PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff Goldblum

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff Goldblum When the cast of the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's ghoulishly gripping The Pillowman was announced, the name that took many people by surprise was Jeff Goldblum.
Jeff Goldblum
Jeff Goldblum Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Aside from a guest appearance in the whimsical British comedy The Play What I Wrote, the idiosyncratic film actor ("The Big Chill," "Jurassic Park," "The Fly" and numerous Robert Altman movies) hadn't been seen on Broadway in more than two decades. A further surprise came opening night when—as Tupolski, a sardonic, manipulative detective investigating a series of gruesome child murders in a vaguely totalitarian society—Goldblum delivered a controlled, magnetic and hilarious performance that many thought was the best in the production. Yes, hilarious, despite the fact that the play prominently features torture, killings and some painstakingly realized scenes of child abuse, Grand Guignol style. Five months into the run, which is to end Sept. 18, Goldblum thinks he may have actually figured out what McDonagh's very theatrical puzzle of a play is about—even if he does express it in very discursive, disgression-filled, Jeff Goldblum sort of speech candences.

Playbill.com: The play you're in, The Pillowman, is very complex. What is your take on the story having now been in the production for several months?
Jeff Goldblum: When I first got the play and the job, there were a couple months before our five-week rehearsal. I started to work on it. I teach at this place called Playhouse West in North Hollywood. I got a couple eager students to help me out. They learned the parts and we started to read through it every day, and have people come over and see it. That was very educational, and, of course, that was before I had any direction or had ever seen it—I had never seen the play. It kind of took its own, free-wheeling, adventurous path and it was a lot of fun. Then I got to rehearsal and, or course, director John Crowley and Martin McDonagh were there every moment for five weeks. We had a wonderful time whereby not only did they clue me in as to the ballpark of this play—in some cases I was in, in some cases I was adjacent to it—which was very interesting and kind of delicious.

Playbill.com: The true meaning of the play has been a topic of debate since the play opened. Did McDonagh get into specifics as to what the play was about?
JG: Well, that's interesting. Actually, no. Mostly, we talked about the nuts and bolts of the moments and went through it with a delightful investigation. Martin and John had worked on the production in England, so they worked in a great way together. But in terms of what the whole thing was about, I think they purposely left it undesigned so that it could be, in all its richness, up to us to sort of nourish ourselves on. I didn't even aggressively try to extract it from them. We got it running. But the play is so rich and interesting and deep, that in the months after I did do more detailing for myself and tweaking and little adjustments. I thought in many ways: boy, when we opened this thing I didn't know this or this or this, and hadn't gotten this far with this. But then, some people have seen it early on and then late and they say [about what I'm doing], "That's pretty much the same." [Laughs.]

Playbill.com: Have there been any moments where you've said to yourself: "Eureka! I just learned something about the play that I didn't know before"?
JG: All the time. We've had some talkbacks after shows, and those were just great. The groups were very interested and interesting. And it was great to hear my fellow cast members, and learn something from them. And sometimes during the talkbacks, someone would say, "Well, what are we supposed to take from it? What's it supposed to mean?" And I remember Billy Crudup said, "Well, I would be loathe to...."—you know, Martin had been unfinished and vague about that. But I have a current feeling—and it's open to change in the next few weeks—about what it's about. You want to hear it?

Playbill.com: Sure.
JG: I haven't shared this with many people, and I may be way off, and people may disagree, Martin may disagree, and maybe it's even unfair to even talk about it, and some sort of violation to even say it. [Laughs] But I think, for me, it's less about a debate about censorship, or about art—even though I was inspired by a couple reviews that said it was about the pure magic of theatre and storytelling. But I feel it's less about that or the tyranny of the family or the state—though that, of course, is in it—and abuse of one kind or another, or pain and its relationship to creativity. I think it says something that is said at the very end of the play, which if referenced by that fantasy of Katurian's brother, where he says that if I had a choice of going through all the torture again at the hands of the parents or not, if I could have been killed early on and saved from all that, I think I would have chosen not to, because I just enjoy the stories so much that came out of the torture; that all that horror was sort of worth it. So, I think if the play says anything to me, it says life in its various ways, for all sorts of people, is horrific and horrifying and horrible, but that—whether it's the delight of art or stories or any other things—there's enough enjoyment in it that it's worth the ride. That's what I think it's about. And therefore it's a very hopeful, positive kind of play. Playbill.com: There are a number of visceral jolts in the play for anyone seeing it for the first time. Have there been any remarkable audience reactions?
JG: Well, yeah. A horrible thing—one night after the first big jolt a guy had a heart attack. There was a hubbub in the house. Billy Crudup was on stage at the time. He stopped and asked what was the trouble. They said someone's in trouble and they brought the curtain down for 10 minutes while they got an ambulance and got him out to the hospital. The OK part is he went home and rested a while. A few weeks later he came back and saw the play! Yeah, people scream. That's what a lot of people like about the play. It's just a kind of thrill ride, disturbing and thrilling and shocking in a way people get a kick out of.

Playbill.com: Your character gets some of the choicest and funniest lines in the play. Do you have any particular favorites?
JG: There are some guaranteed laughs of a kind of size. One is when I come out and say, "I'm tired of everyone around here using their shitty upbringings to justify their own shitty behavior. My dad is a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic?...Yes, I am." Martin McDonagh was always saying, "This was designed to get laughs." By the first preview, so many places got laughs that I had to restrain myself. I was shocked. I was really surprised.

Playbill.com: It's been a nice irony that you've returned to Broadway the exact same time that they're planning a major New York revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona. You made your stage debut in the original production.
JG: Well, that's blowing my mind. I can't wait. I was thinking again last night that I'll be able to see a Sunday night performance one of these weeks. It was my first professional job, at the Delacorte, and then I went to the St. James Theatre for a year with it. I still have dreams where I'm backstage doing that show. I haven't heard it for a while, and now I'm going to see it. It's just wild.