It's very disturbing. And it's very powerful. It's violent. It's like the grimmest of the Grimm fairy tales."
Jeff Goldblum is talking about The Pillowman, the new drama by the British playwright Martin McDonagh — whose Beauty Queen of Leenane won four Tony Awards in 1998 — in which he is starring at the Booth Theatre.
In The Pillowman, which won the Olivier Award last season in London as best play, a writer in a totalitarian state is arrested and interrogated because of the grisly content of his short stories, which closely resemble the recent murders of several children in his town. McDonagh is known for the rather gruesome violence in his plays — sometimes graphic and sometimes darkly humorous - and The Pillowman is no exception.
"I think it's very complicated," Goldblum says about the play and its violence. "It's a violent world." Lately, he has been listening to the words of Joseph Campbell, who wrote about mythology and religion. "And Campbell said that the essence of divinity is sometimes nuttily sweet and lovely and ambrosial and miraculously beautiful — but that sometimes it is horrifically, powerfully devastating and violent."
In the play, directed by John Crowley, Goldblum portrays Tupolski, one of the police interrogators. His co-stars are Billy Crudup, who is the writer; Zeljko Ivanek, the second interrogator; and Michael Stuhlbarg, the writer's brother. Tupolski, Goldblum says, "is very much part of the play's totalitarian political landscape and its justice system. He has strong feelings about hurting children, because he has lost his own child. But eventually, the writer opens him up to the power of literature and art."
That power is ultimately, Goldblum says, part of what the play is about. And Goldblum can relate. "In my personal experience, the power of art has been transformational," he says. "It changed my life. My life would have been totally different if I hadn't discovered the creative way, the creative attempt — if I hadn't been inspired and excited and provoked by the potential of expression. It's what I've devoted my life to."
The 52-year-old Goldblum, a native of Pittsburgh, is best known for his movie roles, in films ranging from "Independence Day" and "Jurassic Park" to "The Big Chill," "The Fly" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." But he is no stranger to the theatre, both on and off Broadway. He made his New York stage debut nearly 34 years ago in a very small role in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in Central Park, in a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona that starred Raul Julia, Clifton Davis and Jonelle Allen, moved to Broadway and went on to win the Best Musical Tony in 1972. It was, in fact, his first professional job.
"It was magical and miraculous," Goldblum recalls. "I was 17, just turning 18. I had come to New York from Pittsburgh, and I was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the great Sanford Meisner. Joe Papp's people called and asked if we had anybody tall. I'm 6-foot-4. They were still writing the show, and Galt MacDermot and John Guare [the show's creators] had this idea for a tall guard who at one point takes Jonelle Allen off the stage. They were already in rehearsal. I told them I could sing and dance too, and I became part of the musical numbers. I was probably the only cast member who never auditioned. And I moved with it to Broadway."
It was in a 1970's Off-Broadway revue, El Grande de Coca-Cola, set in a Honduran nightclub, that Goldblum was seen by the director Robert Altman, who cast him in the movies "California Split" and "Nashville." Goldblum appeared in Shakespeare in the Park again in 1989, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night in an all-star cast that included Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Gregory Hines. He performed Off-Broadway in The Exonerated, the documentary play about wrongly convicted prisoners on death row. And on Broadway two years ago, he appeared for one week as the mystery guest star in the British comedy The Play What I Wrote.
But his lone previous starring Broadway role was 23 years ago, in a British musical revue called The Moony Shapiro Songbook, with Gary Beach and Judy Kaye, in which five characters sing more than 30 songs written by a fictional British songwriter who is slighted by Hitler and blacklisted in the McCarthy era.
It opened on May 3, 1981. And it closed on May 3, 1981. One performance. The critics panned the show — but Goldblum got good reviews. (The New York Times said he "gamely insists on having fun no matter how badly he's misused.")
"It was the last show at the Morosco Theatre before it was torn down," Goldblum remembers. "It had a wonderful cast. It closed opening night. The play hadn't sold a lot of advance tickets, so they called us up after the opening and said, 'That's about all. That'll do it.' But I really enjoyed the show."
Goldblum has always enjoyed acting. "I just fell in love with it early on, when I was a kid. Luckily, I had good training, with Sanford Meisner. He told us that acting was a worthwhile project — and that you couldn't even call yourself an actor until you had done it for 20 years."
Goldblum has long passed that 20-year mark. And, he says, his life remains one "of exploration and of growth. And I've fallen more and more in love with acting as I've gone along."