up with the German woman and live in that place, go back and forth…so I put that all together for myself.
Paul Schrader (director) and I met early on there, spent a couple of days going through the script. One thing we talked about was dialect. I saw as many Holocaust fictional movies and documentaries as I could and read as much as I could. One thing we looked at was how some of these Holocaust movies conceive that you speak accented English. Some use subtitles. But we were doing this movie conceived speaking English. I’d seen some versions of that, where they have American actors saying, “Let’s get out of this concentration camp, yada, yada, yada…” and that didn’t feel right to me.
I knew how tricky the dialect was, because we were working alongside wonderful German actors. Joachim Krol was Wolfowitz, a well-known national treasure, along with Juliane Kohler, who plays that woman who played Eva Braun in The Downfall. Wonderful actress — but they speak real German accents. Moritz Bleibtreu, who was the lead in Run Lola Run, who’s very well known and beloved there, does that little part with the husband. I worked with people and spent a month in Berlin. I worked with German people from Berlin that I knew in America too. We went through the whole script. I added or suggested some German words that sound English. I thought I could pepper those in, along with the accented English. Paul made a final determination, plus I added or suggested many Yiddish things so you’d spot them — things I thought might be right for this show business guy in Europe.
I talked to survivors here in Los Angeles, who were sweet and generous to me. There’s a group called Cafe Europa, and I took part in a Purim party. It was just for survivors, so it was a little bit like the scene in the movie. And from that group, one door would open another door, and a lovely woman told me, “If you want to go to a concentration camp (I’d never been to any), one that’s the most intact and will give you the most powerful experience of what it must have been like…there’s Maidanek in Poland, near Lublin.” I made a special trip there, and it was powerful and incredible.
I also knew I had to attack the problem of the violin, which you see me play in shows before the war. Then, in a concentration camp, I’m a pianist. I know music and I play piano — I have a jazz group in Los Angeles — but I’ve never played violin. So I got a violin teacher and took lessons and played it every day.
By the time I got to Israel, I took my violin there and showed Paul what I was doing, acted out the whole thing for him. He had books of cabaret things, and I went to Germany, saw the places where I might have lived, where I grew up, where my parents were… There still are vestiges of the circuit of those kinds of cabarets and places. Amazing. I played the violin and saw films of people who did things like that. I did things that don’t appear in the movie, like one of the folks says this was the funniest man in all of Germany, did animal impersonations — any animal. Then I had to sort of make up what I thought might have been different animals. But certainly this dog act I did for laughs and entertainment. That’s when you see a little piece of my purloined state, years in between the last time you’ve seen me, when I arrived at the extermination camp. And I do this in order to leverage the immediate safety of my family. It’s humiliating, but I do a bit of a dog, so I worked with dog people.
I went to London and met Jane Gibson, who was highly recommended as an acting teacher, who works specifically with animal interpretations of scripts. I’d studied with other people and acted a little, but I’d never done that. She was an expert, so we did dog stuff and I liked that. And Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer – I saw his shows and read his books, met with him and told him the story. We went through the script because I had to do this thing where I control ostensibly this real dog. Paul Schrader said one of the big things that’s going to make this part work is if we see you at the concentration camp and the dog’s mad but, through this power of your impersonation and channeling — your personality and inner powers — you can calm him, communicate…
So I worked with that actual German dog — a German Shepherd with a German trainer — which was very helpful. We discovered this thing I could do if I spent a lot of time with him (does German dialect). We spent a lot of time, but we got it and that’s what Paul said would be impactful. We spent a lot of time with a very talented Romanian crew where we shot most of it, coming up with my various looks, and Paul had books. You see me over a few years, separate, sometimes my ascendancy in the entertainment field in Berlin — so I have different looks. What else did I do…?
JG: Something’s in the script — this eye thing, and people will ask, “Is that real?” But no, it’s trick photography. When I read it, I asked, “Do I have to learn to do this? [Laughs] Because I think some people can do something like it.” Paul said no. I know how to do some things and thought it would be good. I said, “I can wiggle one ear at a time — left, right…? [Laughs] I’ve never known anyone else who could do that. And this is my character. If I can do things like that and make myself bleed, I’m like an Indian Fakir.” He looked at it and said, “No, I don’t think so.” But I did say, early on, when I showed up for the rehearsal period, what I was thinking of doing.
I said, “I’ve got this rope trick. There’s no place in the script that it says this, and I don’t know where I’ll put it in. I don’t know if it’s part of the act that I do in Germany, or maybe with the boy, if it can interest him and bring him out of his doggie persona…” And he said, “Yeah, I like that.” Then it percolated and he said, “Yeah, this particular scene…” and it wound up in the thing. But I had that up my sleeve since. [Laughs] You know the movie Nashville? Well, Robert Altman said then that there was nothing in the script like this. He said, “I think your character does slight-of-hand in several scenes; let’s get you with magic.” I was living in New York with a magic guy and learned some things. I got together with this guy named Cohen Norton. He showed me a lot of things, including the salt thing. If you remember, I made some salt disappear, and I had other things. Robert Altman said, “Good, just bring that to the set every day. I don’t know what I’ll use, but include the rope tricks.”
We filmed them in a scene in Nashville, but they were cut out. Then in my bag of tricks was a bunch of cheesy stuff I kind of let go. But the rope trick I kept up ’cause I enjoyed doing it. I tried to [laughs] put it in a couple of other things, ’cause there were parts I thought would be right for it. In Buckaroo Banzai I did some of that, but it got cut. Then recently, I was on Broadway doing The Pillowman, a Martin McDonagh play — brilliant, with Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Zeljko Ivanek recommended that woman, Jane Gibson, to me. The director is wonderful. I showed him the rope trick and he said, “No, Jeff, that’s not correct for this. Put that away.” When I showed it to Paul, he said, “Oh, I knew about those rope tricks!” I asked how and he said because Martin McDonagh said, “Jeff is going to try to put some rope tricks in this.” [Laughs] I said, “Jesus Christ, I’m busted.” But he said, “You know, I think we may film it.” So now I’ve finally done it. That was up my sleeve for 20, 30 years [laughs], since 1974. Now I guess I can’t do it again.
IH: Keep it going.
JG: Well, I just did an episode of Law and Order and, not that I want to ruin Adam Resurrected for anyone, but there was one scene with a boy who had just gone through a horrible trauma as a hostage. So I’m with this boy, after I was successful negotiating him away from this madman. He’s waiting for his mother to appear at the police station and I’m trying to take it easy. So it’s “Here, look at this rope open…” I do one thing and say, “Oh look who it is, your mom!”
I prepared fully for this role. Then, after I worked my ass off, I must say ’cause it was worthy — the material, book, subject matter, the people we were depicting – I knew I was going to have to loop most of the movie again, do the whole thing again for one reason or another. So I got a cut of the movie early on and watched it every day, did another run-through every day, which was very helpful, prepared a lot of technical things I knew I had to do, looping, and figured out other things I could say, re-did that voice-over, and stuff like that.
IH: How was it working with Paul Schrader?
JG: Spectacular. He was terrific. He’s the reason I’m doing the movie. I’ve always been a big fan, and he says when he got to page 75 he said, “I have to do this movie, first of all, no matter how it turns out; if the ending is no good, I’ll make it work because this is fascinating, very original, both the dog and the boy. I love that part.” And he said to Mary Beth Hurt, his wife, “There’s one actor who’s born to play this part — Jeff Goldblum.” So he’s the one who sort of pushed me to do it. He’s brilliant, you know. I knew we had to very much be on the same page to make this together. I knew about him, but not as fully as I was going to come to know him. So early on, in Israel, I asked him what movies should I have not missed by this point. “What movies do you enjoy?” “What’s your sensibility?” “What are we going to make of this script?” He said, “Well, here are the 20 movies you should see.” And I had time, thank goodness, to take the Paul Schrader college course. I got the Criterion version and saw them twice, like Rules of The Game, Tokyo Story, and that Antonioni movie, L’eclisse, Masculine and Feminine, Godard… He watches two movies before he makes every movie – Performance and The Conformist. I saw all those and read books he’s written about movies.
He was a critic, you know, and he’s spectacular. He’s a courageous artist at the top of his form now, I believe, and wants to make things that are unconventional, and this material deserved that. The book is brilliant and unexpected, contradictory and dark. It was written in ’68 and published in ’71 — same time as Tin Drum, Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch 22, all with the same kind of backward look at the war in a dark and irreverent way. So it was brilliant and he was well-suited for this. He was good at shaping the movie, shaping my performance, helping me…
He was a very interesting guy. I’d never seen this before: He said, “Your character is the only guy really in the movie. We see you a lot, so you have to be many different characters: the lover, seducer, lecturer, father, the worm, grieving…all those things.” And he made a graph, all those characters’ titles along with Acts One, Two, Three, and said, “This character emerges more around here…” Isn’t that interesting? This was an important movie for him, and I think he wanted to have a creatively peak experience. You know, it’s about big things, this movie. Somebody — as we all do — loses, in a horrible way, everything, and deeply asks himself — clarifies — who he is really.
So finally, in the desert, it’s nothing – something that is apart from all the trappings of who he thought he was. It’s a real kind of spiritual odyssey and identity adventure. Paul Schrader, when we were doing that scene at the end — when I go to my daughter’s grave and lose my mind — we’d sort of fashioned how we were going to do that: “you eat the flower and you’re kind of going crazy.” And then I was doing it and crying. I was crawling around crying for the better part of three months. And once again, I’m crying with snot going down and he says, “That’s good, keep doing that. But this time — we haven’t planned for this — get a handful of dirt and put it in your mouth and eat it.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds good. [Laughs] That sounds very crazy.” He says, “Yeah, and then you play this violin.” “That’s crazy,” I said, “Let’s do it. But should we have some edible dirt or something?” He said, “No, Jeff, just eat the dirt.” [Laughs] I said, “Paul, I think you shouldn’t do that.” [Laughs] And he said, “Jeff, look…” and he ate the dirt himself! I said, “Okay Paul, let’s go.” [Laughs] We both had a kind of incredible experience.
IH: Is this the most challenging part you’ve ever taken?
JG: Yes, I think so. I’ve had challenges, but I look for challenges.
IH: And when you saw your own performance, how did you feel?
JG: Well, I’d watched it during the process, but since it’s finished, I’ve shown people to see it through their eyes, and I see it with audiences. I can be tough on myself, but finally I get objective and go, “Wow, that’s the story,” and “that’s what it’s about,” instead of “how am I doing there,” “what did I do there,” “what did they pick there?” I love the movie, and I was glad for a chance to work hard on something that meaningful.
IH: Thank you.
JG: God bless your hearts, thank you. [Laughs] I’m like Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s doing that documentary and he says, “I asked him one question and we ran out of tape already.” [Laughs]
IH: Have you had a chance to see The Fly opera?
JG: No, I want to see that.
IH: I know they were doing it in L.A.
JG: I’d love to see it. Well, David Cronenberg directed, so that’s interesting…