Why Jeff Goldblum is in “a cycle of particularly appetised curiosity“

With the upcoming UK launch of his new documentary series, the actor, musician and generally interested fellow talks science, human nature, being inquisitive – and whose brain he'd like to pick.

Monday, March 2, 2020,
By Simon Ingram
“We thought we’d do familiar subjects in which we might be able to find something unexpected.” ...
“We thought we’d do familiar subjects in which we might be able to find something unexpected.” Jeff Goldblum and an RV – one of 12 subjects he explores in his new documentary series for National Geographic.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney+

Jeff Goldblum practically crackles with curiosity. Eyes wide, posture keen, mouth agape, hand gestures expectant. It’s a quality he has famously leased in quantity to the big screen with an array of idiosyncratic, reactor-brained characters, be it Jurassic Park’s ‘chaotician’ Dr Ian Malcolm, Independence Day’s MIT-schooled cable repair man David Levinson, or infamously doomed teleportation genius Seth Brundle in The Fly. These films have explored big subjects – from alien invasions to ecologically questionable dinosaur resurrection, to risky scientific experiments: plenty for any interested mind to wrap itself around.

And Jeff Goldblum is an interested guy, for sure. Constantly referencing books he's reading, concepts he's investigating, peculiar things he's learned, asking questions – all articulated with that same physical brand of exuberance, and perhaps a little eccentricity – which the world rather likes to reflect back. This is the man who in 2017 was spotted in a diner van called 'Chef Goldblum' handing out free sausages in Sydney for the purposes of 'research' (we still don't know). Who reputedly kept a live fly as a pet on the set of The Fly so he could study its movements. Who still plays weekly-ish piano gigs with his jazz band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, at an eatery in Los Angeles. His face has been the subject of meme-mania. And when time came to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park, the statue erected near Tower Bridge in London wasn't of a T. rex, or a brace of marauding velociraptors – but a 25ft likeness of Goldblum reclining on an elbow, clad in black, shirt open.    

Now, for a man apparently curious about the world and everything in it, he may have found his perfect vehicle. The Pennsylvania-born actor and musician—a man of 67 but who, by his own admission, is “still four years old in many respects”—is unleashing his eccentric brand of curiosity in a new Disney+ Original show. But instead of going high-altitude and big-issue, he explores an eclectic and curiously domestic suite of subjects: Politics, disease, and crime are out. Bikes, pools, and tattoos are in. This is The World According to Jeff Goldblum according to Jeff Goldblum.

Bikes are one of a suite of idiosyncratic subjects Goldblum explores in the new show.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney+

Your subjects—denim, gaming, ice cream, barbecue and so on—seem quite disparate, albeit universally experienced. Why these?

They’re disparate, eclectic, a mélange, a potpourri, a shepherd’s pie, with many surprises. I’d recently hosted three episodes of a National Geographic show called Explorer—and really loved them. That’s how this show came about. We thought we’d do familiar subjects in which we might be able to find something unexpected: historic, scientific, and something of the human connection, our own story, triggered by these things. 

And also we wanted them to be triggers for my own fun, personal, Jungian odyssey of self-discovery and story-making. We didn’t know what it was going to be. That saucy title just evolved as we saw what the show became.

Are you curious about why you’re curious?

Having two kids, I am in a cycle of particularly appetised curiosity. My kids look around and they say, ‘What is this, why is this?’ Maybe it’s something you pass down. Or maybe our species has to be curious to be connected to the world. While making this show, I read these books by Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As Harari says, larger issues like climate change, the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and technological disruption can be solved only with global co-operation. It was always true that the only reason the human species proliferated and flourished was that we cooperated in groups and therefore were curious about each other.

I did that show Finding Your Roots recently. I had not known anything about my family. Except where both grandfathers were from, Austria – and Russia, his name was Povartzik. He changed it to Goldblum when he came [to America] So I would be Jeff Povartzik. But they told me that all my people were 100% Ashkenazi Jews from the same area. Maybe there's something particular in that group...

Unpicking the history and customs of the barbecue: one of the idiosyncratic subjects Goldblum focuses on in The World According to Jeff Goldblum.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney+
In 'Pools,' Goldblum explores the story behind our love of the domestic swimming pool.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney +
“My journey on this show is very much a face-to-face thing, which I like.“ Tattoos are one of the more hands-on subjects explored in Jeff Goldblum's new show – where he meets several fans who have had his own face inked onto their body.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney+

You seem like a very optimistic guy... does anything bring you down? 

Oh, there are plenty of things I get stimulated and inflamed about. I get outraged, angry, saddened. But there are things to be optimistic about. And generally, you know... we're all here for a fleeting time. One could take that as bad news, but you know that's the way it goes, there's something romantic about that. There's something that could cause us to be grateful in embracing the precious moment we find ourselves in. That's how I choose to take it, anyway. 

Explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and the 'bugaboo' of iPhone and headphone streetwalkers: just three of the many things on Jeff Goldblum's mind.
Photograph by Wikimedia / Alamy / Unsplash

“It was always true that the only reason the human species proliferated and flourished was that we cooperated in groups and therefore were curious about each other.”

Jeff Goldblum

Do you think because of the new ease of information acquisition, people are becoming less inquisitive?

Do you think so? Real flesh and blood people of all ages do seem to be zombified or mesmerised by this [imitates a phone in his hand]… in LA they cross the street wandering diagonally with things in their ears so they can’t hear anything going on, disconnected... But you know, I take a lot of technology excitedly. I like the idea of change, mostly. You can get a lot of information from technology, and it can be used in many cases for our benefit. That’s a larger question, but my journey on this show is very much a face-to-face thing, which I like.

And I learned a lot. I was humbled, impressed, and sometimes alarmed, but otherwise enhanced and nourished by my interaction with people. And I like that – it’s why I got into acting. The ‘technology of interaction’.

“I learned a lot. I was humbled, impressed, and sometimes alarmed, but otherwise enhanced and nourished by my interaction with people.“
Photograph by Simon Ingram / National Geographic

Speaking of interaction – if you could time travel, who would you want to meet?

I just started reading The Invention of Nature, about Alexander von Humboldt. They say more things are named after him than anybody else. He predicted climate change challenges, the unintended consequences of civilisation, the industrial revolution. I bet his would be a good brain to pick.

That’s kind of the show in a nutshell: It’s me, not pretending to know any more than I do, but getting interested, talking to interesting people who come from an unexpected place, and having a curious and fun encounter with them. And letting my mind, such as it is, roam free.

The World According to Jeff Goldblum is streaming on Disney+ from March 24. 

The World According to Jeff Goldblum – Watch the Trailer
National Geographic's The World According to Jeff Goldblum is streaming on Disney+ from March 24.
Photograph by National Geographic / Disney+
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